Edmund Spenser

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I learned have, not to despise,
What ever thing seemes small in common eyes.
Title page, Fowre Hymnes, by Edmund Spenser, published by William Ponsonby, London, 1596

Edmund Spenser (c. 155213 January 1599) was an English poet, who wrote such pastorals as The Shepheardes Calendar, Astrophell and Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, but is most famous for the multi-layered allegorical romance, The Faerie Queene.


For of the soule the bodie forme doth take;
For the soule is forme, and doth the bodie make.
For all that faire is, is by nature good;
That is a signe to know the gentle blood.
I was promised on a time
To have reason for my rhyme;
From that time unto this season,
I received nor rhyme nor reason.
  • I trow that countenance cannot lie,
    Whose thoughts are legible in the eie.
    • An Elegie, or Friends Passion, for his Astrophill (1586), line 108
  • Death slue not him, but he made death his ladder to the skies.
    • Another [Epitaph] of the Same (1586), line 20
  • I learned have, not to despise,
    What ever thing seemes small in common eyes.
    • Visions of the Worlds Vanitie (1591), line 69
  • For deeds do die, however nobly done,
    And thoughts of men do as themselves decay;
    But wise words, taught in numbers for to run,
    Recorded by the Muses, live for aye;
    Nor may with storming showers be washed away;
    Nor bitter-breathing winds, with harmful blast,
    Nor age, nor envy, shall them ever waste.
    • "The Ruins of Time" (1591)
  • So every spirit, as it is most pure,
    And hath in it the more of heavenly light,
    So it the fairer bodie doth procure
    To habit in, and it more fairely dight
    With cheerful grace and amiable sight:
    For of the soule the bodie forme doth take;
    For the soule is forme, and doth the bodie make.
    • An Hymne in Honour of Beautie (1596), line 127
  • For all that faire is, is by nature good;
    That is a signe to know the gentle blood.
    • An Hymne in Honour of Beautie, line 139
  • To kerke the narre from God more farre,
    Has bene an old-sayd sawe;
    And he that strives to touche a starre
    Oft stombles at a strawe.
    • The Shepheardes Calender, July, line 97; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • Full little knowest thou that hast not tride,
    What hell it is in suing long to bide:
    To loose good dayes, that might be better spent;
    To wast long nights in pensive discontent;
    To speed to-day, to be put back to-morrow;
    To feed on hope, to pine with feare and sorrow.
    . . . . . . . . .
    To fret thy soule with crosses and with cares;
    To eate thy heart through comfortlesse dispaires; 13
    To fawne, to crowche, to waite, to ride, to ronne,
    To spend, to give, to want, to be undonne.
    Unhappie wight, borne to desastrous end,
    That doth his life in so long tendance spend!
    • Mother Hubberds Tale, line 895; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • What more felicitie can fall to creature
    Than to enjoy delight with libertie,
    And to be lord of all the workes of Nature,
    To raine in th' aire from earth to highest skie,
    To feed on flowres and weeds of glorious feature.
    • Muiopotmos: or, The Fate of the Butterflie, line 209; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • I hate the day, because it lendeth light
    To see all things, but not my love to see.
    • Daphnaida, v. 407; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • I was promised on a time
    To have reason for my rhyme;
    From that time unto this season,
    I received nor rhyme nor reason.
    • Lines on his Promised Pension; reported in Thomas Fuller, Worthies of England, vol ii, page 379, and in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • Behold, whiles she before the altar stands,
    Hearing the holy priest that to her speakes,
    And blesseth her with his two happy hands.
    • Epithalamion, line 223; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)

Amoretti (1595)

  • The rolling wheel, that runneth often round,
    The hardest steel in tract of time doth tear;
    And drizzling drops, that often do redound,
    The firmest flint doth in continuance wear:
    Yet cannot I, with many a dropping tear,
    And long entreaty, soften her hard heart,
    That she will once vouchsafe my plaint to hear,
    Or look with pity on my painful smart:
    But when I plead, she bids me play my part;
    And when I weep, she says, "Tears are but water";
    And when I sigh, she says, "I know the art";
    And when I wail, she turns herself to laughter;
    So do I weep and wail, and plead in vain,
    Whiles she as steel and flint doth still remain.
  • Tell her the joyous Time will not be staid,
    Unlesse she doe him by the forelock take.
    • Sonnet LXX; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
Full text online
  • Calm was the day, and through the trembling air
    Sweet-breathing Zephyrus did softly play—
    A gentle spirit, that lightly did delay
    Hot Titan's beams, which then did glister fair
    • Line 1
  • Sweete Themmes runne softly, till I end my Song.
    • The last line of each stanza
    • This is often attributed to T. S. Eliot, who does indeed quote it in The Waste Land
  • With that I saw two swans of goodly hue
    Come softly swimming down along the Lee:
    Two fairer birds I yet did never see;
    The snow which doth the top of Pindus strow
    Did never whiter show,
    Nor Jove himself, when he a swan would be
    For love of Leda, whiter did appear
    • Line 37

The Faerie Queene (1589–1596)

Main article: The Faerie Queene
Fierce warres and faithfull loves shall moralize my song.
All for love, and nothing for reward.
Ill can he rule the great, that cannot reach the small.
The gentle minde by gentle deeds is knowne.
For a man by nothing is so well bewrayd,
As by his manners.

Book I

  • Fierce warres and faithfull loves shall moralize my song.
    • Introduction, stanza 1
  • A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine.
    • Canto 1, stanza 1
  • But of his cheere did seeme too solemne sad;
    Yet nothing did he dread, but ever was ydrad.
    • Canto 1, stanza 2
  • The noblest mind the best contentment has.
    • Canto 1, stanza 35
  • A bold bad man, that dar'd to call by name
    Great Gorgon, Prince of darknesse and dead night.
    • Canto 1, stanza 37
  • As the great eye of heaven, shyned bright,
    And made a sunshine in the shady place.
    • Canto 3, stanza 4
  • Ay me, how many perils doe enfold
    The righteous man, to make him daily fall!
    • Canto 8, stanza 1
  • As when in Cymbrian plaine
    An heard of bulles, whom kindly rage doth sting,
    Doe for the milky mothers want complaine,
    And fill the fieldes with troublous bellowing.
    • Canto 8, stanza 11
  • Entire affection hateth nicer hands.
    • Canto 8, stanza 40
  • That darksome cave they enter, where they find
    That cursed man, low sitting on the ground,
    Musing full sadly in his sullein mind.
    • Canto 9, stanza 35
  • Is not short paine well borne, that brings long ease,
    And layes the soul to sleepe in quiet grave?
    Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas,
    Ease after warre, death after life does greatly please.
    • Canto 9, stanza 40
  • O happy earth,
    Whereon thy innocent feet doe ever tread!
    • Canto 10, stanza 9

Book II

  • No daintie flowre or herbe that growes on grownd,
    No arborett with painted blossoms drest
    And smelling sweete, but there it might be fownd
    To bud out faire, and throwe her sweete smels al arownd.
    • Canto 6, stanza 12
  • And is there care in Heaven? And is there love
    In heavenly spirits to these Creatures bace?
    • Canto 8, stanza 1
  • How oft do they their silver bowers leave
    To come to succour us that succour want!
    • Canto 8, stanza 2
  • And all for love, and nothing for reward.
    • Canto 8, stanza 2
  • Eftsoones they heard a most melodious sound.
    • Canto 12, stanza 70

Book III

  • Through thicke and thin, both over banke and bush
    In hope her to attaine by hooke or crooke.
    • Canto 1, stanza 17
  • Into the woods thenceforth in hast she went,
    To seeke for hearbes, that mote him remedy;
    For she of hearbes had great intendiment,
    Taught of the Nymphe, which from her infancy
    Her nourced had in trew Nobility:
    There, whether it divine Tobacco were,
    Or Panachaea, or Polygony,
    She found, and brought it to her patient deare
    Who al this while lay bleeding out his hart-bloud neare.
    • Canto 5, stanza 32
  • Her berth was of the wombe of morning dew,
    And her conception of the joyous Prime.
    • Canto 6, stanza 3
  • Roses red and violets blew,
    And all the sweetest flowres that in the forrest grew.
    • Canto 6, stanza 6
  • And as she lookt about, she did behold,
    How over that same dore was likewise writ,
    Be bold, be bold, and every where Be bold,
    That much she muz'd, yet could not construe it
    By any ridling skill, or commune wit.
    At last she spyde at that same roomes upper end,
    Another yron dore, on which was writ,
    Be not too bold.
    • Canto 11, stanza 54

Book IV

  • Dan Chaucer, well of English undefyled,
    On Fames eternall beadroll worthie to be fyled.
    • Canto 2, stanza 32
  • For all that Nature by her mother-wit
    Could frame in earth.
    • Canto 10, stanza 21
  • As withered weed through cruell winters tine,
    That feeles the warmth of sunny beames reflection,
    Liftes up his head, that did before decline
    And gins to spread his leafe before the faire sunshine.
    • Canto 12, stanza 34

Book V

  • Me seemes the world is runne quite out of square,
    From the first point of his appointed sourse,
    And being once amisse growes daily wourse and wourse.
    • Introduction, stanza 1
  • Who will not mercie unto others show,
    How can he mercy ever hope to have?
    • Canto 2, stanza 42
  • Ill can he rule the great, that cannot reach the small.
    • Canto 2, stanza 43
  • But Justice, though her dome [doom] she doe prolong,
    Yet at the last she will her owne cause right.
    • Canto 11, stanza 1
  • A monster, which the Blatant beast men call,
    A dreadfull feend of gods and men ydrad.
    • Canto 12, stanza 37

Book VI


Book VII

  • And in his hand a sickle he did holde,
    To reape the ripened fruits the which the earth had yold.
    • Canto 7, stanza 30
  • For we by conquest, of our soveraine might,
    And by eternall doome of Fate's decree,
    Have wonne the Empire of the Heavens bright.
    • Canto vi, stanza 33

Quotes about Spenser

The poets' Poet. ~ Charles Lamb
Sorted alphabetically by author or source
  • Ere he ended his melodious song,
    An host of angels flew the clouds among,
    And rapt this swan from his attentive mates
    To make him one of their associates
    In heaven's fair choir.
  • He threw the soul of harmony into our verse, and made it more warmly, tenderly, and magnificently descriptive than it ever was before, or, with a few exceptions, than it has ever been since. ... We shall nowhere find more airy and expansive images of visionary things, a sweeter tone of sentiment, or a finer flush in the colours of language, than in this Rubens of English poetry. ... Though his story grows desultory, the sweetness and grace of his manner still abide by him. He is like a speaker whose tones continue to be pleasing, though he may speak too long.
  • I remember when I began to read, and to take some pleasure in it, there was wont to lie in my mother's parlour (I know not by what accident, for she herself never in her life read any book but of devotion), but there was wont to lie Spenser's works; this I happened to fall upon, and was infinitely delighted with the stories of the knights, and giants, and monsters, and brave houses, which I found everywhere there (though my understanding had little to do with all this); and by degrees with the tinkling of the rhyme and dance of the numbers, so that I think I had read him all over before I was twelve years old, and was thus made a poet.
    • Abraham Cowley, essay "Of Myself", in The Works of Mr. Abraham Cowley, Vol. II (1710), p. 782
  • [T]hat matchlesse Poem, The Faery Queen, written by our English Virgil.
    • Kenelm Digby, Observations on the 22. Stanza in the 9th Canto of the 2d. Book of Spencers Faery Queen (1644), quoted in The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition. The Faerie Qveene: Book Two, ed. Edwin Greenlaw (1933), p. 472
  • For us Anishinaabe, Biskaabiiyang is a specific term that means “returning to the woods,” because we’re woodland peoples. For example, I grew up growing my “three sisters”—that is, corn, beans, and squash—along the edge of the forest, using what people now call sylvan culture or permaculture. It’s curious how this counters the perspective of classical authors like Dante in early modern Europe or, later, Edmund Spenser, an important Renaissance poet, who view the woods as this terrifying presence. Why is this decolonizing? Because through boarding schools and many other colonial experiences, that fear of the woods creeps in.
  • I must acknowledge that Virgil in Latin, and Spenser in English, have been my masters.
  • No man was ever born with a greater genius, or had more knowledge to support it.
  • His versification is at once the most smooth and the most sounding in the language. It is a labyrinth of sweet sounds...that would cloy by their very sweetness, but that the ear is constantly relieved and enchanted by their continued variety of modulation. ... It is the perfection of melting harmony, dissolving the soul in pleasure or holding it captive in the chains of suspense.
  • This poet contains great beauties, a sweet and harmonious versification, easy elocution, a fine imagination: Yet ... it soon becomes a kind of task-reading; and it requires some effort and resolution to carry us on to the end of his long performance. ...the affectations, and conceits, and fopperies of chivalry...appear ridiculous... The tediousness of continued allegory, and that too seldom striking or ingenious, has also contributed to render the Fairy Queen peculiarly tiresome; not to mention the too great frequency of its descriptions, and the languor of its stanza. Upon the whole, Spencer maintains his place in the shelves among our English classics: But he is seldom seen on the table.
  • I think that if he had not been a great poet, he would have been a great painter.
  • I have at last come to the end of the Faerie Queene: and though I say "at last", I almost wish he had lived to write six books more as he had hoped to do — so much have I enjoyed it.
    • C. S. Lewis, in a letter to Arthur Greeves (7 March 1916), published in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis : Family Letters, 1905-1931 (2004) edited by Walter Hooper, p. 170
  • Elizabeth's arse-kissing poet.
    • Karl Marx, quoted in The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx, ed Lawrence Krader (2nd ed. 1974), p. 305 and S. S. Prawer, Karl Marx and World Literature (1976), p. 362
A better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas. ~ John Milton
  • The Fairie Queene makes cinema out of the west's primary principle: to see is to know; to know is to control. The Spenserian eye cuts, wounds, rapes.
  • The Faerie Queene is the most extended and extensive meditation on sex in the history of poetry. It charts the entire erotic spectrum, a great chain of being rising from matter to spirit, from the coarsest lust to chastity and romantic idealism. The poem’s themes of sex and politics are parallel: the psyche, like society, must be disciplined by good government. Spenser agrees with the classical and Christian philosophers on the primacy of reason over animal appetites. He looks forward to the Romantic poets, however, in the way that he shows the sex impulse as ultimately daemonic and barbaric, breeding witches and sorcerers of evil allure. Like the Odyssey, The Faerie Queene is a heroic epic in which the masculine must evade female traps or delays.
  • It is easy to mark out the general course of our poetry. Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, and Dryden, are the great landmarks for it.
  • Spenser, I think, may be reckoned the first of our heroic poets. He had a large spirit, a sharp judgment, and a genius for heroic poetry, perhaps above any that ever wrote since Virgil. But our misfortune is, he wanted a true idea, and lost himself by following an unfaithful guide. Though besides Homer and Virgil he had read Tasso, yet he rather suffered himself to be misled by Ariosto, with whom blindly rambling on marvels and adventures, he makes no conscience of probability; all is fanciful and chimerical, without any uniformity, or without any foundation in truth; his poem is perfect fairy land.
    • Thomas Rymer, 'The Preface of the Translator' to Rapin's Reflections on Aristotle's Treatise of Poesie (1674)
  • The great master of English versification, incomparably the greatest master in our language.
  • No poet borrows so much from learned languages as Spencer.
    • John Upton, Spenser's Faerie Queene, Vol. II (1758), p. 354
  • Sweet Spenser, moving through his clouded heaven
    With the moon's beauty and the moon's soft pace,
    I called him Brother, Englishman, and Friend!