The Shepheardes Calender

by Edmund Spenser

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The most obvious themes of The Shepheardes Calender include love, the appreciation of poetry, and political and religious matters that were topical at the time the work was published in 1579. Spenser's larger theme is the invocation of a quasi-mythic English landscape of purity and innocence. He uses language and spellings that were already archaic in his own time, partly in an attempt to recreate the style of Chaucer from 200 years earlier, though the use of archaisms is typical of Spenser in his other works as well, such as The Fairie Queene. In the first edition of the Calender, a glossary and commentary were provided by an editor who refers to himself as "E.K." and whose identity still is not clear to modern scholars. Some believe E.K. could be Spenser himself.

In the work, Colin's love for the beautiful Rosalind is a recurring theme. Each month of the year is represented by an eclogue (pastoral poem) which consists of a dialogue between shepherds. In "May," the subject is a debate about religion, with the shepherds Piers representing Protestantism and Palinodie Catholicism. Spenser thus uses an allegorical format to get his themes across (in his case siding with Protestantism). In some months the theme focuses more directly on the question of good and bad shepherding; in others it returns to the subject of love as Colin despairs to his friend Hobbinol about his unrequited feeling for Rosalind, who may be an allegorical representation of Queen Elizabeth. And in one month there is a discussion about the art of poetry and the degree to which it is appreciated by people. In the last eclogue, "December," Colin compares the annual cycle of seasons to human life, to a person's life span. This final theme is perhaps one to which Spenser subordinates the more incidental concerns of his work. The entire Calendar is meant as a symbol of life and of the world. The shepherd's existence is a kind of distilled and purified form of that of mankind is as a whole. The general concerns of people: their loves, controversies and moral questions, are all personified and celebrated in the pastoral realm.

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