A new age in English poetry began with the anonymous publication in 1579 of The Shepheardes Calender, by Edmund Spenser. The work is a collection of twelve pastoral poems or eclogues, with themes familiar from the time of Vergil: the song contest, the elegy, the lament of the scorned lover, criticism of corruption in Church and state. Much of the lasting value of The Shepheardes Calender is in its language, the skillfully varied verse forms, the rich imagery of some parts and the direct rustic simplicity of others.
Renaissance Christian humanism generally makes use of the best of classical pagan literature and philosophy, reading it allegorically, or rewriting it as allegory, to teach Christian culture and morality. Spenser engages in this philosophical appropriation more thoroughly, skillfully, and audaciously than any other English poet. The Shepheardes Calender, although the work of a young poet just developing his art, startles readers with its political and personal verve and ambition. If Spenser aimed at reforming the state and the clergy with his satire, he also aimed at establishing his poetic reputation and gaining court patrons to support and protect him. That he succeeds in these two aims is one of the reasons The Shepheardes Calender remains a landmark in English literature.
Most of Spenser’s poetry can be enjoyed for its beauty but exists for the allegory that shapes it. In emulation of Vergil, Spenser begins with youthful pastoral poetry in preparation and anticipation of writing a national epic. The Shepheardes Calender contains in embryo many features of The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596): fulsome, calculated idealization and praise of Elizabeth; veiled criticism of some of the queen’s policies; self-conscious construction of Spenser’s own public identity as a poet-prophet; allegorical commentary on contemporary political issues; imitation of classical and continental poetic models; praise of the native English tradition of poetry and use of archaic language in imitation of Chaucer; love poetry with Petrarchan posturing; didactic purpose of moral reform of Church and state; and allegories of poetic identity and inspiration.
Many mysteries haunt the poem, chief among them the identity of the ubiquitous and prolix commentator, “E. K.” Knowing E. K.’s identity might enable the reader to know whether E. K.’s frequent obtuseness is unintentional ignorance or a deliberate strategy to obscure some of Spenser’s more dangerous criticism of...
(The entire section is 1043 words.)