Stories from Old English Poetry/Spenser

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EDMUND SPENSER, the author of “The Faery Queen,” was born somewhere in the shadow of the Tower of London, in the year 1553, when Queen Elizabeth was mistress of the English throne. Whether he was of “good blood,” as the genealogists would call it, we do not know. His veins ran blood refined by pure poetic fires, and that is enough for us who love him.

Like most poets, he was poor. And he lived in days when his verses would not bring him an income. Then the poet was forced to seek some wealthy patron, who would keep him, as he kept a fine horse or a rare breed of dog, and throw him some crumbs of preferment, or a purse of gold, now and then, so that the poor verse-maker might not starve over his work.

Fortunately, when young Edmund Spenser came to court to seek its favor, he was introduced first to that rare gentleman, himself a poet, Sir Philip Sidney, the very sound of whose name is as music in the ears of those who honor chivalrous manhood 

Sidney aided him with money and influence, and brought him into the notice of his uncle, the Earl of Leicester, who was the favorite knight of the capricious Queen. But Leicester was not so fine a gentleman as Sidney, and I fancy that the change of patrons did not benefit our poet. He read some of his verses to the Queen, and he was long a hanger-on at the court. If his own lines may be trusted, he tasted to its bitter dregs the cup of servility and waiting for favors, and came to hate the very name of court and patron.

After a long time he went to Ireland as secretary to the lord-deputy, and soon after this he had a grant of land in Ireland made him by the Queen, and a castle given him for his dwelling-place. This land of which he had a share was part of a grant made by the crown to Sir Walter Raleigh, in his days of prosperity, and I always like to believe that Raleigh himself was interested in apportioning the poet with some of these broad acres. I remember Raleigh once visited him there on his estates, where he lived with his wife and children, and that there, by the little River Mulla, which flowed through his fields, these two rare spirits held sweet converse, and Spenser read aloud to his friend some extracts from “The Faery Queen.”

These were his peaceful days. They were not long, for in one of the insurrections of the ignorant and barbarous peasantry, who were constantly putting the English residents (whom they hated then, as now) to the fire and sword, they swept down upon the poet’s castle, burnt and ravaged it, and drove out the inhabitants. In the haste and fear of the attack, a new-born baby was left in the castle, and perished in the flames.

This was too great unhappiness to be borne; and coming to his native city of London, the poet died, three months later, poor and broken-hearted, when hardly forty-eight years old.

His poem of poems is “The Faery Queen,” written in a measure which has ever since been called “Spenserian.” By those who do not know its charm, the poem is called “stiff, pedantic, and unreadable.” But there are those who find in its pages a subtle and pervading atmosphere like that which encompasses the Bower of Bliss, or breathes from the enchanted gardens of Amida; which throws the same spell over the maturer imagination that the quaint yet unequaled allegory of old John Bunyan still hold over the brains of childhood.

To the tender judgment of those who know the poet, and, knowing, love him, the little story which follows is intrusted.