Edmund Spenser (1552? - 1599)
The Shepheardes Calender (1579)
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 Shepheard's 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 Shepheard's 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.
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Labels: Edmund Spenser