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Spenser and French Literature

Abstract and Keywords

This article focuses on Spenser's relationship with French poetry. Spenser's most visible interest in French poetry began early, when he was asked, perhaps by his schoolmaster Richard Mulcaster, to translate a set of sonnets by Joachim Du Bellay for an English version of the Flemish poet Jan Van der Noot's anti-Catholic polemic, A Theatre for Voluptuous Worldlings (1569). In his Complaints Spenser also published the Ruines of Rome, a translation of Du Bellay's haunting sonnet sequence Les Antiquitez de Rome, to which his Songe is a sort of appendix. Some years after his introduction to Du Bellay's poetry Spenser found an earlier French poet who would inspire him to imitation if not to praise: Clément Marot, chief poet at the court of Fran çois I.

Keywords: French poetry, Joachim Du Bellay, Clément Marot

The attitude of most educated Elizabethans towards France is pithily summed up in Philip Sidney's characterization of that nation as England's ‘sweet enemy’.1 If on the one hand the French had fought the English, off and on, for many centuries, and if after the Reformation a Catholic France was a threat to England's by now Protestant majority—not least if a more persecutory France were to ally itself with Spain and Spain were to gain a foothold in Ireland—then on the other hand the English could look to the French for chic fashions, a dynamic and magnificent court culture, elegant literature, and humanist learning that frequently offered vernacular versions of Greek and Latin texts that many in England could read only with effort. Italians had all this, of course, but the French were closer, and France, unlike Italy, was a politically if not culturally unified nation under a single dynasty with which the English had to deal diplomatically, economically, and militarily. Some, like Sidney, had close friends in the French Protestant community, but many friendships crossed confessional lines, as did English interest in French literature. This latter point bears stressing, for Spenser was not alone in admiring, appropriating, and otherwise exploiting Catholic as well as Protestant French writers.

Spenser would have agreed, then, that France was a sweet enemy—sweeter than Spain, less of an enemy than the Papacy, and with a culture in his eyes more legible and more impressive than that of the native Irish.2 His earliest extant poetry translates a brief sonnet sequence by Joachim Du Bellay, his Shepheardes Calender (1579) adapts two poems by Clément Marot; the Complaints (1591) turn again to Du (p. 621) Bellay and praise Guillaume Salluste, Sieur du Bartas; Amoretti borrows from Philippe Desportes as well as, possibly, from Queen Marguerite de Navarre and Pierre de Ronsard; and it has been argued that the Fowre Hymnes exploit Ficino by way of a French translation. Spenser's debt to French letters is extensive. And yet, if he enjoyed the sweetness of French poetry he also responded, whether with dismay or half‐cynical resignation, to the often‐bloody history of France. Sidney himself had been in Paris on 24 August 1572, St Bartholomew's day, when thousands of French Protestants were massacred at the order, it was then widely believed, of Catherine de Medici and her sons under pressure from the Duc de Guise and his family. Those in Elizabeth's government with whom Spenser most sympathized both admired French culture and viewed its ruling family with opinions varying over the years from disgusted fear to acceptance of the need for alliances with one or another of them.

Despite the two nations' religious differences, two French princes, first the duc d'Anjou, future Henri III, and then the duc d'Alençon, later the duc d'Anjou, would with perhaps minimal personal desire woo Elizabeth. The thought of a French Catholic prince consort dismayed many in England, not least the Earl of Leicester, his nephew Sidney (who wrote the queen a semi‐public letter on the matter), and Spenser himself. It is possible that the Aprill eclogue in The Shepheardes Calender is an attempt to persuade the Queen that she was already married to England, and the animal fable in Mother Hubberds Tale certainly satirizes William Cecil and Jean de Simier, the negotiator on behalf of the French monarchy.3 The marriage negotiations failed, but the diplomatic situation itself would become more complicated. During the French religious wars the English supported the Protestant Henri de Navarre, but sometimes Elizabeth's counsellors courted the king, Henri III, when both governments found it useful to ally themselves against the violently Catholic and pro‐Spanish ‘Holy League’, a quasi‐revolutionary faction headed by the militant Henri, Duc de Guise (this stage of the tumults in France, in which Guise's supporters and their Spanish allies for a time occupied Paris, has sometimes been called ‘the war of the three Henries’). Anjou himself, however repellent many in England had found him as a possible husband for Elizabeth, at times looked like an ally during the revolt of the Low Countries against Spain. After the duke died in 1584—of syphilis, ran the rumour—the childless Henri III declared Navarre his heir, a declaration that made the English all the more willing, if with some distaste, to be on intermittently good terms with the French king no matter how much he was held in contempt by many in his own nation. That contempt reached England in force, thanks to his enemies' propaganda campaign condemning the king as a cross‐dressing, heretical, nun‐abusing, and demonic sodomite. At least, thought Elizabeth's advisers, he was not as bad as the Guise.

On 1 August 1589 a Jacobin monk, Jacques Clément, many said at the urging of Pope Sixtus V and almost certainly encouraged by members of the League, assassinated the king. Some saw in this regicide a crude justice, for the king himself had, that past December, arranged for the murder of the Duc de Guise and his brother, a cardinal. Spenser's first three books of The Faerie Queene, in other words, were published after Europe and England had been rocked by the assassinations of (p. 622) major political figures (William of Orange, Guise, Henri III) as well as attempts on Elizabeth, the execution of Mary Stuart, and the defeat of the Armada. After Henri III's assassination the English government supported Navarre's military and political campaign to secure his throne, but when in July of 1593 Henri announced his conversion to Catholicism (although not, so far as the evidence shows, actually saying ‘Paris is worth a mass’) Elizabeth reacted with a carefully calculated temper tantrum in the form of a blisteringly reproachful letter and Spenser reacted with an allegory expressing both dismay and the same political realism that characterized England's continuing support for the beleaguered Henri IV.4 Whatever the cost to strict Justice, Spenser suggests in Faerie Queene V.xi–xii, Elizabeth had no choice in such a dangerous and unpredictable world but to support a moderate Catholic monarch who seemed unlikely to persecute Protestants vigorously or to support international attempts to subdue Protestant England. In the terms of Spenser's allegory, Sir Artegall, with some contempt and only after scolding him for throwing away his shield of faith, helps Sir Burbon (Henri de Navarre was the first king of France from the House of Bourbon) to win the lukewarm maiden Flourdelis while his iron servant Talus makes short work of the Guise‐led rabble.5 Henri officially married Fleurdelis, so to speak, at his coronation in 1595, after Spenser had finished Book V but before it was published the next year.

Much of Spenser's poetry, then, gains resonance when we remember the degree to which throughout his career as a poet France had witnessed devastating violence and political drama. This is all the more the case because for some years England had seen a flood of sometimes government‐inspired pamphlet literature defending Navarre, attacking the Guise and their supporters, or simply giving the news from across the Channel. Just before Spenser published Books I–III of The Faerie Queene the flood had become a tsunami, some of which revived and even intensified the anti‐Catholic and anti‐papal language and metaphors of Henrician and Edwardian propaganda. We do not know whether Spenser finished work on Books IV–VI just before or just after the assassination of Henri III, but he almost certainly wrote them shortly after the publication of many such pamphlets. One, for example, figures the Pope as a whore impregnated by Satan and giving birth to the League; another mocks the powerful sister of the Duc de Guise, Catherine, Princesse de Montpensier, an enchantress who plays the incestuous sister to Brother Jacques Clément, who has offered her own ‘meat’ to starving Parisians, and who has learned Latin by French‐kissing all the monks in town.6 The Duessa who is executed in Book V (in the white space between cantos ix and x), now more clearly a figure for Mary Stuart, owes something not only to the ‘Mistress Missa’ of early anti‐Catholic polemic by the likes of John Bale but to more recent images of the Pope‐loving and Spanish‐allied League. After all, Mary was a Guise on her mother's side and hence allied to the family that first killed Henri III and then tried to prevent Sir Burbon's union with Fleurdelis.

Spenser's most visible interest in French poetry began early, when he was asked, perhaps by his schoolmaster Richard Mulcaster, to translate a set of sonnets by Joachim Du Bellay (c.1522–60) for an English version of the Flemish poet Jan Van der Noot's anti‐Catholic polemic, A Theatre for Voluptuous Worldlings (1569).7 (p. 623) Du Bellay was himself a Catholic, if a moderate who could satirize the Church corruption he witnessed when living in Rome as secretary to his richer cousin, the cardinal and diplomat Jean Du Bellay. Nevertheless, the fifteen sonnets of his Songe (1558) lament the fall of Rome in ways that with a little nudging can be made to seem to threaten the modern Papacy, as well as to prophesy the looming French religious civil wars. Van der Noot's commentary reads Du Bellay's sonnets, four of which he has exchanged for Apocalyptic poems presumably of his own devising, as anti‐papal allegory, but young Spenser may well have been equally drawn to Du Bellay's powerful images of mutability, to his vision of collapsing architecture, spoiled landscapes, blasted trees, ruined arches, and barbarian invasion. At some point he reworked his translations (adding those of the four sonnets that Van der Noot had omitted) for his 1591 Complaints, where they appear as The Visions of Bellay. All in this world, warns the first sonnet, is ‘flying vanitee’, and only God offers a ‘stay’ against ‘this worlds inconstancies’ (see Chapter 8 above).

In his Complaints Spenser also published the Ruines of Rome, a translation of Du Bellay's haunting sonnet sequence Les Antiquitez de Rome, to which his Songe is a sort of appendix. These poems are likewise a lament for self‐destructive greatness, for worldly pride punished by the heavens, for barbarian invasions made possible by imprudence, and above all for the predations of a Time armed with scythe and teeth. More such depredations, and with evidence that Spenser was still thinking of Du Bellay, continue in The Ruines of Time, with its weeping city‐spectre and its sorrow over the dead Sidney. The concluding sonnet praises Du Bellay as the ‘first garland of free poesie’. The ‘garland’ implies that the French poet not only deserves laurels but is also in some sense himself a garland encircling the head of Poesie.

Such praise, Spenser may have thought, particularly suited one who had composed the first French Petrarchan sonnet sequence, Olive (1548), an olive wreath, in effect, and one with calendrical and liturgical allusions that even more precisely than Petrarch's Rime anticipate those of Spenser's Amoretti.8 That the garland is of ‘free’ Poesie may suggest some sense that in his hands poetry had risen above an older style of mere cleverness and courtier subservience. Whatever the older accomplishments by the ‘brave wits’ of which France had been so ‘fruitful’, the Pléiade (that constellation of self‐consciously elegant, classically learned, revisionary poets for which Du Bellay had provided a manifesto, the 1549 Defence et illustration de la langue françoyse), had, in its own view, breathed fresh spirit into French culture and helped liberate it from its mistaken sense of inferiority to Rome. Richard Mulcaster, the headmaster and writer at the Merchant Taylors' School who was probably responsible for getting Spenser to translate the poems for A Theatre for Worldlings, was evidently impressed by the Defence, for its arguments resemble those in his Elementarie (1582).

There were to be no more translations of Du Bellay in Spenser's works, but the time‐felled oak in ‘Ruines’ 28, itself from a tree in Lucan's Civil Wars that represents Pompey, has a cousin in the Februarie eclogue of the Calender and, if one may judge by her phrasing, Spenser's Clio in The Teares of the Muses laments mutability (after all, as the Muse of History she has a professional interest in such matters) with (p. 624) phrasing familiar from the Antiquitez. More importantly, throughout his career Spenser was moved by what one could call the discourse of ruination, incorporating it not only into his Ruines of Time and some stanzas of The Faerie Queene but into the very end of his epic as we have it: the image of all things firmly stayed upon the pillars of Eternity (VII.viii) reverses the earthquake that ruins the pillared and jewelled palace/temple of ‘Visions of Bellay’, 2. Even the illustration in A Theatre for Worldlings of a still intact building looks something like what Spenser might have imagined as a Sabbaoth Sight.9 What he learned from Du Bellay, moreover, was not merely how to lament Time's cruelty, for the Antiquitez and Songe, whatever their grief over collapsed empire and lost grandeur, also imply not only a translatio imperii, a translation of empire from Rome to France and England, but also an enlarged space (a ‘room’ that in early modern English rhymed with ‘Rome’) for modern poets such as Du Bellay and Spenser. Rome is dead, and although Virgil lives he may now have some French and English company, especially for those who can write epics, although this was an ambition that Du Bellay rather flashily insists, in the recusatio that helps begin his sonnet sequence Les Regrets, he did not harbour. For Spenser, furthermore, as for other Elizabethans, there is comfort to be had in the thought that if pagan Rome had fallen so might papal Rome, and then the ‘pillars of Eternitie’ would all the sooner support a New Jerusalem, a restored Temple, in defiance of the Pope, Spain, and other persecutory forces that opposed the Reformation and the Gospel. Translation of empire remains, though, a deeply ambiguous matter for so thoughtful a Christian writer as Spenser. If papal Rome will face ruin in its turn, if imperium and letters can be translated to England, what then? As Du Bellay himself says in his Songe, and whatever the old Virgilian claims for empire (possibly more ironic than Augustus or the Renaissance quite realized), there is nothing steadfast in the City of Man.10

It is possible, however, that for Spenser Du Bellay was not only the poet of ruins and author of love lyrics, not only one who had suffered what felt like an Ovidian exile (albeit paradoxically, in Rome itself) and who like Spenser had employment that kept him far from his birthplace, but also one who at the end of his too short career had turned to verse satire not unlike the cynical poetry becoming fashionable just as Spenser was publishing the second half of The Faerie Queene. Du Bellay's Poète courtisan, printed in 1559 after he had returned to France, offers pseudo‐advice on how to be a successful courtier poet. It has some verbal overlap with the very end of Book VI, and no wonder, for the Legend of Courtesie demonstrates considerable unease concerning the slippery art of courtiership—the hero Sir Calidore's very name, in one etymology, recalls ‘callidus’, or cunning. The sonnets in Du Bellay's Regrets include biting satire, some of it anti‐court, but his Poète courtisan is a venture into the sort of verse satire, albeit less Juvenalian, that John Marston and Joseph Hall were to write in the 1590s. Perhaps, one can speculate, the conclusion of Spenser's epic as it was published in 1596 hints that the author was becoming interested in the same genre in which a younger generation was demonstrating its prodigality by implicitly cocking a snook at elders such as himself.

(p. 625) He is no Aristotle, says Du Bellay, for ‘the court is my author, my example, and my guide’. And he will be brief, for long works bore courtiers. Be gallant—don't bite your nails, beat the table, dream, or have a brain boiling with thoughts. (If this sounds like the opening of Sidney's Astrophil and Stella that is because both poets are sacking Rome—look in thy heart and see what Horace writes in Satire I.x, where we see a poet ‘Oft in the pangs of labour scratch his head, | And bite his nails, and bite them, till they bleed’.) Let the Court, mother of good wits, continues Du Bellay, be your Virgil and Homer. Sing the weddings and festivals of great lords (as indeed Spenser did in his Prothalamion). Get your verses into the royal chamber—but please no hard words and neologisms. Do not seem envious whatever you feel and avoid appearing to slander. Be wise ( ‘saige’), content with the judgment of those whom you please ( ‘plaire’) and who can advance you with valuable ( ‘riches’) rewards. ‘Seeke to please’, as Spenser puts it, for that ‘now is counted wisemens threasure’—treasure that recalls the counting‐house of the Secretary of the Treasury, the censorious William Cecil of the furrowed brow who disapproves of love poetry in the proem to Faerie Queene IV.11 For both Spenser and Du Bellay the laurel leaves of free poesie are starting to curl into satire's poison ivy.12

Some years after his introduction to Du Bellay's poetry Spenser found an earlier French poet who would inspire him to imitation if not to praise: Clément Marot (1496–1544), chief poet at the court of François Ier. Many contemporaries admired Marot, although he was entangled in an entertaining but undignified slanging match with another poet, François Sagon, and although he sometimes got into trouble with religious and political authorities. Once he was jailed for reasons that remain unclear, and on occasion he fled France to escape prosecution and persecution for his heterodox opinions, although his exact beliefs are still debated.13 Marot's adroit verse translations, in varied meters, of about a third of the psalms into French were at first meant for the court, where they were for a time popular, but soon they came to seem heretical, whether because they were in the vernacular or because of their author's doctrinal unreliability. Eventually an expanded version was published, at Geneva with those by Theodore Beza; the completed translation became the immensely influential and widely imitated Huguenot Psalter, chief model for the versions by Philip and Mary Sidney, among many others.14

Spenser was not the first English poet hoping to establish an English pastoral tradition to rival or at least to domesticate that of Theocritus and Virgil, but he was the most ambitious, and so it is not surprising that he exploited Marot's pastorals, for Marot was the first in France to write true pastoral eclogue in the vernacular (and also the first to write a traditional elegy and epithalamion). Spenser was doubtless amused, in this regard, to note Marot's semi‐serious denials and more serious claims to be France's ‘Maro’, its Virgil, for Virgil's eclogues had seen the start of a career eventuating in an epic. In his preface to the Calender Spenser's commentator E. K., whoever he was, gives Marot grudging credit. He explains that the ‘most auncient Poetes, which devised this kind of wryting’, did so in order to ‘prove theyr tender wyngs, before they make a greater flyght’. Theocritus did so, says E. K., and so did Virgil, Mantuan, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. And ‘So Marot, Sanazarus, and also divers (p. 626) other excellent both Italian and French Poetes, whose foting this Author every where followeth, yet so as few, but they be wel sented can trace him out’ (Spenser 1999: 29). Now this new poet (Spenser) is flying before his wing feathers are fully grown.

E. K. knows his pastoral tradition, but Marot does not fit the pattern: so far as we know he never did attempt an epic and the pastoral that Spenser adapts for the December eclogue was written late in his career. In E. K.'s Virgilian terms, Marot flew all his life with mere fledgling down. One can make a case that he did tentatively edge away from conceiving his role as that of a court poet to a conception of poetry as inspired, but the inspiration he imagined was more Davidic than Neoplatonic.15 In the shape of his career and in his claims for himself as a poet, whatever his friendly access to a ruler who was himself a prolific poet, he remained the Maro of the Eclogues, not the vates Maro who could (with whatever shimmers of irony or shades of melancholy) celebrate a dynasty or empire like Ronsard or even the Creation like Guillaume du Bartas. That may be one reason why E. K. also puts distance between the would‐be Virgilian Spenser and the not‐quite‐Maro French pastoralist. Commenting on the name Colin in his notes to Januarie, E. K. rightly mentions Skelton but adds that ‘indeede the word Colin is Frenche, and used of the French poete Marot (if he be worthy of the name of a Poete) in a certaine Æglogue’.

By ‘a certaine Æglogue’ E. K. means Marot's 1531 elegy for Louise de Savoie, the formidable mother of king François Ier who ruled the nation while her humiliated son, captured at the battle of Pavia by the forces of Emperor Charles V, suffered imprisonment in Spain.16 Spenser adapts it loosely for his November eclogue. Here the deceased is ‘Dido’, usually read—with a variety of explanations and puzzlements—as the still very much living Elizabeth. That Dido's other name was ‘Elissa’ may help explain her presence in November, and praising a queen under her name, whatever one might think of its suitability (Dido was a clever and ingenious leader of her people, but not a wise lover), had precedent. E. K. identifies Spenser's source as the eclogue by Marot, and then adds, ‘But farre passing his reache’. Hardly generous.17 The following December eclogue imitates Marot's 1539 ‘Eglogue de Marot au Roy, soubs les noms de Pan & Robin’ ( ‘Eclogue from Marot to the king under the names Pan and Robin’), written when the poet was back in France after a period of exile but not in full confidence of his safety.18 In this late pastoral the shepherd Robin begs Pan, god of pastoral poetry but also king of France perhaps with a touch of God himself, for protection. The protection is for both shepherd and sheep. It has been plausibly argued that the shelter Robin needs is not just against the poverty and weaknesses of age but also against those trying to silence Marot for his evangelical beliefs, and that his ‘flock’ represents persecuted lovers of the Gospel. When the king responded by giving his poet a house, the gesture may have been made with a deliberate and ironic literalism.19 The verses themselves are as touching as they are charming: the poet remembers his sunlit spring of youth when first learning his art, but now he is getting old in the winter of his years, and the wolves prowl and he has no shelter. The eclogue, which Spenser follows only intermittently, gains even more poignancy when we remember that Marot was famous for translating the psalms of David—who likewise had to flee an angry king—and is now addressing a king who (p. 627) was himself often called a David.20 Marot's circumstances do not parallel Spenser's, for whatever the latter's ties to the Leicester group at court he was hardly in danger of persecution for his religion. But the sense of threat, of confusion over just what a poet should be or do, may make Marot's eclogue all the more relevant to the Calender, with its moping Colin Clout, rejected by his beloved, even if not explicitly by his queen, and uncertain about poetry's place.

This question of ‘place’ may further explain E. K.'s hesitant, even dismissive, treatment of Marot. His role as a beleaguered psalmist might have played some part in Spenser's decision to adapt two of his eclogues, and it has been argued that it did so. It is also true, though, that Marot's reputation in England was inflected by what seemed to some a certain imprudent clownishness, for while a number in England knew of Marot's misadventures as well as of his position as the king's good servant (if God's first), the few extant allusions to his suffering are surprisingly unsympathetic.21 Marot could write with fierce passion when he wished to but he was also willing to indulge in broadly comic self‐mockery that would have sat uneasily with Virgilian longings; it is not surprising that he would eventually figure as the protagonist of a Dutch jest book that shows him, on the title page of one edition, with coxcomb and bells.22 To put it unfairly, he was to the vates Ronsard as Skelton was to what Spenser might become, or so E. K. might have thought. Whatever his accomplishments as a court poet on easy terms with his king, whatever the protection of the powerful Marguerite de Navarre, he was not a true poet whose verses would deserve the ‘place’ in princes palaces longingly imagined in the October eclogue for ‘peerlesse poesie’. It is possible, then, that E. K. (and hence Spenser?) is responding to a shift in French culture towards a more resplendent conception of poetry's cultural situation, one in which highly ambitious poets such as Ronsard, however witty, appeared to take themselves more seriously than had Marot and his generation, at least when not following David.

Spenser never again named Marot in print, but he did not forget him. Two of the four little poems that follow his Amoretti in 1595, serving as a palate cleanser between the melancholy last few sonnets and the triumph of the Epithalamion, paraphrase epigrams first printed in Marot's 1538 Œuvres.23 The second poem, ‘As Diane hunted on a day’, imitates ‘L'Enfant Amour’, Marot's brief report that Cupid and Diana have changed weapons. How does the poet know? Because Love often chases beasts ( ‘Bestes’) and Diana wounds the truly manly ( ‘hommes de vertu’).24 Spenser changes the men of virtue, presumably made chaste by a shot from the Virgin Goddess into some part of their anatomy, to ‘my loves hart’, which—along with possible gender‐bending wordplay on hart/heart—explains his lady's refusals. Marot's poem seems vaguely public, with its virtuous men, whereas Spenser's paraphrase turns the poem to a love complaint complimenting the still virginal Elizabeth Boyle. Neither poet says why we need a myth to explain why beasts are oversexed, but the sly suggestion is that we do need an explanation for male virtue and female recalcitrance. The third poem, ‘I saw in secret to my dame’, closely follows ‘Amour trouva celle qui m'est amere’, in which Cupid greets his mother, then realizes that the lady in question is in fact the poet's own beloved, and then reddens with shame. Do not blush, says the (p. 628) poet to the abashed little god, for many who see more clearly than you ( ‘plus cler voyans’) have thus erred.25 Spenser's English has to omit the punning rhyme on ‘amere’ [bitter] and ‘mere’ [mother], but the poet also drops Marot's concluding witticism about Cupid's eyesight, either because he has missed the joke or because he finds it illogical that a blind god can even think he sees his mother.

Many editors and critics call these poem's ‘Anacreontics’, for the publication in 1554 of Henri Estienne's great edition of the poems he ascribed to the Greek poet Anacreon had accelerated a French fashion for elegant brief lyrics, epigrams, epitaphs, odes, or odelettes, many on wine, love, Cupid, roses, and so forth in Anacreon's style. Marot's epigrams on occasion anticipate the fashion, but of course he published them before Estienne's anthology saw print. Spenser, then, has chosen poems to imitate that evoke a manner still chic in France but he has reached to the years before Estienne and the Pléiade. Perhaps that is why, even aside from authorial ego, the pose of a lover, and the potential look of the page, he gives no credit to Marot. Or perhaps, just as Marot had received only a backhanded compliment in 1579, so now his name would only dull the glitter of an ostensibly recent elegance from across the Channel. Fashion could travel slowly across that strait, of course, and in fact by 1595 French elegance had acquired yet another new look. But as a model of prestige, fame, and epic hopes, the likes of Pierre de Ronsard (1524–85) had more glamour. French literature had moved on since Marot's day, and Spenser probably wanted to move with it.

Spenser never mentions Ronsard in his extant works (in fact he names few modern vernacular poets of any nationality), but there is clear evidence that he read him. True, Ronsard had written bitterly and at length against Protestantism and was himself in minor orders. It is also true that he served a dynasty that Spenser had ample cause to dislike. His career, however, ranging from reviving the Pindaric ode and writing love sonnets of exquisite beauty, to imitating the philosophic Homeric hymns, to attempting an epic, to supplying the words for court masques and to addressing the great in verse epistles, offered Spenser an almost intimidating model. Ronsard even literally had a ‘place’ in a prince's palace, for he had for a while lived in the Louvre. As so often, English literary taste did not correlate with ideological conviction. Even the Calender's appearance, for all its anxiety about a French match, may owe something to a glance across the Channel to French fashion, for the mise en page of its text and notes, has been compared not only to the look of classical and Italian Renaissance texts but also to that of the 1553 edition of Ronsard's Amours de Cassandre, a canonizing and laurels‐awarding performance by the learned humanist Marc‐Antoine Muret.26 The little story of a wounded Cupid in the Calender's March eclogue, moreover, seems to be from Ronsard's ‘Un enfant dedans un bocage’ in the Nouvelle Continuation des Amours (1556). The later elegy for the Protestant hero Sidney, Astrophel, moreover, although derived ultimately from Bion's great lament for Adonis, seems to have reached Spenser by way of Ronsard's own ‘Adonis’ (1563).27

More significantly, although without leaving any evidence behind, Spenser must have read Ronsard with some fellow feeling along with, one suspects, some envy. (p. 629) Ronsard, widely thought the ‘prince of poets’, may sport laurels in Muret's edition of his Amours, but he himself could show a sometimes defensive and sometimes defiant inability or unwillingness to finish his epic, the Franciade, sometimes alluding to it with rueful excuses, including the perhaps incautious explanation that he was insufficiently supported by the great. The topic recurs in his love poetry: if Ronsard cannot finish the story of how young Francus led his band of Trojans to found France, at least he can write about ladies with names such as Cassandra and Hélène and thus work a little epic into his Petrarchan sonnets. Both he and Spenser had a precedent for their witty unease in Ovid's excuse (Amores I.1) that one day Cupid flew by and laughingly stole a foot from his dactylic hexameter couplets, leaving him to hobble in elegiacs; hence he must abandon the epic for the amatory, although later in the collection he also claims—in a conceit with a long future—that Eros is a warrior.28 Amoretti, too, sends sidelong glances at the epic that the lover is not writing, and like Ronsard Spenser plays with garlands, leaves, and laurels: ‘The bay (quoth she) is of the victours borne’ (Amoretti 28), and although this fact is common knowledge, the lady may also have been reading Ronsard's 1578 Sonnets et Madrigals pour Astrée xi: ‘Le Laurier est aux victoires duisant’. In both cases the lady speaks of laurels when her poet, some might say, should be earning them by getting back to work.

The unfinished but published epic, although there is no evidence that Spenser borrowed from it, must have formed part of his view of, and perhaps mental rivalry with, Ronsard, for La Franciade deals, as does The Faerie Queene in many regards, with the movement of empire and with the legends concerning the Trojan origins of several modern dynasties. Like Du Bellay, but with an epic inflection, both poets treat with varying degrees of enthusiasm and skepticism the movement of empire that in a synergy of biblical and classical thought was assumed to have moved the focus of rightful power from ancient Western Asia to Rome and thence to…? The answer depended in large part on nationality, for the Holy Roman Empire claimed to be Rome's heir, members of the Habsburg dynasty even encouraging genealogists to locate ancient Trojan ancestors as well as some biblical ones. Du Bellay's discourse of Roman ruination implicitly, and Ronsard's and Spenser's epic discourse explicitly, were each tied in one way or another to genealogy, with the added complexity for Spenser of the presence in England of structures ruined not by Time or ancient civil war and conquest but by the despoiling of the monasteries that attended Henry VIII's own claims to Roman imperium. Even the Guise family, when arguing that it had a better claim to the French throne than did the Valois dynasty, liked to claim descent not only from ancient Gallic and Frankish kings but from the heroes of Troy. The quasi‐genealogical translatio of both studies and empire had thus spread from its Middle Eastern and then Roman roots into an entire tree of related European languages and competing imperial claims. And among those making those claims in epic form were Ronsard and Spenser.

What else might Spenser have gleaned from reading in French literature, or hearing about it and such other aspects of French culture as Henri III's Académie du Palais with its links to Platonism and the encyclopaedia of learning?29 At the end of the Ruines of Rome Spenser praises Du Bartas's ‘muse’—probably the muse of (p. 630) astronomy who in ‘Uranie’, a poem published in the French poet's Muse Chrestienne (1574), appears to Du Bartas and urges him to write poetry based on the Bible and thus become famous and admired by kings. Spenser never wrote biblical poetry himself, but perhaps he found in Du Bartas's extraordinarily influential Sepmaines a sense of the not always well‐behaved heavens' wheeling splendour and the fluid, mutable—and legible—earthly Creation. For example, Du Bartas compares the material world to a courtesan receiving the imprint of many form‐giving lovers, not unlike Spenser's Venus with her Adonis (, the latter not a multiplicity of partners, to be sure, although Venus certainly had them, but at least playing the father of all forms to her materia. Or, as Ronsard says when grieving over the felled forest of Gastine, ‘La matiere demeure, et la forme se perd’ ( ‘Matter remains, and [or although] form is lost’).30

What of other French writers? Amoretti 15 adapts a sonnet by the fashionable and much‐translated Philippe Desportes (Diane I.32), although Spenser typically adds a compliment to the beloved's mind. The basic pattern of St George's adventures in The Faerie Queene Book I follows one first imagined by Bernard of Clairvaux but most notably set out in verse by the Burgundian poet Olivier de la Marche; the sequence (a rider on a restive horse experiences error, pride, despair, and recovery in a curative house) probably came to Spenser, however, if indeed it did come, by way of Steven Batman's Travayled Pylgrime (Prescott 1989).31 Marguerite de Navarre? Her Heptaméron was well known to England's educated, whether in the translations by William Painter or simply by reputation, and it is in her Chansons spirituelles that one finds the closest parallel to Spenser's Amoretti 67, the sonnet in which the hunted deer voluntarily gives itself up. In both sequences, furthermore, the following poem is on the Passion or Easter and the next on spring; there is probably more to be done on these two sets of lyrics and their liturgical allusions.32 Perhaps Spenser not only exploited the translation of Ficino by the French secretary to the Duc d'Anjou, Guy Le Fèvre de la Boderie, for his Fowre Hymnes but also noticed in Le Fèvre's long Neoplatonic Galliade (1578) a close parallel to the Redcrosse knight's ascent up the Hill of Contemplation.33 I can find no trace of French drama in Spenser's extant work, nor any sign of Rabelais, although Spenser would have enjoyed him, and it would be interesting to compare Montaigne on cannibals to Serena's rescue from hungry satyrs in Faerie Queene VI. Did Spenser consult French scholarship such as Jean de Sponde's annotations on Homer? Or the encyclopedic Pierre de la Primaudaye's much‐read writings on psychology and cosmology? Did he know that Jean Salmon Macrin had preceded him in escaping the Petrarchan dilemma by writing love lyrics and an epithalamion to a future wife? The answer in some of these cases could well be yes, but we cannot truly tell. Aside from the dubious entertainment value of tracing poetic conceits uphill to some verbal rivulet of a source, and aside from the powerful impact on Spenser's imagination of poets we do know that he read with intense scrutiny, there remains the mere fact of an energetic and glittering literary culture, one he must often have found enviable and engaging, lying so close to England and Ireland and yet so often separated from him by the memory of ancient—and the threat of present—conflict. ‘Sweet enemy’ indeed.


Adams, M. (1954). ‘Ronsard and Spenser: The Commentary’. Renaissance Papers 24–9.Find this resource:

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      Bamforth, S. (1997). ‘Clément Marot, François Ier et les Muses’, in Clément Marot: ‘Prince des poëtes françois’ 1496–1596: Actes du Colloque international de Cahors en Quercy 21–25 Mai 1996. Paris: Champion, 225–35.Find this resource:

        Brown, R. D. (1999). ‘The New Poet’: Novelty and Tradition in Spenser's ‘Complaints’. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.Find this resource:

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              —— (2006). The Regrets, with The Antiquities of Rome, Three Latin Elegies, and The Defense and Enrichment of the French Language. A Bilingual Edition, ed. and trans. R. Helgerson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Find this resource:

                Ellrodt, R. (1960). Neoplatonism in the Poetry of Spenser. Geneva: Droz.Find this resource:

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                    Helfer, R. (2007). ‘Remembering Sidney, Remembering Spenser: The Art of Memory and The Ruines of Time’. SSt 22: 127–51.Find this resource:

                      Johnson, L. S. (1981). ‘Elizabeth, Bride and Queen: A Study of Spenser's April Eclogue and the Metaphors of English Protestantism’. SSt 2: 75–91.Find this resource:

                        Marguerite de Navarre (2001). Chansons spirituelles, in Œuvres Complètes IX, ed. M. Clément. Paris: Champion.Find this resource:

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                              —— (2007). Œuvres Complètes I, ed. F. Rigolot. Paris: Flammarion.Find this resource:

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                                    Miller, D. L. (1996). ‘The Earl of Cork's Lute’, in J. Anderson, D. Cheney, and D. A. Richardson (eds), Spenser's Live and the Subject of Biography. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 146–71.Find this resource:

                                      Nohrnberg, J. (2007). ‘Alençon's Dream/Dido's Tomb’. SSt 22: 73–102.Find this resource:

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                                            —— (1986). ‘The Thirsty Deer and the Lord of Life: Some Contexts for Amoretti 67–70’. SSt 6: 33–76.Find this resource:

                                              —— (1989). ‘From The Travayled Pilgrime to The Redcrosse Knight: Spenser's Chivalric Restorations’. SP 86: 166–97.Find this resource:

                                                —— (1991). ‘Musical Strains: Marot's Double Role as Psalmist and Courtier’, in M. R. Logan and P. L. Rudnytsky (eds), Contending Kingdoms: Historical, Psychological and Feminist Approaches to the Literature of Sixteenth‐Century England and France. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 42–68.Find this resource:

                                                  (p. 634) Prescott, A. L. (1996). ‘Spenser (Re)Reading Du Bellay: Chronology and Literary Response’, in J. Anderson, D. Cheney, and D. Richardson (eds), Spenser's Life and the Subject of Biography. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 131–45.Find this resource:

                                                    —— (2000a). ‘Foreign Policy in Fairyland: Henri IV and Spenser's Burbon’. SSt 14: 189–214.Find this resource:

                                                      —— (2000b). ‘The Laurel and the Myrtle: Spenser and Ronsard’, in P. Cheney and L. Silberman (eds), Worldmaking Spenser. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 63–78.Find this resource:

                                                        —— (2006). ‘Sources’, in Bart van Es (ed.), A Critical Companion to Spenser Studies. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 98–115.Find this resource:

                                                          —— (2009), ‘Hills of Contemplation and Signifying Circles: Spenser and Guy Le Fèvre de la Boderie’. SSt 24: 155–83.Find this resource:

                                                            Preisig, F. (2004). Clément Marot et les métamorphoses de l'auteur à l'aube de la Renaissance. Geneva: Droz.Find this resource:

                                                              Reamer, O. J. (1969). ‘Spenser's Debt to Marot—Re‐examined’. Literature and Language 10(4): 504–27.Find this resource:

                                                                Ronsard, P. de (1993). Œuvres Complètes, ed. J. Céard, D. Ménager, and M. Simonin, 2 vols. Paris: Gallimard.Find this resource:

                                                                  Scollen‐Jimack, C. (1989). ‘Clément Marot: Protestant Humanist or Court Jester?’ RS 3(2): 134–46.Find this resource:

                                                                    Stapleton, M. L. (1990). ‘Spenser, the Antiquitez de Rome, and the Development of the English Sonnet Form’. CLS 27: 259–74.Find this resource:

                                                                      Sylvester, J. (trans.) (1979). Guillaume de Saluste, Sieur du Bartas, The Divine Weeks and Works, ed. Susan Snyder, 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Find this resource:


                                                                        (1.) Astrophil and Stella 41. For a general view of Spenser's sources see Prescott (2006) and the relevant articles in SE.

                                                                        (2.) On Spenser and France, in addition to the works mentioned here, see Brown (1999), especially Ch. 2. I have doubts about some of Brown's generalizations, but his is a valuable study.

                                                                        (3.) Spenser's dismay over the projected Alençon match has attracted notice, although too often we ignore the complexities that made such a courtship seem to Cecil and others a possible help against Spain rather than a capitulation to French Catholicism. For recent comments, and citation of useful earlier work, see Nohrnberg (2007), and on Aprill see especially Johnson (1981).

                                                                        (4.) Sir Robert Sidney, e.g., advised Elizabeth in 1595 to support Henri for fear of losing him to Spanish domination; see Prescott (2000a), 205–6.

                                                                        (5.) FQ V.xi–xii. ‘Guise’ inevitably suggests ‘guise’ and ‘disguise’; Spenser's Guizor and his brothers, sons of the crafty Dolon (, must recall the Guise family, if not Henri himself.

                                                                        (6.) A Letter Written by a Catholic Gentleman [i.e., a ‘politique’ supporter of Navarre] to the Lady Jane Clement, the haulting Princesse of the League (1590); A True and Perfecte Description of a Straunge Monstar [sic] borne in the Citty of Rome in Italy, in the Yeare of our Salvation. 1585…(1590).

                                                                        (7.) Smith (1994) gives the French originals and Spenser's translations, although with readings of Du Bellay that may make him too anti‐Papist and with criticisms of Spenser privileging literal accuracy. Helgerson (2006) offers an eloquent and meticulous modern translation. Spenser's relation to Du Bellay has received considerable scrutiny; see in addition to works cited below, fine essays by Ferguson (1984), Stapleton (1990), Coldiron (2002), and Melehy (2003). Recent scholarship has tended to give Spenser higher marks than those he received in the past century; the danger, one now largely avoided, is to minimize Du Bellay's ambivalence towards ancient Rome.

                                                                        (8.) Prescott (1996); Spenser's liturgical patterning in Amoretti, though, is far more elaborate, and from what I can determine more tied to a particular year, in this case 1594.

                                                                        (9.) Prescott (1996). By this time, though, Spenser may have been thinking less of Du Bellay himself than recycling images he had so deeply interiorized that traces of the Antiquitez are less intertextual than intratextual.

                                                                        (10.) The ambiguities of a perpetually sliding imperium are explored by Helfer (2007), arguing against a more triumphalist reading of Spenser and proto‐British imperialism.

                                                                        (11.) Miller (1996) also notes Spenser's ‘references to rating, measuring, and counting’ (170).

                                                                        (12.) This present essay cannot explore all passages in which Spenser recalls Du Bellay, consciously or not; for one significant moment, though, see Brown (1999), 144, 154–7 (citing earlier scholarship as well) on TM and Du Bellay's 1550 ‘Musagnoeomachie’, an imagined battle between the Muses and the powers of Ignorance, including older French poets lacking the Pléiade's dramatic claims to Parnassian inspiration. To this Brown adds as an influence Ronsard's great Pindaric ‘Ode à Michel de L'Hospital’, an encyclopedic vision of poetry's powers which expresses a jubilant confidence of which Spenser's discouraged Muses can only dream.

                                                                        (13.) The degree to which Marot was ever fully Lutheran remains disputed, in part because religious distinctions were still fluid. To call him a ‘Protestant’, as is sometimes done by Spenser scholars, defines him too sharply, whatever his growing sympathy for Lutheran ideas. On his probable moderation and our own ignorance see, e.g., Ahmed (2005).

                                                                        (14.) Literature on the Marot–Beza translations is too huge to describe here, but for a good edition of Marot's psalms see Defaux (1995), and for some English reactions see Prescott (1978).

                                                                        (15.) Preisig (2004) traces this evolution, distinguishing between prophetic and poetic inspiration in ways important for Marot's relation to secular power. For more on Marot's frightening, sometimes pleasantly ‘complicit’ relation to his versifying king see Bamforth (1997); the other essays in this large collection are also valuable.

                                                                        (16.) Marot (1964), 321–37; extensive notes explain the context.

                                                                        (17.) E. K. translates Colin's appended emblem, ‘La mort n'y mord’, as ‘death biteth not’, giving it a persuasive religious meaning (although it would also suit a claim to poetic immortality), but he does not mention that the motto was Marot's. Older French writers saw Dido as a clever ruler and chaste wife. Marot's father, Jehan, had called Anne of Brittary France's ‘other Dido, a second Minerva’ (J. Marot 1999: 145).

                                                                        (18.) Marot (1964), 343–53; the notes give literary sources for Marot's (and thus Spenser's) conceit that a life is like the turning seasons, but the analogy was in any case familiar from one genre of illustrations (the other is the labors of the months) that any literate reader would have found in printed books of hours.

                                                                        (19.) Preisig (2004), 133–5, who adds an appendix on the once common Maro/Marot pun.

                                                                        (20.) Reamer (1969) usefully sets December against Marot's text to show that only a minority of the lines corresponds. Reamer underestimates Marot's anguish and the particularity of his admittedly idealized autobiography when he says that Robin is ‘traditional’ and Colin is ‘individual’ (n. 17). Marot's praise of François may be ‘sycophantic’ but as Spenser must have known the poet's sycophancy covers a daring plea for help against real enemies in a time of gathering clouds. Marot's eclogue is more than a plea for money.

                                                                        (21.) On the relevance to Spenser of Marot's religion see Patterson (1986). On the surprising lack of sympathy in English comments, however, see Prescott (1978, 1991).

                                                                        (22.) Scollen‐Jimack (1989) reprints the title page; John Skelton, too, became a jestbook protagonist as taste changed and broad self‐mockery gave way to a drier irony.

                                                                        (23.) Mystifyingly, the entry for ‘Anacreon’ in SE omits to mention that two of the four ‘Anacreontics’ closely follow Marot.

                                                                        (24.) Marot (2007), 448; a note mentions the fashion for poems on exchanged weaponry.

                                                                        (25.) Marot (2007), 466; the editor notes Marot's wordplay with ‘amere’ and ‘mere’, typical of the ‘grand rhétoriqueur’ style of an older generation.

                                                                        (26.) Adams (1954); Rémy Belleau did an edition in 1560 of the second book of Amours, likewise with commentary and attractively varied fonts.

                                                                        (27.) On these parallels see Prescott (1978) and notes citing previous scholarship.

                                                                        (28.) For more parallels see Prescott (2000b).

                                                                        (29.) News of French ‘academies’ and Ronsard's connections to them could have come to Spenser by way of Sidney, perhaps, or from his acquaintance Daniel Rogers, whose Latin verses tell of hearing Ronsard recite his verse. See Prescott (1978) for some references.

                                                                        (30.) The famous last line of Elegie XXIV (Ronsard 1994: II, 408). For Earth as the courtesan Lais see the second ‘day’ (l. 227) of Du Bartas's Premiere Sepmaine in Sylvester (1979).

                                                                        (31.) Batman (or Bateman) had connections with the Sidneys. The illustrations of a mounted knight guided by Reason strikingly suggest Guyon and his Palmer. Batman, though, uses a Spanish translation of the French original.

                                                                        (32.) Prescott (1985) and Marguerite (2001), 96–100 (the French poem Christianizes a cheerfully indecent poem that plays on venison and ‘venir’— ‘to come’). Marguerite's Easter (or more precisely Good Friday) poem is spoken by a dying pelican, Christ the crucified bridegroom. Could a translation of this possibly be the lost ‘Dying Pelican’ to which the printer Ponsonby alludes in his preface to Complaints? Marguerite was widely known in England both as a writer and as an important figure at the court of François Ier.

                                                                        (33.) On Spenser and Le Fèvre's Ficino (but not Contemplation's hill), see Ellrodt (1960); on the Hill see Prescott (2009).