The Shepheardes Calender

by Edmund Spenser

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Critical Evaluation

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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 Elizabeth. All that is known is that E. K. is a humanist scholar, a bit of a pedant, and eager to promote both Spenser and his friend Gabriel Harvey. Whether E. K. is Spenser or not, his presence is one of Spenser’s tactics in an inventive, tireless campaign of self-promotion.

E. K.’s introductory epistle, headnote “arguments” (summaries), and “glosses” (commentary) on each eclogue add another layer in a text already rife with speaking personae. The Shepheardes Calender is typically Elizabethan in the complexity of the voices in the text. The allegory and the textual apparatus complicate these matters, but in deliberate and meaningful ways. Most twentieth and twenty-first century critics have read the shepherd speakers as instruments of Spenser’s project to create a place for himself in court politics, hyperconscious of how Elizabeth and her powerful counselors and churchmen might react to his words.

The July eclogue provides an example of Spenser’s simultaneous caution and audacity. It seems to begin with a debate between the Roman Catholic and Protestant views of holiness and sainthood, but it moves into a more specific and politically charged allegory of Archbishop Edward Grindal’s fall from power. Queen Elizabeth ordered the suppression of Bible study meetings (“prophesyings”) among the clergy, fearing they would become hotbeds of Puritan opposition to...

(This entire section contains 1043 words.)

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the official English Church. When Grindal defied Elizabeth’s orders, she divested him of his power and sequestered him in his home for the remaining seven years of his life. The eclogue’s tone and other sources provide strong evidence that Spenser admired Grindal’s moral fortitude in standing up to the queen in a matter of conscience. Nevertheless, Spenser shows considerable daring when he has the shepherd speaker Thomalin report that an eagle (symbol of imperial power) dropped a shell on the head of the gentle shepherd “Algrind,” an anagram of Grindal’s name.

Even more shocking is Spenser’s insertion of his opinion into the fiery and perilous debate over Elizabeth’s possible marriage to a French Catholic. Many Protestants feared the reestablishment of a Catholic regime, but it was dangerous to castigate the queen too directly for her attentions to her French suitor. A pamphleteer, aptly named Stubbs, lost his right hand as punishment for criticizing the proposed marriage too vehemently, and the pamphlet’s printer, Hugh Singleton, narrowly escaped the same fate. The reader can only marvel at his and Spenser’s courage when, a month after Stubbs’s painful public humiliation, Singleton printed The Shepheardes Calender, which, in however veiled a way, also criticizes the potential marriage. This subtle criticism takes place in the April eclogue, where Hobbinol sings a gushing paean of praise to Eliza, queen of shepherds: Eliza is a goddess of divine descent; she is the fourth Grace; the abashed sun, unable to stand the comparison, retreats from her shining face below; and other Petrarchan conceits. In the middle of this overdone praise, he stresses her virginity and her marriage to England—an implicit denunciation of marriage to a foreign power. Perhaps it is too much to say that such allegorical fables participate in a sustained, underground resistance to Elizabeth’s increasing chokehold on public discourse as her reign went on, but these strategies of covert commentary are, in some way, a response to censorship.

The metaphor of the shepherd and his flock points to another key dimension of the poem. In addition to being a commentary on the politics of Spenser’s day, the poem may be read as a Christ-centered expression of personal commitment. The image of the Good Shepherd himself, sometimes in the figure of Pan, informs the text. Algrind, for example, in the July eclogue teaches humility, sacrifice, and self-denial and practices these in imitation of Jesus. If Spenser, in his poetry, acts as political reformer, he also acts as witness to what he sees as God’s self-revelation in the person of the Christ.