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(4) Edmund Spenser (1552 - 1599)

Life and Career

- unlike his contemporary courtier poets Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Philip Sidney, or Sir Walter Raleigh was born to parents of modest means and status, nonetheless received an impressive university education

- in his youth influenced by Puritanism (radical Protestantism), remained Protestant all his life, and portrayed the Roman Catholic church as a demonic villain in The Faerie Queene

- failed to obtain an office in England, spent the latter part of his life in Ireland, holding various minor government posts and hence participating actively in the English struggle against Irish rebels

> A View of the Present Sate of Ireland (posthumously, 1633): originally an anonymously published apology for the repressive English regime, proclaims the superiority of modern English government over the older patterns of Irish clan loyalty

- the publication of The Faerie Queene won him the queen's favour and patronage, on which he shortly revisited London, but eventually returned to Ireland

> Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595): a comment on his visit to the court, an allegorical pastoral celebrating the shepherdess Cynthia (identified with the Queen), but allowing for inconsistencies of the court he abandoned

- during an uprising in Munster in 1598 Irish rebels burnt down his house and forced him to flee to England, where he died shortly afterwards

Poetic Style

- experiments with forms, metres, and rhyme schemes:

> introduces a novel form with a special rhyme scheme, the Spenserian sonnet, i.e. three quatrains and a couplet rhyming abab bcbc cdcd ee, in Amoretti

> invents the Spenserian stanza, a nine-line stanza of closely interlocking rhymes ababbcbcc, the first five lines in iambic pentametre and the sixth line in iambic hexametre or alexandrine, introduced in The Faerie Queene

> adapts the Italian canzone forms in Epithalamion and Prothalamion

- uses idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation, spells words variably so as to suggest eye rhymes or etymologies (though often incorrect ones)

- defies classification into neat categories: celebrates physical beauty, yet also analyses the aspects of good and evil; creates sensuous images, but is suspicious of the power of images to turn into idols; admires courtesy, gentleness, and moral refinement, but also celebrates English nationalism, empire, and martial power

> as an epic poet-prophet greatly influenced e.g. John Milton and the later generation of Romantics

Major Works

> The Shepheardes Calender (1579):

- follows the influential classical form of pastoral poetry, practised e.g. by the Alexandrian poet Theocritus (3rd century BC) and the Roman poet Virgil (1st century BC), based on the idea of shepherds living in harmony with nature, piping on their flutes and singing songs among their herds

- contains twelve eclogues titled for the months of the year, each prefaced by an illustrative woodcut representing the characters or theme of the poem and picturing the appropriate sign of the zodiac for the month

- dedicated to his friend P. Sidney, who however disapproved of its poetic style

- uses a deliberately archaic language, partly in homage to his favourite Chaucer, partly to achieve the rustic effect

- attempts to conjure a native English style which could be wed to the classical mode of the pastoral

- experiments with metre: uses thirteen different metres, some of them invented, some adapted, most of them novel


> The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596):

- in 1590 published the first three books, in 1596 changed the ending of Book 3 to provide a bridge for the next three books, the fragment of a seventh book known as "Mutabilitie Cantos" was published posthumously

- originally conceived as a vast poem in twelve books, each of them describing several adventures undertaken by knights and knightly dames in honour of the twelve days of the annual feast of Gloriana (identified with the Queen)

- dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I who serves as the the ultimate focus of each of the knightly quests and whose qualities inspire the complex exposition of moral virtue pursued as the poem develops towards its intended climax

- Elizabeth features in the poem under various names, including queen Gloriana, the female knight Britomart, etc.

- legitimises the modern political settlement by claiming the British to be descents of Trojans, according to the legend that Britain was established by Brutus, the leader of a group of refugees from the fall of Troy

- follows the ancient epic tradition of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, and later Italian examples of chivalry revived in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (Orlando Mad, 1532) and Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered, 1581)

- also acknowledges the influence of Chaucer, makes direct reference to Chaucer's allegory The Parlement of Foules in Book VI, and derives his description of forest trees in Book I from the same poem

- explains the "darke conceit" of the poem in the prefatory letter addressed to W. Raleigh, hints at some of the allegorical constructions existing parallelly to the literary meaning: historical, moral, mystical, socio-political, etc.

- the characters and adventures in each of the books enact or embody particular virtues and vices, together the individual positive moral qualities constitute an ideal human being

> in Book I, the Redcrosse Knight is the knight of Holiness; in Book II, Sir Guyon is the knight of Temperance; and in Book III, the female knight Britomart is the knight of Chastity, i.e. chaste love leading to marriage

> the heroes in the following three books represent Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy respectively; the seventh book would have dealt with Constancy

- the confident optimism of the first three books contrasts to the increasing sense of things falling apart in the second three books, the unfinished seventh book challenges the timelessness of Gloriana's rule by the force of inexorable change

> Amoretti (1595):

- a series of love sonnets readjusting the Petrarchan model by seeing the mistress not as an unattainable object of perfection, but as a creature reflecting and sometimes clouding the glory of her Divine Creator

> Epithalamion (1595) and Prothalamion (1596):

- wedding hymns, i.e. originally songs or poems sung outside the bride's chamber on her wedding night, re-enacting the ceremonial and festivities of a marriage

- may be seen as the climatic celebration of the courtship pursued in the sonnets of Amoretti

Základní údaje

  • Předmět

    Britská literatura 3.
  • Semestr

    Zimní semestr 2008/09.
  • Přednášející

    David Livingstone.
  • Status

    Povinná přednáška pro III. blok.


Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999.

Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. New York: Clarendon Press, 1994.


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