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Edmund Spenser

Iambicum Trimetrum

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1580

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Along with his contemporary Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser is one of the most important literary figures from the English Renaissance (c. 1550-1660), also known as the Early Modern Period. Spenser’s work was greatly influenced by his studies of Classical and Italian Renaissance poets, including Virgil, Ludovico Ariosto, and Torquato Tasso. His faith and study of Christianity also informed his work. With Sidney, who was also an influence, and his friend Gabriel Harvey, Spenser belonged to a literary circle called “Areopagus.” Though the group’s formation was short-lived, its members were prolific, later publishing sonnets and epithalamiums, as well as pastoral poems and romantic epics.

Spenser’s impact during this period is especially significant considering his experiments with form. Though he was guided by Classical poets, his verse was not constrained by precedent. In his effort to make English literature as sophisticated and worldly as the literature that emerged from Renaissance Italy in the 15th century, Spenser changed conventions within English prosody. For The Faerie Queene (1590), he invented the nine-line stanza. This device, known as the Spenserian stanza, was later imitated by the Romantic poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Spenser also created what became known as the Spenserian sonnet—three interconnected quatrains ending in a couplet. Poets who belonged to the “school of Spenser” wrote poetry that was characterized by its uses of allegory, religious morality, and narrative or pastoral forms.

Poet Biography

Though historians cannot be certain about Spenser’s date of birth due to his parish records burning in London’s Great Fire of 1666, he was likely born in 1552 to John Spenser, a cloth maker, and a woman named Elizabeth, who is largely unknown to history. Though Spenser was related to a wealthy noble family from the Midlands who gained their fortune through sheep-raising, Spenser’s own family was of modest means. This limitation, however, did not prevent him from acquiring an excellent education. Spenser attended Merchant Taylors’ grammar school, where he studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and music. This early foundation in the classics would later inform his verse.

At age 16, Spenser began translating poems from French, including a French version of a poem by Petrarch. Around this time, he began to study at Pembroke Hall (now, Pembroke College) at the University of Cambridge. He earned his BA in 1573 and his MA in 1576. Shortly thereafter, he worked as a secretary to Bishop John Young of Rochester. Young was previously a master at Pembroke.

In 1579 or 1580, Spenser published The Shepheardes Calender, a narrative poem about life within the Church of England. In 1580, Spenser became secretary to Arthur Lord Grey, who had just become the Lord Deputy of Ireland. This began Spenser’s 20-year career in Ireland, a country whose politics would become the subject of various essays that the poet later published.

In 1590, Spenser released his best-known work, The Faerie Queene. Published with the assistance of the writer, explorer, and courtier Sir Walter Raleigh. The narrative poem in six books (he intended for it to be 24) was well received by the public and by Queen Elizabeth I who, in 1591, secured a small lifelong pension for Spenser as a demonstration of her gratitude for his work. The Faerie Queene regaled the glories of Elizabethan England, just as Virgil’s Aeneid glorified Rome during the Age of Augustus, and secured Spenser’s place as a foremost figure within the English Renaissance. He died in 1599.

Poem Text

Unhappy verse, the witness of my unhappy state,

Make thy self flutt’ring wings of thy fast flying

Thought, and fly forth unto my love, wheresoever she be:

Whether lying restless in heavy bed, or else

Sitting so cheerless at the cheerful board, or else

Playing alone careless on her heavenly virginals.

If in bed, tell her, that my eyes can take no rest:

If at board, tell her, that my mouth can eat no meat:

If at her virginals, tell her, I can hear no mirth.

Asked why? say: waking love suffereth no sleep:

Say that raging love doth appal the weak stomach:

Say, that lamenting love marreth the musical.

Tell her, that her pleasures were wont to lull me asleep:

Tell her, that her beauty was wont to feed mine eyes:

Tell her, that her sweet tongue was wont to make me mirth.

Now do I nightly waste, wanting my kindly rest:

Now do I daily starve, wanting my lively food:

Now do I always die, wanting thy timely mirth.

And if I waste, who will bewail my heavy chance?

And if I starve, who will record my cursed end?

And if I die, who will say: "This was Immerito"?

Spenser, Edmund. “Iambicum Trimetrum.” 1580. The Poetry Foundation.


A forlorn narrator imagines that this poem can serve as a messenger to his lost love. The speaker imagines his beloved in a variety of mundane scenarios—restless in her bed, unhappily dining with others, and playing music. In response to each image of her, he directs the “messenger” to tell her that he, on the other hand, is too depressed to eat and too unhappy to enjoy music. In the past, when he had her attention and admiration, only then could he sleep, feel nourished, and experience pleasure. Without her, he feels as though he might die—a fate that he deems an appropriate end to this state of misery.