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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XI. The Poetry of Spenser

§ 5. Spenser and Harvey

After spending some time in Lancashire, he was brought south, through the influence of his friend Harvey, and employed in the service of the earl of Leicester. In this capacity, he made the acquaintance of Leicester’s nephew, Philip Sidney, whose ardent imagination and lofty spirit greatly stimulated him in the prosecution of his poetical designs. The poet’s correspondence with Gabriel Harvey, at this period, throws much light on the ambiguities and fluctuations of his literary motives. He tells Harvey, whom he knew to be likely to sympathise with him, how he has become one of an “Areopagus,” in which Sidney and Dyer were the leading spirits, and the prime object of which was to naturalise in the language a system of versification based on quantity. He himself ventures on some experiments in this direction so wretched in execution as to remove all grounds for wonder at the poor quality of his compositions in Latin verse. At the same time, his letters make it evident that he was engaged in writing, in metres constructed with accent and rime, on subjects much better suited to the turn of his genius. Feeling that the power of poetry lay chiefly in imagery, he began, after his philosophical exposition of Platonic doctrine in the Hymnes in honour of Love and Beautie, to consider under what artistic forms he might make his thought more intelligible to the general reader. Two images were at once ready to his hand in the shepherd and the knight—the heroes, so to speak, of two widely popular forms of poetry, pastoralism and romance. Both of these seem to have suggested themselves to him about the same time as fitting subjects for poetical allegory, for, before the publication of The Shepheards Calender, he had forwarded to Harvey specimens of his workmanship in The Faerie Queene. The pastoral, however, as a style more easy of execution for a poet wanting in experience, attracted him first, as may be inferred from the quaintly conceited account of his motives prefixed by his commentator E. K. to The Shepheards Calender:

  • And also appeareth by the basenesse of the name, wherein it semeth he chose rather to unfold great matter of argument covertly then, professing it, not suffice thereto accordingly. Which moved him rather in Æglogues then other wise to write, doubting perhaps his habilitie, which he little needed, or mynding to furnish our tongue with this kinde, wherein it faulteth; or following the example of the best and most auncient Poetes, which devised this kind of wryting, being both so base for the matter, and homely for the manner, at the first to trye theyr habilities; and as young birdes, that be newly crept out of the nest, by little first to prove theyr tender wyngs, before they make a greater flyght.
  • Whatever were the precise reasons that determined Spenser to make his first poetical venture in the region of pastoral poetry, there can be no doubt that he must have perceived the opportunities afforded to invention by the practice of his literary predecessors. In the first place, the eclogue gave great scope for allegory. Even in Theocritus, the poet is presented under the guise of a shepherd, and in Moschus’s lament for Bion this dress takes a distinctly personal character. From such a beginning it was but a step for Vergil to make the shepherd a mouthpiece for compliments addressed to statesmen in the city; and, with equal readiness, the eclogue, in the Middle Ages, passed from civil into ecclesiastical allegory for the purposes of flattery or satire. A certain convenient obscurity thus began to cover all pastoral utterances, so that, to quote the words of Petrarch, “it is the nature of this class of literature that, if the author does not provide a commentary, its meaning may, perhaps, be guessed, but can never be fully understood.”

    The eclogue, again, recommended itself to Spenser on account of the great variety of matter that had come to be treated in it. In its most elementary conditions, it was used to represent either a contest in singing between two shepherds, a lover’s complaint, or a dirge for some dead acquaintance. Transported into the region of allegory, the singing dialogue might be turned into a channel for discoursing on the contemporary state of poetry; love might be treated in its Platonic character; the dirge might be developed into a court panegyric. All these modes of application were of use to a poet in Spenser’s position. He also saw that it was possible for him to invest the eclogue with a certain novelty of appearance. Till the dawn of the renascence, all pastoral poetry had been written in Latin, the last author of this kind being Baptista Mantuanus, a Carmelite monk (1448–1516); but Jacopo Sannazaro, of Naples, in 1490, broke new ground in his Arcadia, a kind of romance, interspersed with eclogues written in Italian. Clément Marot, in France, before the middle of the sixteenth century, naturalised the form of the Latin eclogue in the French vernacular. His Complaincte d’un Pastoureau Chrestien, his Eglogue au Roy and his Elegie sur Mme. Loise de Savoye, furnished models of which Spenser freely availed himself. In England, Barnabe Googe moved along the same protestant and humanist lines as Marot, importing, also, into his pastoral dialogues, romantic elements borrowed from Diana Enamorada, which he had probably read during his travels in Spain. Traces of acquaintance with all these compositions are visible in The Shepheards Calender, lightly imprinted on a form of the eclogue which is the invention of Spenser himself.