What is the theme of the major poem The Shepheardes Calender by Edmund Spenser?

Expert Answers
Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Edmund Spenser's first work, The Shepheardes Calender (1579) is a collection of twelve pastoral poems deliberately written with archaic (out of date) vocabulary and spelling to recall the English of Chaucer’s poetry. Pastorals praise the idyllic setting of country landscape and simplicity of the shepherd's life. Spenser’s pastorals are formally called eclogues. American Heritage Dictionary defines eclogue (a Middle English word derived from a Latin word borrowed from the Greek original) as "A pastoral poem, usually in the form of a dialogue between shepherds" (TheFreeDictionary.com). The hero of Spenser's poem is Colin Clout. His dialogue is primarily, though not exclusively, with Rosalind, a shepherdess and the object of his love, and Piers, a rival shepherd with whom Colin has singing contests.

Spenser's writing was influenced by the ancient Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro, commonly known as Virgil (sometimes spelled Vergil), author of Aeneid. Spenser was also influenced by an earlier Italian pastoral writer Baptista Spangnuoli Mantuanus, known in English simply as Mantuan. The themes in Spenser's anonymously published poem reflect these influences. Spenser addresses both minor and major themes (Enotes.com) that are traditional to Virgilian and Mantuan eclogues.

Two minor themes are singing contests between rival shepherds and laments for deceased friends via elegies, which are poems of lament composed in elegiac couplets: dactylic hexameter and pentameter lines. Two major themes are the lament of scorned love along with religious and political criticism. Regarding the first theme, Colin's love for Rosalind is unrequitted as it remains unreturned because she scorns him. Regarding the second theme, sections of dialogue represent social and  political comment in the form of criticism of both Church and State--religious practice and government practice. An example of religious criticism occurs when Piers, while in a debate with Palinode, speaks against the life style of the clergy who live sumptuous extravagant lives. In The Shepheardes Calender, Piers represents Protestantism and thus is the voice of reform. These are themes upon which Spenser will enlarge in his second and most well known work The Faerie Queene (1590 and 1596).