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prothalamion

Edmund Spenser

[spen-ser]

Edmund Spenser (c. 1552 – 13 January, 1599) was an important English poet and Poet Laureate best known for The Faerie Queene, an epic poem celebrating, through fantastical allegory, the Tudor dynasty and Elizabeth I. He is recognized as one of the premier craftsmen of Modern English verse in its infancy.

Life

Edmund Spenser was born in around 1552. As a young boy, he was educated in London at the Merchant Taylors' School and matriculated as a sizar at Pembroke College, Cambridge.

In the 1570s Spenser went to Ireland, probably in the service of the newly appointed lord deputy, Arthur Grey. From 1579 to 1580, he served with the English forces during the Second Desmond Rebellion. After the defeat of the rebels he was awarded lands in County Cork that had been confiscated in the Munster Plantation during the Elizabethan reconquest of Ireland. Among his acquaintances in the area was Walter Raleigh, a fellow colonist.

Through his poetry Spenser hoped to secure a place at court, which he visited in Raleigh's company to deliver his most famous work, the Faerie Queene. However, he boldly antagonized the queen's principal secretary, Lord Burghley, and all he received in recognition of his work was a pension in 1591. When it was proposed that he receive payment of 100 pounds for his epic poem, Burghley remarked, "What, all this for a song!"

In the early 1590s, Spenser wrote a prose pamphlet titled, A View of the Present State of Ireland. This piece remained in manuscript form until its publication in print in the mid-seventeenth century. It is probable that it was kept out of print during the author's lifetime because of its inflammatory content. The pamphlet argued that Ireland would never be totally 'pacified' by the English until its indigenous language and customs had been destroyed, if necessary by violence. Spenser recommended scorched earth tactics, such as he had seen used in the Desmond Rebellions, to create famine.

The paradox proposed by Spenser was that only by methods that overrode the rule of law could the conditions be created for the true establishment of the rule of law. Although it has been highly regarded as a polemical piece of prose and valued as a historical source on 16th century Ireland, the View is seen today as genocidal in intent. Spenser did express some praise for the Gaelic poetic tradition, but also used much tendentious and bogus analysis to demonstrate that the Irish were descended from barbarian Scythian stock.

Spenser was driven from his home by Irish rebels during the Nine Years War in 1598. His castle at Kilcolman, near Doneraile in North Cork was burned, and it is thought one of his infant children died in the blaze - though local legend has it that his wife also died. He possessed a second holding to the south, at Rennie, on a rock overlooking the river Blackwater in North Cork. The ruins of it are still visible today. A short distance away grew a tree, locally known as "Spenser's Oak" until it was destroyed in a lightning strike in the 1960s. Local legend has it that he penned some or all of "the Faerie Queene" under this tree. Queen Victoria is said to have visited the tree while staying in nearby Convamore House during her state visit to Ireland before she died. In the following year Spenser traveled to London, where he died in distressed circumstances, aged forty-six. It was arranged for his coffin to be carried by other poets, upon which they threw many pens and pieces of poetry into his grave with many tears.

Spenser was admired by William Wordsworth, John Keats, Lord Byron and Alfred Lord Tennyson, among others. The language of his poetry is purposely archaic, reminiscent of earlier works such as The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer, whom Spenser greatly admired.

Spenser's Epithalamion is the most admired of its type in the English language. It was written for his wedding to his young bride, Elizabeth Boyle. The poem is comprised of 365 long lines, corresponding to the days of the year; 68 short lines, representing the sum of the 52 weeks, 12 months, and 4 seasons of the annual cycle; and 24 stanzas, corresponding to the diurnal and sidereal hours.

Structure of The Spenserian Stanza and Sonnet

Spenser used a distinctive verse form, called the Spenserian stanza, in several works, including The Faerie Queene. The stanza's main meter is iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is ababbcbcc. The final line is a rhyming hexameter line which has 6 feet or stresses. Such a line is known as an Alexandrine.

The Spenserian Sonnet is based on a fusion of elements of both the Petrarchan sonnet and the Shakespearean sonnet. In one sense, it is similar to the Shakespearan sonnet in the sense that it is set up based more on the 3 quatrain and a couplet system set up by Shakespeare; however it is more like the Petrarchan tradition in the fact that the conclusion follows from the argument or issue set up in the earlier quatrains. There is also a great use of the parody of the blazon and the idealization or praise of the mistress, a literary device used by many poets. It is a way to look at a woman through the appraisal of her features in comparison to other things. In this description, the mistress's body is described part by part, i.e., much more of a scientific way of seeing one. As William Johnson states in his article "Gender Fashioning and Dynamics of Mutuality in Spenser's Amoretti," the poet-love in the scenes of the Spenser's sonnets in Amoretti, is able to see his lover in an objectified manner by moving her to another, or more clearly, an item. The purpose of Spenser doing this is to bring the woman from the "transcendental ideal" to a woman in everyday life. "Through his use of metonymy and metaphor, by describing the lady not as a whole being but as bodily parts, by alluding to centuries of topoi which remove her in time as well as space, the poet transforms the woman into a text, the living 'other' into an inanimate object" (503). The opposite of this also occurs in The Faerie Queen. The counter-blazon, or the opposition of appraisal, is used to describe Duessa. She is not objectified, but instead all of her flaws are highlighted.

Works Cited

Rust, Jennifer. "Spenser's The Faerie Queen." Saint Louis University, St. Louis. 10 Oct. 2007. Johnson, William. "The struggle between good and evil in the first book of "The Faerie Queene". English Studies, Vol. 74, No. 6. (Dec. 1993) p. 507-519.

List of works

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Preceded by:
John Skelton
English Poet Laureate Succeeded by:
Samuel Daniel

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