The early Spenser, 1554–80

‘Minde on honour fixed’

This revisionary biographical study documents that Spenser was the protégé of a circle of churchmen who expected him to take holy orders, but between 1574, when he left Pembroke College, and 1579, when he published the Shepheardes Calender, he decided against a career in the church. At Pembroke College and in London, Spenser watched the Elizabethan establishment crack down on independent thinking. The sequestration of Edmund Grindal was a watershed event in his early life, as was his encounter with Philip Sidney, the dedicatee of to the Shepheardes Calender. Once Spenser exchanged the role of shepherd-priest for that of shepherd-poet, he understood that his role was not just to celebrate the victories of Protestant England over the Spanish empire, immortalize in verse the virtues of Gloriana’s knights, but also to ‘fashion a noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline’. The received biography of the early Spenser emphasizes Gabriel Harvey, who is reported to have been Spenser’s tutor. Brink shows that Harvey could not have been Spenser’s tutor and argues that Harvey published Familiar Letters (1580) to promote his ambition to be named University Orator at Cambridge. Brink shows that Spenser had already received preferment. His life is contextualized by comparisons with contemporaries including Philip Sidney, Lodowick Bryskett, Shakespeare, and Sir Walter Ralegh. Brink’s provocative study, based upon a critical re-evaluation of manuscript and printed sources, emphasizes Philip Sidney over Harvey and shows that Spenser’s appointment as secretary to Lord Grey was a preferment celebrated even years later by Camden.

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