Spenser—The "Shepherd's Calendar"
W HEN Henry signed Surrey's death-warrant he himself was near death, and not many weeks later the proud and violent king met his end. Then followed for England changeful times. After Protestant Edward came for a tragic few days Lady Jane. Then followed the short, sad reign of Catholic Mary, who, dying, left the throne free for her brilliant sister Elizabeth. Those years, from the death of King Henry VIII to the end of the first twenty years of Elizabeth's reign, were years of action rather than of production. They were years of struggle, during which England was swayed to and fro in the fight of religions. They were years during which the fury of the storm of the Reformation worked itself out. But although they were such unquiet years they were also years of growth, and at the end of that time there blossomed forth one of the fairest seasons of our literature.
We call the whole group of authors who sprang up at this time the Elizabethans, after the name of the Queen in whose reign they lived and wrote. And to those of us who know even a very little of the time, the word calls up a brilliant vision. Great names come crowding to our minds, names of poets, dramatists, historians, philosophers, divines. It would be impossible to tell of all in this book, so we must choose the greatest from the noble array. And foremost among them comes Edmund Spenser, for "the glory of the new literature broke in England with Edmund Spenser."
If we could stand aside, as it were, and take a wide view of all our early literature, it would seem as if the names of Chaucer and Spenser stood out above all others like great mountains. The others are valleys between. They are pleasant fields in which to wander, in which to gather flowers, not landmarks for all the world like Chaucer and Spenser. And although it is easier and safer for children to wander in the meadows and gather meadow flowers, they still may look up to the mountains and hope to climb them some day.
Edmund Spenser was born in London in 1552, and was the son of a poor clothworker or tailor. He went to school at the Merchant Taylors' School, which had then been newly founded. That his father was very poor we know, for Edmund Spenser's name appears among "certain poor scholars of the schools about London" who received money and clothes from a fund left by a rich man to help poor children at school.
When he was about seventeen Edmund went to Cambridge, receiving for his journey a sum of ten shillings from the fund from which he had already received help at school. He entered college as a sizar, that is, in return for doing the work of a servant he received free board and lodging in his college. A sizar's life was not always a happy one, for many of the other scholars or gentlemen commoners looked down upon them because of their poverty. And this poverty they could not hide, for the sizars were obliged to wear a different cap and gown from that of the gentlemen commoners.
But of how Spenser fared at college we know nothing, except that
he was often ill and that he made two lifelong friends. That he
loved his university, however, we learn
from his poems, when he tenderly speaks of "my mother Cambridge."
When he left college
Who Rosalind really was no one knows. She would never have been heard of had not Spenser taken her for his lady and made songs to her. Spenser's love for Rosalind was, however, more real than the fashionable poet's passion. He truly loved Rosalind, but she did not love him, and she soon married some one else. Then all his joy in the summer and the sunshine was made dark.
At twenty-four life seemed ended, for "Love is a cureless sorrow."
And now, when he was feeling miserable, lonely, desolate an old college friend wrote to him begging him to come to London. Spenser went, and through his friend he came to know Sir Philip Sidney, a true gentleman and a poet like himself, who in turn made him known to the great Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth's favorite.
Spenser thought his heart had been broken and that his life was
done. But hearts do not break easily. Life is not done at
Yet when, a few years later, Spenser published his first great poem, it did not tell of courts or courtiers, but of simple country sights and sounds. This book is called the Shepherd's Calendar, as it contains twelve poems, one for every month of the year.
In it Spenser sings of his fair lost lady Rosalind, and he himself appears under the name of Colin Clout. The name is taken, as you will remember, from John Skelton's poem.
Spenser called his poems Æclogues, from a Greek word meaning Goatherds' Tales, "Though indeed few goatherds have to do herein." He dedicated them to Sir Philip Sidney as "the president of noblesse and of chivalrie."
The Shepherd's Calendar made the new poet famous. Spenser was
advanced at court, and soon after went to Ireland in the train of
After eight years spent in the north of Ireland, Spenser was
given a post which took him south. His new home was the old
castle of Kilcolman in Cork. It was surrounded by fair wooded
country, but to Spenser it seemed a desert. He had gone to
Ireland as to exile, hoping that it was merely a
The two great men, thus alone among the wild Irish, made friends,
and they had many a talk together. There within the gray stone
walls of the old
In a poem called Colin Clout's come home again, which Spenser wrote a few years later, he tells in his own poetic way of these meetings and talks, and of how Raleigh persuaded him to go to England, there to publish his poem. In Colin Clout Spenser calls both himself and Raleigh shepherds. For just as at one time it was the fashion to write poems in the form of a dream, so in Spenser's day it was the fashion to write poems called pastorals, in which the authors made believe that all their characters were shepherds and shepherdesses.
Spenser tells then how the "other shepherd"
Queen Elizabeth received Spenser kindly, and was so delighted with the Faery Queen that she ordered Lord Burleigh to pay the poet 100 pounds a year.
"What!" grumbled the Lord Treasurer, "it is not in reason. So much for a mere song!"
"Then give him," said the Queen, "what is reason," to which he consented.
But, says an old writer, "he was so busied, belike about matters
of higher concernment, that Spenser received no reward."