Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 7. Spenser’s literary obligations to Mantuan, Vergil and Marot

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

XI. The Poetry of Spenser

§ 7. Spenser’s literary obligations to Mantuan, Vergil and Marot

In the eclogues of a religious turn, the primary inspiration is seen to be no less traditional and literary. Here, the main suggestion is, generally, furnished by Mantuan. Mantuan, in his eighth eclogue, introduces two shepherds, Candidus and Alphus, discussing the respective advantages of life in the mountains and on the plains. The treatment is simple enough. Candidus, who represents the former, praises the mountains, chiefly on account of the monasteries built in them. He also mentions the earthly paradise and the fall of man, at once with the naïveté characteristic of a rustic mind and with the pagan imagery proper to Latin verse:

  • Esse locum memorant, ubi surgit ab aequore Titan,
  • Qui, nisi dedidici, contingit vertice Lunam,
  • Et vixisse illic hominem, sed postea abactum
  • Improbitate gulae, quod scilicet omnia poma
  • Manderet, et magno servasset nulla Tonanti.
  • Spenser, in his eclogue for July, imitates this passage in imagery scarcely less formally pagan:
  • Besyde, as holy fathers sayne,
  • There is a hyllye place,
  • Where Titan ryseth from the mayne
  • To renne hys dayly race,
  • Upon whose toppe the starres bene stayed,
  • And all the skie doth leane;
  • There is the cave where Phoebe layed
  • The shepheard long to dreame.
  • Whilome there used shepheards all
  • To feede theyr flocks at will,
  • Till by his foly one did fall,
  • That all the rest did spill.
  • Mantuan contents himself with clothing theological allusions in classical imagery; his mountains and plains are really mountains and plains; Spenser, in his eclogue, extends his allegory to all the images suggested to him by Mantuan: his mountains become types of ecclesiatical pride and luxury, his plains, of the humility required by true religion.

    In the eclogue for September, he follows more closely Mantuan’s steps in the pastoral called Religio. Mantuan himself had built his poem allegorically on Vergil’s first eclogue, in which Tityrus describes to his friend Meliboeus—a shepherd driven from his farm—the glories of the city of Rome, whither he had gone, when his lands were lost to him by his ruinous love for Galatea, and had had them restored by the bounty of a divine youth, who now enabled him to live with comfort in the country. The medieval poet, satirically inverting the idea, represents Candidus, a shepherd from the north of Italy, arriving in the neighbourhood of Rome, where he hopes to find rich pasture for his flock. Bitterly disappointed with the climate of that barren place, he bewails his lot to his friend Faustulus, who explains to him all the evils that arise from the character of the shepherds of the neighbourhood and the dogs that devour the sheep. Here, the sense is, of course, allegorical Spenser takes up Mantuan’s idea, with certain modifications, making Diggon Davie, his chief speaker, return to his native district, after wandering abroad with his flock, and relate to Hobbinol his sad experiences. The satire, which reflects on the worldliness of the Anglican clergy, is more particular than that of Mantuan, and contains many personal allusions.

    Two eclogues, those for April and November, are devoted, respectively, to courtly compliment and courtly elegy. Here, Spenser found his models both in Vergil and Marot. The first eclogue of Vergil is intended to convey a compliment to Octavianus: his last is an imaginary elegy in honour of his friend Gallus. Marot, in his Eglogue au Roy, under cover of pastoral imagery, returns thanks to his sovereign, Francis I, for the relief given him in his old age; while, in his Elegie sur Mme. Loise de Savoye, he adapts the traditional manner to courtly purposes, on the principle applied by Vergil in his tenth eclogue. Spenser, following closely in the track of Marot, nevertheless diverges, as usual, slightly from his model, partly for the sake of being original, partly to preserve the air of greater rusticity affected in his own eclogues. In April, the praises of Elizabeth are recited by Hobbinol from a lay made by Colin, who has left his daily work for love of Rosalind: in November, Dido, “the great shepherd’s daughter,” is lamented by Colin himself, in lyrical strophes which replace the uniform stanza employed by Marot throughout his elegy on Loise de Savoye.

    Finally, Spenser uses the eclogue for the allegorical purpose of discoursing on the contemporary state of poetry. Here, again, a lead had been given him by Mantuan in his fifth eclogue, De Consuetudine Divitum erga Poetas; but Mantuan himself had an original in the sixteenth idyll of Theocritus, in which the poet addressing Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse, complains of the meagre patronage extended to the poets of the time, and claims generous assistance. Spenser, in his October eclogue, adheres closely to the framework of Mantuan’s poem. Like Candidus, in that composition, Cuddie, the poet, appealed to by his companion Piers, maintains that his

  • poore Muse hath spent her spared store,
  • Yet little good hath got, and much lesse gayne;
  • like Sylvanus, Piers exhorts his friend to sing to the country folk, for glory, if not for gain; and, if he will not do this, to try his fortune at court. But, when Cuddie still resists his friend’s appeal, Piers, who is of a more exalted spirit than Sylvanus, cries:
  • Then make thee winges of thine aspyring wit,
  • And, whence thou camst, flye backe to heaven apace.
  • Cuddie, however, is dejected by unsuccessful love, and, though Piers maintains that love (in Plato’s sense) should lift him “above the starry skie,” Cuddie persists in declaring that
  • All otherwise the state of Poet stands;
  • For lordly love is such a Tyranne fell,
  • That where he rules all power he doth expell;
  • The vaunted verse a vacant head demaundes.
  • If he is to sing of lofty themes, his imagination must be heated to them by the material goods of life:
  • For Bacchus fruite is frend to Phœbus wise;
  • And, when the Wine the braine begins to sweate,
  • The nombers flowe as fast as spring doth ryse.
  • The characteristics of Spenser’s pastoral style, then, make it plain that, if we would estimate aright the value of his allegory, we must consider the form of his eclogues apart from their matter. As regards the latter, the eclectic treatment which he bestowed upon his material is a sign—as eclecticism is in all the arts—of exhaustion in the natural sources of inspiration. Spenser may be regarded as, in one sense, the last master in a cosmopolitan style of poetical composition, and, in another, as the pioneer of a new departure in the art of English poetry. The atmosphere of The Shepheards Calender is thoroughly artificial. As treated by its inventor, Theocritus, the essence of the idyll was truth to nature. His beautiful and lucid rendering of the pains and pleasures of shepherd life, the musical simplicity of the verse, in which he calls up images of whispering pine-trees, falling waters, climbing flocks and flowering hills, are as charming to the English mind to-day as they were to his Greek audience more than two thousand years ago. But, when Spenser took up the eclogue, it was as heir to a long line of ancestors, each of whom had added to it some imaginative element disguising the simplicity of the fundamental style; pastoral poetry, in fact, had now reached a stage where allegory was believed to be essential to it, and when Petrarch could say of it that, “if the author does not provide a commentary, its meaning may, perhaps, be guessed, but can never be fully understood.” Every one can fully understand the naïve and passionate despair of Theocritus’s goatherd after his vain appeal to Amaryllis in the third idyll; but there is little appearance of genuine emotion in the allegorical grief of Colin Clout, timed to suit the wintry season. Nature, again, speaks in each line of the idyll called The Adoniazusae, where Gorgo and Praxinoe chatter to each other precisely after the fashion of Englishwomen going to look on at a public spectacle. But, in Spenser’s eclogues for May, July and September, we have to accustom ourselves to an exotic atmosphere before we realise the propriety of transferring the pastoral image from the rural to the ecclesiastical flock; nor can we at all reconcile the theological refinements in the discourse of Piers and Palinode to the actual simplicity of the bucolic mind. Whatever authority Spenser could have cited from Vergil and Marot for the compliment he paid to Elizabeth, as “queene of shepheardes all,” it is surely an anomaly in nature to associate the pastoral image with one that inevitably calls up a vision of “ruffs, and cuffs, and farthingales, and things.”

    If, however, Spenser’s practice in bucolic poetry be viewed mainly on the technical side, The Shepheards Calender appears as a most important monument in the history of English poetry. Every reader must admire the skill displayed by the poet in providing a suitable form for the great variety of his matter. His selection of the Kalendrier des Bergers, as the foundation of his allegory, is an excellent piece of invention, and the judgment with which he distributes his materials over the various seasons, the consistency with which he preserves the characters of his shepherds, the propriety of the rural images employed for the ornament of discourse, all show the hand of a great poetical artist. His achievements in the sphere of verbal harmony are the more admirable when the immature state of the language before the publication of this poem is taken into account. E. K. devotes the larger part of his prolegomena to defending the mode of diction afterwards blamed by Sir Philip Sidney:

  • And firste of the wordes to speake, I graunt they be something hard, and of most men unused, yet both English, and also used of most excellent Authors, and most famous Poetes. In whom, wheneas this our Poet hath bene much traveiled and thoroughly redd, how could it be, (as that worthy Oratour sayde) but that walking in the sonne, although for other cause he walked, yet needes he mought be sunburnt; and, having the sound of those auncient Poetes still ringing in his eares, he mought needes, in singing, hit out some of theyr tunes. But whether he useth them by such casualtye and custome, or of set purpose and choyse, as thinking them fittest for such rusticall rudenesse of shepheards, eyther for that theyr rude sounde would make his rymes more ragged and rustical, or els because such olde and obsolete wordes are most used of country folke, sure I think, and think I think not amisse, that they bring great grace, and, as one would say, auctoritie to the verse.… For, if my memory faile not, Tullie, in that booke wherein he endevoureth to set forth the paterne of a perfect Oratour, sayth that ofttimes an auncient worde maketh the style seeme grave, and as it were reverend, no otherwise then we honour and reverence gray heares, for a certain religious regard, which we have of old age.