Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-1599) can be rightfully considered England’s finest poet of the sixteenth century. (Shakespeare and Donne, his rivals for such a credit, lived and wrote into the seventeenth century and in a sense belong more properly to the later age, although Shakespeare wrote most if not all of his standalone poetry in the 1590’s). While his laurels hang most decisively on his six book epic The Faerie Queene, from which the passages below are taken, he can claim credit for a kind of poetic emancipation from the rigors of Renaissance imitation that dominated poetry before him. His first published work, The Shepheardes Calender (1579), broke innumerable “rules,” yet achieved some moments of poetic greatness. We cannot with confidence insist that this was the watershed work, but within the next three decades came Marlowe, Donne, Shakespeare, Sidney, Jonson, and Herbert (as well as himself of course), an unsurpassed collection of inimitable poets who set their own rules. Spenser’s poetry is less friendly to modern ears than, say, the poetry of Donne, but he is worth the time it takes to read him well, if for no other reason than his relative sense of good cheer. He is the only great writer of Renaissance love sonnets, for example, who actually expresses love, rather than some mournful rumination on love’s sorrows.
Here follows the text from the poem directly, which is not long enough to warrant a separate synopsis. It is relatively true to Holinshed. The spelling has been modernized, an uncommon practice in Spenser, but for this purpose it seemed fitting.
27. Next him King Leir in happy peace long reigned,
But had no issue male him to succeed,
But three fair daughters, which were well uptrained
In all that seemed fit for kingly seed;
‘Mongst whom his realm he equally decreed
To have divided. Tho when feeble age
Nigh to his utmost date he saw proceed,
He called his daughters, and with speeches sage
Inquired, which of them most did love her parentage.
28. The eldest Gonorill ‘gan to protest,
That she much more than her own life him lov’d;
And Regan greater love to him profess’d
Then all the world, when ever it were proved;
But Cordeill said she loved him, as behoov’d:
Whose simple answer, wanting colours fair
To paint it forth, him to displeasance mov’d,
That in his crown he counted her no heir,
But ‘twixt the other twain his kingdom whole did share.
29. So wedded th’ one to Maglan King of Scots.
And th’ other to the King of Cambria,
And ‘twixt them shared his realm by equal lots;
But without dowry, the wise Cordelia
Was sent to Aganip of Celtia.
Their aged sire, thus eased of his crown,
A private life led in Albany
With Gonorill, long had in great renown,
That nought him griev’d to been from rule deposed down.
30. But true it is that, when the oil is spent,
The light goes out, and wick is thrown away;
So when he had resigned his regiment,
His daughter ‘gan despise his drooping day,
And wearie wax of his continual stay;
Tho to his daughter Regan he repaired,
Who him at first well used every way;
But when of his departure she despaired,
Her bounty she abated, and his cheer impaired.
31. The wretched man ‘gan then advise too late,
That love is not, where most it is profess’d;
Too truely tried in his extremest state;
At last resolv’d likewise to prove the rest,
He to Cordelia him self addressed,
Who with entire affection him received,
As for her sire and king her seemed best;
And after all an army strong she leav’d,
To war on those, which him had of his realm bereaved,
32. So to his crown she him restor’d again,
In which he died, made ripe for death by eld,
And after wild it should to her remain:
Who peacefully the same long time did weld,
And all men’s hearts in due obedience held;
Till that her sisters’ children, waxen strong
Through proud ambition, against her rebelled,
And overcommen kept in prison long,
Till weary of that wretched life herself she hung.