From The Short Cambridge History of English Literature, by George Sampson (1972 ed.).
After a lapse of almost two centuries we reach the first English major poet since Chaucer. Edmund Spenser (1552-99) was born in London, and was related to the great family of his name. At Cambridge he not only wrote his earliest sonnets, but came under three profound influences. The first was his frienship with Gabriel Harvey, a powerful and controversial scholar, to whom justice has yet to be done. The second was the refined and cultured "Puritanism", which, like that of Milton, was a revolt from coarseness and materialism in life and in religion. The third was the study of Platonic philosophy—not the Christianized neo-Platonism of the Reformers, but the pure Platonism of the Timaeus and the Symposium. To the imagination of Spenser this proved exceedingly congenial, and confirmed him in his allegorical habit of conception and expression. His early Hymnes, the first in honour of Love, the second in honour of Beautie, though not published till 1596 (Foure Hymnes made by Edm. Spenser), were inspired by his first experience of love, and written in the spirit of Plato.
He was brought by Harvey into the service of the Earl of Leicester, and met Philip Sidney, whose ardent imagination and lofty spirit greatly stimulated him. After toying, under Harvey's influence, with the possibilities of using in English a system of quantitative prosody (that ignis fatuus of English poets) he began to consider the forms in which he could express himself most naturally, and he turned instinctively to the pastoral and the romance, with their stock figures, the shepherd and the knight. The pastoral, as we have seen, was a popular form, offering an abundance of models. The extent of Spenser's debt to any of these is not really important. All that matters in a poem is what it is, not what it may have come from. Upon the "XII Aeglogues proportioned to. . . the XII monethes" forming The Shepheards Calendar (1579) the impress of a creative, originating poetic genius is clearly discernible. The book was dedicated to Sidney, who praised it highly, but objected, rather pedantically, to one of its greatest charms, namely "the olde rusticke language". Sidney, a typical figure of the Renascence, disliked Spenser's archaism, not in itself, but because it was unwarranted by classical originals. This kind of criticism was to have a long run. A more serious objection would have been that the pastoral, as Spenser wrote it, was a literary exercise with little hold on life. Spenser uses all varieties of the form, amatory, moral, religious, courtly, rustic, lyric, elegiac, and shows himself at once master of an old convention and herald of a new spirit in poetry. His language was deliberately archaic. Ben Jonson said that Spenser, in affecting the obsolete, "writ no language". The answer is that Spenser used the language in which Spenser could write. Every true poet creates his own idiom. What The Shepheards Calendar clearly reveals is the arrival of a great poet-musician, who excelled all his predecessors in a sense of the capacity of the English language for harmonious combinations of sound. To turn from the flatness of [George Gascoigne's] The Steele Glas to The Shepheardes Calendar is to pass from honest and well-meant effort into a new world of absolute mastery.
From the pastoral Spenser proceeded naturally to romance. In 1580 he went to Ireland as secretary to the Lord Deputy, and there at Kilcolman Castle he continued his Faerie Queene, the first three books of which were published in 1590 on his return to England. As, in any creative sense, the poem shows no progress, but is at the end what it was in the beginning, some consideration of it may be given at once. The poem, as planned in twelve books, was never completed. Spenser himself has clearly stated his own intentions in the prefatory letter addressed to Ralegh, and to this the reader is referred. Like other great poets he felt himself called to teach; and desiring to set forth a picture of a perfect knight, he chose King Arthur as hero, rather than any person of his own time. Further, he desired to glorify his own dear country and its "most royal Queen". In much of his intention he was successful, but he was not completely successful. Spenser failed because he refused to follow his natural instinct for allegory and romance, the forms that most readily released his creative powers—in The Allegory of Love (1936) C. S. Lewis traced their history from Le Roman de la Rose—but turned aside to be instructive, and, in seeking to make the allegory edifying, forgot to tell the story. But if an allegory does not survive as a story, it does not survive as an allegory. The Pilgrim's Progress [by John Bunyan] is, first of all, an excellent story; The Faerie Queene is not. Like every great poem, The Faerie Queene is entitled to its own imaginative life; but it must continue to be true to that life. Spenser, to use a common phrase, lets us down, when we are left wondering whether the false Duessa is a poetical character, or Theological Falsehood, or Mary Queen of Scots. He tried to do too many things at once; and, in elaborating intellectually the allegorical plot he has confused the imaginative substance of the poetic narrative. Homer, says Aristotle, tells lies as he ought; that is, he makes us believe his stories. Spenser tried to tell his lies while clingling to a disabling kind of truth; and so he does not convince his readers. Thus it is neither as an allegorist not as a narrator that the author of The Faeire Queene holds his place. He lives us an exquisite word-painter of widely differing scenes, and as supreme poet-musician using with unrivalled skill a noble stanza of his own invention, unparalleled in any other language.
As the years advanced, Spenser seems to have felt that his conception of chivalry had little correspondence with the facts of life. Sidnay was dead, and his own hopes of preferment were frustrated. In 1591 a volume of his collected poems was published with the significant title Complaints, including such works as The Rines of Time, The Teares of the Muses and Prosopopoia or Mother Hubberd's Tale, in which the Ape and the Fox serve to satirize the customs of the court. In 1591 he returned to his exile in Ireland, and there, in the form of an allegorical pastoral, called Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595), he gave expression to his views about the general state of manners and poetry. In his Prothalamion, and still more, in his Epithalamion, he carries his lyrical style, first attempted in The Shepheards Calendar, to an unequalled height of harmony, splendour and enthusiasm. In 1595, he again came over to England, bringing with him the second part of The Farie Queene, which was licensed for publication in January 1595-6. Finding still no place at court, he returned to Ireland in 1597; but, in a rising, Kilcolman Castle was taken and burned, and Spenser barely escaped with his life. His spirit was broken, and after suffering the afflictions of poverty, he died in January 1599. His posthumous prose dialogue, A Veue of the Present State of Ireland, written in 1596, is discussed in a later chapter. Spenser is the poets' poet, and his greatness cannot be diminished by the jeers of the tough-minded who find his poetic music and his poetic virtue too delicate for their manly taste.
Spenser is the true father of the Elizabethan sonnet. He first appeared as a poet with the twenty-six youthful sonnets of 1569. His indebtedness to Du Bellay is declared in the title of one group of sonnets, The Visions of Bellay. Another set, The Visions of Petrarch, he translates from Marot. These and the other sonnets of Spenser in Amoretti (1595) have his characteristic sweetness of versification. Spenser, it should be noted, uses the English and not the Italian form of the sonnet. Two of the sonnets in the Amoretti refer to the Platonic "Idea" of beauty which outshines any mortal embodiment. The "Idea", found also in numerous French writers, became a theme of later English sonnets, especially those of Drayton (...).