on 20 March 2013
Critic Michael Schmidt expresses regret that this marvellously musical and prolific writer has become "an academic's poet". He has, and that's probably because of The Faerie Queene, a breeze-block volume of complex symbolism and contemporary reference largely lost on the modern reader and, unfortunately, thrust down the throat of many a disgruntled Eng Lit student. But Spenser's shorter poems are superb - The Shepheardes Calender, The Ruines of Time, Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (dedicated to Sir Walter Raleigh), the Amoretti sonnets and the sensational Epithalamion to name a few - and are packed with real emotion as well as his trademark dense symbolism. In his emotion quotient, ES differs from cold-fish technical genius and contemporary Sir Philip Sidney, being more of a warm-blooded, mammalian technical genius. Richard McCabe's academic yet accessible introduction and notes will answer most of the general reader's queries and the package comes complete with reproductions of the original woodcuts, essential for amplifying the text where they appear. This is a fantastic volume of poetry and a landmark of scholarly exegesis, well worth the admission price.
on 11 October 2014
Despite the title of this collection, the poems published here are not all “short” in any absolute sense of that word. “The Shepheardes Calender”, for example, runs to more than 2,000 lines, and “Mother Hubberd’s Tale” to well over a thousand. They are, however, “short” when compared to Spenser's maximum opus, “The Faerie Queene”.
“The Shepheardes Calender” was Spenser's first original poetic work, published in 1579. In common with most modern editors of Spenser, but in contrast to most modern editors of other Elizabethan poets, Richard McCabe keeps his original spelling and resists the temptation to emend that title to “The Shepherd’s Calendar”. The reason is that Spenser, a lover of mediaeval literature, especially Chaucer, often wrote in a deliberately archaic style, using spellings and grammatical forms which were old-fashioned even by sixteenth century standards. The work contains allusions not only to Chaucer but also to other earlier writers such as Langland, Lydgate and John Skelton. A feature is the commentary ascribed to one "E.K”, probably an alias for Spenser himself. Among other things, “E.K.” provides translations for words which had already become obsolete by the 1570s.
Despite the title, the work is not primarily a work of “nature poetry”, nor is it a description of the working life of an agricultural labourer during the different seasons of the year. Spenser's model was Virgil's “Eclogues”, and he seems to have intended the poem as preparation for writing “The Faerie Queene”, in direct emulation of the Roman poet who had also begun his career by writing pastoral verse before progressing to the “Aeneid”. It may in turn have inspired “Arcadia” by Spenser’s friend and contemporary Sir Philip Sidney, which appeared the following year.
It is divided into twelve “Aeglogues” (Spenser’s preferred spelling of the word “eclogues”, derived from a mistaken etymology), corresponding to the months of the year. These vary in their theme, subject-matter and rhyme-schemes, although all are ostensibly narrated by shepherds living on the Kentish Downs. “January” is a lament for unhappy love, written from the viewpoint of the shepherd Colin Clout, a character originally created by Skelton. “April” is a poem in praise of Queen Elizabeth, “February” and “May” fables in the manner of Aesop, “October” an examination of the life of a poet, and several “Aeglogues” deal with religious issues. As one might expect from the ardent Protestant Spenser, these often include thinly-veiled attacks on the Catholic Church, although as McCabe points out they could also be read as more discreetly veiled criticisms of the Anglican hierarchy. Spenser may have praised Elizabeth, but some allusions in the poem could also be seen as warnings (veiled even more discreetly) to the Queen not to marry the Catholic Duc d’Alencon, a burning political issue at the time.
The “Complaints, Containing sundrie small Poemes of the Worlds Vanitie” were published in 1590. They are a rather more varied group of poems than Spenser’s title might suggest, and are written in various different metres and verse forms. All, however, involve the poet “complaining” about something, either in the sense of lamenting it or in that of satirising it. The longest of the poems, “Mother Hubberd’s Tale", is (superficially at least) a beast fable telling of the misadventures of a fox and an ape but which also aims to expose various abuses in Church and State. McCabe calls it an Elizabethan “Animal Farm” and suggests that it may have been a satire aimed at Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s Lord High Treasurer, whom Spenser disliked. For obvious reasons, however, he had to be a lot more guarded in his satire than Orwell did 350 years later. "Muiopotmos, or the Fate of the Butterflie", and "Virgil's Gnat" are also beast fables in mock-heroic vain, the latter being a translation of a Latin poem attributed (probably wrongly) to Virgil.
In "The Teares of the Muses" the Muses, the Greek goddesses of learning and the arts, bewail the debased state of culture in late sixteenth-century Europe. "The Ruines of Time" is a lament for the transience of all earthly things, narrated by Verlame, the spirit of the Roman city of Verulamium (near modern St Albans). The other poems in this collection are in a similar vein, some of them being translations from Petrarch or the French poet Joachim du Bellay.
Of the other works in this volume, “Daphnaïda” is “An Elegy upon the death of the noble and vertuous Douglas Howard”. Douglas was not, as one might think, a man but a young woman, the wife of Sir Arthur Gorges. “Astrophel” is another elegy, on the death of Spenser’s friend Sidney, who had published a work entitled “Astrophil and Stella”. It now appears that “Astrophil” (“star-lover”) was Sidney’s preferred spelling, but an early edition had misspelled the name, and Spenser followed this spelling. “Colin Clouts Come Home Againe” is a pastoral poem in which Spenser (at this time living in Ireland) reverts to his “Colin Clout” persona to describe (in allegorical form) a visit he made to London in 1591 and what he saw there; it includes fulsome praise of Queen Elizabeth and a highly idealised account of the state of England which he contrasts with the unhappy state of Ireland.
The “Amoretti” are a sequence of sonnets, possibly influenced by “Astrophil and Stella”, chronicling the progress of a love affair. They are said to have been based upon Spenser’s courtship of his second wife Elizabeth Boyle, although they may well not have been autobiographical in the literal senses. For about the first two thirds of the sequence Spenser adopts the traditional Petrarchan posture of the unhappy lover bewailing the cruelty of an unresponsive mistress who refuses to return his love. In one sonnet alone Elizabeth is variously described as a tiger, as a storm uprooting a tree and as the rock on which a ship is wrecked; I wonder what she made of such metaphors and whether they caused Spenser any problems in his marriage. (Even in the “Four Hymns”, published after his marriage, Spenser was still maintaining this posture). Only towards the end of the sequence does the poet harbour any hope that his love is requited. The “Amoretti” are followed by an “Epithalamion”, a traditional Greek name for a marriage-hymn. Spenser also wrote a “Prothalamion” (a word of his own coining) to celebrate the betrothal of the two daughters of the Earl of Worcester; the line “Sweete Themmes, runne softly till I end my song”, which concludes each of its stanzas, has become famous.
Du Bellay, one of the poets who inspired Spenser, is today remembered for his “Defense et Illustration de la Langue Française”, in which he argued, and attempted to prove, that French was as suitable a vehicle for serious literature as the Classical languages Greek and Latin, and it seems to me that Spenser was trying to do the same thing English. Many of Spenser's poems were deliberately written in emulation of Greek or Latin poets- indeed, his wide variety of subject-matter and verse forms might suggest that he was trying to the emulate the whole corpus of classical poetry. By doing so in his native language he was essentially engaged in a patriotic attempt to elevate the status of the English language. The works in this volume, together with “The Faerie Queene”, can be seen as a “Defence and Illustration of the English Tongue”.