British and Irish Literature Edmund Spenser
Andrew Hadfield
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0055


Edmund Spenser (b. 1554?–d. 1599) is one of the most significant poets writing in English, probably the most important writer of verse after William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, and John Milton. Yet he remains among the most neglected. In part this is due to the length of his work, especially The Faerie Queene, but also because he is usually regarded as a worthy writer who wrote complex allegories praising Queen Elizabeth and because he was a colonist in Ireland who espoused brutal attitudes to the Irish. While there is much truth in this last claim, one that has been substantiated and explored by a number of critics since the late 20th century, there is rather less substance to the notion that Spenser was a sycophantic royalist. Indeed, a great deal of more recent work on Spenser has uncovered a much more complicated, fractured, and divided writer, one who had a complicated, often hostile, relationship to mighty patrons and who valued his friendship with other writers, publishers, soldiers, and military men. While Spenser has been largely the preserve of specialists, it is also true that, as C. S. Lewis once claimed, hardly any reader ever claims that they used to like Spenser. A great deal of work on his poetry since the late 20th century has concentrated on how stimulating and challenging his works are and how he forces readers to think through difficult problems even if they do not agree with his solutions to problems. In many respects Spenser has become a major critical issue in literary studies, once again. There has been a great deal of work on his representation of gender and sexuality, his verse forms and his experimental style, his political views, and his religion.


Spenser’s works, while they do contain some textual issues that require comment and collation, do not generate the same problems that many other early modern authors do. A definitive edition of Spenser’s works is forthcoming from Oxford, which should provide comment on all major textual issues that have not yet been analyzed. The best single-volume edition of The Faerie Queene available is Hamilton 2001, which has excellent notes on the pages facing the text. A user-friendly edition of individual books of the poem is Stoll 2006, which also has useful notes. The best edition of the other poems is McCabe 1999, which has excellent endnotes and is a model of textual scholarship. Also useful is Oram, et al. 1989. Although it is now dated and has a few odd editorial decisions (notably the inclusion of Gabriel Harvey’s published letters to Spenser as an appendix, split off from Spenser’s letters, with which they were published), Greenlaw, et al. 1932–1949 is a valuable resource worth consulting. It has extracts from pre–World War II critics often hard to find today, which gives a sense of how the poems were read until relatively recently, as well as splendid historical notes. Its edition of A View of the Present State of Ireland is still the best available and needs to be consulted by all interested in that work. Burlinson and Zurcher 2009 is an unusual work as it reproduces works that an author copied out rather than wrote; it also has excellent notes on the Irish context of Spenser’s life and works. Larsen 1997 has vital information on religion and churchgoing in late-16th-century Britain and Ireland that makes it even more useful than an edition of one poetic series. Maclean and Prescott 1993 is a generous and often inspired selection with excellent notes.

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

    A volume that reproduces all the letters and documents known to have survived in Spenser’s hand. Contains a thorough introduction detailing Spenser’s life and work in Ireland and has an especially useful section of biographies of the major figures in Spenser’s life, which updates and supplements Maley 1994 (cited under Reference Works and Biographical Studies).

  • Greenlaw, Edwin, Charles Grosvenor Osgood, and Frederick Morgan Padelford, eds. The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition. 11 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1932–1949.

    An edition based on painstaking historical scholarship. Although rather dated now, the edition is still worth consulting for its wealth of historical notes and, to a lesser extent, citation of criticism. The edition of A View of the Present State of Ireland is still the best available and also has exemplary notes.

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

    The best single edition of the poem, with full and helpful notes on the same page as the text. Provides glosses for every complex word, relevant historical and cultural detail, and guidance about reading the poem’s allegory. Originally published in 1977.

  • Larsen, Kenneth J., ed. Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion: A Critical Edition. Tempe, AZ: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1997.

    A careful and substantial edition of Spenser’s only sonnet sequence and his marriage hymn describing his marriage to Elizabeth Boyle in 1594. Larsen points out how the sonnets are ordered and composed to mark the different Bible readings prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer, complemented by the line numbers of the Epithalamion. Has full and substantial notes.

  • Maclean, Hugh, and Anne Lake Prescott, eds. Edmund Spenser’s Poetry. New York: Norton, 1993.

    A generous, well-annotated selection of the poetry, including The Faerie Queene, Books 1 and 3 and sections from other books; selections from The Shepheardes Calender; The Amoretti and Epithalamion; and the Prothalamion. There is a long selection of critical commentaries which give the reader a sense of the progress of work on Spenser, from the 18th century to the 1980s, as well as the changes in critical methods and fashion.

  • McCabe, Richard, ed. The Shorter Poems. London: Penguin, 1999.

    A careful and textually scrupulous edition of the poems, the best available. Has useful and succinct overviews of each poem and excellent notes detailing references as well as explaining difficult cruxes within the works.

  • 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.

    A useful edition with short notes on each page, which makes the poems easy to read, as well as helpful headnotes.

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

    A classroom text, which contains an edition for each book, except for 3 and 4, and 6 and 7, which are published together. An easy to use and handsome text, with useful notes and thoughtful introductory essays, as well as guides to further reading.

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