Edmund Spenser was
born in London in 1552. Though his parents descended from a noble House, the
family was poor. His father was a free journeyman for a merchant's company.
When Edmund came of age he entered the University of Cambridge as a
"sizar" (a student who paid less for his education than others and
had to wait on (to serve) the wealthier students at mealtimes).
Spenser was learned
in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and French. His generation was one of the first to
study also their mother tongue seriously. While at college, he acted in the
tragedies of the ancient masters and this inspired him to write poetry.
Spenser began his
literary work at the age of seventeen. Once a fellow-student introduced him to
the famous Sir Philip Sidney, who encouraged him to write (Sidney was the
author of an allegorical romance in prose called "Arcadia" that had
become very popular as light reading among the court-ladies of Queen
Elizabeth). At the age of twenty-three, Spenser took his M.A. (Master of Arts)
Before returning to
London he lived for a while in the wilderness of Lancashire where he fell in
love with a "fair widow's daughter". His love was not returned but he
clung to this early passion; she became the Rosalind of his poem the
"Shepherd s Calendar". Spenser's disappointment in love drove him
southward - he accepted the invitation of Sir Philip Sidney to visit him at his
estate. There he finished writing his "Shepherd's Calendar". The poem
was written in 12 eclogues. "Eclogue" is a Greek word meaning a poem
about ideal shepherd life. Each eclogue is dedicated to one of the months of
the year, the whole making up a sort of calendar.
The publication of
this work made Spenser the first poet of his day. His poetry was so musical and
colourful that he was called the poet-painter.
introduced the poet to the illustrious courtier, the Earl of Leicester, who, in
his turn, brought him to the notice of the Queen. Spenser was given royal
favour and appointed as secretary to the new Lord-lieutenant of Ireland. Thus
he had to leave England for good.
The suppression of
Ireland provoked many rebellions against the English. English military governors
were sent confiscate the lands of the rebels and to put English people on them.
Spenser was sent to such a place near Cork. He felt an exile in the, lonely
castle of Kilcolman, yet he could not help admiring the, changeful beauty of
The castle stood by
a deep lake into which flowed a river (the Mulla). Soft woodlands stretched
towards mountain ranges in the distance. The beauty of his surroundings
inspired Spenser to write his great epic poem the "Faerie Queen"
("Fairy Queen"), in which Queen Elizabeth is idealised.
Sir Walter Raleigh
who was captain of the Queen's guard, came to visit Spenser at Kilcolman. He
was greatly delighted with the poem, and Spenser decided to publish the first
three parts. Raleigh and Spenser returned to England together. At court Spenser
presented his "simple song" to the Queen. It was published in 1591.
The success of the poem was great. The Queen rewarded him with a pension of 50
pounds, but his position remained unchanged. Poetry was regarded as a noble pastime
but not a profession; and Edmund Spenser had to go back to Ireland.
The end of his life
was sorrowful. When the next rebellion broke out, the insurgents attacked the
castle so suddenly and so furiously that Spenser and his wife and children had
to flee for their lives. Their youngest child was burnt to death in the blazing
ruins of the castle. Ruined and heart-broken Spenser went to England and there
he died in a London tavern three months later, in 1599.
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