« PreviousContinue »
tion; so that the student of English verse cannot, even through regard to his reputation, safely remain altogether unacquainted with the works of one who fills such a space in the history of his art. As the undoubted head of a peculiar class of wri. ters, Spenser, too, claims the notice of literary curiosity; for no adequate idea can be formed of the extent to which personification and allegory may be carried, without a perusal of parts of the Faery Queene.
Few of the eminent English writers are less known by authentic biographical records than Spenser; and it is necessary to be contented with such a defective and partly dubious account of him as can be derived from a few traditionary notices, and from circumstances incidentally alluded to in his works.
Edmund Spenser was born in London, probably of obscure parentage, since he has given us no inforniation on that point. He was entered as a sizer (the lowest order of students) at Pembroke. hall, Cambridge, in the year 1569. From this date may with probability be inferred that of his birth, which has been strangely misrepresented in the inscription on his tomb. Supposing him, when he entered at the university, to have been sixteen, the usual academical age at that period, he must have been born about the year 1553. He took the de. grees of bachelor and master of arts, the latter in 1576, in which year he was an unsuccessful competitor for a fellowship. Mortification for this disappointment probably drove him from college ; and we find that he took up his residence for some time in the north, but in what quality we do not learn. Here, an accident of importance in a poet's life occurred, that of his falling in love. His mistress, whom he has commemorated unrler the name of Rosalinde, after leading him through the usual vicissitudes of a love adventure, finally deserted him. Nothing could be more natural, than that such a circumstance should, in a mind addicted to the muses, produce pastoral poetry; accordingly, he wrote his “ Shepheards Calender,” a part of which is devoted to amorous complaints, and of which the general strain is serious and pensive. This he published in 1579, dedicated, under the humble signature of Immerito, to Mr. afterwards Sir Philip Sidney. To the acquaintance of this celebrated person he was introduced by a friend named Gabriel Harvey.
It is not to be doubted that Sidney was a warm and liberal friend to Spenser. He caused him to quit his rural retreat, and try his fortune at court; and by his means Spenser was made known to the earl of Leicester, and finally to queen Elizabeth. The earl of Leicester's friendship produced some valuable fruits. In 1579 he sent Spenser upon some commission to France; and it was probably through this nobleman's recommendation, that he was appointed secretary to Arthur Lord Grey of Wilton, when he went as lord-deputy to Ireland, in 1580. In this situation Spenser displayed those talents for business, which many examples show to be very compatible with a genius for elegant literature. He wrote a “ Discourse on the State of Ireland,” containing many judicious observations on the schemes of policy proper for that country. His services to the crown were rewarded with a grant of 3028 acres in the county of Cork, out of the vast forfeited property of the earl of Desmond :
:-an ample possession, upon an insecure tenure ; like all those which different rebellions have conveyed from Irish to English proprietors, and which have been usually bestowed with a profuseness proportional to the celerity with which they were acquired. Spenser's residence was the castle of Kilcolman near Doneraile, one of the Earl of Desmond's seats. Here he describes himself in
the style of pastoral poetry, as keeping his sheep
Full little ku owest thou that hast not try'd,
To spend, to give, to want, to be undone.
the Faery Queene, we must rejoice at the disappointment of bis wishes, which detached him from the obscure group of placemen and courtiers. Of
from the author's letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, that the whole plan was formed, and three books were written, in the beginning of 1589. These were published with a dedication to Queen Elizabeth, in 1590; and it can scarcely be doubted, that in a learned and poetical age they would excite much notice and admiration. The queen rewarded him for his poetry and compliments by a pension of 501. per annum, granted in February, 1591, and he may thenceforth be considered as her laureate, though the title was not formally given him.
It was not till his fortieth year that he repaired the loss of his Rosalinde, by a marriage with “a country lass of low degree," but who had a stock of charms sufficient to inspire the happy lover with matter for a very poetical and rapturous epithalamium. It is to be supposed, that with such a partner his life passed more agreeably in his rural banishment, and that he ceased to regret that court, the disquiets of which he had so acutely felt. In 1596 he published a new edition of the Faery Queene, with the addition of three more books, which only half completed his design. If the traditionary story be true, that the remaining six books were lost by a servant who had the charge of bringing them over to England, the event may be reckoned among the most afflictive that could happen to a poet, and would probably be felt by him as severely as his subsequent misfortune of the plunder of his house, and the destruction of his whole property, in the rebellion of Tyrone. He himself was driven for refuge to England, where he soon after died, in 1598, probably a victim to grief or despondence. He was interred in Westminster-abbey, near the remains of his poetical father, Chaucer, and at the
charge of the noble minded, though imprudent and unfortunate, Earl of Essex. Several of his brother poets (Shakespeare was probably of the number) attended his obsequies, and threw into his grave copies of verses to his honour. Jonson held the pall. Nothing is known of his family or posterity, further than that one of his descendants came over from Ireland in king William's reign, as a claimant of his estate.
Of the manners, conversation, and private character of Spenser, we have no information from contemporaries; our conclusions must therefore be only drawn from his writings, and the few known events of his life. To the intimate friend of Sidney and Raleigh, especially of the former, it is reasonable to attribute virtue as well as genius. His works breathe a fervent spirit of piety and morality; and it would be difficult to conceive any thing base or dissolute in conduct, in conjunction with the dignity of sentiment which is uniformly supported in the productions of his Muse. A querulous disposition, however, occasionally breaks forth ; nor does he seem to have been contented while enjoy. ing a fortune more affluent than usually falls to the lot of a poet. He paid considerable court to the great, but without that extravagance of adulation which was not uncommon even among the eminent persons of that age. He possessed friends as well as patrons, and his death was lamented as a public loss to the literature of his country.
We are now to speak of Spenser in his poetical capacity. Fraught with the stores of ancient learning and of the school-philosophy of his time, and conversant with the poets of Italy, and the tales of popular romance, he came fully prepared for the execution of any plan of poetical invention which his genius, modelled by the taste of the age, might suggest; and he found his native language suffi. ciently cultivated to serve as a vehicle of poetical