Chapter XLI: Spenser--The "Shepherd's Calendar"
WHEN 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."*
*J. R. Green, History of English People.
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 Spenser was twenty-three. He was poor and, it would seem, ill, so he did not return to London, but went to live with relatives in the country in Lancashire. And there about "the wasteful woods and forest wide"** he wandered, gathering new life and strength, taking all a poet's joy in the beauty and the freedom of a country life, "for ylike to me was liberty and life,"** he says. And here among the pleasant woods he met a fair lady named Rosalind, "the widow's daughter of the glen."***
*Faery Queen, book IV canto xi.
**Shepherd's Calendar, December
***The same, April.
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.
"Thus is my summer worn away and wasted,
Thus is my harvest hastened all too rathe;*
The ear that budded fair is burnt and blasted,
And all my hoped gain it turned to scathe:
Of all the seed, that in my youth was sown,
Was naught but brakes and brambles to be mown."**
**Shepherd's Calendar, December.
At twenty-four life seemed ended, for "Love is a cureless sorrow."*
*Shepherd's Calendar, August.
"Winter is come, that blows the baleful breath,
And after Winter cometh timely death."*
*Shepherd's Calendar, December.
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 twenty-four. After a time Spenser found that there was still much to live for. The great Earl became the poet's friend and patron, and gave him a post as secretary in his house. For in those days no man could live by writing alone. Poetry was still a graceful toy for the rich. If a poor man wished to toy with it, he must either starve or find a rich friend to be his patron, to give him work to do that would leave him time to write also. Such a friend Spenser found in Leicester. In the Earl's house the poor tailor's son met many of the greatest men of the court of Queen Elizabeth. On the Earl's business he went to Ireland and to the Continent, seeing new sights, meeting the men and women of the great world, so that a new and brilliant life seemed opening for him.
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 Aeclogues, 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."
"Go, little book: Thy self present,
As child whose parent is unkent,
To him that is the president
Of Noblesse and of Chivalrie;
And if that Envy bark at thee,
As sure it will, for succour flee
Under the shadow of his wing;
And, asked who thee forth did bring;
A shepherd's swain, say, did thee sing,
All as his straying flock he fed;
And when his honour hath thee read
Crave pardon for my hardyhood.
But, if that any ask thy name,
Say, 'thou wert basebegot with blame.'
For thy thereof thou takest shame,
And, when thou art past jeopardy,
Come tell me what was said of mee,
And I will send more after thee."
The Shepherd's Calendar made the new poet famous. Spenser was advanced at court, and soon after went to Ireland in the train of the Lord-Deputy as Secretary of State. At that time Ireland was filled with storm and anger, with revolt against English rule, with strife among the Irish nobles themselves. Spain also was eagerly looking to Ireland as a point from which to strike at England. War, misery, poverty were abroad in all the land. Yet amid the horrid sights and sounds of battle Spenser found time to write.
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 stepping-stone to some great appointment in England, whither he longed to return. Now after eight years he found himself still in exile. He had no love for Ireland, and felt himself lonely and forsaken there. But soon there came another great Elizabethan to share his loneliness. This was Sir Walter Raleigh, who, being out of favor with his Queen, took refuge in his Irish estates until her anger should pass.
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 ivy-covered castle Spenser read the first part of his book, the Faery Queen, to Raleigh. Spenser had long been at work upon this great poem. It was divided into parts, and each part was called a book. Three books were now finished, and Raleigh, loud in his praises of them, persuaded the poet to bring them over to England to have them published.
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.
"One day, quoth he, I sat (as was my trade)
Under the foot of Mole, that mountain hoare,
Keeping my sheep amongst the cooly shade,
Of the green alders by the Mulla's* shore:
There a strange shepherd chanst to find me out,
Whether allured by my pipe's delight,
Whose pleasing sound y-shrilled far about,
Or thither led by chance, I know not right:
Whom when I asked from what place he came,
And how he hight, himself he did y-clep,
The Shepherd of the Ocean by name,
And said he came far from the main sea deep.
He sitting me beside in that same shade,
Provoked me to play some pleasant fit;**
And, when he heard the music that I made,
He found himself full greatly pleased at it."
Spenser tells then how the "other shepherd" sang:--
"His song was all a lamentable lay,
Of great unkindness, and of usage hard,
Of Cynthia, the Lady of the Sea,
That from her presence faultless him debarred.
. . . . . . .
When thus our pipes we both had wearied well,
And each an end of singing made,
He gan to cast great liking to my lore,
And great disliking to my luckless lot,
That banished had myself, like wight forlore,
Into that waste, where I was quite forgot:
The which to leave henceforth he counselled me,
Unmeet for man in whom was ought regardful,
And wend with him his Cynthia to see,
Whose grace was great, and bounty most rewardful.
. . . . . . .
So what with hope of good, and hate of ill
He me persuaded forth with him to fare."
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."* In the long-run, however, he did receive 50 pounds a year, as much as
400 pounds would be now. But it did not seem to Spenser to be enough to allow him to give up his post in Ireland and live in England. So back to Ireland he went once more, with a grudge in his heart against Lord Burleigh.