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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

§ 6. The Shepheards Calender

The Shepheards Calender was published in 1579. It was dedicated to “The Noble and Vertuous Gentleman, worthy of all titles both of Learning and Chevalrie, M. Philip Sidney.” With characteristic diffidence, the poet hesitated in giving his work to the world, partly from the fear, as he confesses in a letter to Harvey, of “cloying the noble ears” of his patron, and thus incurring his contempt, partly because the poem itself was written in honour of a private person, and so might be thought “too base for his excellent Lordship.” Sidney hastened to show that these apprehensions were groundless, by bestowing high praise on The Shepheards Calender, in his Defence of Poesie, qualified, indeed, by one important censure: “That same framing of his style to an olde rusticke language, I dare not allow: since neither Theocritus in Greeke, Virgill in Latine, nor Sanazara in Italian, did affect it.” The objection is of historical interest, as illustrating the extent to which the men of the early renascence in England submitted themselves to the authority of the ancients, and to the Aristotelian criticism of the Italian academies: the remark itself touches merely the superficial question of style, and does not attempt to penetrate the deeper question how far the traditional from of the pastoral can be taken as a proper vehicel for modern thought and feeling. For the age of Elizabeth it bore immediate fruit. On the one hand, Sidney’s praise gave a vogue to the pastoral style; on the other, his censure of rusticity in language warned those who attempted the pastoral manner off Spenser’s example. Drayton, in his Eclogues, while preserving the clownish nomenclature of The Shepheards Calender, takes care to make his speakers discourse in the language of polished literature.

The Shepheards Calender was introduced to the notice of the public by a commentator signing himself E. K., who is conjectured, with every probability, to have been Spenser’s fellow-collegian and contemporary, Edward Kirke. E. K.’s preface, addressed to Gabriel Harvey, and written in the contorted style approved by him, was divided into two portions, one being a defence of Spenser’s practice in respect of diction, the other a description of his design. Of the latter, E. K. says:

  • Now, as touching the generall dryft and purpose of his Æglogues I mind not to say much, him selfe labouring to conceale it. Onely this appeareth, that his unstayed yougth had long wandred in the common Labyrinth of Love, in which time to mitigate and allay the heate of his passion, or els to warne (as he sayth) the young shepheards, his equalls and companions, of his unfortunate folly, he compiled these XII Æglogues, which, for that they be proportioned to the state of the XII monethes, he termeth the Shepheards Calendar, applying an olde name to a new worke.
  • Had the design of The Shepheards Calender been so simple as E. K. suggests, the work would have had unity, but little variety. Spenser would have confined himself to a rendering of the traditional idea of pastoral love adapted to the changes of the different seasons; but, as a mater of fact, the unity of the design lies solely in an allegorical calendar, treated ethically, in agreement with the physical characteristics of the different months. The idea of love is presented prominently only in four of the eclogues, viz. those for January, March, June and December: of the rest, four, those for February, May, July and September, deal with matters relating to morality or religion; two are complimentary or elegiac, those for April and November; one, that for August, describes a singing match pure and simple; and one, that for October, is devoted to a lament for the neglect of poetry. Hence, it appears that Spenser, without making much account of the singleness of purpose ascribed to him by his commentator, contrives to include within the plan of the pastoral calendar a large number of those traditional motives which had been employed by his predecessors in this class of poetry. And, from this fact, we may safely make two inferences, which apply to all Spenser’s allegories, philosophical, pastoral, or romantic. In the first place, it is misleading to gather the sense of the allegory from the apparent nature of his theme. His mind did not energise within its professed subject, like that of Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress, where the plan, action and characters of the story are plainly evolved directly from the inherent spiritual thought. In the second place, the true significance of Spenser’s allegorical matter can only be discovered by tracking the sources of his allegorical forms. His motives are artistic rather than ethical, and he is concerned less with matter of thought than manner of expression. This is the case even with those classes of his compositions in which his motive appears to be primarily philosophical. If, for example, the Platonism in his Hymnes be compared with that of Wordsworth in the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality, a striking difference of conception is at once observable. Wordsworth’s poetical inspiration comes immediately from within: the speculations of Plato, no doubt, set his imagination to work, but his imaginative reasoning is his own; whereas, in the Hymnes, as has been already shown, Spenser merely expounds, without alteration, the theory of beauty which he has derived from the commentary of Ficino on Plato’s Symposium; his sole original contribution to the poetry is the beautiful and harmonious form of English verse which he makes the vehicle of the thought.

    It we look away from the authorised account of Spenser’s design in The Shepheards Calender to the actual gestation of the poem in his imagination, it is plain that, before constructing his general idea, he had carefully studied the pastoral practice of Theocritus, Bion, Vergil, Mantuan and Marot. His sympathetic intelligence had been impressed by many imaginative passages in these authors, and he desired to reproduce them in a novel form. For this purpose, he chose, as the basis of his entire work, an allegory founded on the widely popular Kalendrier des Bergers—a almanac describing the tasks of shepherds in the different months of the year—and resolved to include within his poetical edifice the various subjects hitherto handled in the eclogue. In dealing with the subject of love, he naturally took as his models the Greek and Latin idyllists, who had preceded him with many complaints of shepherds unfortunate in their wooing. But the direct expression of passion by these pagan poets had to be harmonised with the sub-tone of Platonism imported into amorous verse by the troubadours and Petrarch. Colin Clout, the love-lorn shepherd, whose lamentations run, more or less, through all seasons of the year, has been treated by Rosalind, “the widowe’s daughter of the glenne,” with the “cruelty” prescribed to ladies in the conventional rules of the courts of love and utters his despair, in the winter months of January and December. His feelings are much more complex than those ascribed for example, by Theocritus to the lover of Amaryllis, and, in the following stanza, it is plain that the pastoral sentiment has been transferred from the fields to the artificial atmosphere of court life:

  • A thousand sithes I curse that carefull hower
  • Wherein I longd the neighbour towne to see,
  • And eke tenne thousand sithes I blesse the stoure
  • Wherein I sawe so fayre a sight as shee:
  • Yet all for naught: such sight hath bred my bane.
  • Ah, God! that love should breede both joy and payne!
  • Again, in the complaint of Colin in December, the essential motive is distinctly literary: it lies much less in the lover’s pain than in the recollections of his untroubled youth, that is to say, in a passage of this character in Marot’s Eglogue au Roy, which Spenser has very closely imitated. So, also, in the March eclogue, where the dialogue is carried on between two shepherds called Thomalin and Willie, the real motive is to imitate Bion’s second idyll—containing a purely pagan conception of love—in the rustic style specially devised by Spenser for his speakers. The result is not very happy. Bion’s idyll is, really, an epigram. It describes how a boy fowler spied Love sitting like a bird on a tree, and how he vainly endeavoured to ensnare him with all the arts he had lately learned. The boy relates his want of success to an old bird-catcher who had taught him, and is bidden to give over the chase, since, when he attains to man’s estate, instead of trying to catch Love, he will regret being caught by him. Spenser’s imitation of this is comparatively clumsy. He represents two young shepherds talking together in a manner befitting the spring season. Thomalin tells his friend how he recently startled from the bushes a “naked swayne” (so Moschus describes Love) and how he shot at him with his arrows till he had emptied his quiver, when he ran away in a fright, and the creature shot at him, and hit him in the heel. Willie explains to his friend that the swain was Love, a fact with which he is acquainted because his father had once caught him in a fowling net, fortunately without his bow and arrows. The eclogue concludes, as usual, with “emblems” chosen by the two speakers. The epigrammatic terseness of Bion, whose idyll is contained in sixteen lines, is lost in Spenser’s diffuse description, which runs to one hundred and seventeen.