It was Charles Lamb who called Spenser “the poets’ poet”. Spenser is called ‘the child of Renaissance and Reformation’ as his works are the finest expression and exposition of the ideals and principles of the Renaissance and the Reformation. He stands in between Chaucer and Shakespeare and it would not be wrong to entitle him as the ‘second Father’ of English Poetry as Chaucer is called the ‘Father of English Poetry’.
The most outstanding of his poetical works are discussed below.
The Shepheard’s Calender:
* It is dedicated to Philip Sidney.
* It is modeled on the artificial pastoral poems of such classical masters as Theocritus, Bion, Moscos, Virgil etc.
* It is a series of twelve eclogues, one for each month. The dominant theme of the poem is the unfortunate love of Colin Clout (the poet) for one mysterious Rosalind. The other characters who are the stock pastoral characters take part in the conversation and in this way Spenser cleverly makes comment on political and religious problems of the time.
* Of the twelve eclogues- four deal with love, one is the praise of Elysa (Elizabeth) one is a lament for Rosalind, four deals with the matter of religion or conduct, one describes a singing match, and one laments the contempt in which poetry is held.
* Spenser’s style is archaic and in keeping with the rustic characters, Spenser adopts the Midland and North dialect.
* The poem is remarkable for at least four respects; first it marks the appearance of the first national poet in two centuries; second it revives the variety and melody of English verse; third, it is the first pastoral poem to be followed later on; and fourth it marks the real beginning of the outburst of great Elizabethan poetry.
Mother Hubberd’s Tale:
* It is a bitter satire in the form of a fable.
* The poem tells the story of a fox and an ape.
* Here Lord Burghley who was a very powerful politician is the fox and Duke of Anjou who wished to marry Queen Elizabeth is the ape. One day when the lion (Queen Elizabeth) is asleep the two steal the crown and the ape becomes the king and the fox the prime minister. They rule until the lion awakes.
* With vivid description and deliberate rude meter, suits the satirical purpose, it appears as Spenser’s only satirical poem.
* It is a collection of miscellaneous poems including Spenser’s translation of certain Latin and French works.
* Almost all the poems bear the note of pessimism. Here the poet expresses his grief over the disappearance of great men and over the triumph of mean fellows.
* Some important poems in this collection are- The Ruins of Time, The Tears of the Muses, The Fate of the Butterfly etc.
* He wrote four Hymns. They are- An Hymn in Honour of Love, An Hymn in Honour of Beautie, An Hymn of Heavenly Love and An Hymn of Heavenly Beautie.
* He is inspired by Plato’s ‘Symposium’ in writing these Hymns. It is also noted that he is also indebted to a host of Renaissance Neo-Platonist, especially Ficino, Castiglione and Bruro.
* All these hymns are philosophical and idealistic and express Spenser’s philosophy of Love and beauty.
* It is a kind of pastoral elegy written on the death of Sir Philip Sidney at the battle of Zutphen in 1588.
* Allegorically Sidney is represented here as a shepherd of Arcady, wounded to death by an enraged beer.
* It is modeled on Bion’s lament for Adonis.
* The poem written is stanzas rhyming ab ab cc.
* His sonnets are addressed to Elizabeth Boyle who became his second wife (on June II, 1594).
* These sonnets have been given the Italian name ‘Amoretti’. It consists of eighty-eight (88) sonnets.
* To some critics ‘Amoretti’ is addressed for the most part to Lady Carey rather than Elizabeth Boyle.
* The poet in these sonnets expresses the feeling of his heart in a sincere and unaffected manner without any recourse to allegory. They plainly state a story of love without sin or remorse. The tone is marked by purity which Coleridge named ‘maidenliness’. The sonnets are marked by an easy and familiar grace, clear and melodious tune and with a subtle touch of artistry bring out the ordinary changes and chances of the lover’s fortune as well as the voicing of their ecstasy.
* The sonnet series appears incomplete because when the lover seems already near the desired goal, due to misunderstanding separation comes to them.
* Spenser experimented with the rhyme scheme in his sonnets. Instead of Petrarchan convention he used his rhyme as – abab bcbc cdcd ee. For this his sonnets are called as linked sonnets.
* It is a spousal song and often thought to be a fitting conclusion of his sonnet sequence.
* It celebrates the poet’s wedding with Elizabeth Boyle which was celebrated in a small Irish town on 11th June 1554.
* Its twenty-three stanzas, of from seventeen to nineteen lines, merely describe with great enthusiasm the whole of the poet’s wedding day, from the dawn to the night which brings the bride into her husband’s arms.
* It is another wedding song written in honour of the wedding of the two daughters of the Earl of Worcester. It is rather a companion poem of Epithalamion and marks equally the poet’s command over imagery and melody.
The Faerie Queene:
* Spenser spends more than twenty years of his life to write this great poem but unfortunately it remains unfinished.
* The original plan of the poet was to write twenty-four (24) books, each of which was to recount the adventure and triumph of a knight who represented a moral virtue.
* Spenser’s purpose becomes clear from a letter that he writes to his friend Sir Walter Raleigh;
“To portrait in Arthur, before he was a king, the image of a brave knight, perfected in the twelve private Moral Virtues as Aristotle has devised; which is the purpose of these first twelve books; … … … I may perhaps encouraged to frame the other part of Politic. Virtues in his person, after that he came to be king.”
* We have got only six books and two odd stanzas of book seven.
* From the letter we learn that the hero Arthur visits the Farie Queen’s (Gloriana) court in Fairy Land while she is holding twelve-day festivals. On each day some distressed person appears before the queen and tells her a woeful story of some dragons, of enchantress, or of distressed beauty and asks her a knight to help the oppressed. The knights go out to venture and in each venture Arthur participates and helps the knight in need.
* Each knight is as planned by Spenser is the embodiment of virtue and the fighting is the fighting of Virtue against Vices.
* The first book describes the adventures of Red Cross knight represents Holiness, and the Lady Una, representing Religion.
* The second book tells the story of Sir Guyon or Temperance.
* The third of Britomartis, representing Chastity; the fourth, fifth and sixth of Cambel (Friendship), Artegall (Justice) and Sir Colidore (Courtesy) respectively.
* Spenser’s plan was very elastic and he filled up his narrative with everything – historical events and personages under political marks, beautiful ladies, giants, monsters, dragons, sirens, enchantress etc.
* There is the Elizabethan political historical religions element allegorized in this epic. In the first three books Faery Queen sometime represents the glory of God or Elizabeth. Britomartis sometimes is taken as Elizabeth. The Red Cross knight is Sidney. Arthur is Leicester; Una is sometimes religion and sometimes the Protestant Church; while Duessa represents Mary Queen of Scots or Catholicism. In the last three books Elizabeth appears as Mercill, and so on through the wide range of contemporary characters.
* Spenser uses a rich and voluptuous style. “The style has its weakness; it is diffuse and lacks judgment; it is weakling ‘bite’ and in sharpness of attack; and it is misty and unsubstantial. But for beauty long and richly wrought, for subtle and sustained melody, for graphic word-picture, and for depth and magical colour of atmosphere the poem stands supreme in English.”
* Spenser invents a new verse form for the ‘Faerie Queene’ which is known as the Spenserian stanza. This stanza is an improved form of Aristo’s ottava rima (eight-line stanza) and bears a close resemblance to Chaucer’s musical form in the ‘Monk’s Tale’. Spenserian stanza contains nine lines with the rhyming scheme ababbcbcc.