The early Spenser, 1554–80

‘Minde on honour fixed’

Author: Jean R. Brink

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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‘In what is arguably the most important contribution to Spenser studies since Andrew Hadfield’s landmark biography, Jean Brink has rendered a superb service to the field, filling in blanks in the poet’s life and opening up fresh lines of inquiry for future scholars. Brink’s account of the 1560s and 1570s is exemplary in its scholarly scrupulousness. A sustained analysis of Spenser’s schooldays and undergraduate experiences, a meticulous reading of The Shepheardes Calender and a firm putting of Gabriel Harvey in his proper, if less witty and familiar place are just some of the highlights of this splendid monograph. It is a work that is sure to be of lasting impact. Brink is less interested in Spenser’s access to Ireland prior to 1580 than some of her readers will be, but she opens a gateway into the poet’s early encounter with that country that her counterparts have yet to fully explore ... We speak nowadays of ‘research monographs’ when we really mean simply book-length arguments. The Early Spenser really is a research monograph. It reads like a volume that was pieced together over decades rather than years and for that reason it is certain to be a work of enduring criticism.’
Willy Maley, The Spenser Review
July 2020

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