Edmund Spenser holds a significant place in the history of English poetry as one of the most important figures of the Elizabethan era. He is best known for his epic poem, “The Faerie Queene,” which is considered a masterpiece of English literature. Spenser’s contributions to poetry are notable in several aspects:
Spenser was the first great poet after Chaucer:
For a hundred and fifty years after Chaucer there was hardly any poet worth the name. Sir John Gower (1325-1408) was a contemporary of Chaucer. Chaucer referred to him as ‘Moral Gower. He first wrote French and Latin verses. His English poem, Confessio Amantis, was of courtly love, and draws upon stories. classical and medieval, and upon chronicles. He was a great collector of stories, but he is now neglected, though his verse and language are neat and regular, and he has some sense of form. There were followers of Chaucer, both in England and Scotland. Lydgate and Ocdeve in England could catch nothing of the manner, grace, tolerance and humour of Chaucer, nor bring anything new in theme and treatment. Lydgatc assayed all the medieval forms of allegory in The Pilgrimage of Man, which might have later influenced Bunyan, but with the tradition we may connect Spenser’s predilection for allegory too.
Stephen Hawes, who lived in the reign of Henry VII, was also a follower of Chaucer, following the tradition of Le Roman de lo Rose. In his allegorical Pastime of Pleasure he made use of the training and practice of the knight both in learning and chivalry, but Hawes had little magic of poetry that could touch things into beauty and transform vague abstractions into living persons, for which we have to wait till Spenser, while both are dealing with the similar subject – the romance of chivalry. John Skelton discarded allegory and romance, and made his fame in one of his stinging satires, Colin Clout, written in his ragged but effective verse – and it was an attack on Wolsey, “Why come ye not to court?” and it seems to have a link with Spenser’s Colin Clout’s Come Home Again. Alexander Barclay attempted the pastoral eclogue. These poets are interesting because they attempted the very forms of poetry – allegory, romance, stair, eclogue, in which Spenser was later to distinguish himself. The Scottish Chaucerian’s – Robert Henryson, William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas – have no true accents of poetry, and their productions are more varied in character.
Ballad poetry was written between the twelfth and sixteenth century:
Ballads might have been the offshoots of romances -they were narrative in character, sometimes attaining epic proportions. The notable group of ballads centers round Robin Hood and his adventures, and there are some which quaintly tell the stories of sad and tragic love. The Scottish Chaucerian and ballads might have little influence upon Spenser. At the advent of the Renaissance came Wyatt and Surrey; they were known as ‘courtly maskers’. They were the pioneers of Italian fashions in verse. Wyatt introduced the sonnet, and soon there was a sonneteering craze, to which Shakespeare too was a party: he also standardized the English accent. Surrey was a lesser man. But proved a more graceful writer, and he was the first to use the blank verse in translating the Aeneid Spenser followed the sonneteering craze in his Amoretti. Except that he used the traditional forms of poetry-allegory, romance, satire. Eclogue and sonnet (the last two being added later). He did not owe much to his predecessors. He might not have invented any new form of poetry, but he combined allegory and romance in The Faerie Queene-and it was an epic of romance with an ambitious project. Left incomplete. The Faerie Queene incomplete though it was, would have by itself established his greatness. He emulated Ariosto and Tasso. But he far outdid them.
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Sidney Lee writes:
“In all senses the work is great. The scale on which Spenser planned his epic allegory has indeed no parallel in ancient or modern literature. All that has reached up is but a quarter of the contemplated whole. Yet The Faerie Queene is in its extant shape, as long as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined with Virgil’s Aeneid. Even epics of more recent date, whose example Spenser confesses to have emulated, fell far behind his work in its liberality of scale. In the unfinished form that it has come down to us, Spenser’s epic is more than twice as long as Dante’s La Divina Commedia, or Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata Anosto’s Orlando Furioso with which Spenser was thoroughly familiar, was brought to completion in somewhat fewer lines. Nor did Spenser’s great successor compete with him in length. Milton’s Paradise Lost, the greatest of all English epics, fills, when joined to its sequel, Paradise Regained, less than a third of Spenser’s space.
Spenser is great for his Faerie Queene:
He is great also for his other poems-his sonnets, his pastorals, his platonic hymns, his satires. He influenced the future poets too. Particularly, in the romantic period – Thomson. Burns, Byron, Keats, Shelley. His gift of melody is almost unequalled; his descriptive and narrative power is marvellous and indefatigable; his power of invention is unexhausted: his soaring imagination and vision and copiousness of expression might be the envy of any poct. For his command of the medium of music, rhythm and stanza form, for his technical skill which distils the utmost subtlety, grace and strength of expression from sound, he is one of the great masters.
G L. Craik writes:
“Without calling Spenser the greatest of all poets, we may still say that his poetry is the most poetical of all poetry. Other poets are all of them something else as well as poets, and deal in reflection, or reasoning or humour, or wit. Almost as largely as in the proper product of the imaginative faculty: his strains alone. In The Faerie Queene, are poetry, all poetry and nothing but poetry. It is vision unrolled after vision, to the sound of endless varying music. The ‘shaping spirit of imagination, considered apart from moral sensibility from intensity of passion on the one hand, and grandeur of conception on the other – certainly never was possessed in the like degree by any other writer. Nor has any other evinced a deeper feeling of all forms of the beautiful, nor have words ever been made by any other to embody thought with more wonderful art. On the one hand, invention and fancy in the creation or conception of his thoughts; on the other, the most exquisite sense of beauty, united with a command over all resource of language, in their vivid and musical expression- these are the great distinguishing characteristics of Spenser’s poetry.”
Overall, Edmund Spenser’s place in the history of English poetry is marked by his innovative use of poetic form, intricate allegorical storytelling, and profound influence on subsequent poets. His works continue to be celebrated for their linguistic beauty, imaginative world-building, and thought-provoking exploration of moral and political themes.