Edmund Spenser as a Poet

Edmund Spenser as a Poet

Edmund Spenser is the first really commanding figure in the Elizabethan period, and one of the chief of all English poets. He was called a Poet's Poet and was admired by William Wordsworth, John Keats, Lord Byron and Lord Alfred Tennyson, among others. The language of his poetry is purposely archaic, reminiscent of earlier works such as The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer and Il Canzoniere of Francesco Petrarca, 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 consists 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.

Spenser's masterpiece is the huge epic poem The Faerie Queene. The first three books of The Faerie Queene were published in 1590, and a second set of three books were published in 1596. This extended epic poem deals with the adventures of knights, dragons, ladies in distress, etc. yet it is also an extended allegory about the moral life and what makes for a life of virtue. Spenser originally indicated that he intended the poem to be twelve books long, so there is some argument about whether the version we have is in any real sense complete.

Learned and Well Versed in Literature

Spenser is a learned man, well-versed in literature and Mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as in literature of his own age. Spenser has read widely of ancient literature and in his own works reference to Ovid, Homer, Aristo, Ronsard, Petrarch, Tasso, etc. are frequent. No one, therefore, can hope to understand and enjoy the poetry of Spenser who is not familiar with

(1) the classical mythology

(2) classical literature

(3) pastoral tradition of Greece and Rome, and

(4) the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato.

In other words, Spenser is not for the common man; he is for the learned few. He is really a poet’s poet, and not a poet for all and sundry.

Noble Conception of Poetry

Spenser gave to the poets, not only of his own age, but of all ages, a high and noble conception of their calling. Together with Plato, Ovid, and Horace he believed that the poet was a creator like God, and so shared some of his immortality. The poet should work with faith and devotion because he was sure to be rewarded with immortal fame.

He believed that poetry was a pine gift bestowed upon a few favoured mortals. It could not be had by labour or learning, but was the result of celestial inspirations. Poetry was the language of the gods, and men could not be its interpreters unless ‘they were consecrated from their birth and dedicated to this ministry’ (Renwick). It is this high sense of his vocation which differentiates Spenser from other poets, and makes him the leader, and the prince of poets. Spenser was truly an inspired poet, and a source of inspiration for others.

A Patriotic Poet

The age of Spenser was an age of intense patriotism. In war, traffic and exploration, England could already hold her own with the nations of the world. But she lagged far behind in the domain of poetry. Chaucer, no doubt, had written great poetry, but he could not equal the performance of the great conventional poets, both ancient and modern. This was Spenser’s mission and he performed it successfully. He set out to endow England with poetry great in kind, in style, in thought. He showed the world that Modern England was capable of poetry as great as that of any other age and country, that he had her share of poetic power, of art and learning.

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 with a final line in iambic hexameter (having six feet or stresses, known as an Alexandrine), and the rhyme scheme is ababbcbcc.

The Spenserian sonnet is based on a fusion of elements of both the Petrarchan sonnet and the Shakespearean sonnet. It is similar to the Shakespearean sonnet in the sense that its set up is based more on the 3 quatrains and a couplet, a 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.

Services to English Versification

Spenser’s services to English style, diction and versification are innumerable. He demonstrated that the English language was as capable of subtlety and emotion as any that boasted of their magnificence. In his age the English language and grammar was still in a flux and as Renwick points out, ‘He treated the English language as if it belonged to him and not he to it’.

He coined new words, imported many from France and Italy, and saved many an obsolete word from oblivion. In order to further increase the vocabulary, he used terms of hunting and hawking, of seamanship, of art, of archery, of armory, and of law and philosophy.

Ben Jonson objected to Spenser’s language when he said he ‘writ no language’. The purists like the learned Ben, have called his language a ‘gallimaufry of hotchpotch of all other speeches’.

But much of this criticism is not based on facts, and so is wholly unjustified. Aristotle permitted the use of an unfamiliar vocabulary, alteration and coinage of words for achieving a lofty style. The only condition, he put emphasis on, was the careful observation of the rules of decorum. Spenser is true to this long critical tradition.

He made English language very flexible, effective and forceful.

He interchanged parts of speech, made one word do the service of another, freely dropped prepositions and thus imparted to the English language a rare flexibility and beauty. He is truly the poet-maker, one who inspired others to achieve greatness in the field.

Spenser’s greatest contribution to English versification is the Spenserian stanza. It has been admired by countless critics and imitated by all poets, both great and small, since its introduction. ‘The services’, says J.R. Lowell, ‘which Spenser did to our literature by his exquisite sense of harmony is incalculable’.

He is recognized as one of the premier craftsmen of Modern English verse in its infancy, and one of the greatest poets in the English language.