The First Edition of Spenser’s Complaints. The Sole 16th Century Edition

Spenser, Edmund (ca.1552-1599)

Complaints. Containing sundrie small poemes of the worlds vanitie. VVhereof the next page maketh mention. By Ed. Sp.

London: Imprinted by Thomas Orwin for VVilliam Ponsonbie, dwelling in Paules Churchyard at the signe of the Bishops head, 1591


Quarto: 18.5 x 14 cm. [184] p. Collation: A-Z4 (lacking final blank Z4)


Bound in fine early 20th c. green morocco with gilt turn-ins and the words “Complaints – Edmund Spenser – 1591” tooled in gold on the front board. The same neatly tooled on the spine. A nice copy, never washed or pressed, with wide outer margins. The edge of the title is a little frayed, far from the woodcut, there are light damp-stains in signatures D and S and a very faint one in the final signature. A few other trivial stains. It is highly unusual to find Spenser quartos in such condition, the majority of the surviving copies having been washed and trimmed. Fortunately, the binder of this copy resisted that temptation. The general title has a fine woodcut border with figures of David and Moses. There are separate title pages, using the same woodcut border, for “The Teares of the Muses”, “Prosopopoia. Or Mother Hubberds Tale”, and “Mviopotmos. Or The Fate of the Butterflie”. There are also a few attractive woodcut head-pieces and initials.

The contents are as follows: 1. The Ruines of Time. 2. The Teares of the Muses. 3. Virgils Gnat. 4. Prosopopoia, or Mother Hubberds Tale. 5. The Ruines of Rome: by Bellay. 6. Muiopotmos, or The Tale of the Butterflie. 7. Visions of the Worlds vanitie. 8. Bellayes visions. 9. Petrarches visions.

“Of the nine poems in the volume, four are sonnet sequences while the others are in rhyme royal, ottava rima, sixaines, or couplets. Each appears with a separate title page: five are dedicated to prominent courtiers or patrons and four are printed with no dedication. The first, ‘The Ruines of Time,’ is a lament on the destruction of the Roman city of Verulamium followed by an elegy on the deaths of Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester, and Sir Philip Sidney. It is followed by ‘The Teares of the Muses,’ a series of nine laments that deplore the corruption of learning and poetry. ‘Virgil’s Gnat,’ the tale of a shepherd’s rescue by a humble gnat, is an elaborate mock-heroic complaint translated from the pseudo-Virgilian ‘Culex.’ Next, ‘Prosopoia, or Mother Hubberds Tale’ takes the form of an allegorical beast-fable; its satire, generally assumed to have been directed against Lord Burleigh, was probably the reason that ‘Complaints’ was recalled shortly after its publication and that the poem was subsequently omitted from the 1611 folio of Spenser’s works (see the following item.) The volume continues with ‘The Ruines of Rome,’ a translation of Joachim Du Bellay’s lament on the corruption of the modern city, and ‘Muiopotmos,’ a mock-heroic fable of the entrapment of a butterfly by a spider. The three sonnet sequences, two of which are translations, conclude the volume: ‘Visions of the Worlds Vanitite’, ‘The Visions of Bellay,’ and ‘The Visions of Petrarch.’

For a thorough analysis, see Katharine A. Craik, Spenser's "Complaints" and the New Poet, in Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 1/2 (2001), pp. 63-79.

Johnson, A Critical Bibliography of the Works of Edmund Spenser printed before 1700, No. 14; STC (2nd ed.), 23078; Pforzheimer, 968