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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

§ 8. Vocabulary of The Shepheards Calender

Spenser may very well have meant to emulate the neologising tendency of the almost contemporary Pléiade; in which case, it is interesting to observe the opposite principle on which he proceeded; for, while the French reformers aimed mainly at coining new words from Latin and Greek, the English poet sought, in the first place, to revive old standard words which had fallen out of colloquial use. But, on the whole, it seems probable that, above all things, he was anxious to treat language as entering into his allegory, and to frame a mode of diction which should appear to be in keeping with his pastoral characters. For this purpose, he, in the first place, turned, as E. K. says, to the monuments of ruder antiquity, and revived obsolete words from the writings of Chaucer and Lydgate. Wyatt and Surrey had also founded themselves on Chaucer, but with a different motive, their aim being, rather, to make a selection of such old literary words as should seem to be not uncongenial to courtly speech; Spenser, on the contrary, was deliberately archaic. With his literary archaisms he blended many peculiarities of dialect, turning from the southern dialect, which had become the basis of literary composition and polite conversation, to the midland or northern varieties of the tongue, which were held to be rustic and uncourtly. And, besides these two recognised sources of vocabulary, he drew considerably on his own invention, from which he often coined a word conformable to the style of his verse, but unauthorised by precedent in speech or writing. The result of this procedure was, on the one hand, as Ben Jonson says, that “Spenser, in affecting the obsolete, writ no language”; on the other, that he constructed a style singularly appropriate to the multiform character of his pastoral allegory. When he thought that the situation demanded it, he could be clownish to the point of doggerel, as in September, where two shepherds, Hobbinol and Diggon Davie, discourse about religion. But in many other eclogues the rustic dialect is thrown aside, and it is evident that the poet means to make use of his pastoral subject mainly for the purpose of metrical experiment. In this sphere, he displays the genius of a great poet-musician. We have only to compare the rhythms of The Shepheards Calender with those of A Mirror for Magistrates in general, and even with that of Sackville’s Induction in particular, to see that a metrical writer had arisen who excelled all his predecessors in his sense of the capacity of the English language for harmonious combinations of sound: whether he takes an irregular lyrical flight, or employs the iambic rhythm in uniform stanzas, he shows that he can use the courtly style of diction to the utmost advantage. Nothing can be more beautiful, for example, than the versification of the two following stanzas:

  • Colin, to heare thy rymes and roundelayes,
  • Which thou wert wont on wastfull hylls to singe,
  • I more delight then larke in Sommer dayes;
  • Whose Echo made the neyghbour groves to ring,
  • And taught the byrds, which in the lower spring
  • Did shroude in shady leaves from sonny rayes,
  • Frame to thy songe their chereful cheriping,
  • Or hold theyr peace, for shame of thy swete layes.
  • I sawe Calliope wyth Muses moe,
  • Soone as thy oaten pype began to sound,
  • Theyr yvory Luyts and Tamburins forgoe,
  • And from the fountaine, where they sat around,
  • Renne after hastely thy silver sound;
  • But, when they came where thou thy skill didst showe,
  • They drewe abacke, as halfe with shame confound
  • Shepheard to see them in theyr art outgoe.
  • No less melodious are the lyrical songs which, in the eclogues for April and November, he turns to the purposes of compliment or elegy, and which anticipate the still more exquisite music of the Prothalamion and Epithalamion, the work of his later years.