Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-99) is one of the greatest of the Elizabethan poets. When he died in 1599 and was interred in Westminster Abbey, alongside his hero Geoffrey Chaucer, it’s rumoured that Shakespeare may have been among the mourners tossing poems into his grave.
Spenser left behind a sonnet sequence, a half-finished epic poem, and a number of pastoral poems. Below, we introduce five of Edmund Spenser’s greatest works.
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey …
The best-known poem from Spenser’s 1595 sonnet sequence Amoretti, which he wrote for his second wife Elizabeth Boyle (of whom more below), this one is rhymed ababbcbccdcdee, making this a Spenserian sonnet, a sort of halfway house between the original Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, with its octave and sestet, and the English or Shakespearean sonnet, which also ends with a rhyming couplet, as Spenser’s does. Even when using these established forms – and the sonnet had been in England for half a century when Spenser wrote his – he saw fit to innovate with it.
Spenser tells us that he wrote his beloved’s name on the beach one day, but the waves came in and washed the name away. He wrote his beloved’s name out a second time, but again the tide came in and obliterated it, as if deliberately targeting the poet’s efforts (‘pains’) with its destructive waves. But there’s a twist (and a turn, or a volta, as in most sonnets): here we have another take on the popular Renaissance conceit that the poet’s sonnet will immortalise his beloved.
Calm was the day, and through the trembling air
Sweet breathing Zephyrus did softly play,
A gentle spirit, that lightly did delay
Hot Titan’s beams, which then did glister fair;
When I whose sullen care,
Through discontent of my long fruitless stay
In prince’s court, and expectation vain
Of idle hopes, which still do fly away
Like empty shadows, did afflict my brain,
Walked forth to ease my pain
Along the shore of silver streaming Thames,
Whose rutty bank, the which his river hems,
Was painted all with variable flowers,
And all the meads adorned with dainty gems,
Fit to deck maidens’ bowers,
And crown their paramours,
Against the bridal day, which is not long:
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
Spenser wrote two high-profile wedding poems: ‘Epithalamion’, written in honour of his own second marriage to Elizabeth Boyle, with whom he subsequently had a son named Peregrine (what a name!), and ‘Prothalamion’, written for the daughters of a duke who were about to get married in a double wedding ceremony. The poem is an example of Spenser’s courtly poetry written for a formal occasion, and the recurring refrain quoted in the excerpt above, about the ‘Sweet Thames’, was subsequently ‘borrowed’ by T. S. Eliot for the third section of his The Waste Land.
Colin, my Life! my Life! how great a Loss
Had all the Shepherds Nation by thy lack?
And I, poor Swain, of many, greatest Cross:
That sith thy Muse first since thy turning back
Was heard to sound, as she was wont, on high,
Hast made us all so blessed and so blythe.
Whilst thou west hence, all dead in Dole did lie;
The Woods were heard to wail full many a Sythe,
And all their Birds with Silence to complain;
The Fields with faded Flowers did seem to mourn,
And all their Flocks from feeding to refrain;
The running Waters wept for thy Return,
And all their Fish with Languor did lament:
But now both Woods, and Fields, and Floods revise,
Sith thou are come, their Cause of Merriment,
That us late dead, hast made again alive …
One of Spenser’s pastoral poems, this one was published in 1595, the same year as Amoretti. The critic Alastair Fowler has called it the ‘greatest pastoral eclogue in the English language’. Dedicated to Sir Walter Raleigh and loosely based on Spenser’s visit to London in 1591, the poem is, like The Faerie Queene, an allegorical work, with Spenser (who appears in autobiographical form as Colin Clout himself) making many anonymous references to his fellow poets of the Elizabethan age.
All as the Sheepe, such was the shepeheards looke,
For pale and wanne he was, (alas the while,)
May seeme he lovd, or els some care he tooke:
Well couth he tune his pipe, and frame his stile.
Tho to a hill his faynting flocke he ledde,
And thus him playnd, the while his shepe there fedde …
Spenser’s first major work of poetry, published in 1579 when he was still in his twenties, The Shepheardes Calender, as the spelling of the poem’s title makes clear, was written using deliberately archaic spelling in order to hark back to Chaucer and other Middle-English poets (a trademark feature of Spenser’s language and style). Like the Colin Clout poem above, these works are pastoral poems or eclogues.
Indeed, Colin Clout makes his debut here (in Spenser’s works, anyway – the character name was taken from the early Tudor poet John Skelton), as a shepherd whose life over the course of a year amongst the English countryside is described by Spenser in twelve glorious poems.
High above all a cloth of State was spred,
And a rich throne, as bright as sunny day,
On which there sate most brave embellished
With royall robes and gorgeous array,
A mayden Queene, that shone as Titans ray,
In glistring gold, and peerelesse pretious stone:
Yet her bright blazing beautie did assay
To dim the brightnesse of her glorious throne,
As envying her selfe, that too exceeding shone …
This is not just a poem but a vast epic poem: without doubt, it’s Edmund Spenser’s crowning achievement, even though he finished little more than half of the projected twelve-book epic before his death in 1599. As it stands, the poem is over 1,000 pages!
Written in the 1590s, The Faerie Queene is a Christian allegory (in which Catholicism is the enemy and the Church of England in need of protecting) featuring a cast of knights, maidens, villains, monsters (the Blatant Beast – whence we get our word ‘blatant’ – is but one example), wizards, and princes. Spenser depicts the Christian world of chivalry using his ‘Spenserian stanza’ form, devised specifically for the poem, and casts a heady magic spell over readers. His poem continues to do so, even if parts of the poem drag a little, especially if we don’t have access to a handy guide that explains contemporary allusions and the more obscure Christian references.