The genre of the poem is a pastoral complaint. It is pastoral because it shows a glimpse of a shepherd's life in the open pasture land. It reveals a very romanticized vision of his life as he tends his sheep. It is romanticized, including his love "complainte," because the character, Colin Cloute, cares for sheep, plays his pipe, and calls upon a Greek Muse and Greek gods. for aide in unrequited love
Ye gods of loue, that pitie louers payne, [...]
And Pan thou shepheards God, that once didst loue, [...]
Both pype and Muse, shall sore the while abye. ....
It is a "complainte" because he is unhappy in love and is complaining to the gods, through the inspiration of a Muse, about his broken heart and unrequited love. One thing that makes this poem hard to understand is that Spenser, a contemporary of Shakespeare and Marlowe, opts to write in Middle English as Chaucer did. Thus we have sentences like these:
when Winters wastful spight [spite] was almost spent, [...]
hat now vnnethes [scarcely] their feete could them vphold.
"January" is structured in sestet stanzas of six lines each. The rhyme scheme is ababcc. Though each stanza has a new set of rhymes, each stanza follows a sestet ababcc rhyme scheme. Examples of some stanzaic rhymes are (1) call, spent, befall, ypent, folde, uphold and (2) lost, bowre, frost, flowre, raine, remaine.
The central character is Colin Cloute, and he loves Rosalinde. But, alas and alack, she loves him not. Thus it is that one cold winter day, just past the worst of winter, "when Winters wastful spight was almost spent," Colin let his sheep out, after their being "long ypent," and sat with his pipe and complained to the Gods of Rosalinde's winter-cold heart. In the end, Colin breaks his pipe, a symbol of and metaphor for his broken heart, leaves it there, and takes his sheep home under the mantle of darkness:
So broke his oaten pype, and downe dyd lye.
Arose, and homeward drove his sonned sheepe,
Whose hanging heads did seeme his carefull [woeful] case to weepe.
Colin's story graces "January" because of Rosalinde's cold-heartedness. Her love toward Colin is as frozen as the winter month. Nonetheless, there is a glint of hope for Colin because the winter cold is turning; this is why he brought his sheep out to graze. Since this is true, perhaps Rosalinde's heart may also melt over time. The woodcut that graced Spenser's Shepheardes Calender series shows Colin under a barren tree with his broken pipe at his feet and his sheep--a symbol of hopeful love-- facing him but behind him.