The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

August days bring sickness to the poet. His friends visit him and tell tales of knights, fairies, and giants to while away his days of illness. What pleases him most, however, is the beast fable recounted by old Mother Hubberd. In the fable, the fox approaches his neighbor, the ape, and proposes that they set out together to seek their fortunes. The ape willingly acquiesces, wanting only to know how his friend plans to improve their sorry lot. The fox suggests a disguise and points out that if they pretend to be beggars, they will be free of all obligations and responsibilities. The two dress themselves in the tattered remains of military uniforms to win confidence and sympathy.

The comrades’ first victim is an honest, unintelligent farmer who listens sympathetically to the ape’s description of his misfortunes and his wounds. The ape requests employment—something that will not tax his poor, battered body—and soon he is tending the gullible husbandman’s sheep with the fox as his trusty dog. The partners in crime feast lavishly on their charges for several months, then escape into the night just before they are to produce an accounting of the flock.

Weary of profitless begging, they provide themselves with a gown and a cassock to impersonate learned clergymen. They first encounter an illiterate priest who advises them on their parish duties. All that is necessary is to say the service weekly, to “lay the meat before” the faithful; they have no responsibility for helping their parishioners accept the gospel. The old days when priests prayed daily and sincerely are, fortunately, past.

Now once a week, upon the Sabbath day, “It is enough to do our small devotion,/ And then to follow any merry motion.” The priest then suggests that the fox and ape go to some nobleman, feigning a grave and saintly demeanor, to request a benefice. He cannot recommend that they seek preferment at court, for “nothing there is done without a fee.” Heeding this good counsel, the fox assumes the role of priest, and the ape becomes his parish clerk. They revel gaily for a time, but the complaints...

(The entire section is 868 words.)

Mother Hubberds Tale Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Cummings, Robert M., ed. Spenser: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1971. Spenser’s reputation as a poet’s poet has always been high. This collection of critical opinions on his work traces the course of that reputation from Elizabethan times to the twentieth century.

Fowler, Alastair. “Edmund Spenser.” In British Writers, edited by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979. Excellent introductory piece on Spenser and his works, highlighting his achievements in all poetic genres. Helpful to understanding the place of Mother Hubberds Tale in Spenser’s career.

Jones, H. S. V. A Spenser Handbook. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1930. One of the most useful works dealing with Mother Hubberds Tale. Provides a brief but excellent overview of the work and how it fits into its time.

Nelson, William. The Poems of Edmund Spenser: A Study. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963. Well-balanced, evenhanded study of Spenser’s poetic achievements. The sections dealing with Mother Hubberds Tale are especially helpful.

Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1994. Good, if brief, introductory articles on Spenser and his contemporary scene that illuminate the particular conditions of Elizabethan England.