What are the works and thoughts of Edmund Spenser? Pastoral Disguises, Allusions to Public Figures, Philosophy behind the poetry and poems.
Edmund Spenser Works and Thoughts; The intelligent passerby who in the winter of 1579-1580, picked up The Shepheardes Calender from the bookstalls around St. Paul’s Church would readily admit the claim of E. K., the mysterious author of the commentaries accompanying the work, that here was a “new poete.” Though the identity of E. K. is beyond actual proof, most critics agree that he was doubtless Edward Kirke, one of Spenser’s and Harvey’s friends at Cambridge. The 12 poems were uneven and experimental but not lacking in technical accomplishment. Above all, the self-conscious innovator who had his friend provide an introduction and notes, including a “Glosse” for each poem, projected a very definite poetical personality in the figure of Colin Clout. That Colin Clout appeared a despairing lover might be convention, but the whole pastoral formula was a convention within which, following the example of Vergil, the poet could write of his own affairs as would be improper in the greater forms of poetry.
Pastoral Disguises. E. K. gave some identifications of the other shepherds and more hints. But whenever Spenser wrote of specific people, he was carefully and ingeniously explicit or obscure, as he pleased, so that there will always be differences of opinion about some identifications. E. K. explains that Hobbinol is Gabriel Harvey. If he is also the Hobbinol of Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, the allusion is not to be mistaken for literal fact, since Harvey was never in Ireland. Some other shepherds may be dubiously identified, but public figures are easily deciphered. Michael Drayton seems to have known who Rosalinde was, and John Dryden claimed her as a kinswoman of his mother’s. E. K. says the name is an anagram, but it can be “ordered” in a surprising number of ways. Her memory reappears in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (lines 907 ff.), where her proud aloofness resembles the lady of many of the Amoretti. But whether she is the same woman, or whether she is Elizabeth Boyle during the early courtship, is not known. Spenser did not mean the reader to know—it was his secret, shared only with his friends. The likeness of tone between Epithalamion and the shining picture in The Faerie Queene, Book VI, Canto X, stanzas 12-16, suggests that the “shep-heards lasse” is Spenser’s wife. However, none of the identifications is necessary to the understanding of the situations. Suffice it to say that Spenser was always a lover, with a high and idealistic notion of sexual love. Of the persons in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, the poets Samuel Daniel and William Alabaster are mentioned by name, others are identifiable by circumstances, and some are quite obscure. When Spenser wished the reader to know, here and in The Faerie Queene, he gave abundant clues. When identifications are obscure or hidden, it is because the facts are lost or because he did not mean the reader to know.
Allusions to Public Figures. Aside from the poet’s private affairs, the intelligent Spenserian contemporary would note, and very clearly, that the new poet had opinions on public affairs and was bold enough in stating them. The praise of Queen Elizabeth I in the April eclogue was very proper. It occurs, ecstatically, in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe and in The Faerie Queene. Spenser had reason to be grateful for her countenance and, like all her poets, praised her lavishly. This is not subservience; they had good cause. It will be noted that the Elisa of “Aprill” is the queen of peace. So was Elizabeth I for many poets—Shakespeare, for instance, in his proleptic obituary of her at the end of Henry VIII—and with good reason. Whatever Spain and the pope might do, she gave internal peace to a people for whom, to judge from Shakespeare’s histories alone, the old civil wars were still a nightmare. The poet’s allusions to other public figures might be less safe. It would take no abnormal perspicacity, by syllabic transportation, to see Edmund Grindal, Archbishop of Canterbury, and John Elmore (or Aylmer), Bishop of London, as the characters Algrind and Morrell in the July eclogue of The Shepheard.es Calender, or to see John Young, whose official signature as Bishop of Rochester was Roffensis, as the character Roffyn or Roffy in the September eclogue. Such references were not all in praise of the governmental side in disputed questions, and the pastoral disguise was not without its uses.
Spenser and Public Affairs. Some prominent critics, from William Hazlitt to William Butler Yeats, have pictured Spenser as a remote person. Hazlitt, for instance, impressed on English criticism his notion of Spenser as “[to our apprehensions]rather ‘a creature of the element, that lived in the rainbow and played in the plighted clouds,’ than an ordinary mortal” (“Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen,” in Hazlitt’s Lectures on the English Poets, 1818). As a result, it has been customary to describe Spenser as a detached spirit, an inhabitant of that undesirable residence, the ivory tower. The notion is quite false. A reader, noting the Cambridge connections of the new poet, would understand at once that he was infected by the prevalent Puritanism of the place, less concerned with theology than with notions of primitive simplicity in ecclesiastical organization and the life of the clergy. It was much distrusted by the Queen and her powerful secretary William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (or Burleigh). Spenser had some temperamental affinity with Puritan ideals of conduct—something of the fastidiousness so noticeable in his admirer John Milton. His undergraduate leanings toward left-wing and idealistic views may have been modified by direct observation of church business in Rochester, for they are more marked in the May and July eclogues in The Shepheardes Calender than in “September,” where they echo those of Harvey’s friend William Harrison in the Description of England, which Harrison contributed to Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, a work of which Spenser availed himself later. Such views would not make him unwelcome to Leicester, who favored the Puritan party for his own purposes.
Spenser as Satirist. References to public affairs and personages appear throughout The Faerie Queene, especially in Book V. Mother Hubberds Tale, published in the Complaints volume, is a direct commentary on abuses in court and country. Indeed, it was too outspoken. Gabriel Harvey thought so, and contemporary gossip suggests a move to suppress it. Though couched in the old formula of the beast fable, it is a fresh and brilliant satire, which Dryden, no recluse and a wholehearted admirer of Spenser, could point out as the only English precedent for his own efforts. As we have it, the last section has obviously been revised. It may have contained a strong attack on Burghley, intended as propaganda for Leicester but too indiscreet to be useful. And it might be this well-meant error that lost Spenser his patron’s favor and occasioned Virgils Gnat (Complaints volume), a translation of the Vergilian Culex— a curious apology, as the prefixed sonnet shows.
Views on Ireland. It would indeed be surprising if the author of A View of the Present State
of Ireland were able to keep public affairs out of his poems. This prose piece written by Spenser in 1596 was refused a license in 1598 but was published by Sir James Ware in Dublin in 1633. It has long been understood among people who have not read it to advocate the solution of Ireland’s problems by the indiscriminate massacre of the native inhabitants. In fact it is a competent official statement of the problems and a comprehensive attempt to cover reforms in law, administration, police, defense, and finance. Some of the suggestions are ill judged, and the attitude is severely official. Indeed, it summarizes official opinion as it can be traced in many state papers. Government, it is assumed, rested on power, and force was needed to suppress the chronic unrest and subject all Ireland to uniform rule. It is not idealistic, but it faces the difficulties and recognizes that the solutions are not perfect. And it criticizes, straightforwardly and courageously, the whole system, attacking the English as strongly as the Irish—Anglo-Irish lords, government, officialdom, administration, troops, and, by implication, the central government of England. It praises even the enemies of England for what virtues they have—the industry of the peasants that would so benefit them if the native system of tenures gave them a chance to improve their holdings, the military aptitude of the wild Irish foot soldiers, the courage and devotion of the Catholic missionaries who stirred up trouble. The desired end is peace and stability—in which we recognize our poet. He praises the country and makes it evident that what really interests him is its history and antiquities.
Spenser as Epic Poet. The whole idea of The Faerie Queene was indeed a poet-thinker’s contribution to the well-being of the state. “The general end,” he explains in his letter to Raleigh, “is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.” It seems to address one class, but it was a broad class and one of vital importance to the Tudor system that replaced the chaos of broken-down feudalism. A gentleman, as defined by Harrison in his Description of England, includes “whosoever studieth the lawes of the realm, whoso abideth in the universitie giving his mind to his booke, or pro-fesseth physicke and the liberall sciences, or . . . service in the roome of a captaine in the warres, or good counsell given at home, whereby his common-wealth is benefited.” Other men produced books on education, legal manuals for justices of the peace, or military textbooks. Spenser took as his theme the moral qualities required by those on whom the functioning of the state depended and, as a poet, sought to make these qualities attractive. If this first discussion of private virtues were approved, he said, he would proceed to the discussion of public virtues—but, of course, even the first was too large an undertaking for one man in his circumstances. It is as a philosophical treatise as well as a storybook that The Faerie Queene addresses itself to the reader. The stories are a vehicle for ideas and often contain more different ideas than one poem could conveniently hold.
The machinery of romantic knight-errantry-borrowed from Sir Thomas Malory, Ludovico Ariosto, Tasso, and English tradition—was attractive because it dealt with the native legend of King Arthur. It was useful because of its desultory nature. Since anything might happen, any kind of idea might be introduced at any time, and the sequence of events depends on what ideas Spenser wished to introduce, not upon any logical or consistent plot. It was enough to have a skeleton story to symbolize the general theme of each book, and a still more sketchy story—that of Prince Arthur, never clarified in the unfinished work—to symbolize the more general idea of virtue that comprised all the others.
Philosophy Behind the Poetry. The inquirer into Spenser’s ideas should refrain from trying to identify them with any one school of philosophy. Like a true poet and a man of this world, and unlike an academic logician, Spenser was finding out as he went what his philosophy was. He learned from all the schools but belonged to none. The Neoplatonism current all over Europe attracted this lover of beauty. The doctrine that beauty is a shadow of the divine explained its mysterious power and that force in the soul called love, but he followed it only so far. Being no mystic, Spenser drew back from the asceticism that renounced the earthly manifestation.
The first two of the Fowre Hymnes are in honor of love and beauty and were composed, as Spenser noted, “in the greener times of my youth.” They mark his partial allegiance to the fashionable Neoplatonist cult. The two later ones, by no means convincing either philosophically or logically, show that he found his former attitudes inadequate. The use of Platonic terms in a few of the Amoretti proves only that the ideal cult of love and beauty could—and can—coexist with the frankest delight in the senses. Spenser’s end was not mystical contemplation but human love at its best and happiest. In any case, he found strength also in the Epicurean picture of a universe of eternal flux and renewal. The contradiction of the world, its glory and its frailty, was never reconciled, except by reliance upon the Christian God, in whom Spenser had been brought up to believe. His effort was gallant and original, and in the effort he found the settings for security in this life, not by renunciation but by the facing and overcoming of evil whenever and in whatever forms it is encountered.
Much difficulty in the interpreting of Spenser’s thought is caused by the critic’s refusal to keep a free mind, much difficulty by the multifariousness of the poet’s interests, and even more by the sensuous beauty that not only accompanies but is necessary to his philosophy. All his reading and all his experience—landscape and running water, the beauty of women, the grave concerns of government, changes of weather, the cruelty and weariness of fighting, birds and insects, the joy and sorrow of love, philosophy and history and psychology and the delight of the craftsmanlike phrase, in short, all experience whether mental or physical or spiritual—went into The Faerie Queene, there to be unified by poetry.
Poetic Powers. Spenser’s innate poetic power must have been the first thing to strike the early reader of The Shepheardes Calender. The diffident but ambitious new poet was no casual rhymester. He knew what he was trying to do and had written it out in a critical treatise, “The English Poete” ( October eclogue, introductory “Argument”), which E. K. promised to publish but unfortunately never did. Spenser had obviously studied Geoffrey Chaucer, Vergil, Vergil’s imitator Mantuanus—Battista (or Baptista) Spagnoli, the “good old Mantuan” whom Shakespeare’s schoolmaster loved—Clément Marot, Petrarch, and others. He was obviously experimenting—in fact, he never followed up most of the experiments— but the voice was authentic and the mastery, though intermittent, genuine. Spenser’s command of language, verse, and rhythm increased steadily, reaching its height in The Faerie Queene and leaving no doubt in the minds of his contemporaries that he was the greatest English poet since Chaucer.
Spenser’s consummate poetic skill and the infectious delight with which he exercised it made him a strong influence on 17th century poets as well as on many later poets. The formal elegance of some of his works has also misled critics who forget that in happier times poets ministered to many occasions. Thus Astrophel is a formal commemoration of an admired young man whom Spenser had known for a few months and had occasion to be grateful to. Daphnaida is an elaborate monument over the tomb of the wife of an acquaintance, for which he may have been paid—at least in countenance, if not in cash.
To criticize the frigidity of these works—like criticizing the lack of personal grief in Donne’s Anniversaries or Milton’s Lycidas—is beside the mark. It is better to enjoy their formal elegance or to turn to the pure pleasure of Muiopotmos, which some have attempted to interpret alle-gorically but which is, as Ralph Waldo Emerson says in his Journals, a spring of sheer artistic exuberance. Most of all, the two marriage songs repay critical attention: Prothalamion for its quiet and unforced grace and Epiihalamion, the finest thing of its kind in European poetry, for something more uncommon—the complete fusion, by sheer heat of emotion, of materials borrowed for their rarity and splendor from older mines of poetry into something triumphantly individual.
Spenser was unlucky in his life, but as the devoted practitioner of English poetry who “found it brick and left it marble,” he is not an object of pity.