1789
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

[Edmond Malone discovers Edmund Spenser's Pension.]

Maloniana. In Life of Edmond Malone. [By Sir James Prior.]

Edmond Malone


It seems appropriate that the Irish antiquary Edmond Malone, one of the great literary sleuths of all time, would make the greatest discovery in Spenser biography of the eighteenth century. Stories about Spenser's poverty and ill-treatment by Elizabeth and Burghley had circulated from the time of his death, becoming a regular topic in poetry, biography, and criticism.

Malone assiduously collected and sifted anecdotes surrounding the English poets; if he was often a debunker of tradition, his archival researches mark the beginning of what would later become professional research. "Maloniana" is a commonplace book in which Malone recorded anecdotes related by various acquaintances — a technique doubtless learned when assisting James Boswell in the composition of his Life of Johnson.

Edmond Malone records his failure to find Spenser's date of birth in the parish register at St. Botolph, p. 402; he was more successful in ascertaining the date of death: "Discrepancies also existed as to his death, some making it 1598, some 1599. In 1802 Malone discovered the truth in the title-page of a copy of the second part of the Faerie Queen, 1596, which the ancient owner appeared to have purchased in 1598, and in a Latin passage marks his death Jan. 16th, 1598" Sir James Prior, Life of Edmond Malone (1860) 447-48.

Although Edmond Malone and Henry John Todd rebutted the long-standing belief that Spenser had been mistreated by the court, the force of tradition and Spenser's own complaints outweighed in the minds of romantic poets any actual evidence to the contrary; see Greg Kucich, Keats, Shelley, and Romantic Spenserianism (1991) 87-88.




On examining the indexes at the Signet Office yesterday (June 19, 1789) to ascertain when Sir George Buck was Master of the Revels to King James the First, I happened to turn back to the reign of Elizabeth, and under the year 1590, was surprised to find in the letter S., "Edmund Spenser Pension." On examining the minute of the grant, I found it entered as follows: "Feb. 1590 (i.e. 1591) An Annuity of £50 per ann. to Edmund Spenser during life." — (D. Aubrey.)

This particular has, I think, escaped all our biographers. Fifty pounds a year was then, all circumstances being considered, at least equal to £200 a year now, so that he could not be in such extreme poverty at his death as is usually represented. I suppose that contemporary writers meant he was comparatively poor; for he had possessed a large estate in Ireland which was lost in the troubles. He was in Ireland in 1598, as appears by a curious letter from Queen Elizabeth which I found in the Museum, recommending him to be Sherriff of the County of Cork, in that year. . . . (See it in my Shakspeare.)


[pp. 394-95]