The British Poets: Life of Edmund Spenser.

The British Poets.

Richard Alfred Davenport

R. A. Davenport covers the usual topics, incorporating the researches of Malone and Todd. He concludes by reprinting Thomas Campbell's character of Spenser from Specimens of the British Poets (1819). Considering that Davenport was responsible for writing lives to accompany most of the hundred volumes in this series of British Poets, perhaps little more could be expected. A laborious writer for the press, Davenport is said to have written or edited over a hundred volumes, mostly history and biography, before dying neglected and alone in 1852.

Of EDMUND SPENSER, one of the brightest stars in the heaven of British poetry, there are so few memorials in existence, that the task of his biographer cannot fail to be performed in an unsatisfactory manner. Though he was undoubtedly the pride and ornament of the age in which he lived, little more than we find in his works has been handed down to us, relative to his habits, his sentiments, and the principal events of his life. Obscurity hangs over far the greater part of the circumstances connected with him from the cradle even to the grave. He was born in East Smithfield, near the Tower of London, and the most probable opinion respecting the date of his birth is that which fixes it in or about the year 1553. Who were his parents, and what was their station in society, remains unknown; but there can be little doubt that he was descended from the ancient and honourable family of the Spensers; a descent to which he more than once alludes, and his claim to which he affirms to have been allowed by some of his noble kindred.

At what school he acquired his early education is equally unknown. The instruction which he received was, however, such as to qualify him for completing his studies at the university of Cambridge, and must, therefore, not have been negligently or scantily given. He was admitted, on the twentieth of May, 1569, as a sizer of Pembroke Hall; and, as the sizers are the lowest order of students, this may be considered as a sufficient proof that his parents were not opulent. He attained the degree of Bachelor of Arts on the sixteenth of January, 1572-3, and that of Master of Arts on the twentieth of June, 1576. Of the events of his college life the only trace which remains is, that he contracted a close and lasting friendship with Gabriel Harvey, a man of acknowledged talent, and of scarcely less bitterness than talent, who is well known as a writer of the age of Elizabeth. "That Spenser," says Mr. Todd, "cultivated with successful attention, what is useful as well as elegant in academical learning, is evident by the abundance of classical allusions in his works, and by the accustomed moral of his song." There is reason to believe, too, that his poetical talent was manifested during his residence at Cambridge. Some anonymous poems, in the Theatre of Worldlings, which was published in 1569, are obviously the same which, altered and retouched, he, at a later period, gave to the world under the title of his Visions.

From some unascertainable cause, Spenser, probably soon after his having taken his Master's degree, seems to have quitted the university in disgust. It has been asserted, that his resolution to withdraw was adopted in consequence of his having failed in a competition for a fellowship with Andrews, subsequently the celebrated bishop. This, however, is manifestly erroneous; as the rival of Andrews was Thomas Dove, who was afterwards bishop of Peterborough. It is rather to be imagined that the want of fortune, the small prospect of further advancement or some disagreement with the bead of his college, gave occasion to his departure. The last supposition is the most probable one, as, though he often mentions the university in terms of affection, he preserves an unbroken silence with respect to that particular member of it to which he belonged. There is also a passage, in one of Harvey's letters to him, which seems to allude to this subject, and which, if only one half of it be true, will show that the poet's situation at Pembroke Hall was not likely to be tolerable to a man of feeling and spirit. "And wil you," says Harvey, "needes have my testimoniall of youre old Controllers new behaviour? A busy and dizy heade; a brazen forehead; a ledden brain; a woodden wit; a copper face; a stony breast; a factious and elvish hearte; a founder of novelties; a confounder of his owne and his friends good gifts; a morning bookeworm; an afternoone maltworm; a right juggler, as ful of his sleights, wyles, fetches, casts of legerdemaine, toyes to mocke apes withal, odde shifts, and knavish practizes as his skin can holde."

On leaving the university, Spenser, it is said, went to reside with some relations in the north of England. In the absence of evidence, it would be useless to discuss, as others have done, whether he became a mere pensioner on the bounty of his friends, or whether he repaid them by acting as a tutor to one of the younger branches of the family. There is nothing in the known circumstances of Spenser's life, which can induce us to believe that he had a mind capable of submitting to any thing that was calculated to degrade him. It is at least certain, that, during his retirement, he was not idle; several of his poems, and some works which are lost, having been composed while he was thus living in seclusion.

But the event which imparts the greatest share of interest to his stay in the north is, that he there became enamoured of a lady, whom he has immortalized under the name of Rosalind. That she was not blind to the poetical merit of her lover, we have the testimony of Harvey, who declares, that "gentle Mistresse Rosalinde once reported Spenser to have all the Intelligences at commaundement, and another time christened him Segnior Pegaso." She appears, indeed, to have first encouraged his passion, and then dishonourably deserted him for a rival. The hapless poet, like his patron deity, "grasped at love, but filled his arms with bays;" and he felt his disappointment so severely, that many years elapsed before he again resigned his senses to the blandishments of beauty.

By the advice of Harvey, Spenser now quitted the country, and took up his abode in London. The same friend also introduced him to the gallant, generous, and accomplished Sidney, by whom he was warmly patronized, and invited to the family seat, at Penshurst, in Kent. The year 1578 is said to be that in which he removed from the north.

At Penshurst it is probable that he put the finishing hand to the Shepherd's Calendar; the eleventh eclogue of which is conjectured to have been written there. The Calendar was published in 1579; and, with the modest signature of Immerito, was dedicated to "Maister Philip Sidney." It acquired for the author a high reputation among those who were acquainted with it, but neither his name nor his work appear at first to have become generally known. In those days the diffusion of literary intelligence was more slowly performed than it now is. Five editions were, however, sold during the life of Spenser.

These facts destroy the well-known story respecting the commencement of the intimacy between Spenser and Sidney; a story so romantic, that it is scarcely possible to avoid regretting that it has no foundation in truth. It relates, that the poet came one morning, an unintroduced stranger, into the presence of Sidney, at Leicester House, and presented to him tho ninth canto of the first book of the Faery Queen, which contains the beautiful allegory of Despair. By one stanza, Sidney was so charmed, that he ordered fifty pounds to be given to the author; he doubled the sum when he had read a second; and he raised his gift to two hundred when he had perused a third; directing his steward, at the same time, to pay the money instantly, lest he should be led by a further delay to lavish his whole estate. The tale is amusing, it is not uncharacteristic, but, unfortunately, it is nothing more than a fiction.

Even the whimsies of those to whom we are bound by the ties of affection and gratitude, frequently seem to have their very nature changed, and become pleasing in our eyes. The friendship which subsisted between Sidney and Spenser probably induced the latter to adopt his patron's wild, immelodious, and impracticable system of introducing the Roman metres into English poetry. "And nowe," says Spenser, speaking of Sidney and Sir Edward Dyer, "they have proclaimed in their [Greek: Areopagus] a general surceasing and silence of balde rymers, and also of the verie best to: in steade whereof, they have, by anthoritie of their whole senate, prescribed certain lawes and rules of quantities of English sillables for English verse: having had thereof already great practice, and drawen mee to their faction."

What was the success of Spenser, in these new fangled "laws and rules of quantities," the reader may now see in the following harsh and halting Iambics; which, says the author, somewhat rashly, "I dare warrant they be precisely perfect, for the feete, (as you can easily judge) and varie not one inch from the rule." [Quotations omitted.]

Yet, while he was thus labouring to impose Roman chains on the British tongue, he appears not to have been wholly insensible to the difficulty and absurdity of the attempt; and, accordingly, notwithstanding his fondness for English Hexameters and Pentameters, he describes one of their defects in terms as ludicrous as any determined enemy of the new system could possibly have chosen for the purpose of satire. "For the onely, or chiefest hardnesse," says he "whyche seemeth, is in the accente; whyche sometime gapeth, and as it were yawneth ilfavouredly, comming shorte of that it should, and sometime exceeding the measure of the number, as in Carpenter, the middle sillable being used shorte in speeehe, when it shall be read long in verse, seemeth like a lame gosling, that draweth one legge affer hir: and Heaven, being used short as one sillable when it is in verse, stretched out with a diastole, is like a lame dogge that hordes up one legge." He comforts himself, however, with the idea that "it is to be wonne with custome, and rough words must be subdued with use." Fortunately for the lovers of poetry, the literature of his country, and his own fame, he did not persist in the scheme of subjugation.

The friendship of Sidney was, however, productive of something more beneficial to Spenser than novel forms of verse. It cannot be doubted that the poet experienced the liberality of that munificent encourager of every kind of intellectual excellence. Nor was this the only benefit which Sidney conferred upon him. He recommended him to his potent uncle, the earl of Leicester, who received him graciously, and soon bestowed on him his entire confidence. As a proof of this, Leicester chose him to fill an employment, which is said to have been the delicate one of acting as his agent in France and other foreign countries. In October, 1579, Spenser was in daily expectation of entering on his mission. "I beseeche you by all your curtesies and graces," says he, in a letter to Harvey, "let me be answered ere I goe; which will be (I hope, I feare, I thinke) the next weeke, if I can be dispatched of my Lorde I goe thither, as sent by him, and maintained most what of him: and there am to employ my time, my body, my minde, to his honours service." There is, however, reason to believe that the design of sending Spenser to the continent was never carried into effect. This disappointment, whatever was its cause, Harvey appears to have foreseen; for, in his answer to Spenser, he says, "As for your speedy and hasty travell, methinks I dare stil wager al the books and writings in my study, which you know I esteeme of greater value than al the golde and silver in my purse or chest, that you wil not, that you shall not, I saye, be gone over sea, for al your saying, neither the next nor the nexte weeke."

Spenser, however, was soon after provided with an office of more importance; for which it is likely that he was indebted to the influence of Leicester. In July, 1580, Arthur Lord Grey, of Wilton, was appointed lord deputy of Ireland, and be took Spenser with him to that country as his Secretary. In 1582 Lord Grey was recalled, and it is probable that Spenser returned with him to England. That the peer was his firm friend, and bountiful patron, or, as he emphatically declares, "the pillar of his life," the poet has himself recorded. The kindness of Lord Grey was amply repaid by the gratitude of Spenser, who, in his writings, never suffers an opportunity to escape of vindicating the fame, and enhancing the glory, of his noble protector.

Subsequently to the date of his return to his native land, there is a blank of four years in the life of the poet. There is reason to believe that this period was spent in that wearisome and soul-sickening attendance upon the court, the miseries of which he has so forcibly described in Mother Hubberd's Tale. That his high spirit poignantly felt all the disgust which, in such minds as his, such a situation must excite, is obvious from the pointedness of the language which he uses:—

Most miserable man, whom wicked Fate
Hath brought to Court, to sue for had-ywist
That few have found, and manie one hath mist!
Full little knowest thou, that hast not bide
What hell it is, in suing long to bide:
To lose good dayes, that might be better spent
To wast long nights in pensive discontent;
To speed to-day, to be put back to-morrow
To feed on hope, to pine with feare and sorrow
To have thy Princes grace, yet want her Peeres
To have thy asking, yet waite manie yeares
To fret thy soule with crosses and with cares
To eate thy heart through comfortlesse despaires
To fawne, to crowche, to waite, to ride, to ronne,
To spend, to give, to want, to be undonne.
Unhappie wight, borne to disastrous end
That doth his life in so long tendance spend!

To the malignant hostility of Burleigh is attributed, and apparently with justice, the protracted alternation of hope and fear in which Spenser was held. An attempt has been made to rescue the cold blooded and tasteless statesman from the disgrace of this charge; but the attempt is, in my opinion, more commendable for its good nature than remarkable for its success. The cause of Burleigh's dislike of him is traced, by some biographers, to Spenser's connection with his political opponents, the earls of Leicester and Essex, and to the poet's praise of Archbishop Grindal, to whom Burleigh was an enemy. Spenser himself, in the Fairy Queen, plainly intimates that the statesman had a contempt of poetry, especially amatory poetry; and, in the Ruins of Time, he utters against him a poetical imprecation, which has been amply ratified:

O let the man, of whom the Muse is scorned,

Nor alive nor dead be by the Muse adorned.

At length the solicitation of Spenser and his friends was favourably heard. In June, 1586, he received from Queen Elizabeth a grant of three thousand and twenty-eight acres of land, forming a part of the large forfeited estates of the earl of Desmond, in the county of Cork. It has been remarked by Mr. Ellis, and his remark has been echoed by others, that he who, at the age of thirty-three, obtained so liberal a grant, could have little reason to deplore the hardness of his fate. But, surely, he who had "besieged court favour" daily throughout four years, and had, in consequence, been compelled to endure the neglect or the contumely of those who by nature were his inferiors, might well be excused for giving vent to complaint, and feeling that heavy sickness of the heart which is brought on by hopes deferred.

The joy of Spenser was, in the course of a few months, sorely damped by the untimely death of one of his firmest and dearest friends. In October, the gallant Sidney was slain at Zutphen. Among the many votaries of the Muses who paid the tribute of praise and affection to the deceased hero, was Spenser, who dedicated to his memory the pastoral elegy which bears the title of Astrophel.

It being one of the conditions of Elizabeth's grant, that the holder of it should cultivate the land assigned to him, Spenser now repaired to Ireland, to reside upon his newly acquired property. The bounty which had been extended to him was indeed princely; but it was not unconnected with circumstances well calculated to moderate his pleasure. His future residence was to be, not merely in an uncivilized, but absolutely in a hostile country, where each native considered an Englishman as at once a robber and a tyrant, who added insult to injury, and who ought, on the first fair opportunity, to be expelled, and, if possible, destroyed. He has himself, in his View of Ireland, forcibly described the feelings of the Irish. Speaking of Protestant ministers, "what comfort of life," says he, "shall he have, where his parishioners are so insatiable, so intractable, so ill-affected to him, as they usuall bee to all the English; or finally, how dare almost any honest minister, that are peaceable civill men, commit his safetie to the handes of such neighbours, as the boldest captaines dare scarcely dwell by?" Yet, if we may judge from a hint given in the same tract, even to this unenviable situation he did not attain without some difficulty. The earl of Desmond had conveyed away all his lands in trust, previously to his taking up arms; and, though an act of parliament had nullified the conveyance, many obstacles seem to have been thrown in the way of the law. That such obstacles would be interposed could scarcely have been unforeseen, for the law had a general and retrospective effect on no less than the preceding twelve years, and must thus have involved many innocent persons in utter ruin. "How hardly that act of parliament was wrought out of them," says Spenser, "I can witnesse; and, were it to he passed againe, I dare undertake it would never be compassed."

At last, however, Spenser appears to have been settled in as much quiet as it was possible to enjoy in so disturbed a country. His dwelling-place was Kilcolman Castle, two miles from Doneraile, in the county of Cork, a spot of which every lover of poetry must be anxious to form some idea. "The castle,' says Smith, in his history of the country, "is now almost level with the ground. It was situated on the north side of a fine lake, in the midst of a vast plain, terminated to the east by tho county of Waterford mountains; Bally-howra hills to the north, or, as Spenser terms them, the mountains of Mole; Nagle mountains to the south; and the mountains of Kerry to the west. It commanded a view of above half the breadth of Ireland; and must have been when the adjacent uplands were wooded, a most pleasant and romantic situation; from whence, no doubt Spenser drew several parts of the scenery of his poem. The river Mulla, which he more than once has introduced in his poems, ran through his grounds."

Beautiful as was the scenery around him, and who was ever more capable than Spenser of feeling all its beauty? it is obvious, from evidence furnished by his writings, that he was not soon, if at all, reconciled to his new situation. In his "Colin Clout's come home again," he evidently puts his own sentiments respecting it into the mouth of Raleigh "He," says the poet,

—gan to cast great lyking to my lore,
And great dislyking to my luckless lot,
That banisht had myselfe, like wight forlore,
Into that waste, where I was quite forgot.
The which to leave, thenceforth he counseld mee
Unmeet for man, in whom was ought regardfull,
And wend with him, his Cynthia to see;
Whose grace was great, and bounty most rewardfull—
So that with hope of good, and hate of ill
He me perswaded forth with him to fare.

Language of dislike stronger than this it is scarcely possible to use. Yet Spenser had lived three years in Ireland before he was visited by Raleigh; and the poem which thus makes known his disgust, though probably written some years before it was sent to the press, was not published till six years after Raleigh's visit. Some of the Sonnets prefixed to the Fairy Queen also mention Ireland in the same contemptuous and murmuring strain: they denominate it a "salvage soyl, which with brutish barbarism is overspredd."

In Ireland, however, his great work, the Fairy Queen, which was confessedly meant to emulate, if not to surpass, the Orlando of Ariosto, was partly composed. It was commenced several years before he left England; for, as early as the spring of 1580, he requests his friend Harvey to return a portion of it, which he had communicated to him, in order to obtain his "long-expected judgment" upon its merit. The reply of Harvey was of the most discouraging kind, and does little honour to his taste; unless, indeed, we may suppose that the stanzas which he saw were some of the least attractive in the poem. As he afterwards came forward with a commendatory copy of verses, to prefix to the first three books, it is, in fact, probable that either he did not originally see the finest passages of the work, or that considerable corrections were subsequently made by the author. The defects of the sketch might be removed in finishing the picture. Harvey, in one of his letters, delicately hints that his friend was reluctant to bestow the labour which was requisite to polish his compositions.

In 1589, Sir Walter Raleigh, with whom Spenser bad formed an intimacy on his first arrival in Ireland, visited, and made some stay at Kilcolman, and finally prevailed on the poet to accompany him to England, for the purpose of putting to press the Fairy Queen. The first three books were accordingly published early in 1590. The result was, that Spenser was introduced to the queen, who applauded his strains, and that be was thenceforth looked upon as holding the first place among tho poetical writers of that poetical age. Nor did Elizabeth reward him with empty praise alone. In the February of the ensuing year she conferred on him an annual pension of fifty pounds, no trivial sum at that period; and though he did not formally receive the title of Laureate, he seems generally to have been considered as the possessor of the office.

Crowned with honour, and probably not without profit, Spenser returned to Kilcolman, soon after the publication of his great work. His name being now a passport to success, the publisher of The Fairy Queen collected together, in 1593, several of the author's minor poems, and gave them to the world, under the title of "Complaints, containing sundrie small Poemes of the Worlds Vanitie." The pieces included in this volume were, The Ruines of Time; The Tears of the Muses; Virgil's Gnat; Prosopopoia, or Mother Hubberd's Tale; The Ruines of Rome; by Bellay; Muipotmos, or the Tale of the Butterflie; Visions of the World's Vanitie, Bellayes Visions; and Petrarch's Visions. In the prefatory address "to the gentle reader" mention is made of several of Spenser's compositions, which are now unfortunately lost.

The elegy called Daphnaida was published in 1592. His next productions were the pastoral of Colin Clout's come home again, and the pastoral elegy of Astrophel. I agree with Mr. Todd in his opinion, that they did not appear till 1595, though the latter poem was probably written several years before. The Amoretti, or Sonnets, and the Epithalamion, which accompanied them, seem to have been given to the public in the same year.

The Sonnets and the Epithalamium were inspired by the charms of the lady whom the poet married. All that is known with certainty respecting the circumstances of his courtship and marriage is, that the name of his mistress was Elizabeth, and that the nuptial ceremony was performed in Ireland, on St. Barnabas's day. Mr. Todd, apparently on good grounds, fixes upon tho year 1594, as being that in which Spenser became a husband. At least three children were the fruits of this union, two of whom, Silvanus and Peregrine, survived their father.

With the double purpose, perhaps, of soliciting the court, and of superintending the printing of the works which be had prepared for the press, Spenser, in 1596, again visited England. The dedication to his Four Hymns on Love and Beauty, is dated from Greenwich, on the first of September. About the same period he likewise printed his Prothalamion, on the marriage of ladies Elizabeth and Catherine Somerset. But the crowning labour of the year was the publication of the second part of The Fairy Queen, which was sent forth along with a new edition of the former part.

To complete the poem, six books are yet wanting. It has been a subject of warm dispute, whether those books were composed or not. On one side, it has been positively affirmed, that they were finished, and that they were lost by a servant on his passage from Ireland, and this, on the other side, has been no less positively denied. Two imperfect cantos, "Of Mutabilitie," as a part of a lost book, entitled The Legend of Constancy," were given to the public in 1609; and their beauty is such as to excite deep regret that no more could be found. However apocryphal may be the story told respecting the servant, it is certain that some of Spenser's manuscripts were destroyed, when his mansion was burned; and it is more than probable that among them might be considerable portions of the concluding books of The Fairy Queen. Some of the disputants upon this question have argued as if such a poem must necessarily be written strait forward; an absurd idea which does not merit refutation. When his plan is once drawn out, and especially when, as in this case, the work consists of a series of narratives slightly connected with each other, no reason can be assigned why the poet may not, at pleasure, labour as well on the final as on the initial cantos.

To the year 1596, and to that part of it during which he resided in England, must be referred the composition, or at least the completion, of Spenser's View of the State of Ireland. More praise is due to the talent displayed in this tract than to its moderation or justice. Ireland has no cause to venerate the memory of Spenser. His work breathes almost throughout a spirit of rancour against that misgoverned and unhappy country. Perhaps it was as a reward for this work that, about this time, he was appointed Clerk of the Council of Munster, the yearly profits of which office were estimated at twenty pounds. If so, he does not seem to have been satisfied with his recompense; for, in the "Prothalamion," he talks of his "sullen care," occasioned by his " long fruitless stay in princes' court, and expectation vain of idle hope."

He returned to Ireland in 1597; and, in the following year, was on the point of being raised to the honourable situation of sheriff of Cork, when the storm of misfortune burst upon him with unexpected and overwhelming fury. The rebellion of Tyrone broke out in October, 1598, and one of the first consequences of it was, that the hapless poet was compelled to fly with such precipitancy that one of his infants was left behind. After having plundered the castle, the rebels destroyed it by fire, and the child perished in the flames. Spenser fled to England, but his heart was broken, and he expired on the sixteenth of the following January. He died in King street, Westminster, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, at the charge of the earl of Essex. Thirty years after his decease, a monument was erected to his memory by Anne, countess of Dorset.

It has been imagined that Spenser died in a state Of poverty, if not of absolute want. For this belief there seems to be no other foundation than the exaggerated language used by some of his poetical encomiasts. That, by the sudden loss of his property, he was much embarrassed, there can be little doubt; but it is not to be credited, that, even supposing him to have saved nothing from the wreck in Ireland, his many powerful friends would suffer him to feel the pressure of want; and he had, besides, the certain resource of the pension which his sovereign had bestowed on him.

The erudition of Spenser was superior to that of any of his contemporaries; his moral character appears to have been unstained; and, though little information has been handed down to us respecting his private life, it is obvious that he who was so extensively beloved, who had, indeed, no enemies, and who was warmly praised even by those who might have been tempted to envy him as a successful rival, must have been no less estimable for his social virtues, than remarkable for the vast extent of his learning, the vigour of his intellect, and the splendor of his genius.

The character of Spenser, as a poet, ifs drawn by Mr. Campbell in so masterly a manner, and so entirely agrees with my opinion on the subject, that the reader will doubtless thank me for quoting it, rather than expressing the same sentiments in less graceful language. [reprints Campbell's character of Spenser.]