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Printing The Faerie Queene in 1590

From: Studies in Bibliography
Volume 57, 2005-2006
pp. 115-150 | 10.1353/sib.0.0005

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When Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene went into publication for the first time in 1590, it was the largest work of English poetry ever seen through the press by a living author. Spenser apparently had some experience of printing-house proofing, garnered during what appears to have been a carefully-organized printing, by Hugh Singleton, of the first edition of The Shepheardes Calender in 1579;1 but the pressures of producing The Faerie Queene—so far surmounting Spenser’s earlier verse as epic, in generic terms, towers over pastoral—must have been immense. Although the layout of The Shepheardes Calender had been somewhat complex, including a range of prefatory materials, a woodcut and ‘argument’ at the head of every eclogue, and a ‘glosse or scholion’ attached to the back of each eclogue, the sheer personal stakes of the proper presentation of the first instalment of Spenser’s epic made this the riskier venture. In 1579, Spenser had been a young man, personal secretary to John Young, Bishop of Rochester, recently graduated with an MA from Cambridge, and with a promising career ahead of him; by 1590, he had been living ten years in Ireland, during which time he had published no further poetry, had retired from the comparative bustle of Dublin to the anonymity of Kilcolman, near Cork, and had apparently lost most of his once-promising patronage connections: Philip Sidney (d. 1586), Arthur Lord Grey of Wilton (back in England from 1582), and the Earl of Leicester (d. 1588). Spenser’s return to public notice in 1590, with the advertisement of a new patronage connection to Walter Ralegh, and—above all—his favorable reception by Queen Elizabeth upon presentation of a manuscript copy of The Faerie Queene (and himself?) at court, gave him a new opportunity to secure his status as ‘England’s arch-Poët’. It was an opportunity that he could not afford to lose.

With this in mind, the 1590 edition of The Faerie Queene stands out, from one perspective, as a landmark example of a poet experimenting with print patronage conventions in an innovatory and ambitious way: the volume originally contained a dedication to Queen Elizabeth, seven commendatory poems, ten dedicatory sonnets to aristocratic patrons, and an epistle from Spenser to Ralegh giving important context for ‘the Authors . . . whole intention in the course of this worke’; the number of dedicatory sonnets to court and government luminaries was later augmented to seventeen. The barrage of dedications and commendations, alongside an open acknowledgment of the support of the queen and the intimacy of her principal favorite, would seem a bravado display of a poet’s achievement. From another perspective, though, the 1590 edition of The Faerie Queene almost looks like a critique, even a burlesque, of the contemporary culture of literary patronage. The proliferation of dedicatory sonnets, especially in the revised state, makes any one seem superfluous (in the spirit of the motto from ‘September’ of The Shepheardes Calender: inopem me copia fecit), and simply by its mass seems to outweigh what must have been the primary dedication to the eponymous Gloriana, Elizabeth. In addition, all of the prefatory material appears not at the front of the volume, but at the back—except for the dedication to Elizabeth which was thrust, perhaps hastily and probably disrespectfully, into the only available space in the first gathering, the verso of the title page.

Modern scholars have often debated the poetics, politics, and printer’s exigencies that might have led Spenser, or his publisher William Ponsonby, or his printer John Wolfe, to lay out the prefatory matter in this final (mostly terminal) form.2 Some readers have supposed that Spenser had always intended his prefatory material for placement at the back of the volume, answering the title page (and the royal dedication) at the front of the volume in the same way a plural body politic mirrors its single head and ruler. Others have supposed that Spenser’s hand was forced by the unanticipated interest and patronage of the queen, and that he had to devise a suitable format to accommodate existing debts of patronage without insulting his royal patron or jeopardizing the newly-awarded annuity (confirmed by patent...



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