Verse > Edmund Spenser > Complete Poetical Works
Edmund Spenser (1552?–1599).  The Complete Poetical Works.  1908.
The Shepheardes Calender
Critical Introduction
The Shepherd’s Calendar was entered on the books of the Stationers’ Company December 5, 1579, and was probably published before the end of the following March, when the old year officially expired. The little volume must have had a certain attraction of mysteriousness. It was full of veiled allusions and the secret of its authorship was enticingly dangled before the eyes of readers. The author of the eclogues signed himself ‘Immeritô’ and was styled by the author of the commentary ‘the new poet.’ This other signed himself E. K. Yet though the book thus challenged curiosity, the secret seems to have been well enough kept. At court, perhaps, or at Cambridge, it would be penetrated in time by a few, but generally, and at least as a matter of form, the anonymity was acknowledged for a full decade to come. Spenser’s main share in the work was confessed when the Faery Queen came out in 1590.  1
  For E. K., his initials seem to have been left, even then, to explain themselves—or perhaps real explanation was not greatly heeded. In either case, who he may have been is now beyond absolute proof. Some recent scholars, arguing from a few special passages and from the apparent intimacy of his knowledge, an intimacy in no way contradicted by occasional rather arch professions of ignorance, have maintained that he was Spenser himself, acting as his own commentator. Their theory is plausible—but only at first sight. It cannot meet the fact that E. K. has in several places plainly misunderstood his text, and it implies that Spenser could write about the men he imitated and about his own work in the tone of such slurs as those, in the beginning of the ‘January’ gloss and in the argument of ‘November,’ on the genial Marot. Most critics, therefore, abide by the older opinion that E. K. was Edward Kirke, a contemporary of Spenser and Harvey at Cambridge (sizar, for a time, in their own hall, Pembroke) and of kin, perhaps, to the ‘Mistresse Kerke’ of Spenser’s first letter. This opinion, though but conjectural, clashes with neither fact nor sentiment.  2
  The main riddle of the eclogues themselves is, of course, Rosalinde. Who she was, and how seriously the tale of which she is the faithless heroine must be taken, have busied, it may be thought, only too many minds. For her identity, the evidence comprises three points: that, according to the gloss on ‘January,’ her poetic name is an anagram of her real; that, according to the gloss on ‘April,’ she was ‘a gentle-woman of no meane house;’ and that, to judge by the general tenor of the narrative, her home was in that northeast corner of Lancashire which is unmistakably the scene of the love-eclogues. Yet after much patient work, the most recent of investigators has produced no one but a quite supposititious Rose Dineley, of a surname common in those parts,—and there the matter may rest. Nor need the love-story itself be discussed, or the depth of the poet’s passion. Concerning this last, however, one point may be noted. That Rosalinde is celebrated as late as Colin Clout’s Come Home Again, in 1591, need mean no more than that she was then still, in a sense, the poet’s official mistress, remembered with kindly appreciation and not yet displaced by the woman whom shortly afterwards he wooed to good purpose.  3
  Though we do not know her name or the real facts of her story, and though the pastoral disguise of the eclogues is quite baffling, Rosalinde is none the less a curiously distinct personage. E. K. and Harvey have both recorded her qualities. ‘Shee is a gentlewoman of no meane house,’ says E. K. in his gloss for ‘April,’ nor endewed with anye vulgare and common gifts both of nature and manners.’ Harvey speaks more intimately—in a letter to Spenser of April, 1580. In one part of this, extolling the charms of that mysterious beauty with whom the poet was then solacing his wounded heart, he declares her to be ‘another little Rosalinde’ (altera Rosalindula—the diminutive suggests that the true Rosalinde was of more native dignity); and in another part, upon a matter of literary interest, he appeals to ‘his conceite whom gentle Mistresse Rosalinde once reported to have all the intelligences at commaundement, and at another time christened her Segnior Pegaso.’ That last fragment tells us more about the real qualities of this ‘gentlewoman of no meane house,’ and suggests more about her probable dealings with the poet, than all the tuneful lamentations of the eclogues.  4
  The love-story of Rosalinde and Colin Clout is the central theme of the Calendar. It gives to what might else have been a collection of independent eclogues the appearance of dramatic continuity, and at the end, in ‘December,’ it broadens into a kind of tragic allegory of life which closes the round of the months with philosophic dignity. For purposes of artistic centralization, indeed, it was undoubtedly the fittest theme that Spenser could have selected, and it had the special appeal to him of a fresh and perhaps poignant experience. It is not the only theme, however, to be developed with recurrent emphasis. That of the central eclogues, ‘May,’ ‘July,’ and ‘September,’ is elaborated with almost equal amplitude, and with such apparent earnestness that these eclogues have very generally been held to express sincere personal convictions. If that opinion be true (and there is certainly some truth in it), Spenser was, at this stage of his life, more or less a Puritan.  5
  Nothing, indeed, would be more natural than that, in 1579, when the Elizabethan Church was but just emerging from its earlier days of uncertainty, a young man of generous moral instincts, a seeker of the ideal, should sympathize with the main attitude of the Puritans. Among the several parties of the composite and still rather incoherent Anglican communion, they stood most typically for moral earnestness. This temper might sometimes run to extremes; the more violent of them, Cartwright and such, might be root and branch reformers, hewers of Agag in pieces before the Lord; but the greater part were men whose zeal showed itself chiefly in diligent preaching and urging of their convictions—the need of simplicity in the worship and of earnestness in the service of God. Compared with these men, those higher ecclesiastics who had the difficult task of maintaining the Queen’s policy of compromise, and of preserving what could be preserved of the older ceremonies and dignities of religion, might conceivably seem lukewarm and worldly-minded. And among the lower clergy, especially in the rural districts, there were still but too many like the priest in ‘Mother Hubberd’s Tale,’ who had been Catholic and were now half Protestant, ignorant, lazy, worthless. The energy of vital religion might at this time seem to be with the Puritans. The objects of their denunciation were, moreover, not all mere matters of ritual and form, but, many of them, very real abuses.  6
  To what extent Spenser may have held with the Puritans is nevertheless a somewhat perplexed question. One could wish that the allegory of the three eclogues were clearer. A few specific allusions, to be sure, give it an air of actuality, but they do not carry us very far. ‘Old Algrind,’ the type of the pious and venerable shepherd, is beyond fair question Grindal, Archbishop of Canterbury, then in utter disgrace with the Queen for having refused to put down Puritan ‘prophesyings.’ Morrell, the ‘goteheard prowde,’ is quite probably Aylmer, Bishop of London, one of those who helped to do the work that Grindal declined. When we look for definite ideas, however, we find ourselves continually at a balance between the Puritan and the more broadly Protestant. If the sentiment of the first part of ‘May’ is distinctly Puritan, the remainder of that eclogue, which inveighs against the wiles of the Papists, conveys little more than the general sentiment of the English Reformation. As for the main burden of the eclogues, against the pride, luxury, and corruption of a worldly priesthood, one is perpetually in doubt whether it be directed against the orthodox clergy of the Church of England or against the clergy of the Church of Rome. This ambiguity, to be sure, may be the poet’s safeguard against possible ill-consequences: it suggests, however, that he was not a thorough-going partisan. With those who held Anglicanism to be mere Popery he of course had no ties at all, or he would not have admitted E. K.’s comment in ‘May’ upon Some gan, etc. On the whole, then, beyond strong disapproval of abuses in church patronage, such as those described in ‘Mother Hubberd’s Tale,’ and of high living and laziness and spiritual dullness among the clergy, Spenser’s Puritan sympathies do not seem to have extended far. Except for a brief passage upon the intercession of saints, the thought of which is broadly Protestant, there is hardly a glance at dogma.  7
  In two out of the three eclogues, in ‘July’ and ‘September,’ Spenser borrows themes and even whole passages from his pastoral forerunner, Mantuan, the satirist of the Roman clergy. How far this borrowing may make against his sincerity is matter for individual judgment. In any case, it exemplifies one of the fundamental characteristics of the Calendar. When young Alexander Pope, in the days of his ardent reading among the classics, undertook to compose a set of pastorals, he first fixed his attention on ‘the only undisputed authors’ of that genre, Theocritus and Virgil, then, from a study of their eclogues, derived four absolute types, comprehensive of ‘all the subjects which the criticks upon Theocritus and Virgil will allow to be fit for pastoral.’ Young Spenser, equally ardent with his books and living in a less formally critical age, proceeded on quite another principle. Since the days of the Greek and Latin fathers of the pastoral there had been a goodly line of successors, under whom the genre had developed in many directions. Petrarch, Mantuan, Sannazaro, Marot, to mention but a few of the chief, had each contributed his share of themes and methods. The main development had been in allegory, the use of the pastoral form, that is, for the discussion of contemporary or personal affairs and the introduction of real people. By the time Spenser came to write, then, the literature of the pastoral was immense and surpassingly diverse; it had, moreover, quite lost the peculiar quality of its earliest days, when an idyll was a direct poetic rendering of real life, and had crystallized into a system of conventional symbols, which might still be used by a master with living imaginative effect, but which, without a radical reversion, could hardly again render real life. Out of this literature Spenser adopted types and definite themes, and imitated special passages, with studied care for variety. The types need not here be particularized, but of definite themes, elaborated in part by direct translation or paraphrase, we have, for instance, the religious satire of ‘July’ and ‘September,’ out of Mantuan, the complaint of the hard lot of poets, in ‘October,’ also out of Mantuan, the dirge in ‘November’ and parts of ‘December,’ in imitation of Marot, ‘March’ after Bion. For the general scheme of stringing the loose eclogues on a slight thread of romance, that, too, though perhaps mainly original, had been, in a way, anticipated by Boccaccio and Sannazaro. Of real contributions to the genre we find few beyond the use of the fable and the idea of making an eclogue-series a calendar.  8
  This imitativeness, the eagerness to appropriate interesting or otherwise attractive themes by which to give his work variety, to experiment in various acknowledged styles, is, indeed, the most distinguishing characteristic of the Calendar. It is one manifestation of what may be called the voracity of taste in youth. Spenser was doing what Stevenson, in a well-known essay, has told us that he, in his time, did, and that every active young follower of letters must inevitably do, what, in the various performances of his early period, Pope did himself. And as imitation goes hand in hand with experiment, the impulse toward variety in his work shows itself not merely in themes and styles appropriated from earlier pastoral poets, but in the very measures and stanza-forms of his verse. These are strikingly various. There is the irregular accentual verse of ‘February’ and other eclogues, side by side with the even, finely modulated ten-syllable iambic. There is the ballad measure and stanza of ‘July,’ side by side with the elaborate and musical eight-line stanza of ‘June.’ Formal quatrains, now separate, now linked by rhyme; the stanzas, equal in length but vitally different in harmonic effect, of ‘January’ and ‘October;’ a lively roundelay, a starched sestina—one could hardly be more varied. Then there are the hymn-strophes of ‘April’ and ‘November.’ The strophe of this last, opening sonorously with an alexandrine, sinking through melodious decasyllables to the plaintive shorter verses, and rising at the close into another decasyllable, to fall away in a brief refrain, is as noble a prophecy of the larger stanzaic art of the Epithalamion as a young poet could conceivably give. Spenser, indeed, won his supreme mastery of the stanza by long and honest experiment.  9
  The youthfulness of the art is finally evident in the mere arrangement of the eclogues. This reminds one of nothing so much as of that almost mathematical balance with which, as Professor Norton has pointed out, Dante disposed the poems of his Vita Nuova. Formality of structure is of course one of the most common characteristics of youthful art. In the Calendar, this formality, though less exact than in the Vita Nuova, is rather more obvious. The series of eclogues, being in number twelve, has naturally, if one may use the phrase, two centres, ‘June’ and ‘July:’ Spenser’s plan of arrangement is to place, approximately at a balance on either of these centres, such eclogues as stand in contrast or are supplementary to each other. The eclogues, for instance, in which Colin Clout laments his wretched case are three: two must round out the series in ‘January’ and ‘December;’ the third is placed at one of the centres, ‘June.’ The two at the extremes are monologues and both in the crude six-line stanza of even iambics that is used nowhere else: the third, at the centre, is a dialogue in an elaborate eight-line stanza that is also used only here. The three religious eclogues, two in accentual couplets, one in ballad measure, balance in like manner upon ‘July.’ One may note, too, the hymn of praise in ‘April’ over against the dirge in ‘November,’ and may feel, perhaps, a balance in the complaint for poets, of ‘October,’ and the two main tributes, in ‘February’ and ‘June,’ to Chaucer. But one might easily push the analysis too far.  10
  It is with Chaucer, the Tityrus of the eclogues, that any survey of them most naturally concludes. Barring a certain mysterious Wrenock, he is the one master whom Colin Clout acknowledges.
        ‘The god of shepheards, Tityrus, is dead,
Who taught me, homely as I can, to make.’
So says Colin in ‘June,’ and in ‘December’ it is said of him that ‘he of Tityrus his songs did lere.’ How far, then, we inevitably ask ourselves, is Spenser really the disciple of his one great English forerunner? In two prominent characteristics, more or less external, Chaucer’s influence upon the Calendar is, of course, generally admitted. The irregular accentual verse, which is managed so well in ‘February’ and often so poorly in other eclogues and incidental passages, though in general of the decadent Chaucerian school, seems to owe much to direct study of the master himself. And for the diction, in its varying degrees of strangeness, if Spenser, to the discontent of Sidney, ‘framed his style to an old rustic language,’ it was in the main by authority of Chaucer, whose English, now rustic to the modern Elizabethans, was yet their greatest literary tradition. So much can hardly be disputed, and so much does not carry us very far: those who stop there, indeed, must view the professed discipleship as more or less a sentiment. Yet one may fairly believe that Chaucer’s influence is wider and deeper than that. We doubt its extent, perhaps, chiefly when we consider the Calendar too much by itself. As, in the Faery Queen, the strongest immediate influence might be thought to be that of Ariosto, so, in the Calendar, it is unquestionably that of the great pastoral school. If, however, we look, not to themes and methods and merely occasional characteristics of style in this one poem, but to the persistent characteristics of style in Spenser’s total achievement, may we not fairly see the influence of Chaucer dominating all others? That archaism which is held to be the chief note of his influence on the Calendar is not a garb assumed for the time as appropriate: it is the very body of Spenser’s speech. E. K., early in the epistle to Harvey, has suggested its natural growth, which indeed is clear. Reading and rereading the ‘auncient poetes’ of his own tongue, in chief the master of them all, Spenser’s imagination and native sense for language were so saturated with the charm of that older speech that to him it became in the end more real than the speech of his contemporaries, and attracting to itself, by force of sympathetic likeness, provincialisms from a dozen sources, grew to be the living language of his genius. To this, the largest artistic contribution would be Chaucer’s. And for that other element of poetry, verse, we can hardly think that Spenser derived from his great forerunner nothing but models for the measures of ‘February’ and ‘August.’ It is frequently said that, when the final e died out and was forgotten, Chaucer’s verse could be read only by accent and with a kind of popular lilt. Yet there were long passages that would still preserve almost their full metrical flow and beauty. If Spenser, then, became master of a verse ideally flowing and musical, he assuredly learned the art of it in no small measure from the golden cadences of Chaucer. From foreign poets, in brief, he might learn and borrow much in a hundred ways, but the one master who can teach a native style is a native artist, and the one great artist of England, prior to ‘the new poet,’ was Chaucer.
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