A contemporary of William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, British Renaissance poet Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) is probably best known as the author of “The Fairie Queen,” an epic fantasy poem celebrating the monarch of the time, Queen Elizabeth I.
Spenser, however, did much more than write a flattering poem paying tribute to the queen and her family line. He also wrote many sonnets and is considered one of the founders and most respected craftsmen of English verse.
Born in London and twice married, Spenser’s life was spent writing and socializing in literary circles. His foray into politics was suppressed during his lifetime, possibly due to his incendiary viewpoints regarding the Irish. His prose pamphlet entitled “A View of the Present State of Ireland” argued for destroying the customs and language of the Irish people, by violence if necessary, to force them into a more submissive stance toward the English. He died in London at age 46 and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminister Abbey.
Aside from his most famous (and very lengthy) epic fantasy poem, “The Fairie Queen,” the following two sonnets are from his collection Amoretti and are among the most notable poems Spenser wrote.
Amoretti LXXIX: Men Call You Fair
Men call you fair, and you do credit it,
For that your self ye daily such do see:
But the true fair, that is the gentle wit,
And vertuous mind, is much more prais’d of me.
For all the rest, how ever fair it be,
Shall turn to naught and lose that glorious hue:
But only that is permanent and free
From frail corruption, that doth flesh ensue.
That is true beauty: that doth argue you
To be divine, and born of heavenly seed:
Deriv’d from that fair Spirit, from whom all true
And perfect beauty did at first proceed.
He only fair, and what he fair hath made,
All other fair, like flowers untimely fade.
Amoretti LIV: Of This Worlds Theatre in Which We Stay
Of this worlds Theatre in which we stay,
My love lyke the Spectator ydly sits
Beholding me that all the pageants play,
Disguysing diversly my troubled wits.
Sometimes I joy when glad occasion fits,
And mask in myrth lyke to a Comedy:
Soone after when my joy to sorrow flits,
I waile and make my woes a Tragedy.
Yet she beholding me with constant eye,
Delights not in my merth nor rues my smart:
But when I laugh she mocks, and when I cry
She laughes, and hardens evermore her hart.
What then can move her? if not merth nor mone,
She is no woman, but a sencelesse stone.