Spenser, Edmund (1552?–1599), poet, political writer, government official, and settler in Ireland, was born in London, probably of artisan backgrounde, though little is known of his family. He attended Merchant Taylors’ grammar school, then Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, as a sizar. At both stages he received gifts of money and clothing to assist in his education. He was strongly associated with the protestant circle of Leicester and later that of Essex. In 1569 he was a confidential letter-bearer to the queen from Sir Henry Norris in France, and in 1578 was employed as secretary to John Young, bishop of Rochester.
He may have been in Ireland as early as 1577, judging by an apparently eyewitness account of the execution at Limerick of Murrough O'Brien, which appears in his prose political dialogue A veue of the present state of Ireland (written by 1596). His known official career in Ireland began in the summer of 1580 when he was appointed secretary to Arthur Grey (qv), Lord Grey de Wilton, the new lord deputy. He accompanied Grey on military and administrative journeys to many parts of Ireland. In November 1580 he probably witnessed the killing – despite a promise that quarter would be given – of surrendering Spanish and Italian soldiers in a papal force which had landed at Smerwick in west Kerry, an incident which contributed significantly to Grey's recall in 1582. Spenser enthusiastically supported Grey's draconian exercise of his executive power in Ireland, even at the time of the devastating Munster famine which had followed the quelling of the Desmond rebellion. Spenser included extensive apologias for Grey's actions in both The faerie queene (his main project, which is recognised as one of the two major epic poems) and the Veue, and throughout his works often made strong implicit criticisms of official policy in Ireland and in particular of the inadequate provision from London of moneys, troops, and supplies for Irish government.
He held various official posts and sinecures in Ireland, gaining some wealth and property and the rank of a gentleman. From 1581 he was clerk of faculties in the Irish court of chancery, and from 1583 clerk to the council of Munster and commissioner for musters in Co. Kildare for two years. He held the first two of these posts as substitute, then successor, to his friend Lodowick Bryskett (qv), also a Londoner but of Italian protestant descent. Spenser appeared as a character in Bryskett's dialogue A discourse of civill life (1606), which was an attempt to project upon Ireland a renaissance humanist model of civility after the Italian manner. In 1581 Spenser held the lease of Enniscorthy abbey and manor in Co. Wexford and in 1582 that of New Abbey, Kilcullen, Co. Kildare, besides a lease of a Dublin house and a custodiam of land at Newland belonging to the rebel John Eustace. In 1597 he also acquired the lease of Buttevant abbey near his Cork lands. In 1586 he was prebendary of Effin in east Co. Limerick; this honorary ecclesiastical office was almost certainly a sinecure, and indeed Spenser defaulted on a payment due to the crown from its holder.
From 1589 he was closely involved with the Munster plantation, and was granted 3,000 acres at Kilcolman in north Co. Cork, where he undertook to settle six English families to work the land. However, he became immediately engaged in repeated skirmishing as a result of the prior claims of Maurice, Lord Roche, the local Hiberno-Norman magnate, on some of these lands, whose granting to Spenser Roche disputed in legal action and by direct complaint to the queen in 1587. Spenser came off worst on at least one occasion, in a February 1594 Cork court hearing which found for Roche, which helps to explain his bitter attacks in the Veue on the legal and professional classes of Old English descent, of whom Roche was a prominent member – a group who had become assimilated to Irish culture and society and who also continued to have direct access to royal attention.
Spenser enjoyed a friendship with the prominent poet and courtier Walter Ralegh (qv), himself a Munster planter on a grander scale, to whom Spenser wrote an important letter prefacing and explaining the aims of The faerie queene and who appears as a character in the fine 1591 pastoral Colin Clouts come home againe, which is set at Kilcolman. Spenser had earlier gained a reputation for excellence in classical and humanist learning and outstanding achievements in poetry. These included translations from Petrarch and du Bellay and a version of the Theatre for worldlings, a Dutch anti-catholic polemic (both 1569) and his first well-known work, The shepheards calender (1579), a satire in pastoral mode on the corruption of the English clergy. Ralegh's patronage now helped him to achieve much-desired recognition for his poetry at court. In 1590 the publication of books I–III of The faerie queene drew admiration and personal approval from Elizabeth I, and his reputation as the major poet of the age grew to its height in 1596 with the appearance of books IV–VI.
The faerie queene is an epic romance in six books, with what may be an unfinished seventh, the ‘Mutabilitie cantos’, printed in 1609 after Spenser's death. Dedicated to the queen, it celebrates her as Gloriana, a virgin monarch of transcendent moral authority and earthly sovereignty. The poem explores the ‘fashioning’ of a noble character via the narrative thread of a series of allegorical knightly adventures undertaken by six heroes. Each represents a virtue and each has a book to himself: holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice, and courtesy. The poem draws extensively on classical poetry and philosophy, both Platonic and Aristotelian, as well as on medieval romance structures and motifs, particularly on Chaucer's work, and on the Italian renaissance epic romances of Ariosto and Tasso. As a framing setting and source of characters it revives the ‘matter of Britain’, namely Arthurian legend, which had already been mobilised in Tudor propaganda about dynastic origins; the poem proposes a constantly deferred meeting between the prince Arthur, who embodies all the virtues, and the queen of ‘faerieland’, whom he has seen only in a dream. Arthur's quest for this ideal love, never completed, motivates the whole. Spenser devised both a deliberately archaising vocabulary, suggesting the knightly magnanimity of a glorified past, and a new poetic stanza for his great work.
It has not always been understood that beneath a surface of lavish praise for Elizabeth, Spenser's poem in fact engages in a searching critique and questioning of his ostensible idol, on two main counts: the corruption and conspicuous consumption of her princely court, and what he perceived as the cynical quality of her policies and actions towards Ireland, and those of her principal advisers. This element of critique is clearest in book V, the ‘Legend of justice’, where the role of the hero Artegall is filled by an idealised version of Arthur, Lord Grey. Spenser's own radical protestantism, which engaged him with Grey, helped to fuel the disillusionment and anger of the colonial official far from the metropolis and seeing the Irish enterprise forever starved of funds and resources and engaged on many fronts with a recalcitrant, shifty, and continually rebellious local population. Books V and VI make plain Spenser's indignation at the destruction of Grey's reputation, focused in the figure of an evil and destructive monster, the Blatant Beast, who disseminates slander everywhere.
Spenser's setting-out of his own position in his writings affords a very clear insight into the minds of the New English – gifted, ambitious, distinctively protestant-minded incomers, in origin generally below gentry rank. A veue was completed by 1596, but remained unpublished till 1633 when, in less contentious times, Sir James Ware (qv) had a much shortened and softened version printed together with other tracts. The large number of surviving copies of the Veue indicates, however, that it circulated extensively in various manuscript versions among the governing classes, and most scholars have now relinquished an earlier view that its publication in the 1590s was blocked by censorship. A radical reform proposal, the Veue is one of a series of such tracts written from the 1530s onwards. Some historians have questioned the attribution to it of any exceptional severity, and the consequent political or moral excoriation of Spenser; others have stressed the dialogue's advocacy of martial law and Spenser's position in the ‘war party’ of enthusiastic protestant followers of the earl of Essex (qv). Literature and cultural-studies scholars, often encountering it in isolation from its intimate sixteenth-century historical context, have typically found it shocking. In the last fifteen years or so of the twentieth century the responses of historians and critics began to undergo a reciprocal refinement, and the resulting discussion greatly benefited Spenser studies.
Spenser's two careers, as rising colonial official and as poet, were inextricably intertwined. The ideological paradoxes to which this fact gives rise have fascinated literary scholars from W. B. Yeats (qv) onwards, but particularly since the 1980s, with the rise of New Historicism and cultural materialism and the post-colonialist turn in literary criticism. Since the mid-1980s Spenser's beautiful idealised poetic world in The faerie queene – a work central to the canon of English literature – has been interrogated for its close links with an ideology and a resultant politics now widely judged to have been oppressive, and with a text, the Veue, which enshrines and advocates cultural, ethnic, and religious prejudice and shows a bitter hostility both to Gaelic and to Hiberno-Norman civilisation. The problems posed by these intimate connections have enriched the discussion of sixteenth-century Ireland, within both historiography and literary scholarship. Spenser's writing has become a locus classicus in anglophone cultural enquiry for the exploration of Walter Benjamin's maxim that ‘every document of art is at the same time a document of barbarism’. In the two centuries after its eventual publication the Veue also had a substantial influence on subsequent writings about Ireland. Nicholas Canny's 1983 article ‘Edmund Spenser and the development of an Anglo-Irish identity’ (Yearbook of English Studies, xiii, 1983) was a landmark in the understanding of Spenser's role in the formation of a distinctive Anglo-Irish identity. Maria Edgeworth (qv), W. B. Yeats, and Elizabeth Bowen (qv) are important literary figures in this development: all equivocal inheritors of the Elizabethan English conquest of Ireland whose completion Spenser so ardently advocated, all directly influenced by his writings, and all understood nowadays as important figures in the enterprise of writing Ireland itself.
Spenser married first (1579) Maccabeus Chylde, in Westminster (two children were born, Sylvanus and Catherine), and secondly (1594), at Christ Church in Cork city, Elizabeth Boyle, cousin of the powerful and acquisitive Richard Boyle (qv), later 1st earl of Cork. Spenser's fine sonnet sequence Amoretti (1595), and the beautiful wedding poem, Epithalamion (1595), the greatest of its age, are both celebrations of fulfilled love. This theme of human sexual love as a happy occasion for transcendence is one of the most characteristic elements of Spenser's Christianised Platonic vision and is also vividly present in The faerie queene, especially book III, the ‘Legend of chastity’. The emphasis on bodily joy as a stepping-stone to spiritual grace distinguishes his love-poetry among that of his contemporaries. Of this marriage one son, Peregrine, was born, and descendants of Spenser, some of whom had become catholics, were recorded up to the 1730s in Munster.
In 1598 when the rebellion of Hugh O'Neill (qv) swept southwards and overwhelmed the Munster plantation, Spenser's house at Kilcolman was burned and he fled with his family and other planters into Cork and thence to London, carrying the pleas of many Munster planters for relief from their plight. He died there soon after, in January 1599.