An Epic Bogosity

Edmund Spenser (1554-99) decided while still a student to make himself into the great English poet on the model of Vergil.  So he began his publishing career with a set of 12 pastorals, and planned an enormous 24-book allegorical romance-epic, The Faerie Queene, to glorify Elizabeth I and her Britain as Vergil had glorified Rome and Augustus.  He managed to finish six books of this monster, and left a fragment of a seventh.

The standard histories of English literature give him top-drawer ranking with Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, and there is no denying the power of his idiosyncratic style at its best or his appeal to other poets with epic ambitions.  Nonetheless, he has never been popular.  His stories and characters have made no impression on the popular imagination, and readers—to put it mildly—have not warmed to him as a man.  Karl Marx went so far as to call him “Elizabeth’s arse-kissing poet,” and even C.S. Lewis, who tried harder than anyone to make Spenser popular, describes some features of his politics as “abominable” and “detestable.”  So there is a Spenser problem.  Why is he the only “great” English poet whom few people read, and even fewer people like?

Enter Andrew Hadfield and this 650-page biography, the first since 1945.  There is enough known about Spenser’s...

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