Edmund Spenser, an English poet, born in East Smithifield, London, probably in 1553, died in King street, Westminster, Jan. 10, 1599. In one of his poems he alludes to his connection with "an house of ancient'fame," and it is maintained by Mr. Craik that he belonged to the Spencers of Hurstwood, Lancashire. He was entered a sizar of Pembroke hall, Cambridge, in 1569, and took the degree of bachelor in 1572 and of master in 1576. He there formed a life-long intimacy with Gabriel Harvey, the poet and astrologer. On leaving the university he visited the north of England, where he wrote his "Shephearde's Calendar." Induced by Harvey to go to London, he was introduced to Sir Philip Sidney, who invited him to become his guest, and to whom, in return for his hospitalitv, he dedicated his "Shephearde's Calendar'" (1579). For the next ten years little is known concerning Spenser. He corresponded with Harvey on the innovation of banishing rhymes and introducing the Latin prosody into English verse.
Recommended by Sidney to his uncle, the powerful earl of Leicester, he was occasionally employed in small missions, and in 1580 was sent to Ireland as secretary to Lord Grey de Wilton, who was appointed lord deputy of that country. The " Foure Epistles," on satiric poetry and on an earthquake in London, which passed between Spenser and Harvey, and which induced a controversy between the latter and Nash, were published the same year. He returned in 1582, and in 1580 obtained a grant of 3,028 acres of the forfeited lands of the earl of Desmond, in the county of Cork, on condition that he should reside on his estate; and he therefore took up his abode in Kilcolman castle, near Doneraile, where he composed most of the "Faerie Queen," upon which he had been engaged several years. After the death of Sidney, he wrote the pastoral elegy of " Astrophel" to his memory. Raleigh now became his principal patron and friend, and in 1589 persuaded him to return to London to arrange for the publication of his poem.
The first three books appeared in 1590, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, with a letter to Raleigh explaining the work as " a continued allegory or dark conceit." He was presented to the queen, from whom he received a pension of £50, returned to Ireland, and published " Colin Clout's come Home again" (1591); a collection of minor poems entitled " Complaints" (1591); a series of "Amoretti" and the "Epithalamium" (1595), relating to his courtship and marriage; four "Hymns " (1596), the two on love and duty, pervaded by a Platonic doctrine, being among his most exquisite productions; and the fourth, fifth, and sixth books of the " Faerie Queen " (1590). He was married in 1594, but it is not certain whether the lady was the " Elizabeth " of his sonnets, nor whether it was a first or second marriage. In 1596 he presented to the queen his " View of the State of Ireland," a treatise in the form of a dialogue, not published till 1633. he was a conspicuous object for the enmity of the Irish on the outbreak of Tyrone's rebellion, since he was clerk of the council of Munster, and had been nominated sheriff of Cork. When the insurgents rose in Munster in 1598, they attacked Kilcolman, and the poet fled with his wife.
The castle was plundered and burned, and an infant child, which had been left behind, perished in the flames. Spenser died at an inn a few months after his arrival in London, it is said for want of bread; but there are circumstances which make this account doubtful. He was buried at the expense of the earl of Essex, and at his own request near the remains of Chaucer, in Westminster abbey. A monument erected to him after 30 years by Anne, countess of Dorset, was restored in 1778 by the fellows of Pembroke hall. - His chief poem, the "Faerie Queen," is unfinished. The Spenserian stanza, in which it is written, is a modification of the Italian ottava rima, with the addition of the Alexandrine line, and the diction was purposely studded with forms and phrases which had become antiquated. Yet Spenser is scarcely surpassed as a master of musical language. The leading story is an allegory, founded on the traditional history of Prince Arthur, who was taken as the ideal of a noble person. Glo-riana, the queen of Faerie, who gave name to the poem, is an emblem of virtuous renown. All the personages are symbolical and all the incidents significant of moral truths.
The subject of each book is a moral attribute, as holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice, and courtesy, personified by a knight errant, with all human passions. The last great poem of chivalry, it was received with enthusiasm in the adventurous age of Elizabeth. The first canto is much the finest; the allegory in it is so skilfully disguised that it may be disregarded; and it fully exhibits the freshness and power of his genius. An edition of his poems by G. S. Hillard, with a critical introduction, was published in Boston in 1839 (5 vols.). They also form five volumes (1855) in the Boston collection of " British Poets." A variorum edition was published by the Rev. Henry John Todd (8 vols. 8vo, London, 1805). An edition, with glossary, notes, and life, by J. P. Collier (5 vols. 8vo, London, 1862), is probably the most accurate and complete.