Edmund Spenser, The Shepheardes Calender

by Michael Peverett

On-line texts:

Spenser's poetry is still pretty much the preserve of book-readers. On-line texts are, all too often, the unchecked manglings of OCR programs.

Much the best one I've found is Risa S. Bear's on-line edition
-  notwithstanding the glaring omission of Iune 43b. It doesn't provide any line numbers, and I could live without the hyperlinks to E.K.'s notes, but it looks good and is a pleasure to read.

Be warned that David Hill Radcliffe's interesting repository Spenser and the Tradition: English Poetry 1579-1830  (http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/AuthorRecord.php?&action=GET&recordid=24&page=AuthorRecord)
presents Spenser's poems in the wretchedly inaccurate text of John Hughes (1715). For example, the "winding witche" of Iune 20 (discussed below) appears in Hughes as a "winding Ditch"!


“Of the Shepherd’s Calendar as poetry we must frankly confess that it commits the one sin for which, in literature, no merits can compensate; it is rather dull.” Thus begins C.S. Lewis’ account in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954). That's a jejune kind of criticism, no doubt; so was Lewis's source in Henry James' "The Art of Fiction": "The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting." It hadn't taken modernists very long to problematize James' bourgeois category of interestingness.

It's a little jejune, and besides Lewis was, as he always was, stitching together an ideological myth. This one is about the great conservative poet who had not yet found his true voice. (Lewis's myths are always about the early twentieth century as well as the sixteenth century.) In his youth, the future conservative poet risks the left-wing temptations of coterie poetry and smart young forward-thinkers. Only later will his true, inner, spiritual and timelessly conservative vision be allowed to glide forth without being hindered by his clever friends. The place of dullness in the Lewisian myth of the young Spenser is therefore complex. On the one hand it is a hit at coterie productions in general: the Shepheardes Calender was supposed to be the sensational Next Big Thing, but it turns out to be a bit dull. On the other hand, the dullness is also a gentle prefigurement of Spenser's future greatness; it is a mark of his seriousness, his inability to be "turned". He will never be smart or sexy; he will never be the most brilliant or lovable of personalities. But when he does become great, the greatness will be of a quieter and more enduring kind. That, more or less, is Lewis' myth.

But there was also some truth to what Lewis said; it wouldn't have much power as a myth if there wasn't. If you want to know whether it would be more exciting to read Venus and Adonis, or The Pardoner's Tale, or [Insert your own choice of thrilling poem] - well, there’s no more to be said. You do not come to the Shepheardes Calender to be enthralled in that sort of way.

But still, you get a new job in Bedfordshire (or Cambridgeshire, perhaps?) - and then it’s no longer useful to be told about how dull the landscape is. These things happen and you’re going to make the best of it and you want to know how to live there and how to feed your imagination. You’re optimistic and you know that, once you’ve managed to adjust, your imagination will survive the shock, and dullness is going to turn out to be, really, rather interesting. You don’t have the choice of extinguishing Bedfordshire; it just exists. And therefore there is a way, not perhaps an instantly obvious way, of becoming absorbed in it.

It’s this landscape quality – let’s name it quietness, though that's just a cipher – that I’m trying to fix on. It can’t be done directly, not by me anyway, but these notes have a common purpose in trying to re-direct a focus on it. What one must add at the outset is that The Shepheardes Calender has a beguilingly complex structure, at least in principle. It takes the already complex form that Virgil derived from Theocritus and superimposes an annual cycle, a love-situation of the kind used in sonnet-sequences (semi-static and unrequited), and political commentary of the post-Mantuan type. Plus obscure references to his friends in disguise.

[In what follows, line-length and rhyme-scheme are shown as e.g. a4b3a4b3. The letters indicate the rhyme-scheme and the numbers indicate the number of accents in each line.]


Six-line stanzas, a5b5a5b5c5c5, regularly iambic. The poem ends with an alexandrine.

Januarye is quiet, stately and isolated (like a sunny day in the deep of winter). Spenser’s winter eclogues reflect a tension between the English season dictated by the calendrical scheme and an originally Mediterranean form in which the weather is always suitable for outdoor versifying.

Januarye is to some extent an introduction to the whole sequence. It tells us all we need to know about Colin, Rosalind and Hobbinol. More importantly, it introduces us to the mental climate that the poem will inhabit; often doleful, rather quiet, and engaged with long-term moods not with drama.

It also introduces us to the prevalent neo-Medievalism of Spenser’s style. As early as line 10, we are sensitized to Chaucerian echoes:

Well couth he tune his pipe, and frame his stile.

More integrated with the poem is a general debt to the alliterative tradition, probably Langland in particular. Spenser does not use Langland’s rhythms, but he uses alliteration in a similar way, not as a lapidary feature but as a background that comes and goes like a not-too-summery breeze. (Langland, compared with most of his peers, reduced alliteration and discovered a new flexibility by e.g. alliterating on unaccented syllables, or somewhat vaguely on vowels, or on prepositions and other low-key words.) In Januarye rather more than half the lines contain some sort of fairly overt alliteration – it becomes less prevalent in the last three or four stanzas when a new sharpness of tone appears, especially in the clinching couplets at the stanza-ends:

Ah foolish Hobbinol, thy gifts bene vayne:
Colin them gives to Rosalind againe.  (59-60)


Shepheards deuise she hateth as the snake,
And laughes the songes, that Colin Clout doth make.    (65-66)

You could easily consider these the best lines in the poem: bright and ringing. However, from a structural point of view the heart of the poem comes earlier:

Stanzas 1-2 describe Colin’s arrival with his sheep.

St 3: Colin’s invocation to the gods.

St 4-8: Colin’s lament. This has a little sub-structure of its own, gradually receding from the universality of the ground and the season (St 4-5) to the details of trees (St 6-7) and then focussing right down to his own small flock of sheep (St 8).

St 9: The lament sounds like it should have carried on at the same pace, but Colin speeds up, breaks into personal narrative, speaks of Hobbinol (St 10), and the “lasse” who rejects both him and his devices (i.e. songs) (St 11). Then in his growing anguish he breaks his pipe and lies down (St 12).

St 13 describes Colin going home.

This analysis directs us to the lines at the end of St 4-5,  i.e. when the lament is most simply and solidly a statement of itself, not a bonus add-on.

And now is come thy wynters stormy state,
Thy mantle mard, wherin thou maskedst late. (23-24)

“Maskedst” contains the idea of illusion, and delusion. Spenser does not equate the seasonal rhythms simply with contrasting emotions: summery joy and wintry pain. Every one of the poems in the Calender makes some sort of rift with that scheme, and their endings are downbeat accords, suggesting prolonged continuities whose surfaces are just ruffled by the poems.

At the end of the stanza about the sheep:

With mourning pyne I, you with pyning mourne.  (48)

The two terms are not synonymous here. To “pyne” in this instance is to waste away physically, i.e. the line means “I’m getting thin because I’m sad, but you’re sad because you’re so thin”. Colin has momentarily felt an impulse of care for his flock, fondly addressed as “Thou feeble flock”. At this point, he registers a sense of community with the sheep – Poor fellows, we’re all together under an angry heaven. But the switch to “you” in the last line shows him moving away from identification with the sheep, and it actually expresses a contrast between himself and them. From this point onwards he ceases to make analogies between himself and the state of things around him. It’s the thought of his individual story that destroys the fragile equilibrium of his lament and leads eventually to the small upset, the tantrum at the end of St 12.


Februarie is written in neo-Medieval couplets. Working out how they’re supposed to go is a puzzle. It is a meter of approximations rather than definite rules. There is a general approximation to a beat of four accents sounding like this:

Bang, Bang    (pause)    Bang, Crash!

(where “Crash!” represents the rhyme-word); but there’s a good deal of license about the number of unaccented syllables. The accents are best thought of not as four separate entities but as two two-pronged epithets that the rest of the line works around (they are often highlighted by alliteration, which needs to be looked out for). For example:

Must not the world wend   ||   in his commun course  (11)

(This line, as frequently happens, starts with a little flutter of three unaccented syllables before the meat of the line arrives.)

Occasionally, though not very often, a line happens to look like a regular “iambic tetrameter” (“So smirke, so smoothe, his pricked eares”). But it mustn’t be rolled off that way. Instead, we need to go for no pausing at the first comma, and a full caesura on the second:

So smirke so smoothe   ||   his pricked eares

Most commonly the lines look like nearly regular tetrameters, loaded with extra unaccented syllables, producing the characteristic rhythm of blankety-blank: “The soueraigne of seas”, “So loytring live”, “You thinken to be || Lords of the yeare”, etc.

However, no description fully covers all the lines. The verse may have a bent for certain kinds of regularity, but it never attains them for more than a couple of lines at a time – and, I believe, must not do so; just as the composer of atonal music avoids bringing notes together that could suggest a common tonality. Alliteration is frequent but not predominant, and it may cut across from one half-line to the next, or drop around the accents rather than onto them. Some lines have no plausible caesura. The upshot is that you can never predict the rhythm of the next line with any confidence; you can’t settle into a lilt. It was meant to sound joltingly rough.

In Thenot’s lines,

Ne euer was to Fortune foeman,
But gently tooke, that vngently came.    (21-22)

Spenser must originally have written “comen”.

This dialogue achieves a wonderful contrast between Cuddie’s celebration of youthful vigour and Thenot’s persuasive defence of tradition. For some reason I can't explain Cuddie is minding cows here, not sheep.

The story of the briar and the oak plainly (yet elusively) evokes consideration of church reforms. At the same time this should not distract from the visual image. The briar is a field-rose, with waxy, smooth (though thorny) stems – young growth mostly. The oak in those pre-industrial times of clean air would have been covered with tree-lichens (in those days they were not distinguished from moss, and indeed one of the commonest UK tree-lichens is still known as “oak moss”); so when the briar talks about “The mouldie mosse, which thee accloieth” he is mainly referring to the masses of shaggy lichen that envelop the twigs. This extraneous growth can give a very misleading sense of a tree’s senility, and the fable thus reports the wonder that everyone feels at how oak-trees can seem so robust and yet apparently tolerate such a weight of other life living on them.


In tail-rhyme, a4a4b3c4c4b3. The rhythmic pulse is mainly “iambic” but with a large number of deviations, especially in the trimeters.

Or made preuie to the same

Whereby by chaunce I him knewe

For the next three centuries of English verse, these would be routinely regularized into

Or learnèd of the same 

Where him by chaunce I knewe

Spenser could have done it effortlessly, but he clearly wanted the roughnesses. Skipping between two conflicting meters had considerable potential for expression.

A short poem lying between two much more substantial ones, March feels sketchy, speedy, inconsequent rather than minor. Though it is a dialogue, it is not a debate.

Spenser retained the all-male convention for speakers of Eglogues, and sexuality here and in Februarie means above all “corage”: potency, excitement, vigour and energy transmuted into action with hints of violence. (Compare how swiftly Cuddie’s poetical “corage” cools at the other end of the year, in October.)

Part of the poem's sense of speed and gappiness arises from the thought that now is a time for doing and not speaking. (Compare Cuddie’s remarks about Phillis.)

The clouted ewe with the broken legs is a disquieting image of the season’s potential – that is, of activity’s potential – for real consequences and real disasters. Thomalin’s wound is likewise “in earnest”.


The frame consists of pentameter quatrains, a5b5a5b5, often linked (i.e. successive quatrains b5c5b5c5 c5d5c5d5 etc) – compare the frame of Nouember. The lay of Eliza has a complex stanza-form a5b2a5b2c5c5d2d2c4. Each b line is (usually) uncapitalized, suggesting that it is to be understood in combination with the preceding a line as a divided fourteener. The poem is at first regularly “iambic”, but from line 60 onwards (in the middle of the lay’s third stanza) rhythmic irregularities become the norm. This is odd (though cf. March) but it works well; the splendid lay gains a sprightliness from irregularities that lie aslant the original flow – as if at first we observe the surface of a smooth river in shadow, and then see a play of sunlight across it.


Neo-Medieval couplets, and see the remarks on Februarie. Yet the effect here is somewhat different. It is a slacker, more garrulous poem (the longest in the Calender) and the talk of the old men looks like it could run on and on: even at the close Piers is saying: “Of their falshode more could I recount...”. It is also in contrast to the urgency of March, whose youthful protagonists have to watch their own sheep. Spenser loosens the fabric, displaces the caesuras and includes a number of lines that it is difficult not to read as iambic pentameters:

Ah Piers, bene not thy teeth on edge, to thinke

Passen their time, that should be sparely spent
In lustihede and wanton meryment.

For Pan himselfe was their inheritaunce

Some gan to gape for greedie gouernaunce

Three thinges to beare, bene very burdenous

Let none mislike of that may not be mended:
So conteck soone by concord mought be ended.

There are also rhyming triplets at 117-119 and 182-84, and a quadruplet at 89-92. As some of these examples show, the poem makes an expressive use of polysyllabic latinate words (especially in rhyme positions), in contrast to Februarie.

Piers’ fable strikes me as rather especially dull, maybe because of over-familiarity with fairy-tales of the Snow White type.


Eight-line stanzas, a5b5a5b5b5a5b5a5.

The smooth negotiation of this demanding rhyme-scheme was meant to be noticed, and is even emphasized when two successive stanzas share a rhyme-sound (81-96).

The poem promises a summer idling in the grateful shade, and it delivers it, despite Colin’s sense of alienation; for he does in fact relax and to some extent strives to accommodate the seasonal mood. For example, he attributes his lack of interest in fame to a shepherd’s vocation – “But feede his flocke in fields, where falls hem best”. (We know that this is not the true cause of his lack of ambition; the true cause is that Rosalind has rejected him.) From the same momentary relaxation arise his confidences about that affair, and the heart-rending simplicity of

That she the truest shepheards hart made bleede,
That lyues on earth, and loued her most dere.

Colin’s belief in his art is briefly strengthened by the softness of the season (“I play to please my selfe”, “I soone would learn these woods”, etc).

I've spent a couple of days worrying over stanza 3, in particular its fourth line:

Hob. Then if by me thou list aduised be,
Forsake the soyle, that so doth the bewitch :
Leaue me those hilles, where harbrough nis to see,
Nor holybush, nor brere, nor winding witche :
And to the dales resort, where shepheards ritch,
And fruictful flocks bene euery where to see :
Here no night Rauens lodge more black then pitche,
Nor eluish ghosts, nor gastly owles doe flee.

Not perhaps a line that will strike you as worrying. I'm sure 99 out of 100 readers take it in their stride as an unimportant but decorative fill-in. It sounds wonderful, the grammar seems fine, and it seems at any rate feasible that compared to the dales the hills might be lacking in holly-bushes, briars and wych-elms.

Nevertheless I'm bothered about it, and it's all the fault of D'Orsay W. Pearson.

"In June, Rosalind appears as a metaphorical Circe who enervates Colin's poetic power. Hobbinol urges him, 'Forsake the soyle, that so doth the bewitch:/ Leave me those hilles, where harbrough nis to see,/ Nor holybush, nor brere, nor winding witche' (18-20). It is not the "soyle" but Rosalind, 'the winding witche', who bewitches Colin." (D'Orsay W. Pearson, article on witches in A.C. Hamilton, ed. The Spenser Encyclopaedia (1990).)

When I first read this, I had one of those A-ha! moments. Of course! (I reflected) Spenser is not the sort of poet who goes around mentioning a "winding witche" without a symbolic purpose. Obviously (I conceded) there is a Circean theme hidden in this carefully chosen vegetation. Throw in some ravens black as pitch and some ghastly owls... Well, case closed!

But it doesn't work. Hobbinol is advising Colin to try a change of scene. If the "winding witche" symbolizes Rosalind then it ought to be in the place that Colin is advised to flee from, and not in the place that he is advised to flee to. Nevertheless I was so enthusiastic about Pearson's interpretation that I was tempted to mend the appearances with a conjectural emendation:

Leaue me those hilles, where harbrough nis to see
But holybush or brere or winding witche...

You must admit this tightens up the argument considerably. First, it supplies a reason for mentioning the shrubs at all, i.e. their potential as makeshift shelters in the absence of sheep-folds. Second, by sounding the Circean theme earlier in the stanza it means that the later claims ("Here no night Rauens lodge" etc) no longer seem quite so left-field.

But no, it won't do. This Circean theme is a mirage, I think. Are those three plants really so Circean? Surely if Spenser is being symbolic he could hardly be unaware of the Christmas association of holly (especially when spelled "holy")? The ravens and elvish ghosts are adequately led up to by Colin's description, in the preceding stanza, of his gloomy state of mind, pursued by angry gods. The real function of these last lines is to lead in (by contrast) to the subject of the Muses, with which Iune is much concerned.

E.K. informs us that Hobbinol's advice to leave the hills refers to the author moving back to the soft South - and takes the opportunity for an absurd digression on the North and South, Hilliness of, Compared. I don't know why E.K. would make this up, but there is no other evidence that Spenser visited the North (Grosart's theories of Rose Dineley and Burnley and Pendle Hill, still widely distributed around the internet, are at best an extrapolation from E.K.'s notes, at worst grounded in sheer error). The shepherdly world of these "dales", so blessed by the Muses, seems to me an image not of the South in general but of some poetry-dedicated circle such as the Sidneys.

I'm continuing to worry over it,  just a bit. What close examination of Iune definitely reveals is that Spenser is not in a schematic mood. Hobbinol's attempt to invoke a contrasting "there" and "here" is much undercut by the rest of the poem. Neither Rosalind nor the Muses nor Colin seem to stay pinned down in one place. There are other threats to tidy thinking, too.  As Paul Alpers complained, Colin says that he took delight (in the Muses, etc) when he was free from love, and then immediately adds that those were the days when he sang of love. The refusal of the poem to fit in with its own schemes is probably the main lesson of this divagation. Perhaps, along with "Conjectural Emendation, Finally Rejected", it could stand as an example of the kinds of interest to be found in dull country.


In quatrains, with the form a4b3a4b3. The b lines are not capitalized, so the quatrain can also be interpreted as two divided fourteeners.

A debate between the lover of hills and the lover of valleys, this poem arises boldly from a sub-theme that had been pervasively present in Iune. E.K. calls Morrell a proud and ambitious pastor, and the woodcut shows him with a tonsure, but the actual poem is more nuanced.

(A pastor and a shepherd: the words mean the same. So what are the two sides in this debate, really? Is it about what language to use?)

Certainly the right does not lie all with Thomalin. It is after all Morrell who says:

There is the caue, where Phebe layed,
   the shepheard long to dreame.

- beautiful lines that Keats surely lingered on. And it’s also Morrell who supplies the concord of the ending:

Ah good Algrin, his hap was ill,
    but shall be better in time.
Now farwell shepheard, sith thys hyll
    thou hast such doubt to climbe.

The position we are placed in here, of witnessing an allegorical debate without fully fathoming its application, strikes me as quite characteristic of the Shepheardes Calender, and as a feature that connects it with the poetry we write today. For some of us it gives this earlier poem a relevance that Spenser's later work, specifically the incessant and monumental achievement of the Faerie Queene, never approaches.

This sense of relelvance may seem to disappear to the extent that you accept Percy W. Long's persuasive demonstration (PMLA vol 31 no 4, 1916), that Februarie, Iulye and September are all about bishops (Spenser was secretary to the Bishop of Rochester in 1578, whatever services that post might entail!). According to Long, Morrell represents Aylmer, Bishop of London in 1579 (and Grindal's successor). But when you read the poems, these local references don't seem to exhaust them, it's almost like Spenser used his bishops as building blocks. 

The hill is also Spenser’s poetry, it seems to me.

Thomalin says:

The hylls, where dwelled holy saints,
    I reuerence and adore:
Not for themselfe, but for the sayncts,
    which han be dead of yore.

Chaucer and his followers permitted rhyme between two identical phonemes, but only if they meant different things, which in this case is what the varying orthography also seems to imply. But what distinction in meaning is intended here? It is saints who dwelled, and it is saints who died. The distinction I suggest is doctrinal; Spenser is staking out a Puritan reinvention of traditional piety. One way or another, he was determined to reverence those hills.


The frame is at first a5b5a5b5c5c5, but by line 10 this is already turning into neo-Medieval 4-accent lines of the kind described in Februarie. It becomes regularly iambic again at 139, introducing the change of mood leading up to Cuddie’s recitation of Colin’s “lay”. The roundelay is a4b4a4b4, with the first two accents of the second line represented by the placed syllables “hey ho”. The lay is a sestina mostly in pentameters, but with two alexandrines, one of them the last line before the coda.

The sestina and its framework (beginning at 139) appear to be a late addition (too late for E.K. to lecture us about Philomela and Tereus), but it was an inspired one: a beautiful sestina - a very rare thing, that - even though it is a doleful plaint (see notes on November), and its inclusion transforms August into a many-sided exploration of how the personal pain of love makes art, whether merry or sad (cf. 144).

This sestina seems to concern a requited – but temporarily absent – love, which is not consistent with what we learn elsewhere of Rosalind. But then you can also argue that there is inconsistency generally, since Rosalind in Januarie rejects Colin’s wooing completely, and thus cannot be guilty of the inconstancy that Colin complains of in Iune.


Neo-Medieval couplets, as Februarie and Maye. The three poems are also connected by thematic material that concerns the recent history of church reform and by a structure that issues in some kind of fable, in this case the anecdote about Roffynn, his well-meaning dog Lowder, and the treacherous wolf.

The poem takes place late in the day, and a windy day too. The two speakers take a while before they reach an accord. Diggon is bitter, he is politicized in an embarrassing way. Hobbinol, not encountering the expected discourse, needs to turn things this way and that before he can settle. He is (not very flatteringly) portrayed as a timorous, conventional stay-at-home who at first does not understand the sharp discourse of Diggon, and when he does understand it is afraid of such plain speaking. But they gradually come together through the fable (which is oddly told in the wrong order); as if they smile over Lowder as a real dog, and it brings them together. After automatically lamenting his inability to offer any real help, Hobbinol is able to produce a resolution by offering Diggon a bed to sleep on. But Diggon has to shelve his uncompromising radicalism and give vent to his (more socially acceptable) personal distress before this sympathetic resolution can be achieved.


Six-line stanzas, regularly iambic, a5b5b5a5b5a5.

This poem, about the sustenance of poetry, is subtly and multiply linked to its month: the month of harvest and of vintage, but also the month when the sun is perceptibly losing strength and we feel bareness around us.

It so happens that I'm writing this in October, watching the shops gain vigour and fullness with the autumn season. Oh, how wonderful and fecund all the products seem! The impossible variety of the books in Waterstones, all so eminently worth reading! Really, we don't give enough credit to anything. Why, the piped music itself: how long it is since I remembered Elvis Costello, or Talking Heads - what buried treasures in the recent past, how acclaimed those album sequences once were, I never liked them enough but I still ended up owning some of those 5-star-review albums for a while - and now? In this consumer ecstasy, walking around like an animated Mojo magazine, there is something profoundly attractive in the thought of spending time - much more time - with Spenser's poetry. Yet you can no more find the Shepheard's Calender in Waterstones than you can find Allen Fisher or Caroline Bergvall - I checked. (Disconcerting, seeing Tao Lin on the displays.)

So the rural harvest has morphed into This Year's Model, but the seasonal rhythm remains. It's salutary to check my inner criticism of Spenser for not being a genuine shepherd, for dressing up his versifying pals in fake pastoral garb, and to remember that we readers of Spenser are not shepherds either. The poem is an artificial meeting-place, but its seasons are still real. And curiously I find the poems in the Shepheardes Calender quite convincingly naturalistic. There is weather and labour in the grain of the verse, there's a largeness in Spenser's realization of pastoral, it has not yet refined into Herrick (or indeed Sidney). Maybe that has something to do with the bishops - i.e. with a background in work, even if it wasn't rural work.

The Shepheard's Calender was also a seminal consumer item. Never before had the marketing department distinguished itself so explicitly from the poet who was (tantalizingly) said to be so reluctant to "promulgate". What came on sale in 1579 was not just verse, it was the experience of discovering a poet. It was the experience of owning a bit of cultural history with a great sleeve, just like Talking Heads '77.

October deliberately outruns its course. After setting forth a mounting (Virgilian) progress into epic, climaxing with

O pierlesse Poesye, where is then thy place?   (79)

it gestures at moving upward to the stars, goes off at a tangent meditating on Colin’s passions and poetic capacities, and then rejects servitude to love; instead, Cuddie proposes drinking as the obvious way to generate lofty verse. This is unserious, and descends just as inconsequentially into the quietism of

For thy, content vs in thys humble shade:
Where no such troublous tydes han vs assayde,
Here we our slender pipes may safely charme.  (116-18)

The resolution, as of the other poems, is tranquil, certainly, but not precisely a matter for rejoicing – it is not the best, but only making the best.


The frame is mainly a5b5a5b5:b5c5b5c5:c5d5c5d5 etc. The elaborate verses on Dido are mainly a6b5a5b5b5c4c4d2b5d2, but with some irregularities (e.g. c5 at line 79).

Where bene the nosegayes that she dight for thee:
The colourd chaplets wrought with a chiefe,
The knotted rushrings, and gilte Rosemaree?
For shee deemed nothing too deere for thee.
Thereof nought remaynes but the memoree...  (114-17, 121)

The rhythm of the rest of the Dido ode is regularly iambic, but this stanza is bumpy. “Wrought” was perhaps intended to be “wroughten” – this line is a syllable short. The other irregular lines (117, 121) are at least decasyllabic, and could be made semi-regular with some cunning placement of accents, e.g. on “no thing” (defensible) and “remaynes” (doubtful).

I care very little for the Dido ode. The long stanza and the altering refrain (from “O heauie herse” to “O happye herse”) bring to mind later triumphs; but what works in a marriage poem seems glib in a funeral poem. Colin’s epanorthoses, though admired by E.K., are also unappealing to me:

Why doe we longer liue, (ah why liue we so long)

She while she was, (that was, a woful word to sayne)

They are a formal but strikingly crude way of registering emotion; the self-interruption marks passion’s impatience with the ongoing process of speech. Even more crude is the piling up of the vocabulary of “grieslie ghostes”, “streaming teares”, dolefulness and woefulness.

Spenser wrote other poems that can be loosely called elegies, Daphnaida and Astrophel. More accurately they should be called doleful plaints. None of them appears to owe its origin to a personal or deeply felt sense of bereavement; they are not really poems about death. Perhaps it’s significant that The Faerie Queene was perfectly designed to be an enormous poem from which death is markedly absent. What Spenser is poetically sensitive to is not death but mutability. He generalizes and universalizes instinctively – December is a good example of where this can take us.


a5b5a5b5c5c5 (as Januarye).

December mentions death, as what comes after – “dreerie” but “timely”. This is true in the sense that the fiction comes to an end with the poem. It isn’t true in the sense that Colin is really old, drawing near his latter end, or about to drop down dead. The only thing that’s really going to die, we suspect, is Colin’s attachment to Rosalind.

The poem is a calendar within a calendar. Spenser felt the form deeply, and he used it at the other end of his poetic career in the Mutabilitie cantos – but there he worked from March to February, according to the old idea of when the year started and finished.

His use of it here is complicated. The year’s cycle, from spring to winter, is used as a figure, both of Colin’s love affair (innocence, passion, waste, decay) and of his whole life (youth, manhood, ripeness, age). He is actually singing the song in December, which is imagined both as a long-distant spring (or rather, Colin’s youthful spring extended even to pre-Christmas occupations such as gathering nuts) and as the present onset of winter. A similar complication applies to summer, when his fatal passion has overpowered and alienated him, yet at the same time his skills and achievements continue to expand. But Colin’s knowledge (e.g. of the heavens) will only result in making him more capable of autumnally reckoning his own failure. At some level this allows into the poem a Christian (and Hamlet-like) figuring of the imperfection of man’s triumphs. December in England is, more than any other month, associated with a Christian festival – it’s almost unimaginable without Christmas. Thus the poem very subtly hints at a renunciation of earthly love and the possible birth of spiritual love, as in the Foure Hymnes.

The final stanzas are pleasingly naive. This naivety has been an intermittent feature throughout the Calender, something that E.K. has been keen to annotate as suitable to a pastoral venture. Its function at the end is surely to detach us from too close an identification with Colin – his fictiveness is underlined. Behind him we hear, perhaps, the voice of the poet announcing the end of his country pantomime:

Adieu delightes, that lulled me asleepe,
Adieu my deare, whose loue I bought so deare:
Adieu my little Lambes and loued sheepe,
Adieu ye Woodes that oft my witnesse were:
Adieu good Hobbinol, that was so true,
Tell Rosalind, her Colin bids her adieu.

For Colin and Rosalind it really is over, but not for the poem or for the life in which it will find its function, both of them cycling around the calendar for ever, as the Epilogue points out.



A note on “E.K.”

Many readers have assumed that E.K. is Spenser himself. They find it difficult to believe that an unknown poet could persuade anyone else to take the time to write elaborate commentary, and they think Spenser was greatly puffed – in fact, altogether too conveniently – by commentary that already treats his work as canonical, i.e in the opposite spirit to what is implied by Spenser's modest pen-name Immeritô.

Our inability to resolve this simple matter tells us a good deal about how elusive Spenser remains as a personality. References to E.K in the Spenser-Harvey letters do not help, as they can be read equally well either as reflecting Spenser’s somewhat mixed feelings about his real-life commentator or as Spenser indulging in some comic elaboration of his invented persona. If you think that E.K. is a Spenserian fiction, you may find it significant that Harvey does not trouble to respond to the invitation to refer to E.K. or to pass on any greeting to him.

Nevertheless, though intermittently tempted by the “E.K.=Spenser” theory I currently side with C.S. Lewis (and Selincourt) in judging that E.K. was a real person, independent from Spenser. Richard McCabe’s remark on the first page of his 1999 edition of the shorter poems (“a literary agent too ideal to be other than fictitious”) reflects a simple lack of historical awareness – and he surely ought to have found room in the next 750 pages to address this important question in a little more detail. It might be true that no new poet today can find a peer prepared to subordinate themselves to close commentary mingled with outbursts of uncritical acclamation (counter-examples occur to me), but anyway in 1579 everything was different, and besides Spenser wasn’t exactly unknown. Unknown poets can’t find illustrators either, but that’s what Spenser ended up with; good ones, who read his poems carefully.

To suppose that Spenser could have gone to the trouble of inventing such a wholly consistent persona, one who shows off his learning at such frequently irrelevant length, is to me unbelievable.

Examples of what I mean are the notes on Flora (March), the olive (Aprill), Sardanapalus (Maye), the ill omen of stumbling as evinced by the Lord Hastings (Maye), the height of Kentish hills (June) the Elfs or Guelfs (June), etc. It’s relatively easy to see why a real E.K. might enjoy the opportunity to produce in Spenser's margins a kind of emblem book or syncretistic compilation of learned gobbets, less easy to see what Spenser himself would gain from doing so. Did Spenser enjoy pedantic dressing-up, like Scott did? Furthermore, Lewis pointed out some of the more obvious places where E.K. expresses sentiments at odds with what we know Spenser thought (e.g. of Marot, Arthurian Legend, fairies, etc).

Or consider the headnote to Nouember:

This Æglogue is made in imitation of Marot his song, which he made upon the death of Loys the frenche Queene. But farre passing his reache, and in myne opinion all other the Eglogues of this booke.

The same Spenser who later imagines his noble Sir Guyon "feeding his thoughts with his own praiseworthy deeds" no doubt had a becoming pride in his own gifts, but I can’t believe he would seriously describe even his best poem as far outstripping Marot’s capacities.

The problem with McCabe’s dismissal of E.K.’s reality is that he fails to take account of the real and delicate context of the publication. Spenser had been a prolific poet for ten years or more. His poems had circulated but he was reluctant to publish. E.K. spurred Spenser on by writing his elaborate commentaries to the Calendar and also to the not-extant Dreames, which were set to be published in 1580 but never appeared. On E.K.’s own admission Spenser had considerable input into the commentary. The glosses of archaic words are probably his, and a mistake like the gloss to Februarie 119 probably arose because Spenser automatically replied to a question about the meaning of wonned by giving the usual sense without realizing that E.K. was asking about a line where he had used the word in a different way. No doubt, too, they conferred about what not to gloss, e.g. Algrind.

But E.K. surely had a personal agenda (i.e. giving free rein to a mass of learning, itself of considerable potential interest to an audience when books were scarce) and it was apparently he rather than Spenser who arranged for the woodcuts (the Dreames had them too). He also planned to publish a Spenserian treatise called the English Poete. It seems that he was the driving force behind these publications, and in some sense they were (or would have been) his books rather than Spenser’s, whose own judgment on the proposed follow-up (“Therin be some things excellently, and many things wittily discoursed of E.K...”) perhaps indicates understandable misgivings and a possible reason why publication of the Dreames in the end came to nothing. But it was presumably the imminence of this second publication that decided the editors of the Letters to maintain E.K.’s (as well as M. Immeritô’s) semi-anonymity.

I confess to moments of uncertainty in writing this. The Letters do look to me like a piece of self-promotion in which Harvey and Spenser were prime movers (though some have argued that they landed Harvey in hot water). If they were capable of publishing "spontaneous" letters for publicity purposes, then perhaps they were capable of inventing an E.K. too. And of course if E.K and Spenser were working together on what to gloss then this means Spenser would have overseen E.K.'s contrary opinions anyway. Which weakens the argument that those contrary opinions prove that Spenser couldn't be E.K.

(The subject came up again in discussion with John Armstrong, who almost persuaded me that Spenser is E.K., at least some of the time:)



A circular narrative in The Faerie Queene

In Book III of The Faerie Queene there is a circularity in the story of Florimell (or Britomart). I cannot remember to what extent this has been discussed before, so I’ll just give the details here. I'm assuming that anyone who has read this far must have a pretty high tolerance for miscellaneous Spenser-related chitchat.

In the opening stanzas of Book III Canto I, Guyon and Arthur meet Britomart, who jousts with Guyon and unseats him. They make it up and ride on together in good spirits. Then, in St 15, they are passed by a “goodly Ladie” (named in the legend as Florimell), pursued by a Foster. Arthur and Guyon set off in the hope of rescuing her. Meanwhile, Britomart comes to Castle Ioyeous and after various adventures there departs with the Redcrosse Knight.

Cantos II and III describe their conversation, with flashbacks concerning the origin of Britomart’s quest. At the end of Canto III, they part, and in Canto IV, after searching many lands, Britomart comes to the sea-shore (St 6). Here she is challenged by Marinell. They fight, and she leaves him seriously injured (St 17). His mother Cymoent retrieves him. Finally, in St 45, the story turns back to Arthur and Guyon. They split up when they come to “a double way” (St 46), and the story now follows Arthur, who is overtaken by nightfall.

The next day, Arthur meets “a Dwarfe” (St 3), who is finally able to give some information about Florimell. He tells us that she is in love with Marinell (St 8), but that five days ago Marinell met “a forreine foe” (St 9) and, rumour has it, is slain. Four days ago, an anguished Florimell left the Court and vowed never to return until she found him, alive or dead.

In the dwarf’s account of Florimell’s time-line, therefore, Florimell’s trouble with the Foster must come after she left the court, which in turn must come after Marinell’s wounding. Yet, on Britomart’s time-line, she sees Florimell in trouble quite a long time before she ever encounters Marinell and leaves him for dead.

There is no simple way in which the time-paradox could be emended away and Spenser presumably incurred it deliberately. I don’t know what analogues may then have existed for a narrative that runs round in a circle like this. It’s another good example of Spenser’s capacity for surprising us with weird devices. It’s also, of course, an extreme instance of the wild elasticity of time in Spenser’s land of Faerie.

Images of sixteenth-century English shoes are from the Bashford Dean Memorial Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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