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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.
This introduction considers the issue of how much weight to give to autobiographical passages in the work of a sixteenth-century poet. Brink alludes to the expectation of his early patrons that Spenser would take holy orders and become a churchman and expresses scepticism about the idea that Spenser ever had an ambition to become a court poet.
This chapter surveys previous biographies by Alexander Grosart (1882–84), Alexander Judson (1945), and Andrew Hadfield (2012), re-examining the evidence concerning Spenser’s lineage and concludes that we know only that he was born in 1554. His father’s name and occupation are unknown – although conjectures that he was a journeyman merchant tailor have found their way into reference works. From an important manuscript source, the ‘Nowell Account Book’, Manchester, Chetham’s Library, MS A.6.50, we know that Spenser was the protégé of a circle of London clergymen, who expected him to take holy orders. This important documentary source details funds distributed from the estate of Robert Nowell, Attorney of the Queen’s Court of Wards, and brother of Alexander Nowell, Dean of St Paul’s. Spenser’s name does not appear in the admission records for Merchant Taylors’ School. We know that he attended Merchant Taylors’ School only because of bequests he received in the ‘Nowell Account Book’.
This chapter explains that the Elizabethan grammar school education, which Spenser and Shakespeare would have received, involved learning to read Latin texts in Latin and to engage in double translation, i.e., sophisticated exercises in translating from Latin to English and back again. Brink surveys the unusually liberal education that Spenser would have received at Merchant Taylors’ School and suggests that Richard Mulcaster influenced Spenser’s decision to write in English. Mulcaster forcefully advocated educating the lower classes and even supported educating women. In this chapter, the reader is introduced to the typological reading encouraged by studying Alexander Nowell’s Catechism. The reader is shown how typological reading is likely to have influenced Spenser’s symbolism in Book I of the Faerie Queene.
Chapter 3 describes the conflict at Cambridge between Thomas Cartwright, Lady Margaret lecturer in divinity, and John Whitgift, future Archbishop of Canterbury. Cartwright, a gifted lecturer, threatened the establishment by supporting the election of bishops on scriptural grounds. As an undergraduate, Spenser witnessed the ‘takeover’ by Whitgift and Andrew Perne, who ‘reformed’ the university statutes, making them more restrictive than they had been under Catholic Mary Tudor, to oust Cartwright. Heads of colleges had to approve degrees before they could be awarded. A spin-off from these conflicts affected Gabriel Harvey’s receipt of the M.A. in 1573. Since Spenser received the B.A. from Pembroke College in 1573, Harvey cannot have served as Spenser’s tutor. His M.A. was not awarded until after Spenser had graduated, and it required the intervention of John Young, Master of Pembroke College, for the degree to be awarded.
This chapter argues that, after leaving Cambridge, Spenser was employed in London from 1574 to 1578 by John Young, Master of Pembroke College. Previously, it has been assumed that he was employed by Young only after he became Bishop of Rochester in 1578. The only source for the assumption that Spenser was the ‘secretary’ to an Elizabethan bishop is a note written inside the book that Spenser gave Gabriel Harvey for Christmas in 1578. During Spenser’s sojourn in London, he met his future wife, became disillusioned with the Church of England, and decided against taking holy orders. A re-examination of topical satire in the ecclesiastical eclogues shows that Spenser attacked John Aylmer, Bishop of London, for selling timber on church lands to enrich his offspring. This satire in the Shepheardes Calender, later echoed in the Marprelate tracts, indicates that Spenser no longer planned to take holy orders. In an eclogue such as Maye, Spenser has been identified as a Puritan, Church of England Protestant, and even a Catholic. In the ecclesiastical eclogues, he deliberately uses a dialogic structure to conceal his religious persuasion.
A principal contribution of this revisionary biography is that Gabriel Harvey’s relationship with Edmund Spenser is fully contextualized. This is the first close reading of Gabriel Harvey’s Gratulationes Valdinenses (1578), a work he intended to serve as his Shepheardes Calender. Harvey reprinted a number of poems by members of the Leicester circle, but nothing written by Edmund Spenser, suggesting that Spenser and Harvey were not especially close friends in 1578. In the tributes to Elizabeth and Leicester, he rejoices at the queen’s letting him kiss her hand and to the suggestion that he will be sent to Italy. He gloats about the queen’s comment that he already looks Italian (vultu Itali). In Book Four, he addresses a series of eulogies to Sir Christopher Hatton, the Earl of Oxford, and Sir Philip Sidney. In the eulogy to Philip Sidney, Harvey proclaims, ‘Sum iecur’ [I am all liver], a proclamation that suggests that he is consumed with lust for Sidney. The phrase ‘cogit amare iecur’ [the liver knows how to love] becomes a refrain in later satiric treatments of Harvey beginning with Pedantius (1581). Harvey’s own Gratulationes Valdinenses is the source for those taunts.
The early Spenser, once he decided not to take holy orders, fully subscribed to the early modern chivalric code as it was practiSed by Sir Henry and Sir Philip Sidney. Little has previously been said about Sir Henry Sidney, but Brink shows that he and Lady Mary were likely to have been in London at Baynard’s Castle or Leicester House while Sir Henry attended Privy Council meetings. Also, it remained a possibility that he would again be sent to Ireland with Philip Sidney as his deputy until February 1600. The literary evidence of contact between Spenser and the Sidneys consists principally of commendatory poems, but in this chapter Brink shows that Lodowick Bryskett, a close friend of Spenser’s in Ireland, was resident in London from 1579 to 1581. Earlier Bryskett accompanied Philip Sidney on his Grand Tour, and, as Sir Henry’s protégé, held the position of Clerk of the Council in Ireland. Bryskett, thus, was a connecting link for Spenser, the Sidneys, and Ireland.
Chapter 7 contextualizes the relationship between events occurring in 1579–780, such as the publication of John Stubbs’s Gaping Gulf and the Shepheardes Calender. This political discussion serves as the background for close readings of the Aprill and November eclogues. Spenser’s Aprill has been described as an early offering in the cult of Elizabeth, but he undercuts his eulogy to Elizabeth in Aprill by ironic mythological references to Niobe. Rather than making use of the story of Astraea, the just maid, who ushers in a golden age, Spenser turns his back on the symbolism that would identify Elizabeth with Augustus and a golden age. In a close reading of the November eclogue, using Vergil’s Eclogues, Brink shows that this eclogue, like Virgil’s elegy on Julius Caesar, points to the possibility that Elizabeth’s death will lead to civil war. The November eclogue, instead of triumphantly commemorating Elizabeth’s accession to the throne on 17 November, becomes a dirge.
Chapter 8 revisits the issue of E.K.’s identity and shows that Harvey was
involved in preparing E.K.’s Gloss to the Shepheardes Calender. The Gloss
introduces biographical details about Harvey’s life that Spenser by himself
could not have supplied. On these grounds, Brink suggests that Harvey
supplied the Gloss to Spenser, but that Spenser edited it and so assumed
editorial control over the text. This textual analysis is supported by the
bibliographical fact that the Gloss supplies annotations for references
later cut from the text.
Brink thinks that the combination of homosexual references in the text of the Shepheardes Calender and the discussion of pederasty in the Gloss makes Harvey’s participation all the more likely. Brink suggests the possibility that Spenser insisted on his anonymity in the text of the Shepheardes Calender and references to it because he wanted to prevent reprisals against Bishop John Young. After reviewing the joking interchanges in Latin between Harvey and Immerito in Familiar Letters, Brink suggests that it seems likely that, whatever fictional identity Rosalind has in the Shepheardes Calender, his personal romance ended happily with his marriage to Machabyas Chylde.