Biography of Edmund Spenser

spenserEdmund Spenser was born in 1552 or 1553. No documentation exists to establish his exact date of birth, but the year is known in part due to Spenser’s own poetry. In Amoretti Sonnet 60, Spenser writes that he is forty-one years old. We know this poem was published in 1594 (and written only shortly prior to its publication), so the year of his birth can be closely guessed.

Spenser matriculated at the University of Cambridge on May 20, 1569. Ten years later he published his first publicly-released poetic work, The Sheapheards’ Calendar, to positive reviews. He then began work on his magnum opus, The Faerie Queene, publishing the first three of the projected twelve books in 1590.

Spenser was an English subject during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, to whose court he aspired. He offered Elizabeth The Faerie Queene in an attempt to gain her favor. Unfortunately, Spenser held to political views and associated with individuals that did not meet the approval of Elizabeth’s principal secretary, Lord Burghley. Through Burghley’s influence, Spenser was given only a small pension in recognition for his grand poetic work.

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Sent to Ireland to hold English property on the oft-rebellious island, Spenser there met and wooed Elizabeth Boyle, a young woman from an important English family, who was probably half his age. His year-long suit to win her hand in marriage is recorded (with a deal of poetic license) in Spenser’s Amoretti. Spenser also dedicated a marriage song, Epithalamion, to his young bride. As was the custom, both seemingly personal works of poetry were published for mass consumption in 1594 and helped Spenser’s literary career to improve. In the meantime, Spenser completed the fourth through sixth books of The Faerie Queene and published them, along with revised versions of the first three books, in 1596.

Spenser is best known for his immense epic poem The Faerie Queene. Dedicated to Queen Elizabeth (herself represented by the title character) the work was envisioned by Spenser as encompassing twelve books, each one detailing a quest by some knight of King Arthur’s court on behalf of Gloriana, the Faerie Queene. Spenser was only able to finish the first six books (and begin a draft of the seventh) before his death in 1599.

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