Edmund Spenser Poetry: British Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

By an eclectic mingling of old traditions, Edmund Spenser created new poetry—new in verse forms, in language, and in genre. From the Middle Ages, Spenser had inherited complex allegorical traditions and a habit of interlacing narrative strands; these traditions were fused with classical myth and generic conventions, some of them transformed by continental imitators before they reached Spenser. This fusion of medievalism and classicism was in turn modified by currents of thought prevalent in Tudor England, especially by the intense nationalism that manifested itself in religion, language, politics, and international affairs.

To some extent, Spenser’s poetic development evolved naturally from his deliberate selection of Vergil as his model. Like Vergil, he started his published career with pastoral eclogues; like him, too, he turned, in his last major work, from shepherds to great heroes. Before Spenser evoked classical muses in his epic, however, the tradition of Vergil had picked up romantic coloring and allegorical overtones from continental epics, especially Ludovico Ariosto’s highly allegorized Orlando Furioso (1516, 1521, 1532; English translation, 1591). Spenser himself announced the three-way pattern adopted for The Faerie Queene:“Fierce wars and faithful loves shall moralize my song.” Long after Spenser’s death, his admirers continued to compare him with Vergil, often to Spenser’s advantage. Vergil provided stimulus not only for the pastoral and epic genres in which Spenser wrote his two major works but also for the mythical allusions that permeate most of his work and for the serious use of poetry, especially in political and religious satire and in the reflection of nationalistic pride. Vergil’s exaltation of Augustus and the Roman Empire accorded well with the nationalism of Elizabethan England, a nationalism poetically at its zenith in The Faerie Queene.

Vergil’s sobriquet “Tityrus” became for Spenser a means of double praise when he hailed his fourteenth century predecessor Geoffrey Chaucer as an English Tityrus, the “God of shepheards.” Rustic language, interlocked narratives, and experiments in vernacular quantitative verse forms in The Shepheardes Calender all reflect Chaucerian influence; in a less direct way, the vogue of courtly love in medieval and Renaissance literature was also channeled partly through Chaucer. During the two centuries between Chaucer and Spenser, love poetry became permeated with a blend of Petrarchan and Neoplatonic elements. Petrarchan lovers taught Spenser’s shepherds to lament over their ladies’ cruelty, to extol their beauty, and to describe their own pains, anxieties, and ecstasies with conventional images. The more sensuous aspects of love remained central to many of the Amoretti sonnets and to several set pieces in The Faerie Queene, such as Acrasia’s Bower of Bliss and Busiranes’ Mask of Cupid, but idealistic Neoplatonic concepts also emerged here. Such Neoplatonic concepts undergird the Fowre Hymnes. The first two hymns praise erotic human love and the inspirational force of feminine beauty; the other two deprecate these more earthly powers, elevating in their place the heavenly love and beauty of Christ, the source of all true human love and beauty.

In The Faerie Queene, too, idealistic Neoplatonic elements assume more pervasive significance than do Petrarchan motifs. The Platonic identification of the good and the beautiful, for example, is often manifest, especially in Gloriana, Una, and Belphoebe; and the true and false Florimels of books 3 to 5 exemplify true and false beauty, the former inspiring virtuous love and marriage and the second inciting sensuous lust. Although books 3 and 4 are called the Books of Chastity and Friendship, their linked story dramatically demonstrates variant forms of love. The concept of love as either debilitating or inspiring reflects one of the mythical traditions transmitted from antiquity through the Middle Ages: the double significance of Venus as good and evil love. As the goddess of good, fruitful love, Venus herself frequents the Garden of Adonis, where nature is untouched by deceptive art, where spring and harvest meet, and where love flourishes joyfully. In her own temple, Venus listens to the sound of “lovers piteously complaining” rather than rejoicing.

Renaissance pageantry and Tudor emblem books contributed to the pictorial quality with which Spenser brought myths to life—classical tales, rustic folklore, and his own mythic creations. One of the most picturesque of Spenser’s new myths describes the “spousals” of the Thames and Medway rivers, a ceremony attended by such “wat’ry gods” as Neptune and his son Albion; by other rivers, remote ones such as the Nile and the Ganges, Irish neighbors such as the Liffey and the Mulla, and streams that paid tribute to one of the betrothed rivers; and by Arion, accompanied by his dolphin and carrying the harp with which he provided wedding music. Scenes like these exemplify the artistry with which Spenser created new poetry out of old traditions.

The Shepheardes Calender and Colin Clouts Come Home Againe

Classic and contemporary models, rural and courtly milieu, universal and occasional topics—from such a mixture Spenser formed his first major work, the “little booke,” which he dedicated to Sidney and which he signed “Immerito,” the Unworthy One. The Shepheardes Calender went through five editions between 1579 and 1597, none of them bearing Spenser’s name. Such anonymity fits common Renaissance practice, but it may also have had additional motivation from Spenser’s awareness of sensitive topical allusions with too thin an allegorical veil. Contemporary praise of Spenser indicates that by 1586 the anonymity was technical rather than real. In his twelve eclogues, one for each month of the year, Spenser imitated conventions that Renaissance writers attributed to Vergil and to his Greek predecessors: debates between rustic speakers in a rural setting, varied by a singing match between shepherds, a lament for the death of a beloved companion, praise of the current sovereign, alternating exultation and despair over one’s mistress, and veiled references to contemporary situations. A fifteenth century French work, translated as The Kalender and Compost of Shepherds, probably suggested to Spenser not only his title but also the technique of emblematic illustration, the application of zodiacal signs to everyday life and to the seasons, and the arrangement of instructional commentary according to the months. Barbabe Googe’s The Zodiake of Life (1565) strengthened the satirical and philosophical undertone of the calendar theme.

Despite the surface simplicity connoted by its nominal concern with shepherds, Spenser’s book is a complex work. Not the least of its complexities are the paraphernalia added by “E. K.”: the dedicatory epistle, the introductory arguments (for the whole book and for each eclogue), and the glosses. Although the initials themselves make Spenser’s Cambridge friend Edward Kirke the most likely person to designate as the mysterious commentator, the Renaissance love for name-games does not exclude other possible solutions of the identity puzzle. Even Spenser himself has been suggested as a candidate for the enigmatic role. Many of E. K.’s annotations supply information essential to an understanding of the poet’s cryptic allusions, to the identification of real-life counterparts for the characters, and occasionally to a modernization of archaic diction. Some annotations, however, are either accidentally erroneous or pedantically misleading: for example, several source references and the etymology for “aeglogues.” E. K. derives the term “eclogues” from “Goteheardes tales” rather than from “conversations of shepherds,” the more usual Renaissance understanding of the term; in actuality, “eclogues” are etymologically short selections that convention came to associate with pastoral settings.

The twelve separate selections could have produced a sense of fragmentation, but instead they create a highly unified whole. The most obvious unifying device is the calendar framework, which gives to the individual poems their titles and their moods. Another source of unity lies in the shepherd characters who appear repeatedly, especially Colin Clout, a character borrowed from the Tudor satirist John Skelton and used by Spenser as his own persona. Colin appears in four of the eclogues and is the topic of conversation in three others; his friendship for Hobbinol (identified by E. K. as Harvey), and his love for Rosalind (unidentified) provide a thread of plot throughout the twelve poems. Moreover, the figure of Colin represents the whole life of “everyman”—or at least every poet—as he passes from the role of “shepherd boy” in “January” to that of the mature “gentle shepherd” in “December.”

In his general argument, E. K. establishes three categories for the topics of the eclogues: plaintive, recreative, and moral. The four selections that E. K. classifies as plaintive are those in which Colin’s is the main voice. “January” and “June” are laments about his futile love for Rosalind; “December,” too, is a conventional love plaint, although it adds the dimension of Colin’s approaching death. “November,” one of the most highly structured eclogues, is a pastoral elegy for Dido, the daughter of one “greate shephearde” and the beloved of another “greate shepheard Lobbin.” E. K. pleads ignorance of the identity of both shepherds, but most critics identify “Lobbin” as a typical anagram for Robin (Robert Dudley) plus Leicester, thus suggesting a covert allusion to a love interest of Elizabeth’s favorite, the earl of Leicester.

The first of the three recreative selections, “March,” is a sprightly, occasionally bawdy, discussion of love by two shepherd boys. “April” starts out with a description of Colin’s lovesickness but then moves on to an encomium on “fayre Elissa, Queene of shepheardes all,” a transparent allusion to Queen Elizabeth. The singing contest in “August” gives Spenser an opportunity to exploit shifting moods and an intricate variety of metrical patterns.

It is sometimes difficult to interpret the satire in the eclogues that E. K. classes as “moral” because of the ambivalence of the dialogue structure itself and because of the uncertain implications of the fables included in four of the five moral selections. Besides, misperception on the part of the characters or the commentator can be part of the comedy. In “May,” “July,” and “September,” different pairs of shepherds discuss religious “shepherds,” making clear allusions to contemporary churchmen. In contrast to the sometimes vehement satire in these religious eclogues, the debate on youth and age in “February” has a light, bantering tone. As a statement of Spenser’s views on poetry, “October” is perhaps the most significant “moral” eclogue. When the disillusioned young poet Cuddie complains that his oaten reeds are “rent and wore” without having brought him any reward, the idealistic Piers tries to convince him that glory is better than gain. He encourages Cuddie to leave rustic life, to lift himself “out of the lowly dust,” but Cuddie complains that the great worthies that “matter made for Poets on to play” are long dead. The ambivalence of the pastoral debate is particularly evident here because the two voices apparently represent a conflict within Spenser himself. The inner Piers has an almost Platonic vision of poetry and sees potential inspiration in the active life of the court; but the inner Cuddie, fearing the frustrations of the poet’s role, resigns himself to the less conspicuous, less stimulating rural life.

In a sequel to the eclogues, Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, Colin describes to his friends a trip to London, apparently a reflection of Spenser’s trip to make arrangements for the publication of The Faerie Queene. The question-and-answer format allows Colin to touch on varied topics: the level of poetic artistry in London, conventional satire of life at court, topographical poetry about the “marriage” of two Irish rivers, and Platonic deification of love. Although this more mature Colin is less critical of court life than the earlier one had been, Ireland rather than England is still “home” to him.

The Faerie Queene

Any study of The Faerie Queene must take into account the explanatory letter to Ralegh printed in all early editions under the heading “A Letter of the Author’s, Expounding his Whole Intention in the course of this Work. . . .” The fact that the letter was printed at the end rather than the beginning of the first edition (books 1-3 only) suggests that Spenser was writing with a retrospective glance at what was already in the printer’s press, even though he was also looking...

(The entire section is 5350 words.)