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I. EDMUND SPENSER
EDMUND SPENSER, greatest of the Elizabethan poets except Shakspere, was the earliest of that astonishing number of men of genius who made Queen Elizabeth's reign famous in literature. During his lifetime England came to a knowledge of her power on the sea, and her opportunities in the new world. In literature, also, a spirit of national pride and enterprise, as well as awakened curiosity, led Englishmen to master the native literature of France and Italy, which in turn had been stimulated by Italy's new knowledge of the classics, and to pour these intellectual conquests into English literature through translations and imitations. The effect was to excite men's imaginations, and to give to books a vitality for the average man such as they have never had before or since. This awakening of interest in human life, and in books as the storehouses of that life, extended throughout Europe, and is known as the Renaissance.
The period of the Renaissance was a transition, during which medieval thought became modern. In English literature almost all the steps in this change are to be found within the limits of Queen Elizabeth's reign. For this reason, some poets whose lives practically coincided in point of time, differed widely in the character of their writings, according as their genius was in sympathy with the old, vanishing world of thought, or with the newer outlook. We think of
Shakspere and Bacon as the leaders of this modern Elizabethan thought; the chief representative of the mediæval strain is Spenser. In one sense he was indeed thoroughly a man of his time: no Englishman in those fortunate days had brighter hopes of his country's destiny, or was prouder of its accomplishments and of its great men; and certainly no Englishman ever paid his sovereign such a tribute as Spenser did in the 'Faerie Queene.' But he had a genius for the past. He loved old books, old legends, and, most of all, the old standards of chivalry, in comparison with which the knighthood of his own time could not but seem degenerate. Just as Sir Walter Scott filled his mind with the past of Scotland, and made it live again in his · romances, so Spenser recovered in himself the much larger past of European culture, and preserved it for us in the 'Faerie Queene. This is his significance, and we should begin any study of him with this in mind.
Spenser was born in London, probably in 1552. His father was a cloth-maker; of his mother we know only that her name was Elizabeth. As a boy Spenser was sent to the merchant tailors' school, which had recently been founded by his father's guild. Here he received a scholarship from a bequest made by Robert Nowell, a distant connection of the Spenser family. The boy was a good student from the first, and he was always fortunate in his teachers. Under the care of the headmaster, Richard Mulcaster, a remarkable educator, he progressed rapidly in that wide reading and scholarly accomplishment which places him with Milton and Gray, as the most learned of English poets. Before he left the school he made some translations from French and Italian poetry, and the verses were published in London.