Poets: Edmund Spenser

Today we return to the world of poetry, dear reader — and we find that somehow we have ended up in a time machine. The 16th century! It is not, however, old William that we are interested in this time around (I’m assuming you’re familiar with Shakespeare, and if not, just buy his collected works and wrangle through it; it’s great fun) — but another of the Elizabethan era: Edmund Spenser.

Everyone at very least remembers his name, even if they have never heard a lick of his verse. “Spenser” simply as a word calls up a particular mood – one perhaps of romantic poetry before there was any movement such as the “Romantic”. Indeed, Spenser wrote many of what we might call romantic poems, sonnets and otherwise.

It is just before Spenser’s time that the Sonnet first moved from being an Italian/Latin affair to being an English one, thanks to Thomas Wyatt. However, these Sonnets were chiefly translations of Petrarch’s and other foreign-language works, so it is with Spenser and his contemporaries that we see the Sonnet actually become an English form of poetry. It is worth noting that Haiku, long a well loved poetic structure in Japanese (usually translated Hakku) came to English first in Ezra Pound’s time, he being the first to publish a Haiku in English in 1913. Like the Sonnet, it has been quite popular among English writers since.

Spenser himself, born in the early 1550’s, however, came to prominence through his connection with the English government. That is, by serving first as secretary under the Bishop of Rochester and then directly under Lord Deputy, Arthur Grey, 14th Baron Grey de Wilton in Ireland along with Walter Raleigh. He is even known to have penned a suppressed opinion piece, stating the belief that for Ireland to be pacified it would require scorched-earth tactics. Whether this is so or not, it’s obvious that England’s approach to Ireland was far less effective than the approach the early English kings had towards the various tribes in England proper – as the term “English” refers to an early amalgamation of identities itself, achieved in part by political, ecclesiastical, and cultural means. (It didn’t help that England in Spenser’s time was Protestant – it had been since about 1530 – and Ireland was Roman Catholic.) Unsurprisingly, in the 1590’s, Spenser’s early demise was related to a continuation of these conflicts.

This recalls Goethe from our earlier study, whom also in addition to being a poet was an administrator of minor posts. It seems very common that notables prior to this century were not merely poets but also did other things – sometimes fighting in wars, administering offices, and in general making themselves at the disposal of their dominion or kingdom’s needs. It is through these ways that a man who was in addition to other qualities, a good writer of poetry, would become prominent enough get the attention of other notable people who could help the propagation and acceptance of their work. This is as true then as it is now (perhaps now even more so–) though poets and writers who are not jealous of their own reputation, and therefore poor at building networks but good at using them, are uncommon.

However, as with other poets we have studied, we will notice that Spenser himself was also associated with other contemporary notable poets (though less so, as I am usually studying the most prominent among contemporaries) such as Gabriel Harvey. There is a tendency for the young men during their schooling – college age or earlier – to develop their attitude towards poetry in communication with their peers and their mentors – which is prior to entering the world where they might be competing for attention and thus payment for their works. Spenser only failed to become part of Elizabeth I’s court, it is believed, because he annoyed and antagonized the Queen’s principal secretary, William Cecil. This did not, however, prevent her from ordering Cecil to pay 100 pounds for Spenser’s poetry (as he was also her treasurer) — which allegedly gives us this classic quatrain:

I was promis’d on a time,
To have a reason for my rhyme:
From that time unto this season,
I receiv’d nor rhyme nor reason.

“Reason” being a pun on a consideration.

Thus it is clear that Spenser’s connection to the English throne itself is what we have mostly to thank for his prominence; that is to say, he had no period of obscurity, though it did still take effort to get his work noticed by the right people, Simply being a loyal servant of the Queen doesn’t necessarily give you her ear, or the ear of her court, automatically.

Personally, I find Spenser’s sonnets much more approachable than Shakespeare’s, in part because I think they are not written satirically. I’m not for odd theories about Shakespeare’s sonnets – authorship and so on, but I have found them much easier to understand if read with a sense of humor rather than sincerely. Spenser is a different story; his sonnets seem much more natural, and certainly far more natural than a number of the sonnets I have read from later eras. It may simply be that early modern English was far more amenable to this form than it would be later, or it may be, as I suspect, that earlier writers approached poetic form different than later writers. With Spenser the sonnet is, rather than being some kind of cage in which the poet writhes, trying to find the rhythm and rhyme to make the form work, a form that flows naturally from his affections.

My love is like to ice, and I to fire:
How comes it then that this her cold so great
Is not dissolved through my so hot desire,
But harder grows the more I her entreat?
Or how comes it that my exceeding heat
Is not allayed by her heart-frozen cold,
But that I burn much more in boiling sweat,
And feel my flames augmented manifold?
What more miraculous thing may be told,
That fire, which all things melts, should harden ice,
And ice, which is congeal’d with senseless cold,
Should kindle fire by wonderful device?
Such is the power of love in gentle mind,
That it can alter all the course of kind.

You will notice here that the form is used (and it is natural to the sonnet) as a rhetorical device, with the couplet at the end employed as the denouement, suitable as it has a different structure than the rest of the poem and makes the motion seem to come to rest. Spenser wrote many poems of this sort. But here is another sort of sonnet that I enjoyed as well:

Weak is th’assurance that weak flesh reposeth,
In her own power and scorneth others aid:
that soonest falls when as she most supposeth,
her self assured, and is of naught afraid.
All flesh is frail, and all her strength unstaid,
like a vain bubble blown up with air:
devouring time & changeful chance have preyed,
her glories pride that none may it repair.
Nay none so rich or wise, so strong or fair,
but faileth trusting on his own assurance:
and he that standeth on the highest stair
falls lowest: for on earth naught hath endurance.
Why then do ye proud fare, misdeem so far,
that to your self ye most assured are?

(I have tinkered with some spellings, as this was the original. I also added the question-mark, as the denouement suggests that is a question.)

If you get a chance to read through some of his other poems, you will notice the influence of Renaissance “Italian Humanism” as it is sometimes called. What this means in practice is a liberal use of Greco-Roman allegory, imagery, fable and myth in his works. For example, he will use the phrase, “The sacred muses”, which does not suggest the poet is pagan. Strange, isn’t it? But in the later sense, there is a strong synthesis at work, as many men in this era received these old works – particularly Plato (Socrates) in Spenser’s case – as a kind of scripture or a canonical writing – and tried to synthesize an understanding of it consonant with their Christian faith. Indeed, there was effort even to synthesize within works, as it was written of a contemporary of his, Ficino:

In the Symposium, for example, where the whole texture of the dialogue is humorous and dramatic, Phaedrus, whose theory is, of course, quite opposed to that of Socrates, speaks of Love as the eldest of the gods, and is contradicted by Agathon, who calls Love the youngest god. Ficino tries to harmonize these two ideas by introducing into the theory a Christian element derived from the Neo-Platonism of Dionysius. He says that the Love, guiding the Creator, was, indeed, older than the creation of the universe; but that God afterwards created the order of angels, and that Love turned the angelic intelligences towards God; so that Love may be called at once the youngest, and the eldest, of the divine powers.

As a side note, the general consensus on the synthesis between the idea of the “descent of souls from heaven” and Christian conceptions of the soul is that prior to conception souls do not exist, but their idea or ‘logoi’ – the unique concept of a particular person, exists eternally in God from before the world’s foundation. Thus it affirms that there is some kind of existence of a person – in this case, virtually and not concretely – prior to birth, as many philosophers thought, while that in fact the connection between the soul and body is complete and there is thus no real way for souls to ‘transmigrate’ between bodies. This is known as the ‘psychosomatic whole’ and is connected with 1. the prelapsarian immortality of man, 2. the tragedy of bodily death, 3. the importance of the conquest of death, and 4. the necessity of the bodily resurrection.

These syntheses, far from being an attempt to bastardize or rob, are an attempt of men to receive works written by people they held to be wise, but whose ideas and culture conflicted with their own. It is this connection with the thinkers and writers of antiquity, and the attempt to understand them (a pattern which had gone on prior to the Renaissance – consider that Alfred the Great translated Consolation of Philosophy) which gives European thought its rigor when it indeed is rigorous.

One of the terrible tragedies of later Protestant thought, such as what is called “Fundamentalism” in the USA, is its inability to synthesize works that are not explicitly Christian or Jewish. Indeed, such thinkers are prone to misread everyone as also being a literalist, which makes it hard to discern the difference between Urania and Asherah. Or for that matter, Hymen – the goddess of marriage itself, being easily understood as a “reification” of the devotion to marriage itself! (But your mileage may vary as always.)

Part or all of the Faerie Queen itself can be found in the usual locations (for a full volume see here.) It is quite long and similar in character to Dante’s Divine Comedy or Le Morte d’Arthur – I don’t regard it as pressing reading but every part I’ve read has been enjoyable, and besides this, an analysis of a text of that length is not appropriate for this format.

A book that seems to hold all of his works (Faerie Queen included) and that, unlike some, gives you both a good table of contents and the ability to quickly skip ahead to your desired point in the text is here. While it is possible to fish his poems out of, say, Poem Hunter or Poetry Foundation, I found that a lot of his poems were part of sets which made little sense when read alone or in the order those sites present them in.

Sonnets, like all structured poetry, are not merely rhetorical devices but are also puzzles for the poet to figure out. My general scheme for the construction of a sonnet (setting aside the various rules about meter other than keeping to pentameter) is that a sonnet should have three parts. which correspond to my general rhetorical scheme: introduction, elaboration, and denouement. Keeping with the idea that the poem is a set of images or ideas swirling about a central idea or image, we also find a linkage to both Pound and Coleridge; though of course, sonnets can be used as pieces in larger works or for the delivery of traditional poetic or ceremonial devices such as odes, eulogies, greetings, and so forth.

I won’t try to emulate the ghastly spelling, but here is my attempt at imitation.

When man was free before the fall was he
So subject not to sin nor death nor debt
Not brought so low as chains or slavery
As no one need employ such tools just yet;
But was a man who took what others lack
A thief though property had not been claimed?
Or was a man with force who made attack
And killed the innocent a murder same?
Does he who has a woman without bond
Or she the same make sin against their flesh?
Though men are now not of this law so fond
The end of lawlessness is known afresh;
And freedom man knew well on Eden’s sod
A master had in He, Almighty God.

Make sure you at least get a chance to skim some other of his sonnets, the Fowre Hymns, and the Shepherd’s Calendar, if nothing other than to get a sense of the style and flavor of the work.

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  1. Ugly Mind Babies October 26, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    Thank you for this treatment of Spenser. I would recommend nowadays that anyone interested in poetry forego graduate school and follow his own path of study, as the great (and even good) poets are force fed through the Social Justice machine.
    I spent a miserable academic quarter in a seminar on The Faerie Queene, and every session was about rape, racism and cross-dressing. When the university Humanities departments eventually fall apart, those with real knowledge and understanding will be the ones who care more about the work than forcing an agenda.

  2. One of the most humorous things about the Renaissance Platonists is that they had attempt to synthesize Platonism into a Christianity which had already gone through such a synthesis. That they thought there was a need to do so suggests something had been lost by the end of the middle ages. The kind of theology that prevailed at least until Thomas Aquinas was notably Platonist, coming from Augustine mainly. Once Dionysos was reintroduced there is more subtle Platonism. This Platonism was adapted from Proclus. Having come through Proclus this Platonism was one that had already gone through even earlier syntheses with certain elements of Stoic thought and Aristotelianism having been adapted. Once Iamblichus took what was Plontinus’s and thurgized it, and Proclus had systematized this religious Platonism, it was then adapted by Dionysos into a fully sacramental theology without the baggage of pagan polytheism. When this was reintroduced into Europe, and the best of them got their hands on it, you get very good works of theology which are, though not explicitly, completely Platonistic. No one will admit this but Thomas was fundamentally a Platonist. The Summa is structured on the same Exitus-Reditus structure as find as far back as Plotinus. People focus much more on Aristotle, and he is indeed a great influence, but the fundamental influence is Dionysos. St. Thomas even figured out that the Liber de Causis was actually compiled by Proclus and was not a work of Aristotle’s. Almost all of the theology of the middle ages, even besides Thomas (Bonaventure, Cusa, even Dante) is all fundamentally Platonistic. It is then very strange to find some Italians in the Renaissance a few hundred years later thinking they have to resynthesize anything.

  3. It’s also interesting to find later on the altering of Dionysius’ name to “pseudo-Dionysius” – this is something that the East did not embrace. It seems like not a big deal, but the difference between genuine works and “pseudo-pigraphia” – i.e. writing where the author is not who the work claims (such as Enoch) is subtle but powerful. People read the Epistle to the Hebrews every day, (despite attempts to disclaim Paul’s authorship) but hardly anyone reads the Book of Jubilees or Enoch.

    The clumsy reconciliation that happens in “humanism” is curious and I wonder how precisely it happened. Perhaps some political move popularized a teacher who claimed to have discovered “missing” Plato, which then trickled down through the universities and high society, many of whom did not know esoteric topics in Christianity. Similar things happened where partially-ignorant Americans, for example, “rediscover” books in the Bible periodically. For example, the Apocalypse of John.

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