In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Edmund Spenser

  • Introduction
  • Editions
  • Anthologies, Companions, and Handbooks
  • Journals, Concordances, and Online Resources
  • Life and Career
  • The Shepheardes Calender
  • The Faerie Queene
  • Complaints
  • Love Poetry, 1595–1596
  • Time and Number
  • Sexuality and Gender
  • Politics
  • Ireland
  • Religion
  • Allegory
  • Language, Form, and Style
  • Reception

Renaissance and Reformation Edmund Spenser
Kathryn Walls, Victoria Coldham-Fussell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0372


The poetry of Edmund Spenser (b. c. 1552–d. 1599) was canonical in Spenser’s own lifetime, and it has generated critical and scholarly attention second only to that devoted to Shakespeare. Such attention was anticipated in the portentous commentary attached to Spenser’s first published work, The Shepheardes Calender, commentary attributed to the mysterious “E.K.,” but which may well have been composed in a semi-parodic spirit by Spenser himself. As often noted, Spenser was projecting himself as another Virgil, the Roman poet who had, famously, begun his career by writing Eclogues (or goat-herds’ tales), and whose works were in many 16th-century editions published in conjunction with the learned commentaries of the late 4th-century grammarian Servius. Significantly, however, the pseudo-simplicity and artificial vulgarity of The Shepheardes Calender lives on in a large proportion of Spenser’s later poetry. The Faerie Queene, its frequent categorization as “epic” notwithstanding, places itself quite securely in the popular tradition of Arthurian romance. There is a question as to whether Spenser’s apparent appeal to popular taste reflects a delight on his own part in folk traditions (traditions rooted in the medieval Catholic era, but seen, after the Reformation, as regressive), or whether it is posed. The two possibilities are not, however, mutually exclusive—which is to say that what might be described as Spenser’s parodies are as affectionate as they are satirical. The study of Spenser has naturally been inspired by the obviously highbrow dimension of his oeuvre, but it has also exposed the sophistication of its “low-brow” ingredients.


Spenser has been well served by his editors. A high standard of presentation and commentary was set by the eleven-volume Variorum Edition (Greenlaw, et al. 1932–1949; reprinted, 1966–2002) of the whole of Spenser’s works. It remains valuable. Hamilton 2001 is a richly and judiciously annotated edition of The Faerie Queene, indispensable to the serious Spenserian. Convenient and accessible stand-alone editions of the individual books of The Faerie Queene have appeared under the general editorship of Abraham Stoll (see Stoll 2006). Oram, et al. 1989, the collaboratively produced Yale edition of the complete shorter poems, is authoritative, as is the Penguin edition, McCabe 1999. While both incorporate the Amoretti and Epithalamion, these texts are also available in a stand-alone edition, Larsen 1997 (cited under Time and Number). Prescott and Hadfield 2013, the most recent Norton edition of selected works, complements Stoll’s series as a good choice for students studying works other than The Faerie Queene. Hadfield and Maley 1997 is an edition of A Vewe of the Present State of Ireland that makes this once-ignored but now much-discussed text accessible to nonspecialists. (For scholarly purposes, however, Variorum 10 remains the only critical edition to date.) Burlinson and Zurcher 2009 provides a selection of letters reflective of Spenser’s bureaucratic career. For a summary of editions from 1569, see Zurcher’s Appendix in Van Es 2006 (cited under Anthologies, Companions, and Handbooks).

  • Burlinson, Christopher, and Andrew Zurcher, eds. Edmund Spenser: Letters and Other Papers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    A selection of forty-six documents (with introductions and commentaries) written in Spenser’s hand during his service in Ireland. Includes a chronology relating to Ireland (1509–1603) and Spenser’s career there (1580–1589), along with relevant biographies. The introduction includes consideration of the relationships between the documents and Spenser’s poetry.

  • Greenlaw, Edwin, Ray Heffner, Charles Grosvenor Osgood, et al., eds. The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition. 9 vols., with Index and A. C. Judson’s Life of Spenser. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1932–1949.

    The text is spaciously printed. The critical commentaries capture most previous work, in particular the identification of sources and analogues to date. “Special Appendices” reflect the preoccupations of literary critics between the world wars. Reprinted in 1966.

  • Hadfield, Andrew, and Willy Maley, eds. A View of the State of Ireland. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.

    Presents the text as it was first published by Sir James Ware in 1633. Three appendices contain, respectively, Ware’s marginal annotations, his moderating omissions from the text in manuscript, and a themed guide for further reading. The contextualizing introduction is briskly informative.

  • Hamilton, A. C., ed. The Faerie Queene. Text edited by Hiroshi Yamashita and Toshiyuki Suzuki. Harlow: Longman, 2001.

    A significant advance on the 1977 original, which reproduced the text from J. C. Smith’s 1909 Oxford Standard Authors edition. The commentary might by its bulk intimidate undergraduates, but advanced students and Spenserian scholars will always be grateful for Hamilton’s elucidations and his encapsulations of relevant commentary to date.

  • McCabe, Richard, ed. Edmund Spenser: The Shorter Poems. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1999.

    A scholarly edition seen by some as superseding the Yale edition. Its useful glosses and critically compelling introductions are relegated to the back of the volume.

  • Oram, William A., Einar Bjorvand, Ronald Bond, Thomas H. Cain, Alexander Dunlop, and Richard Schell, eds. The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

    This standard scholarly edition invites comparison with McCabe 1999. While the latter is inevitably more up to date, this edition positions its introductions before the relevant poems, and its glosses conveniently at the foot of the page. Contains guides for further reading.

  • Prescott, Anne Lake, and Andrew Hadfield, eds. Edmund Spenser’s Poetry. Norton Critical Edition. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 2013.

    Contains selections from the whole range of Spenser’s works, supplemented as in all Norton Critical Editions by significant excerpts from the criticism. Useful as a text for advanced students where the goal is breadth of exposure at points of critical significance.

  • Stoll, Abraham, ed. The Faerie Queene. 5 vols. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2006.

    Edited by Carol Kaske (The Faerie Queene I), Erik Gray (II), Dorothy Stephens (III, IV), Stoll (V), and Andrew Hadfield and Stoll (VI and the Mutabilitie Cantos), these lightly but usefully annotated volumes, complete with good introductory essays and bibliographies, are spaciously printed and generally ideal for undergraduates.

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