The Elizabethan who set out to be England’s Virgil

Edmund Spenser: A Life

by Andrew Hadfield

Oxford University Press, $47.95 hb, 645 pp, 9780199591022

In 1579, with the publication of The Shepheardes Calendar, Edmund Spenser (c.1552–99) burst onto the English literary scene. From the beginning, he was one of the oddest of great writers. The Calendar was a work of remarkable ambition. Spenser’s unlikely shepherds ‘piped’ poems to each other, using a pseudo-archaic dialect and a variety of elegant verse forms. The nature of Spenser’s talent was already apparent: his fascination with time and pattern, his extraordinary facility with words and verse forms, his combination of melancholy nostalgia and bold ambition. For, if the Calendar was characterised by a tone of complaint, it also showed a new and deliberate concern with fame. It seems that Spenser saw the volume through the press. He chose emblems – illustrations – for each month of the calendar; he chose an archaic font for the poems to contrast with the font of its gloss and notes; he closed the volume with a poem that claims: ‘Loe I have made a Calendar for every yeare, / That steele in strength, and time in durance shalle outwear: / And if I marked well the starres revolution, / It shall continewe till the worlds dissolution …’ Spenser set out to be England’s Virgil.

Read the rest of this article by subscribing to ABR Online for as little as $10 a month, or subscribe to the print edition to receive access to ABR Online free of charge.

If you are a single issue subscriber you will need to upgrade your subscription to view back issues.

If you are already subscribed, click here to log in.

Lisa Gorton

Lisa Gorton

Lisa Gorton, who lives in Melbourne, is a poet, novelist, and critic, and a former Poetry Editor of ABR. She studied at the Universities of Melbourne and Oxford. A Rhodes Scholar, she completed a Masters in Renaissance Literature and a Doctorate on John Donne at Oxford University, and was awarded the John Donne Society Award for Distinguished Publication in Donne Studies. Her first poetry collection, Press Release (2007), won the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry. She has also been awarded the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize. A second poetry collection followed in 2013: Hotel Hyperion (also Giramondo). Lisa has also written a children’s novel, Cloudland (2008). Her novel The Life of Houses (2015) shared the 2016 Prime Minister’s Award for fiction. She is the editor of The Best Australian Poems 2013 (Black Inc.).

Published in November 2012 no. 346

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.