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.

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Published in November 2012 no. 346
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.).

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