Early Modern British Literature: Edmund Spenser and John Milton
Edmund Spenser and John Milton lived in an era of epic literature, with many of the themes and values espoused in their works a reflection of religious and political turmoil. Debates between Christian sects and the idea of Divine Right were common in the British political discourse.
Edmund Spenser was born in London. His date of birth is contested, but is put somewhere around 1552. Though Spenser does have some recorded ancestry, his immediate familial origins are unclear. He himself claimed lineage with the Spensers of Althorp (Hadfield, ODNB). In life, Spenser was a poet and administrator of Ireland. He attended Merchants Taylors’ school and then Cambridge University– specifically Pembroke College– until 1569 (Hadfield, ODNB).
Spenser was married to Maccabaeus Childe at St Margaret's on October 27th 1579. The couple would have two children before Maccabaeus died. In 1594 Spenser remarried to Elizabeth Boyle, and they had one child together. Spenser was appointed commissioner in Ireland in 1583, then prependary of Effin in 1585. In 1598, Spenser was appointed Sheriff of County Cork, Ireland, perhaps due to the lands under threat from O'Neill's forces (Hadfield, ODNB). Edmund Spenser died January 13, 1599, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, near Chaucer– the corner that would soon become known as the Poets Corner (Hadfield, ODNB).
Spenser’s works include The Shepheardes Calender, Complaints, and The Faerie Queene.
The Faerie Queene
“O let me not (quoth he) then turne againe
Backe to the world, whose joyes so fruitlesse are;
But let me here for aye in peace remaine,
Or streight way on that last long voyage fare,
That nothing may my present hope empare.”
(Spenser 1609, I.x.63)
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser has a unique place in British literary history. This text represents a period in which writers were attempting to consolidate the new technology of printmaking with the old ways of oral storytelling (Bates 2010, 134).
The Faerie Queene is divided into six fully written books, and– after his death in 1599– two unfinished cantos were added to the work that is pictured above. Each of these books is separated into their own cantos, and those cantos separated further into short, numbered sections.
The Faerie Queene’s story is an exploration of political, social, and religious commentary that was intended to be used by as many people as possible to spread the messages and morals that Spenser believed the world should be aware of (Wall 1983, 145). Set in Arthurian lore, the work draws off the belief that the Tudors were the descendants of King Arthur, and thus any political commentary can be seen through its setting (Craig 1972, 522).
Additionally, Spenser plays with ‘ideal’ and ‘reality’ in an attempt to showcase his belief that the ideal world is a non-secular, Christian community, where every action is a part of bettering the whole (Craig 1972, 532). Spenser was also attempting to teach those who read his work how to read properly, critically, and in a Godly way– a very important aspect of the political and social landscape at the time (Bates 2010, 140).
The version of The Faerie Queene pictured above shows handwritten notes that are annotating the text for such things as ‘proverbs’ and the names of characters. Despite Spenser’s story being limited to those who could read, at least this version of his work was used as he intended it to be.
- Lucas Blackwood
John Milton was a seventeenth-century English poet and scholar. He held multiple governmental positions under the Commonwealth of England and later Oliver Cromwell (Campbell, ODNB). Born in London on 9 December 1608, Milton grew up in an upper-class household.
As a child, Milton’s family provided him with an education that eventually led him to attend Christ’s College, Cambridge. After Milton graduated, he obtained a Master of Arts Degree. After Milton’s college years, he took a much larger interest in writing. Around this time, Milton also became much more politically active. Milton believed in a radical form of Puritanism that believed fully in the Bible but also believed deeply in ideas such as freedom.
He is best known for writing the epic Paradise Lost, a poem that tells the story of the “Fall of Man” from the Book of Genesis. Many scholars to this day consider Milton’s epic one of the greatest literary works ever.
“Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
brought death into the world, and all our woe.” (Paradise Lost, Book 1)
This quote is interesting because, while it sets the scene up for the start of the narrative, it also provides the context in which John Milton wrote Paradise Lost. Many intellectuals, such as Milton, had much to reconcile with vast instability. In Milton’s lifetime, he witnessed Civil Wars, the debate over Divine Right, and the execution of a king (some scholars even believe Milton personally witnessed the beheading of Charles I). Some scholars argue that Milton likely could only interpret these chaotic times as signs of the imminent destruction of the world and the second coming of Jesus Christ. It was ideas like this that greatly influenced Milton (Hackenbracht).
Paradise Lost Engravings
The engravings in this edition of Paradise Lost were the first illustrations to be included in a Paradise Lost edition. The illustrations, by John Baptiste de Medina, Bernard Lens, and Henry Aldrich, demonstrate the tireless effort it took to publish Milton’s epic. Based on these engravings and the cost of publicaiton, one could assume that John Milton found much of the early audience of Paradise Lost from the upper classes of society. The engravings became almost as well known as the epic poem itself.
- Colin Wong