Introduction to
Edmund Spenser's The Shepheardes Calender

Note on this Renascence Editions text:

This edition was transcribed by R.S. Bear at the University of Oregon and is copyright © The University of Oregon; it is distributed for scholarly and nonprofit purposes only.

Edmund Spenser
   Pembroke College, Cambridge

BOrn in or near 1552 to a family of small means, Edmund Spenser attended the Merchant Taylor's School under Richard Mulcaster, and went to Cambridge, about 1569-76, as a sizar of Pembroke Hall, where he befriended Gabriel Harvey. He took his Bachelor's degree in 1573 and his Master's in 1576. By 1578 he was serving as secretary to Bishop John Young, in Kent, the landscape of which is frequently mentioned in The Shepheardes Calender. Entering into employment by the Earl of Leicester the following year, Spenser became friends with Philip Sidney, Edward Dyer, and Fulke Greville; they formed a literary group called by Spenser the "Areopagus," and their talents were enlisted in supporting the cause of the Leicester faction in matters of religion and politics (Heninger xii-xiii). The Shepheardes Calender appeared at the end of the year, in time to serve as, among other things, propaganda for the Leicester position on the Queen's proposed marriage with the Duc d'Alencon. The following year he began work on The Faerie Queene, and entered the employ of Lord Grey of Wilton, Lord Deputy of Ireland. In 1581 Spenser was appointed Clerk in Chancery for Faculties, and soon after befriended Sir Walter Ralegh, whose estate was not far from his own. The year 1589 saw Spenser's return to London, partly to oversee the publication of the first three books of The Faerie Queene. Soon thereafter the Daphnaïda and the Complaints also appeared. After two years Spenser returned to Ireland, where he courted and married Elizabeth Boyle, and continued to produce a number of works, including the Amoretti and Epithalamion, Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, Fowre Hymnes, and Prothalamion. An edition of The Faerie Queene, Books I-VI, appeared in 1596. The Stationers Register carries an entry for A Vewe of the present state of Irelande in April, 1598, but this did not appear until 1633. A general uprising of the Irish forced Spenser to flee to London in 1598, where he brought correspondence from Sir Thomas Norris to the Privy Council; a few weeks later, January 13th, 1599, he died in Westminster and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The Cantos of Mutabilitie first appeared in the edition of The Faerie Queene of 1609 (MacLean xv-xvi).

The Shepheardes Calender

The Shepheardes Calender, published anonymously in 1579 by Hugh Singleton, consists of twelve eclogues named for the twelve months, comprising together a year symbolic, in its turning of the seasons, of the whole of human life. The work is greatly expanded by introductory matter and glosses, written by one E.K., and each eclogue is preceded by a carefully designed woodcut and followed by a motto or "embleme" summing up the attitude of each speaker. Models for the poem include Theocritus, Virgil, Mantuan, and Marot, and the style is influenced by, among others, Chaucer and Skelton. Chaucer, indeed, is the one poet to whom Spenser acknowledges a direct debt (De Selincourt xvii); he strives for a language more purely English than the "gallimaufry and hodge podge of al other speeches" which the literary diction of England had become. Although Spenser's language and rhythm is or attempts to be that of Chaucer, his precedent for the pastoral form is that of debut efforts of antiquity: Virgil, for example, whose Aeneid begins by acknowledging the pastoral apprenticeship. E.K. notes the tradition:
...and as young birdes, that be newly crept out of the nest, by little first to proue theyr tender wyngs, before they make a greater flyght. So flew Theocritus, as you may percieue he was all ready full fledged. So flew Virgile, as not yet well feeling his winges So flew Mantuane, as being not full somd. So Petrarque. So Boccace; So Marot, Sanazarus, and also diuers other excellent both Italian and French Poetes, whose foting this Author euery where followeth, yet so as few, but they be well sented can trace him out.
E.K. predicts that Spenser, "our new Poete...shall be hable to keepe wing with the best," a foreshadowing of the appearance of The Faerie Queene.

 Five editions of The Shepheardes Calender appeared in the years 1579- 1597, proving its staying power despite the topicality of its allegories. In the years since, the work has provoked considerable critical disagreement, with contrary estimations of its success, the meaning of its arrangement, the identities of the voices of the eclogues and of the protagonists of their fables, the extent to which E.K. himself is but a persona of Spenser, and the extent to which the poem reaches beyond topical allegory into expression of Spenser's poetical and patriotic vision.

 On the success of the poetry there can be no doubt. Though its diction demands even more effort from us than from its contemporary readers, the rewards remain very great. Aprill offers a marvelously lyrical "laye" in honor of the Queen:

Now ryse vp Elisa, decked as thou art,
in royall aray:
And now ye daintie Damsells may depart
echeone her way,
I feare, I haue troubled your troupes to longe:
Let dame Eliza thanke you for her song.
And if you come hether,
When Damsines I gether,
I will part them all you among.
Maye provides, in its fable, finely observed description and characterization:
But the false Foxe came to the dore anone:
Not as a Foxe, for then he had be kend,
But all as a poore pedlar he did wend,
Bearing a trusse of tryfles at hys backe,
As bells, and babes, and glasses in hys packe.
A Biggen he had got about his brayne,
For in his headpeace he felt a sore payne.
His hinder heele was wrapt in a clout,
For with great cold he had gotte the gout.
There at the dore he cast me downe hys pack,
And layd him downe, and groned, Alack, Alack.
Ah deare Lord, and sweet Saint Charitee,
That some good body woulde once pitie mee.
October delves into the "great matter" of poetic inspiration:
Ah fon, for loue does teach him climbe so hie,
And lyftes him vp out of the loathsome myre:
Such immortall mirrhor, as he doth admire,
Would rayse ones mynd aboue the starry skie.
And cause a captiue corage to aspire,
For lofty loue doth loath a lowly eye.
Nouember contains the memorable lyrical elegiac of "some mayden of great bloud, whom he calleth Dido":
Whence is it, that the flouret of the field doth fade,
And lyeth buryed long in Winters bale:
Yet soone as spring his mantle hath displayd,
It floureth fresh, as it should neuer fayle?
But thing on earth that is of most auaile,
As vertues braunch and beauties budde,
Reliuen not for any good.
O heauie herse,
The braunch once dead, the budde eke needes must quaile,
O carefull verse.
December beautifully gathers the threads of the poem's life and ties them in the circle of a year, as the poet imagines himself in old age regretful of a misspent life:
Thus is my sommer worne away and wasted,
Thus is my haruest hastened all to rathe:
The eare that budded faire, is burnt & blasted,
And all my hoped gaine is turned to scathe.
Of all the seede, that in my youth was sowne,
Was nought but brakes and brambles to be mowne.
Although its mode is classical pastoral, the arrangement of The Shepheardes Calender has two sources: one is the ancient almanac, The Kalender of Sheepehards, to which E.K. alludes, remarking that Spenser applied "an olde name to a new worke." The other source is the vogue for Emblem Books in Elizabethan times. Each of the twelve woodcuts forms part of a whole impression of the year, yet each easily stands alone with its eclogue as an enclosed work. The cyclical pattern of the "monethes" -- name, woodcut, argument, eclogue, "embleme," gloss -- is enhanced by the repetition of graphic elements: argument in italics, eclogue in black letter, glosses in roman type. All this local variation helps to unify the whole, as it is the same throughout. The effect is to bring the reader simultaneously to an awareness of the present moment and of the cycle of months and years throughout eternity. In this way, even the weakest moments of the verse are vested with the grandeur of timelessness.

 That the eclogues are allegorical and topical is asserted by E.K. himself, and some of the voices are by him deliberately identified: Colin Clout (the name is from Skelton) is Spenser, Hobbinol represents Gabriel Harvey, and "the worthy whom she (the Queen) loved best" is the Earl of Leicester. Of the rest there is little agreement. Rosalind, Colin's great love, has been the object of much exasperated speculation. In recent years the whole effort to assign names of historical persons to these personae has come to be regarded as misguided, but I think that, provided we remember that identifications are always provisional, they serve two complementary purposes: one, we are forced, in considering candidates, to observe the work closely and critically, and to study attentively the history of a complex and fascinating period; two, we come to realize the rich multiplicity of readings an allegorical work can support, particularly in a culture steeped in typological readings of its classics and scriptures.

 Paul E. McLane, writing in 1961, sought to identify dozens of Spenser's allegorical figures and topical allusions. In Januarye, for example, he sees the famous Rosalind as Elizabeth I herself. Colin represents not merely Spenser the poet, but the people of England, rejected by her in her apparently reckless consideration of the French marriage. In Februarie, the Oake is Leicester, the Brier the Earl of Oxford, the Husbandman is Elizabeth I. Maye's Foxe is Esme Stuart, Duc D'Aubigny, the Kidd is King James of Scotland, and the Gate (Scottish for goat) is George Buchanan, the young King's tutor. October's Cuddie is Edward Dyer, a member of the Areopagus, whose poetry finds acceptation but no patronage at Court, while Piers, who suggests to Cuddie that he try composing epics starring the Queen and the Earl of Leicester, is John Piers, bishop of Salisbury and friend of Leicester. The "mayden of great bloud" in Nouember, called Dido, is Elizabeth I, "dead" to her people because of the impending French marriage; Lobbin the chief mourner is the Earl of Leicester.

 McLane's analysis presents The Shepheardes Calender as another in the long series of propaganda pieces originating with the Leicester faction, including works by Sidney, Gascoigne and Dyer. Like Sidney's May Lady entertainment, Spenser's cautionary tales may be read as concerned mainly with the danger of the Queen's proposed marriage to a Catholic Frenchman. A strong piece of evidence supporting McLane's interpretation is the anonymous publication of Spenser's book: if the point of the allegory is to warn against Catholicism generally, it can hardly be dangerous for the author to be known. Yet it was not generally known that Spenser was the author for nearly a decade after the book first appeared (Heninger x).

 Spenser's printer, the radical Puritan propagandist Hugh Singleton, had in August or September of 1579 brought out The Discoverie of a Gaping Gulf Whereinto England Is Like To Be Swallowed by Another French Marriage, If the Lord Forbid Not the Banes, by Letting her Maiestie See the Sin and Punishment Thereof by John Stubbs. Stubbs, his publisher William Page, and Singleton were all arrested and sentenced to have their right hands cut off. The sentence was carried out in November upon Stubbs and Page, but someone at Court procured a pardon for Singleton, who appears to have been a peripheral member of the Leicester group as well as a returned Marian exile. Undeterred, Singleton produced The Shepheardes Calender within a month of his narrow escape. Not until January of 1580 did Elizabeth write to Alencon to tell him the marriage was not to be (McLane 18-19).

 Yet it is always possible to overshoot the mark in discovering specific referents in allegory. While everyone knew that pastorals were intended "under the vaile of homely persons and in rude speeches to insinuate and glaunce at greater matters" (Puttenham, Arte of English Poesy), they also understood that the "glaunce" was done through layers of accessible meaning that have their own validity. Without this validity the work could not serve as the protection to its author that it surely was. "The shepherd's cloak was the acknowledged disguise of the lover, the poet, the pastor of souls, the critic of contemporary life" (De Selincourt xv.). Pan might represent, at various places in the text, a Greek god, Henry VIII, the divine patron of poets, or (as pointed out several times by E.K.) Christ. The uncertainty, in any given passage, as to any character's precise identity not only gives some protection to the author but deepens and enriches the texture of the eclogues, and rewards repeated readings with the dawning of new possibilities.

 The problem of E.K. has been "resolved" many times. Edward Kirke, who attended Cambridge at the same time as Spenser, and was also a friend of Gabriel Harvey, was for many years regarded as the obvious choice (De Selincourt xiv.), but it could have been no safer to sign one's own initials to the sometimes heavily polemical glosses than to the eclogues. In recent years the preferred assumption has been that Spenser himself is E.K. (Sommer 8), and this is supported by many internal and external evidences. A notable one is given by Sommer (23): in the gloss on Maye, E.K. quotes Sardanapalus as rendered by Cicero:

Haec habui quae edi, quaeque exaturata libido
Hausit, at illa manent multa ac praeclara relicta.
and translates him into English thus:
All that I eate did I ioye, and all that I greedily gorged:
As for those many goodly matters left I for others.
Sommer notes that in a letter to Harvey dated 10 April 1580, Spenser sends him verses in Latin-style hexameters, and adds:
Seeme they comparable to those two which I translated you extempore in bed, the last time we lay togither in Westminster?
That which I eate did I joy, and that which I greedily gorged,
As for those many goodly matters leaft I for others.
Yet this is not proof that Spenser is E.K.; it is at best evidence that Spenser was on the committee that created and sustained him. Arguments have been advanced for every member of the Areopagus, including Sidney, Harvey, and more recently Fulke Greville (McLane 280-95). In the end, we are left with no more of E.K. than the Areopagites have given us, and they protected his identity for the remainder of their lives. What we have of him, however, can afford to stand on its own. His contribution is a highly interesting text that forms an integral part of The Shepheardes Calender, amplifying the gist of the eclogues as needed, fine tuning our sense of the poet's technical attainment, erudition, and allegorical intent, yet at the same time deliberately adding confusion where it is needed, in order to distract powerful and potentially vindictive readers. In his "Argument" to Februarie, which contains a detailed allegory of court intrigue, E.K. carefully draws attention to the "literal" sense in which the tale may be taken:
For as in this time of yeare, so then in our bodies there is a dry & withering cold, which congealeth the crudled blood, and frieseth the wetherbeaten flesh, with stormes of Fortune, & hoare frosts of Care. To which purpose the olde man telleth a tale of the Oake and the Bryer, so lively, and so feelingly, as if the thing were set forth in some Picture before our eyes, more plainly could not appeare.
After we have read the eclogue, we might expect some exegesis of the veiled meaning from E.K., but he sticks, with tongue in cheek, to his obfuscation:
This tale of the Oake and the Brere, he telleth as learned of Chaucer, but it is cleane in another kind, and rather like to Aesopes fables. It is very excellente for pleasaunt descriptions, being altogether a certaine Icon or Hypotyposis of disdainfull younkers.
The poetic aims of The Shepheardes Calender are multiple: Spenser seeks to recover a native voice, and to warn his nation and his Queen of dangers to England and to the English Church from within and without. He seeks his own place in the affairs of his country, and a place among men of letters. Diverse as these aims may seem, they do not destroy the unity of his work, and even the garrulous E.K. presents no real threat to it. This is because there is one aim which Spenser regards as the highest, and he never loses sight of it even when addressing himself to the most current of current events. This aim will sustain him through the composition of The Faerie Queene and will become most evident, perhaps, in the unfinished Mutabilitie Cantos. Spenser's great aim is that of all poets: the defeat of death. This is a battle one cannot win individually, but the possibilities are greater for a collective effort, and E.K. explains the poet's role in the collective, or public, arena:
Plato...sayth, that the first inuention of Poetry was of very vertuous intent. For...some learned man being more hable then the rest, for speciall gyftes of wytte and Musicke, would take vpon him to sing fine verses to the people, in prayse eyther of vertue or of victory or of immortality or such like. At whose wonderful gyft al men being astonied and as it were rauished, with delight, thinking (as it was indeede) that he was inspired from aboue, called him vatem.
This agrees with Sidney, who in The Defence of Poesie asserts:
Among the Romans a poet was called vates, which is as much as a diviner, foreseer, or prophet (Duncan-Jones 214).
For Sidney and Spenser, the role of the poet is to bring divine instruction from the heavenly sphere into our own fallen realm, and so raise up the minds of men into such semblance of divinity as may be possible for them, and by that much defeat the Fall. Thus it is the poet's business to teach, through divine inspiration, virtue above all, for virtues are public enactments of what in scripture is called righteousness, the doing of God's work in the world. The Redcrosse Knight does not defeat the dragon for himself, but for us all. His prowess is not his own, but God's gift to him and to us for the defeat of fallenness, a figure for entropy. This giving or sharing of means to defeat entropy, or death, is called by the theologians grace, and is the cornerstone of Spenser's poetic vision of knighthood and civility as the means to bring in a new Golden Age. Spenser is well aware of the might of the opposition. The beauty of the present moment faces the "great enmity" of
...wicked Time, who with his scyth addrest,
Does mow the flowring herbes and goodly things,
And all their glory to the ground downe flings,
Where they doe wither, and are fowly mard:
He flyes about, and with his flaggy wings
Beates downe both leaues and buds without regard,
Ne euer pittie may relent his malice hard (FQ
There can be no successful private reply to such an assault. Time destroys all moments in the world of mutability. Divine moments, however, are from beyond Time and safe from his power. The prophetic moment of Poesy, like that of the inspired prophets of Israel, accepts divine grace and distributes it to the community with rhetorical exhortation to carry out the instructions encoded in the divine gift. Spenser is best known for his effort to pass on these instructions through epic, in the superhuman efforts of the Faerie Queene's knights to beat back darkness. It is a stirring image. But I would argue that he is actually more successful in his vatic vocation when he is in the pastoral mode, for the deliberate lowliness of his shepherds is accessible to those of us who lack the prowess of a Britomart or an Artegall. It is his unarmed Colin Clout whose piping informs the dance of the Graces seen by Sir Calidore in the sixth book of the Faerie Queene:
Of a shrill pipe he playing heard on hight,
And many feete fast thumping th'hollow ground,
That through the woods their Eccho did rebound.
He nigher drew, to weete what mote it be;
There he a troupe of Ladies dancing found
Full merrily, and making gladful glee,
And in the midst a Shepheard piping he did see (FQ VI.x.10).
The vision is explained to Sir Calidore by the shepherd thus:
These three on men all gracious gifts bestow,
Which decke the body or adorne the mynde,
To make them louely or well fauoured show,
As comely carriage, entertainement kynde,
Sweet semblaunt, friendly offices that bynde,
And all the complements of curtesie:
They teach vs, how to each degree and kynde
We should our selves demeane, to low, to hie;
To friends, to foes, which skill men call Ciuility.

 Therefore they alwaies smoothly seeme to smile,
That we likewise should mylde and gentle be,
And also naked are, that without guile
Or false dissemblaunce all them plaine may see,
Simple and true from couert malice free:
And eeke them selues so in their daunce they bore,
That two of them still froward seem'd to bee,
But one still towards shew'd her selfe afore;
That good should from vs goe, then come in greater store (FQ VI.x.23-4).

This passage is at the heart of Spenser's message in his great poem, for it sums up the one rule central to both the Classical and Christian traditions of accepting, and passing on, divine grace, and the one means of defeating entropy on the social scale: treat others as you yourself wish to be treated. This is to be understood in Spenser's context of rigidly defined degrees of social position: honor those who are above you and below you in the hierarchy. Kindness is particularly to be offered to those below, as divine grace to us all is seen as a mimetic progression of imitatio Christi from the top of society to its lowest level. Divine inspiration comes through poets, but not poets alone: the sovereign, chosen by God to be both the head and the personification of the State, bears the highest responsibility and indeed must be, for the sake of stability, the most gracious of all.

 It is in The Shepheardes Calender that Spenser first broaches his great theme:

Lo how finely the graces can it foote
to the Instrument:
They daucen deffly, and singen soote,
in their merriment.
Wants not a fourth grace, to make the daunce euen?
Let that rowme to my Lady be yeuen:
She shalbe a grace,
To fyll the fourth place,
And reigne with the rest in heauen.
The Graces are graceful. That is, their actions exemplify the best that form (of which Time is the enemy) has to offer. They are divine beings, for their abode is heaven; therefore their gracefulness cannot be flung to the ground, nor beaten with flaggy wings, nor cruelly scythed. Elisa, the Queen of England, is offered a place among them, to "reigne with the rest in heauen." Here, beyond the reach of Time, she may continue to represent the high and public virtue of Civility, as glossed by E.K.:
The Graces....make three, to wete, that men first ought to be gracious & bountiful to other freely, then to receiue benefits at other mens hands curteously, and thirdly to requite them thankfully: which are three sundry Actions in liberalitye. And Boccace saith, that they be painted naked...the one hauing her backe toward vs, and her face fromwarde, as proceeding from vs: the other two toward vs, noting double thanke to be due to vs for the benefit, we haue done.
By accepting the place of the fourth Grace, and thus completing the Dance, Elisa will complete the pantheon of the highest circle of the Elizabethan cosmos: the sphere of Immutabilitie. From there, she will be able to defeat the Grim Reaper, reign over England as a new Eden, and recover for all time the Golden Age that was lost. Hobbinol's Embleme for that moment of divinization is explicit: "O dea certe."

 We are painfully aware, through hindsight, that the Golden Age of Elizabeth was not sustained, if it ever existed. All the principals now lie "wrapt in lead." The poet's allegorical praises were self-serving in that he constructed them to attain his own political and financial ends, and the monarch he praised was one who bent all such praise to the maintenance of a repressive, authoritarian regime. But we must understand that such judgments are no new discovery; with them Spenser himself would have no quarrel. The civility he commends to us he believed in as something from beyond our world of decay, indeed the only immutable gift, and we might do worse than accept its commendation from his pen.

R.S. Bear

Works cited:

De Selincourt, E., and J.C. Smith, ed. The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser. London: OUP, 1935.

 Duncan-Jones, Katherine. Sir Philip Sidney. Oxford: OUP, 1989.

 Heninger, S.K., Jr., ed. The Shepheardes Calender. Delmar, NY: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1979.

 McLane, Paul E. Spenser's Shepheardes Calender: A Study in Elizabethan Allegory. Notre Dame, IN: UNDP, 1961.

 MacLean, Hugh, ed. Edmund Spenser's Poetry. New York: Norton, 1968.

 Puttenham, George. The Arte of English Poesie. London, 1589.

 Sommer, H. Oskar, ed. The Shepheardes Calender. London: Nimmo, 1895.

 Spenser, Edmund. The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition. The Minor Poems, Volume One. Henry Gibbons Lotspeich and Charles Grosvenor Osgood, eds. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1943.

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