Page images
PDF
EPUB

fame.” It was allied with that of Sir John Spencer of Althorpe, whose descendants, justly proud as they may be of the trophies of Marlborough, are exhorted by Gibbon “to consider the Fairy Queen as the brightest jewel in their coronet." Certain ladies of this house, to whom their now illustrious kinsman dedicated some of his smaller poems, willingly acknowledged "bands of affinity "; 1 but the degree of relationship in which the parties stood has not been ascertained. Some light has been recently thrown on the general subject by Mr. F. C. Spenser of Halifax, Lancashire. In an interesting communication to the Gentleman's Magazine (August, 1842,) he has shown it to be highly probable, that the branch of the Spensers from which the poet was derived was that of the Le Spensers, subsequently Spensers, of Hurstwood, near Burnley, in Lancashire. The evidence on which the poet's connections are assigned to this locality is, principally, the well-known fact that Spenser had relations in the North of England, the remarkable frequency with which the names Edmund and Lawrence (the name of the poet's second son) occur for two centuries among the Spensers in the neighborhood of Burnley, and the circumstance that the Lancashire Spensers spelt their name with an s, while that of the Althorpe family was always spelt with a c.2

Of the education of Spenser it is simply known that he was admitted at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, as a sizar, on the 20th of May, 1569; that he pro

1 See the dedicatory epistles, Vol. V. pp. 42, 97, 171.

2 See Gent. Mag., Aug. 1842, pp. 138 – 143. Craik's Spenser and his Poetry, I. 9-13.

ceeded to the degree of Bachelor of Arts in January, 1573, and to that of Master of Arts in June, 1576. While at the University, he made the acquaintance of Gabriel Harvey, a man of considerable heavy learning, conceited, and irascible, but withal honest and kind. Harvey long resided at Cambridge as Fellow, and writing in 1580 of some abuses then prevailing there, he complains in strong terms of a person whom he styles his friend's "old controller," adding, that "in other respects affairs go on very much as before, continual war being kept up between the heads and the members.” 1 These obscure phrases Todd conceives to authorize the deduction, “that some disappointment had occurred in regard to Spenser's academical views, and that some disagreement had taken place between him and the master or tutor of the society”; a conjecture which rests on grounds so slight as not to admit of discussion.

The year in which Spenser entered the University is perhaps also marked by his first appearance before the world as a writer of verse. Towards the end of 1569 was published a work entitled, “A Theatre wherein be represented as wel the miseries and calamities that follow the voluptuous Worldlings, as also the great joyes and plesures which the faithfull do enjoy. . Devised by S. John van der Noodt.” This book begins with six Epigrams which are substantially the same as six of the Visions of Petrarch, printed among the “Complaints," in 1591, as Spenser's genuine compositions and there said to have been “formerly translated”), and these are followed by fifteen translations in blank verse of Sonnets by Bellay, eleven of which appear again in the Complaints, with only such changes as the introduction of rhyme required. The Theatre for Worldlings makes no mention of Spenser's having taken part in the work; on the contrary, both the Epigrams and the Visions are stated to be translated from the Dutch into English by Theodore Roest. If this circumstance, taken in conjunction with his unripe age, should dispose the reader to doubt whether he had anything to with either the earlier or the later version of these poems, it may be remarked, on the other hand, that Spenser's having furnished two new poems to the volume shows that the Complaints could hardly have been published without his knowledge and sanction ; that the Visions in question are in the same style as other compositions which have never been denied to be his; and that the Visions of Petrarch were rendered, not immediately from the Italian, but (as may be perceived on comparison) from the French of Marot, who was a favorite author with our poet in his youth.

1 " Cætera fere ut olim: Bellum inter capita et membra continucha tim. Topu.

At some time after leaving Cambridge, Spenser went to reside in the North of England, it may be with relations in Lancashire, and it was among the hills of this romantic region, perhaps, that he fell in love with that Rosalind whose ill usage he bewails in one of his earliest, and retaliates in one of his latest songs.?

1 Such at least seems to be the most natural interpretation of the Sixth Eclogue in the Shepherds' Calendar.

2 The Shepherds' Calendar and the Sixth Book of the Fairy Queen.

2

The real name of this proud young lady has been concealed from us. Aubrey says she was a kinswoman of the wife of Sir Erasmus Dryden, grandfather of John Dryden. She is described by the commentator on the Shepherds' Calendar as a gentle woman of no mean house, and endowed with uncommon gifts both of nature and manners; and in the Fairy Queen (where she is undoubtedly intended by Mirabel) her beauty is highly extolled, and her po sition is represented to be one of honor and dignity, though her parentage was humble. From the North Spenser was recalled by Gabriel Harvey, who seems to have had an eye for his interest, and to have informed him of a chance of preferment; 4 and early in 1579 we find him residing in Kent, very probably at Penshurst, for before the end of the year he had entered into the service of the Earl of Leicester. This last fact we derive from a letter written by Spenser to Harvey from Leicester House, on the 16th of October, 1579. He was at that time ex pecting to go to France and Italy on business of the Earl, who was, he says, to provide principally for his maintenance, and in whose concerns he was to employ “time, body, and mind," and the letter includes a long piece of Latin verse addressed to Harvey by way of farewell. With Philip Sidney he was now on terms of some familiarity, and there was an engagement between them to exchange letters while he should be abroad. There is one remarkable expression in the course of this letter, which, understood loosely, would lead us to believe that Spenser had even been already presented to the Queen. "Your desire,” he says, “to know of my late being with her Majesty must die in itself.” But the most that these words will really warrant is, that he had at some time been employed as Leicester's agent on confidential business with Elizabeth. Had the business not been of this character, there was no reason for making a mystery of the circumstance, and that a formal presentation at court is not intended requires no argument, for that would have been announced with something of the same flourish with which so notable an event is celebrated in “ Colin Clout's come Home again.”

i Sir Erasmus married Frances Wilkes of Hodnel, Warwickshire. An Edmund Spenser is known to have been living, in 1569, at Kingsbury, in the same county, and it is not unplausible that the poet may have made the acquaintance of Rosalind while on a visit to this namesake.

2 E. K.'s Gloss to v. 26, Ecl. IV. 3 Book VI. vii. 28. 4 Gloss to v. 18, Ecl. VI. Shep. Cal. 5 Gloss to y. 21, Ibid. 6 See the letter, Vol. V. p. 381.

The Shepherds' Calendar had been now perhaps a long time completed. An officious friend, whose name still remains concealed under the initials E. K., had.

1 As Spenser is known to have been on intimate terms with a Mrs. Kerke, that name has been suggested for his editor. Another hypothesis is that E. K. and the poet were the same person. But to say nothing of the meanness of a man's praising himself under a disguise, we should be sorry to think Spenser capable of the pedantry and folly which the comments of E. K. display. Those who do not stick at such an admission may, however, be unwilling to grant that he did not understand himself; that he could have explained astart," befall unawares"; entrailed," wrought between"; forswatt, "sunburnt.” E. K. professes, indeed, to have been in Spenser's confidence, and “privy to his secret meaning"; but he has told us very little that we could not have guessed without his help, while he has left much unexplained that we should like to know.

« PreviousContinue »