"What! All This For A Song?"
Context: How much is a poem worth? One reason for the survival of much early poetry–besides the fact that its meter makes it easier to remember than prose–was the general impression that anyone could write prose, but it took special qualifications to compose poetry. This viewpoint and a bit of English history were tied up in an anecdote about the poet Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–1599). Dr. Thomas Birch (1705–1766) set down part of the story in his ten-folio volume General Dictionary, Historical and Critical (1734–1741) and in his six-volume Biographia Britannica, or Lives of the Most Eminent Persons who have Flourished in Great Britain and Ireland (1747–1766). He also alluded to it in his Spenser the Poet (1771). However, a more complete account of the affair appears in the Introduction to the edition of The Faerie Queene (London; Tonson, 1758), by John Upton. To understand its significance one must go back to English history. In 1553, Mary, daughter of Henry VIII of England, succeeded to the throne upon the death of her half brother, Edward VI. Her brother's Secretary of State had been William Cecil (1520–1598). When Mary reestablished the Roman Catholic religion in England, in 1555, Cecil conformed to it. In 1558, Mary was succeeded by another daughter of Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth (1533–1603). Elizabeth recalled Cecil and made him Secretary of State. Not only did he maintain a spy system to keep her warned of plots against her throne, but he also originated and directed her policies so satisfactorily that she made him First Baron Burghley (or Burleigh). Among the poets writing in England at the time were Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser. The latter wrote the first work of Elizabethan literature, The Shepheardes Calendar in twelve eclogues, dedicated to Sidney, and started on a long work, The Faerie Queene, an imaginative allegory in vindication of Protestantism and Puritanism. Its first three books were published in 1590, dedicated to Elizabeth. But meantime Spenser had written a number of short poems, and the elegy Astrophel when Sidney was killed in battle in 1586. He presented the queen with some of his poetry. Queen Elizabeth, anxious to be a patron of arts, and delighted at a Protestant poet, to counteract the Catholic followers of the previous queen, directed Lord Burleigh to pay a hundred pounds to Spenser. The courtier did not admire Protestant Spenser; he was not fond of poetry; and he was laboring to balance the finances of England, because of the war with Spain. So he protested, in words that have frequently been paraphrased by later Philistines. As Upton tells the story:
There passeth a story commonly told and believed, that Spenser presenting his poems to Queen Elizabeth, she highly affected herewith commanded the Lord Cecil her Treasurer to give him an hundred pounds; and when the Treasurer (a good steward of the Queen's money) cried, "What! all this for a song?" and alledged that the sum was too much, "Then give him" (quoth the Queen) "what is reason;" to which the Lord Treasurer consented; but was so busied belike about matters of higher concernment, that Spenser received no reward. Whereupon he presented this petition in a small piece of paper to the Queen in her progress,I was promis'd on a timeTo have reason for my rhyme;From that time unto this season,I receiv'd nor rhyme nor reason.Hereupon the Queen gave strict order (not without some check to her Treasurer) for the present payment of the hundred pounds she first intended unto him.