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This article is taken from PN Review 185, Volume 35 Number 3, January - February 2009.

Reading Spenser Andrew Hadfield

Edmund Spenser (1552?-99) is arguably the most influential and innovative poet who ever wrote in English. In an astonishing publishing career of seventeen years Spenser transformed the range, nature and potential of English letters. He produced three new versions of the pastoral (The Calender, Colin Clouts come home againe, Virgils Gnat); a beast fable (Mother Hubberds Tale); a sequence of secular and sacred hymns (The Fowre Hymns); a sonnet sequence and other collections of sonnets(The Amoretti, Visions of the Worlds Vanitie, The Ruins of Rome, The Visions of Petrarch); a dream vision (The Ruines of Time); elegies (Daphn├Ąda, Astrophel); an epyllion (little epic) (Muiopotmos); a lament (Teares of the Muses); a marriage hymn (The Epithalamion); an epideictic poem (Prothalamion); a collection of Complaints; and a new form of epic-romance, The Faerie Queene. Ben Jonson famously commented to William Drummond that Spenser 'in affecting the Ancients, writ no Language', a comment which gives us an idea of what a dominant anomaly he seemed to his contemporaries, and that we should see him as a forcefully experimental poet eager to transform the landscape of English poetry. It is more than a little ironic, then, that Spenser has most frequently been regarded as a conservative figure, a slavish adherent of the queen's court, or as Karl Marx rather more colourfully put it, 'Elizabeth's arse-kissing poet'.

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