His parents were poor, but fortunately in Elizabethan times, as well as in our own days, there were generous men who found their chief pleasure in aiding others. Such a man assisted Spenser in going to Cambridge. Spenser’s benefactor was sufficiently wise not to give the student enough to dwarf the growth of self-reliance. We know that Spenser was a sizar at Cambridge, that is, one of those students who, to quote Macaulay, “had to perform some menial services. They swept the court; they carried up the dinner to the fellows’ table, and changed the plate and poured out the ale of the rulers of society.” We know further that Spenser was handicapped by ill health during a part of his course, for we find records of allowances paid “Spenser aegrotanti.”
After leaving Cambridge Spenser went to the north of England, probably in the capacity of tutor. While there, he fell in love with a young woman whom he calls Rosalind. This event colored his after life. Although she refused him, she had penetration enough to see in what his greatness consisted, and her opinion spurred him to develop his abilities as a poet. He was about twenty-five years old when he fell in love with Rosalind; and he remained single until he was forty-two, when he married an Irish maiden named Elizabeth. In honor of that event, he composed the Epithalamion, the noblest marriage song in any literature. So strong are early impressions that even in its lines he seems to be thinking of Rosalind and fancying that she is his bride.
After returning from the north, he spent some time with Sir Philip Sidney, who helped fashion Spenser’s ideals of a chivalrous gentleman. Sidney’s influence is seen in Spenser’s greatest work, the Faerie Queene. Sir Walter Raleigh was another friend who left his imprint on Spenser.
In 1579, Spenser published the Shepherd’s Calendar. This is a pastoral poem, consisting of twelve different parts, one part being assigned to each of the twelve months. Although inferior to the Faerie Queene, the Shepherd’s Calendar remains one of the greatest pastoral poems in the English language.
In 1580 he was appointed secretary to Lord Gray, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In one capacity or another, in the service of the crown, Spenser passed in Ireland almost the entire remaining eighteen years of his life. In 1591 he received in the south of Ireland a grant of three thousand acres, a part of the confiscated estate of an Irish earl. Sir Walter Raleigh was also given forty-two thousand acres near Spenser. Ireland was then in a state of continuous turmoil. In such a country Spenser lived and wrote his Faerie Queene. Of course, this environment powerfully affected the character of that poem. It has been said that to read a contemporary’s account of “Raleigh’s adventures with the Irish chieftains, his challenges and single combats, his escapes at fords and woods, is like reading bits of the Faerie Queene in prose.”