Edmund Spenser’s Literary Works that Bridged the Medieval and Elizabethan Periods


It was Charles Lamb who called Spenser ‘the poet’s poet”. Spenser is called ‘the child of Renaissance and Reformation’ as his works are the finest expression and exposition of the ideals and principles of the Renaissance and the reformation. Spenser was an extremely learned poet, acquainted with the best models not only in English, but in Greek, Latin, Italian, and French. Like Wyatt and Surrey, Spenser derived his chief impulse from Italy. He knew and admired Chaucer and the other old English poets, but his real masters were Ariosto and Tasso. 




Spenser stands in between Chaucer and Shakespeare and it would not be wrong to entitle him as the “second father” of English poetry as Chaucer is called the father of English poetry. However, a greater contrast to Chaucer it would be difficult to imagine. Spenser "dwelt in a world ideal;" the visionary sights and beings which fill the land of Faerie floated round him continually; his imagination rose above the rough practical world in which he lived to take refuge with the allegorical beings who occupied his thoughts. Chaucer, on the other hand was very well satisfied with this world, enjoying heartily the frolics, the eccentricities, the virtues, nay even the vices of its inhabitants, ready always to laugh with those who laughed, and to weep with those who wept. There is, as will be admitted even by his warmest admirers, a want of human interest about Spenser's works; it is just their deep human interest which makes Chaucer’s works so constantly attractive in spite of their antique dialect, and the fact that they refer to a condition of society which can now be conceived only by an effort of the imagination. 

The most outstanding of Spenser’s poetical works are discussed below:-

Astrophel: It is a kind of pastoral elegy written on the death of Sir Philip Sidney at the battle of tutphen in 1588.Allegorically Sidney is represented here as a shepherd of Arcady, wounded to death by an enraged beer. It is modeled on Bion’s Lament for Adonis. The poem written is stanza rhyming ab, ab, and cc.

Amoretti: His sonnets are addressed to Elizabeth Boyle who became his second wife. These sonnets have been given the Italian name Amoretti. It consists of eighty eight (88) sonnets. To some critics “Amoretti” is addressed for the most part to “Lady Carey” rather than Elizabeth Boyle.

The poet in these sonnets expresses the feeling of his heart in a sincere and unaffected manner without any recourse to allegory. The sonnets series appears incomplete because when the lover already near the desired goal, due to misunderstanding separation comes to them. 

The Shepheard’s Calendar: Sir Philip Sidney, to whom he dedicated his first major poem, The Shepheard’s Calendar (1579). This work demonstrates the great poetic flexibility of the English language. It is a series of 12 pastoral poems written in a variety of meters and employing a vocabulary of obsolete words and coined expressions to give a suggestion of antiquity.

 Epithalamion: It is spousal song and after though to be a filling conclusion of his sonnet sequence. It celebrates the poet wedding with ‘Elizabeth Byele’ which was celebrated in a small Irish town on 11th June 1554. In 1594 Spenser married and celebrated the event in his “Epithalamion,” a wedding song, considered the most beautiful example of this genre in English literature. It was printed in 1595 in the same volume as a group of love sonnets, the Amoretti.

It twenty three stanza of from seventeen to nineteen lines, merely describe with great enthusiasm the whole of the poet’s wedding day from the down to the night which bring the bride into her husband’s arms.

Prothalamion: It is another wedding song written in honour of the wedding of the two danghters of the earl of Worcester. It is rather a companion poem of epithalamion and marks equally the poets command over imagery and melody.

The Faerie Queene: While residing with the earl of Leicester in London, Spenser began to write The Faerie Queene, and in 1580 he was appointed secretary to Arthur Grey, 14th Baron Grey de Wilton, the new lord deputy of Ireland. Thereafter, Spenser lived mostly in Ireland, near Cork, where he completed his great allegory. In 1589 he was visited by the English poet, courtier, and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, who recognized the merit of the poem and brought Spenser to England to publish it and to make the poet known to Queen Elizabeth I. Spenser received an enthusiastic reception, and his poem was hailed on the publication of its first three books in 1590.

Spenser spends more than twenty years of his life to write this great – poem but unfortunately it remains unfinished.The original plan off the poet was to write to twenty four books, each of which was to recounts the adventure and triumph of a knight who represented or moral virtue. Spenser purpose became clear from a letter that he writes to his friend Sir Walter Raleigh. We have got only six books and odd stanza of book seven.

Mother Hubberd’s Tale: It is a bitter “Satire in the form of a fable”. The poem tells the story of a fox and an ape”.Here lord Burghley who was a very powerful politician is the fox and Duke of Anjouhe wished to marry Queen Elizabeth is the ape. One day when the lion is asleep the two steal the crown and the ape becomes the king and the fox the prime minister. They rule until the lion awakes.

Complains: It is a collection of miscellaneous poems that includes Spenser’s translation of certain Latin and French works. Almost all the poems had been the note of pessimism. Here the poet expresses his grief over the disappearance of great man and over the triumph of mean fellows. Some important pomes in this collection are – ‘The Ruins of Time’, the tears of the Muses, “The Fate of the Butterfly” etc.

Hymns: He did publish at this time Fowre Hymnes (1596), poems in honor of love and beauty. For a double wedding of two daughters of the nobility in 1596, Spenser composed the “Prothalamion,” one of his loveliest shorter lyrical poems.

 He wrote four Hymns, they are – ‘An Hymns in Honour of Love’, ‘An Hymns in Honour of Beautie’, 'An Hymns in Heavenly Love' and 'An Hymns of Heavenly Beautie'.  He is inspired by Plato’s Symposium in writing these Hymns. It is also noted that he is also indebted to a host of Renaissance Neo Platonist, especially Castiglione and Bruno.

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An English Teacher;    M. A.(English) , D. Ed., B. Ed., UGC- NET Qualified

"Dear Readers/ Students, I am a huge fan of books, English Grammar & Literature. I write this blog to instill that passion in you." 

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