very much not a toady


In 1591 Spenser was granted a pension of £50 a year by Queen Elizabeth. This was around three times the annual income of many schoolmasters. After his death in 1599 he was regularly described as England’s ‘arch-poet’ or ‘the prince of poets’. His body was interred next to Chaucer’s tomb in Westminster Abbey. The Faerie Queene had a formative influence on Milton, Wordsworth, and Keats, and was read throughout the eighteenth century, when it played a central part in the Gothic revival. Nonetheless Spenser is now high on the list of great poets that nobody reads. Just about the only thing that Karl Marx had in common with Philip Larkin was a loathing for Spenser. Marx described him as ‘Elizabeth’s arse-kissing poet’. Larkin as an undergraduate wrote: ‘Now I know that the Faerie Queene is the dullest thing out. Blast it.’ The history of Spenser scholarship suggests that Larkin and Marx are not alone. Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Jonson are treated to biographies every few years – or every few minutes, it seems, in the case of Shakespeare – but the last major biography of Spenser appeared in 1945. Earlier biographies of the poet did him no favours: they suggested that he was a servile panegyrist of Elizabeth, while also accepting the myth that sprang up shortly after Spenser’s death, which presented him as unfairly neglected by his contemporaries and by the Crown. Was Spenser really that most unappealing of creatures, a neglected toady?

more from Colin Burrow at Literary Review here.