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EDMUND SPENSER

The greatest and the most technically versatile poet of the Elizabethan era, Edmund Spenser (1552/53, London — Jan. 13, 1599, London), attended the Merchant Taylors' School studying Latin, some Hebrew, Greek, and music. In 1569, he entered Cambridge as a sizar, or poor scholar. In the Puritan atmosphere of Cambridge, Spenser began translating poems for anti-Catholic propaganda.

After obtaining the BA degree in 1573 and the MA in 1576, Spenser served as personal secretary to several prominent men, including the Earl of Leicester, the Queen's favorite. The twelve eclogues of his Shepheardes Calender (1579), dedicated to Sidney, correspond to the months of the year. In this poem Spenser used thirteen different metres, some newly invented, some adapted, and archaic language to achieve a rustic effect.

In 1580, Spenser went to Ireland as secretary to the Lord deputy of Ireland, and spent the rest of his life there.

In 1590s Spenser published in London the first three books of The Faerie Queene, the epic poem which resembles the medieval romance, with the land of Faerie and its queen, Gloriana, the personification of Queen Elizabeth. In 1594, Spenser married and celebrated the event in his Epithalamion, a wedding song, one of the most beautiful examples of this genre in English literature. It was printed in 1595, together with a cycle of love sonnets, the Amoretti. For a double wedding of two daughters of the nobility, Spenser wrote the Prothalamion (1596), one of his loveliest shorter lyrical poems. In about 1596, he wrote a tract against the brutal English colonialist regime, A View of the Present State of Ireland. That same year, 1596, saw the publication of the last three books of his Faerie Queene.

In the second half of the 1590s, Ireland was seized by a civil war; in October 1598, Spenser's castle was destroyed, and the poet returned to England. After his death, he was buried near his beloved Chaucer in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Spenser is difficult to classify. He was an idealist, yet also celebrated English nationalism and empire. He was in some respects an archaic poet looking back to Chaucer, yet, as an epic poet and poet-prophet, he looked forward to the poetry of the Romantics and especially Milton. Spenser is sometimes referred to as poets' poet, because many other English poets learned from him. His poetic school may be seen in Shelley's Revolt of Islam, Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Keats' Eve of St. Agnes, and Tennyson's The Lotos-Eaters.

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,

But came the waves and washud it away:

Again I wrote it with a second hand,

But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.

Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay,

A mortal thing so to immortalize,

For I my self shall like to this decay,

And eke my name be wipnd out likewise.

Not so, (quod I) let baser things devise

To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:

My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,

And in the heavens write your glorious name.

Where when as death shall all the world subdue,

Our love shall live, and later life renew. 1595

SIR PHILIP SIDNEY

A typical Renaissance man could do many things surprisingly well. The Italian Leonardo da Vinci, for example, was an architect, a scientist, an inventor, and a great painter. Likewise, Sir Philip Sidney (Nov. 30, 1554, Penshurst, Kent — Oct. 17, 1586, Arnhem, Netherlands) seemed to embody all the personal traits the Elizabethans admired; he was a poet, soldier, courtier, and patron. Sidney was an excellent horseman and got his renown for participation in courtly tournaments. His refined, aristocratic behavior made him an exceptional favourite of Queen Elizabeth. All England grieved when, only 32, he was killed in action for the Protestant cause in Holland.

Son of the queen's most powerful subjects, Sidney attended Oxford, but left it without a degree, and extended his education by travelling on the Continent. There he met many prominent people and witnessed such events as the Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day in Paris on August 24th, 1572. This event strengthened Sidney's Protestant faith, which had been instilled by his family background and education.

On returning to England, Sidney lived a life of a successful courtier, occasionally serving on diplomatic missions and energetically encouraging authors such as Edmund Spenser, who dedicated The Shepheardes Calender to him. In 1578, he composed a pastoral playlet, The Lady of May, dedicated to the Queen.

Sidney's Protestant convictions were so strong that in 1580 he fell into disgrace with the Queen by opposing her expected marriage to the Duke of Anjou, and, for a time, he was dismissed from court. He retired to the estate of his beloved sister Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, and for her entertainment he wrote a long pastoral romance in verse joined by prose passages called Arcadia (publ. 1590). It remains the first considerable work in English in this form and a model for later pastoral poetry.

About the same time he composed a major piece of prose criticism, published posthumously as The Defence of Poesy (1595; titled also An Apology for Poetry). In his long essay Sidney defends all imaginative literature and worships the role of poets and their moral mission. This is the principal work of literary criticism in the English Renaissance.

None of Sidney's works was published during his life, but they circulated in manuscript. Sidney's Astrophil and Stella (Starlover and Star; publ. 1591) is the first of the great Elizabethan sonnet sequences in the Petrarchan tradition, with 108 love sonnets and eleven songs.

In 1585, Sidney left for the Netherlands where he engaged in several battles in the war against Spain. He was badly wounded on September 13th, 1586, leading an attack against great forces. A famous story goes that despite his own thirst he offered his bottle of water to a dying man with the words, "Thy necessity is yet greater than mine." Sidney was buried at St. Paul's Cathedral in London on February 16th, 1587, with the kind of funeral normally staged for great noblemen. It was his personal self that made him so widely admired, the embodiment of the Elizabethan ideal of gentlemanly virtue.

Sidney treated poetry as his "unelected vocation". He considered himself more a patron of others than an artist. Yet he emerged the author of an outstanding work of prose fiction, of an important piece of literary criticism, and of the first sonnet cycle of the Elizabethan age.