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date: 06 July 2022

Epilogue: Edmund Spenser and the Passing of Tudor Literature

Abstract and Keywords

This article focuses on the Tudor context in Spenser's The Faerie Queene. The richness of the Tudor context for The Faerie Queene has for long been overshadowed by scholarship on its classical and Italian connections, and more recently by the New Historicist emphasis on its immediate political context. Situated in its own historical and linguistic moment as the culmination of earlier Tudor literature, however, the work reveals a different set of qualities, variously overlapping with and complementary to what is conventionally thought of as humanist, that underline Spenser's commitment to the poetics of nationhood. The Faerie Queene was not only the celebration of national pride in the years after the Armada; it was also a summa of all that had made England and its literature what they were.

Keywords: The Faerie Queene, Tudor period, poem, poetry, English literature, humanist, nationhood

  • Of Faerie lond yet if he more inquire,
  • By certaine signes here set in sundry place
  • He may it find; ne let him then admire,
  • But yield his sence to be too blunt and bace
  • That no'te without an hound fine footing trace.
  • And thou, O fairest Princesse under sky,
  • In this faire mirrhour maist behold thy face,
  • And thine owne realmes in lond of Faery,
  • And in this antique Image thy great auncestry.
  • (FQ 2, proem 4)1

This famous stanza from the proem to book 2 of The Faerie Queene announces Spenser's conception for his whole work. It is to be a ‘mirrhour’, not only for Elizabeth but for her ‘realmes’, England (including Wales in this period) and Ireland; and furthermore, through the ‘antique Image’ presented in the poem, it will reflect all that has made the contemporary nation what it is. He creates it, in other words, not just as England's national epic, but as an anatomy of the nation for his own times and in the light of how that present has come into being. He will present its own (p. 750) ‘auncestry’ alongside the Queen's, in terms of its history, its traditions, and its literary inheritance, for the body politic has a genealogy just as Elizabeth's own person does. It is a poem at once contemporary, in its concerns with the young Anglican Church, the condition of Ireland, and foreign relations; historical and legendary—historical, in its recurrent reversion to chronicle from the founding of Britain forwards; and mythological, in its animation of the topographical structure of the nation, in the mapping of its rivers. It is a key text—it is the key text—in the great Elizabethan movement towards what Richard Helgerson calls ‘the writing of England’ (Helgerson 1992, title page).2

The writing of England also had large implications for the nature of the poem's language and style. ‘Why a Gods name’, Spenser demanded of Gabriel Harvey in 1580, ‘may not we, as else the Greekes, have the kingdome of oure owne Language?’ (Spenser 1912b: 611). An expression of exasperation at the attempt to impose classical rules of prosody on English verse, the remark also more broadly expresses exasperation at the relegation of English to the status of a subaltern language, at the reluctance to allow it its own authority and independence. Elizabeth's realms extend to include the kingdom of the language; and that too has its own past, its own genealogy. Spenser's use of English refashions the nation's greatest model of poetic excellence, Geoffrey Chaucer, into a living tradition that links the past with his own present, that presents the language complete with its own ‘auncestry’.

Like Sir Philip Sidney, Spenser was intent to show that English could produce as good a literature as the ancient world or contemporary Europe. That meant an incorporation of Virgil and Ovid, an emulation or overgoing of the French ClÉment Marot and the Italian Ludovico Ariosto; but importantly, it also meant incorporating native English traditions in the English language. That was how the Shepheardes Calender could become home-grown pastoral, and The Faerie Queene an indigenous epic. Any early reader of Spenser who lacked education in Latin and the Continental languages but who had a good background in Tudor writing would have found little in his major works alien or unfamiliar—far less, indeed, than do scholars who try to make them fit classical models. The richness of the Tudor context for The Faerie Queene has for long been overshadowed by scholarship on its classical and Italian connections, and more recently by the New Historicist emphasis on its immediate political context. Situated in its own historical and linguistic moment as the culmination of earlier Tudor literature, however, the work reveals a different set of qualities, variously overlapping with and complementary to what is conventionally thought of as humanist, that underline Spenser's commitment to the poetics of nationhood. The Faerie Queene was not only the celebration of national pride in the years after the Armada; it was also a summa of all that had made England and its literature what they were.

(p. 751) 45.1 Heroical Poetry

Spenser's choice of form for his masterwork is therefore well chosen. ‘Heroical poetry’, the standard Elizabethan term that comprehended both epic and romance, allowed the poem a size and scope such as enabled it to encompass much of what had gone before, as well as what was going on in his own time. In generic terms, epic had not yet been displaced by tragedy as the most admired literary form: the heroic was ‘the best and most accomplished kind of Poetry’, in Sidney's terms (2002: 99). Virgil remained the master poet of the European poetic tradition, and the Renaissance rediscovery of Homer gave archaic epic an up-to-the-minute interest. Chivalric romances were the most fashionable and widely read of all narrative forms, even if the texts that were most widely read were not always the most fashionable. Prints of Middle English metrical romances formed the bulk of popular fiction for Tudor readers at large (see H. Cooper 2004: 409–29); Malory's great Arthuriad, the first and only full account of the romance Arthur in English, had been written in the last years of the Plantagenet dynasty and disseminated almost solely through print, its first edition appearing within weeks of Henry Tudor's seizure of the throne. Humanists who claimed to despise such works could nonetheless indulge their delight in stories of adventure in the often more wildly improbable late classical and Continental European romances: the Greek prose Aethiopica of Heliodorus and Daphnis and Chloe of Longus (recently translated into English by way of Latin and French respectively); the Italian verse Ariosto and Tasso; and that Renaissance equivalent of the soap opera, the Spanish prose Amadis de Gaule and its perpetually proliferating imitations and sequels. For Spenser, heroical poetry encompassed equally the admired classical epics, the scorned but universally known native tradition, and the respectable new arrivals. His main borrowing from Virgil lies in the core conception of a national epic; from Ariosto (and, before him, from the thirteenth-century Arthurian prose romances), the meandering and interlinking multiple stories that could pursue the simultaneous adventures of different heroes and heroines in an infinitely capacious structure. The exemplary heroes of the Elizabethan age included Achilles, Aeneas, and Tasso's Rinaldo, all mentioned by Sidney; but Spenser's own set comes from nearer home. He gives a high profile to Arthur, who still carried notable cultural capital as England's one great empire-builder and the forebear of the Tudors, even though he was now tending to slide downmarket (the humanist Sidney rather patronizingly refers to him as ‘honest King Arthur’). He invokes Bevis of Southampton, who had fought a dragon in terms Spenser diligently quarries for Redcrosse in book 1 (see A. King 2000: 129–45). For Guyon and his accompanying palmer he appropriates the figure of Guy, or Guyon, of Warwick, legendary ancestor of the earls of Warwick (and therefore of Ambrose and Robert Dudley), who had divided his career between being a knight errant and a palmer; and Guyon furthermore is knighted by Huon of Bordeaux, familiar from Lord Berners's Henrician translation, who had ended his own romance career in fairyland (see FQ 2. 1. 6). For many of Spenser's readers, his heroical poem would have invoked home-grown (p. 752) English romance at least as strongly as it recalled the Aeneid or the Orlando Furioso.

The opening of the first canto makes the work's affiliations with chivalric romance unmistakable:

  • A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,
  • Y cladd in mightie armes and silver shielde,
  • Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,
  • The cruell markes of manyʼa bloudy fielde;
  • Yet armes till that time did he never wield.
  • (1. 1. 1)
Like many of the metrical romances avidly read by the Tudor populace, it declares itself immediately as the story of a knight errant. The title of book 1, however, has already suggested something more, or other than, chivalric romance. This is to be ‘the legende of the Knight of the Red Crosse, or of Holinesse’—an idea confirmed in the following stanza:
  • But on his brest a bloudie Crosse he bore,
  • The deare remembrance of his dying Lord,
  • For whose sweete sake that glorious badge he wore…
  • Upon his shield the like was also scor'd.
  • (1. 1. 2)

EpilogueEdmund Spenser and the Passing of Tudor Literature

Fig. E.1 St George of England slays the dragon. Alexander Barclay, Lyfe of St George (1515), title page, A1r.

The coat of arms identifies this knight, long before he is named in the poem, as St George. The iconography Spenser assembles over book 1, complete with the maiden and her distinctively English feature of a lamb, was still widely available in Reformation England, not least in woodcuts in surviving earlier printed books such as Alexander Barclay's Life of St George (Figure E.1), or illustrated missals. The presence in some of these woodcuts of her parents watching the dragon-fight from the walls of their castle further makes them look as if, as in Spenser, they are trapped inside by the monster (Williams 1990).3 In Spenser's poetic reinterpretation, however, the knight's well-used armour is the ‘whole armour of God’ of Ephesians 6, and its bearer is therefore also a Christian Everyman, thus potentially a saint by the new Calvinist definition of election. Non-biblical saints had been a major problem ever since the Reformation—or rather, they were eliminated as a problem by largely being eliminated altogether. St George, as the patron saint of England, and in particular of the Order of the Garter (the reincarnation of the Round Table, and, with that, the model for Spenser's Order of Maidenhead), was difficult to dispose of quite so easily, however implausible his history. The Garter Chapel at Windsor Castle supposedly housed the saint's heart; Henry VII had acquired a leg (Gunn 1990: 110). The ‘George’, a medallion worn on a chain around the neck and showing the saint spearing the dragon, was the distinguishing feature of the Elizabethan Garter knights, and was proudly displayed on their portraits. George's red cross figured (p. 753) (p. 754) prominently in proclamations of English Protestant triumphalism, in Ireland and in Elizabeth's Continental adventures (see McCabe 2002: 101–20).4 A chivalric epic of Elizabethan knighthood could scarcely exist without him; but allegory allows Spenser to cut the Gordian knot, to keep St George even while substituting a raft of new meanings for his Roman sainthood. Allegory is commonly thought of as an analytical tool, useful for dissecting human behaviour or emotion, but it is often at its most powerful when it is synthetic, combining meanings. One of the most comprehensive of such syntheses, available to Spenser through Robert Crowley's print of Langland in 1550, was the figure of Piers Plowman, who represents at various stages man in God's image, Adam or the earthly labourer; the personification of charity; and God in man's image, Christ incarnate as Jesus.5 Spenser's Redcrosse Knight is at once a struggling human holiness, and England itself in its theological orientation, an England that has newly established a unique relationship with divine Truth through the Anglican Church.

If Redcrosse represents Englishness in the Protestantized version of its martial patron saint, however, the origins Spenser gives him represent a very different tradition of Englishness, and one that goes back directly to Langland. Where The Faerie Queene is the Elizabethan anatomy of England, with the knight as its representative character, Langland's earlier anatomy had made the ploughman its central figure. Spenser's decision to allegorize nobility of inward nature as nobility of blood largely eliminates any possibility of direct imitation,6 but the tradition of the good ploughman as the true heart of the nation remained powerful in the Tudor age not only through the printing of Piers Plowman itself, but also through a series of further works that offered the same representation: hence Spenser's claim, in the Envoy to the Shepheardes Calender, that he is following ‘the Pilgrim that the Plowman playde a whyle’. The reference may be to Langland or to the pseudo-Chaucerian Plowman's Tale, but ploughman literature took many other forms too, including Latimer's sermons on the plough: examples that all (Crowley's print included) emphasized the nature of the true ploughman as inherently Protestant. Spenser's St George (from Greek: georgos, a husbandman) brings together the two types, the knight and the tiller of the English soil, in the account of his origins told to him by Contemplation (1. 10. 65–6). Sprung from ‘ancient race | Of Saxon kings’ but stolen by a fairy who leaves a ‘base’ changeling in his place, the infant George was found in a furrow by a ploughman, and so preserved to emerge in the present of the poem as the young and inexperienced champion of Truth. His biography thus parallels the history Foxe and others claimed for the Church of England, that it was directly descended from the (p. 755) original purity of the Saxon Church, but had been displaced by a corrupt Catholicism and was only now returning to take up its true function in the world.7 Piers Plowman seemed to give a glimpse of that process of preservation, offering a trace of the true Church that Foxe and others perceived as re-emerging in the age of John Wyclif after the ‘long darkness’ of Roman domination. The foundling St George has been brought up by the ploughman, as if to train him in Piers's own brand of English holiness, and would be destined for the same vocation, ‘in ploughmans state to byde’, if it were not for his own sense of a higher destiny:

  • Till prickt with courage, and thy forces pryde,
  • To Faery court thou cam'st to seeke for fame,
  • And prove thy puissaunt armes, as seemes thee best became.
  • (1. 10. 66)
The Letter to Ralegh adds a few more details to how Redcrosse's career turns towards chivalric knighthood. The inspiration for the scene, appropriately enough in this first book of Spenser's Arthuriad, lies in Malory's Morte DʼArthur, the work that supplied the model for the series of tales of individual knights (see Rovang 1996). The episode most often cited as the source is the story of Sir Gareth, youngest brother of Sir Gawain, who comes to court pretending to be clownish, and who, like Redcrosse, asks the first adventure as a boon—an adventure that consists, like Redcrosse's, in accompanying a damsel to rescue the occupants of a castle under siege. Spenser, however, conflates the story of the young Gareth with that of the young Torre: a man raised by a cowherd, who is genuinely ignorant of his own royal lineage, but who, like Redcrosse, cannot be content without knighthood and a life in arms (Malory 1969: 7. 3; 3. 3–4; A. King 2000: 145–53).8

If Redcrosse recuperates the nation's patron saint and combines the chivalric history of England with the ploughman tradition, the opening stanza may carry a further allusion that is political to an almost dangerous degree, for the knight pricking over a plain who turns out to be St George already had an existence in Tudor prophecy:

  • I se come over a bent rydaunde
  • A goodly man as armyde knyght.
  • he shoke his spere ferselye in hand,
  • Right cruelly and kene;
  • Styfly & stowre as he wolde stonde,
  • he bare a shylde of sylver shene.
  • A crosse of gowles therin did be.
  • (Erceldoune 1875: 52)
Henry VIII's prohibition of political prophecies had been repeated under Elizabeth, but they were nonetheless widely disseminated orally and in manuscript (see van Es 2002: 164–96). St George enters the scene in the prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune, (p. 756) a set concerned with Anglo-Scottish relations, and current in various forms from the late thirteenth to the mid-seventeenth century. The lines quoted come from a version recorded in 1529, where his function is to be at odds with St Andrew, representing Scotland: a harmless statement of fact, one would think, except that a recasting of the prophecy in the mid-century predicted the imminent union of the Crowns of England and Scotland under the son of a ‘French wife’ who would rule ‘all Bretaine’ (Erceldoune 1875: 51; see H. Cooper 2004: 192–7). The lines were probably a false prophecy about a child of Mary of Guise, but they were readily interpreted as referring to James Stuart and his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, widow of the Dauphin. It is at least possible, therefore, that the prophetic element in The Faerie Queene consists not only of a panegyrical prediction of the house of Tudor—the present given a providential endorsement by its imaginary prophecy in the past, such as Virgil had incorporated into the Aeneid and Ariosto into the Orlando Furioso—but of a highly dangerous speculation about the future once the Tudor line has ceased. The very first stanza of Spenser's work could be read as encoding an acknowledgement of what threatens to be the major problem facing the narrative, of what happens to the body politic after the death of the childless mortal body of the Queen. It is impossible to know for certain whether, or in what form, Spenser might have known of the prophecy, though it burst out of hiding as soon as Elizabeth died, to be cited by various commentators as a rare example of a true prediction. The initially hostile encounter between St George and St Andrew and their ensuing reconciliation, as found in the 1529 text, was familiar enough for Dekker to use it to represent the union of the kingdoms in a pageant designed for James's reception into London (a reception that was in the event cancelled on account of the plague).9 Spenser's mirror of the realm might yet, in a counterfactual extrapolation of the text, have extended to cover the whole of Britain.

45.2 Moralized Song

If Spenser, in a line he borrowed from Ariosto, will write of gender-inclusive ‘Knights and Ladies gentle deeds’ (proem 1) more typical of romance than of classical epic, he also announces in that same stanza that this will not be for the sake of the narrative: ‘Fierce warres and faithfull loves shall moralize my song.’ That the poem will be ‘moralized’ builds into his scheme from the beginning what for Ariosto and Tasso, and indeed Virgil, had been largely imposed ex post facto, that his narrative will encode serious meanings directly applicable to his readers. He did not need, however, to look abroad for such a concept, which in those instances lay more in supplemental glosses than in the narratives themselves. Earlier English writings provided him with (p. 757) a number of models for story designed from the ground up as allegory. Langland's Piers Plowman was one such, and one moreover that offered, as Spenser set out to do, an entire anatomy of England, theological, economic, and political. Closer to chivalric romance in narrative content was a series of works running throughout the century that testify to a fashion for allegorical romance beyond Spenser's own poem, some of which may have influenced him directly. The earliest was Stephen Hawes's Example of Vertue, which was popular enough to go through at least three editions by 1530, and which bears strong narrative similarities to the story of Redcrosse. Stephen Batman's The Travailed Pilgrim, a translation of Olivier de La Marche's 1483 Le Chevalier dÉliberÉ, followed in 1569; and in 1581 William Goodyear translated Jean de Cartigny's 1557 Voyage du Chevalier errant as The Voyage of the Wandering Knight, with a dedication to Sir Francis Drake.10 Goodyear's work was reprinted in 1584, and three times more after Spenser's death; Batman's translation was not reprinted, but Lewes Lewkenor produced another translation of de La Marche's work under the title of The Resolved Gentleman in 1594—too late to affect The Faerie Queene, but demonstrating a continuing taste for chivalric allegory. The subject matter of the de La Marche—Batman—Lewkenor Chevalier dÉliberÉ is a somewhat dreary account of the journey of the protagonist—narrator across the field of Time towards Debility and Death (topics that take up half the narrative), complete with examples drawn from recent history—which for Batman includes Henry VIII and Mary, with Elizabeth as a counter-example showing the resurgence of life. Batman's most immediate interest for Spenser may have lain in the numerous allegorical woodcuts that present in pictorial form the iconographic elements of the narrative, and which provide a visual equivalent to the set-piece descriptions in The Faerie Queene: an element that it shares with Hawes's Example of Virtue. Its woodcut of its protagonist armed for the quest, for instance, shows ‘the author’ as an ‘armed knight’ with the armour of Strength, the shield of Hope, and the spear of Adventure, and a horse designated as Will. Hawes's rather simpler woodcuts include a conventional series of the seven deadly sins riding on various beasts, as they do in the House of Lucifera.11 Both works demonstrate the same integration of emblematic set pieces with narrative movement as Spenser provides verbally in his own poem.

In concentrating most on the youth and adulthood of the protagonist rather than his old age, Hawes's poem and Goodyear's prose offer a better fit with the young Redcrosse of book 1 than does de La Marche's text. Hawes's Example is a quest romance in which the protagonist, Youth, sets out to win the daughter of the God of Love, killing a dragon on the way; but if that summary sounds secular, the detail of the narrative turns it towards spiritual quest. For his fight with the dragon, Youth is given ‘the armure for the soule | That in his epystole wrote saynt Poule’ (Hawes 1974: lines 1394–5). The dragon's three heads are defined as the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, and so in cutting off the first two, Youth is overcoming his own ‘flesshly desyre’ (line 1458). The lady is named Cleanness, purity, and their marriage is conducted by St Jerome, staunch advocate of virginity over marriage. By the end, the protagonist has reached the age of 60 and has been renamed Virtue, and he is rewarded with a sight of the kingdom of heaven. Over the course of the poem, Youth has to undergo primarily a process of testing; Cartigny—Goodyear's protagonist by contrast offers a model primarily of repentance. He is a wandering knight in both senses of ‘errant’: he sets out to find ‘true felicitie’ in this world with the aid of Folly, but after being led thoroughly astray he is brought back to the right path by God's Grace and Repentance and is carried to the palace of Virtue, from where Faith (like Spenser's Contemplation, at the behest of Fidelia) vouchsafes him a vision of the city of Heaven.

Any reader who turned from texts such as these to The Faerie Queene would have found much that was familiar. The moralized worlds of Hawes and the others are, however, largely landscapes of the mind, of spiritual psychology, and all are written in the (male) first person: the reader is invited to make the quest portrayed his own. Spenser's heroes and heroines have to be more than that, as Redcrosse encodes the progress of the Anglican Church as well as a struggling holiness, as Britomart quests for her place in the genealogy of England, and as Artegall battles for good government as well as self-rule. All of these writers, Spenser included, make their worlds profoundly imperfect, but in doing so Spenser is making a much larger statement. Hawes and Batman and Goodyear are concerned with the human soul within a fallen world, as Bunyan was later; Spenser, like Langland, is also portraying a polity that is far from ideal. His antecedents in allegory include not only the chivalric romances and the morality plays of psychomachia, the soul torn between conflicting impulses of good and evil, but political moralities such as John Bale's King Johan and Nicholas Udall's Respublica, which show the government itself as open to deception by the wicked who disguise themselves as good—the counterfeit figures who make a third between the evidently good and evil, such as occur abundantly in The Faerie Queene. The first of the Tudor fantasy worlds, More's Utopia, presented a rational design for a perfect state, described as if it were a part of real geography. Langland's Field of Folk is England itself reflected in dream, in which money has more influence than Holy Church, no one will work for love of their neighbour, the sins are rife, and Antichrist is close at hand. Spenser's Faeryland is manifestly unreal as a place, but as a ‘mirrhour’ of Elizabeth's realm it presents the world as it is, with all its recalcitrant human, ecclesiastical, and political problems: where Catholicism is the insidious enemy at home and the great power abroad; where Ireland is in a perpetual state of rebellion; where lust is more commonplace than love; and where justice may be no better than brute force. Its ostensible attitude towards the Queen may be panegyrical, but it contains a pointed element of criticism as well, and the tenor of the whole work aligns it closely with literature of advice to the monarch. Spenser fully shared the awareness of Henrician authors such as More and Elyot that advice may at best be ignored and at worst may invite misprision and punishment; intermingled with (p. 759) flattery, however, criticism may have more chance to make itself heard. It is only when political, social, and psychological problems are stripped out, when the land is reduced to its topography, that it can be presented in lyric harmony, in the procession of the English and Irish rivers in 4. 11 24–7; and even they bear witness to the violent history that has unfolded along their banks.

45.3 Poetic Genealogies

The very first lines of poetry that readers of The Faerie Queene encountered make a different kind of statement, not about the scope or the method of the work but about its author and the poetic authority he claimed:

  • Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
  • As time her taught, in lowly Shepheardes weeds,
  • Am now enforst a far unfitter taske,
  • For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds.
All Spenser's readers with a Latin education would have recognized the spurious extra lines that regularly appeared prefacing the Aeneid in Renaissance editions, and the less formally educated could read them in any of its Tudor translations. In both poems, the passage serves to inform the reader that the author is moving on from pastoral to epic; but Spenser, by virtue of the imitation, is also laying a claim to be casting his own career in the Virgilian model, to be offering the work in hand as an Aeneid for England. The move to the heroic had already been adumbrated in the Shepheardes Calender, in E.K.'s prefatory matter and in ‘October’, and Spenser is now fulfilling that hope. For him, however, the lines also mean something more, and other, than that Virgilian fulfilment, for his persona in the Calender drew his inspiration not only from the ‘Romish Tityrus’, the pastoral pseudonym Virgil gave himself, but from an English Tityrus too, the ‘God of shepheards’ and father of English poetry, Chaucer (Spenser 1912a, ‘June’, 81).12 In the Calender, the Chaucerian inheritance is expressed more as a wish than a fact, as Colin longs that ‘on me some little drops would flowe, | Of that the spring was in his learned hedde’ (‘June’, 93–4). By the time of The Faerie Queene, the Chaucerian link has become much more assured, and Chaucer is given his own name: Ariosto may be more evidently influential, but Chaucer is the only poetic forebear claimed by name in the entire poem. Furthermore, not merely is Spenser Chaucer's imitator, or even his heir, but the spirit of Chaucer has come alive again in (p. 760) him. The earlier poet is the ‘well of English undefyled’, ‘the pure well head of Poesie’ (4. 2. 32, 7. 7. 9), and
  • through infusion sweete
  • Of thine own espirit, which doth in me survive,
  • I follow here the footing of thy feete.
  • (4. 2. 34)
Chaucer, at the end of Troilus, had represented himself more humbly, as doing no more than kissing the steps of the great classical poets—though the humility does not disguise the fact that he is associating himself with them. Spenser is making an altogether stronger statement, and casting it in terms not only of tracing his master's footsteps, but also of his own trademark imagery of flowing water: the ‘little drops’ of the Calender have now become the well from which Spenser can be infused with his spirit. Chaucer is the source of his inspiration, the head of the river of English poetry, just as the great rivers of England stand as a synecdoche for the realm.13

Even those opening lines of Virgilian imitation therefore inscribe Chaucer within them as a forebear alongside Virgil. Their one word that was not standard Elizabethan English, ‘whilome’, itself carried strong Chaucerian associations: it is the first word of the first line of his own most heroic poem, ‘The Knight's Tale’ (‘Whilom, as olde stories tellen us’; imitated by Spenser for his continuation of ‘The Squire's Tale’ in 4. 2. 32, in a continuing process of moving forward from father to son, Knight to Squire, Chaucer to Spenser; see J. Anderson 1990: 30). Archaism in the Shepheardes Calender had been used to impart a pseudo-Theocritean rusticity, sometimes, as Sidney noted in the Apology for Poetry, to a degree that could appear almost wilful;14 in The Faerie Queene, archaism has become a mark of the nationalist and the heroic. ‘Heroical poetry’ is itself always nostalgic, always backward-looking: its heroes belong to an age of chivalry that was lost from its very inception, or to an originary era that is past by definition. Spenser's diction enables him to draw not only Chaucer into his purview, but also the less adorned style of the romances of English heroes: a Tudor readership would have responded to the resonances of Redcrosse's dragon-fight with Bevis of Hamtoun's through its language as much as its narrative. Furthermore, although Spenser carries through his assertion of a native linguistic kingdom with unusual conviction, the idea is not unique to him. VerÉ Rubel, in the classic study of Spenser's poetic diction, concludes by noting the unbroken development of the language of poetry from Chaucer through Spenser, and moreover that Tudor writers ‘themselves believed that they had a native precedent for the language and forms which they used, and outside influences—whether from the classics or the Italian or the French—were merely ancillary’ (Rubel 1966: 273). English first took a new direction not in Chaucer's and Spenser's medium of verse, but in prose and drama, (p. 761) forms that were free of any anxiety of influence from the great poetic tradition. Although English poetry goes back beyond Chaucer, he was the recognized point of origin, the well-head: the father of the English language, who left his model of eloquence as his richest inheritance.

In an age obsessed by genealogy, moreover, Chaucer was father to the nation in a more literal sense too. The association was hinted at in Stowe's 1561 edition of Chaucer's Works, the edition Spenser used (Hieatt 1975: 19–23), where the title page to the Canterbury Tales section is largely taken up with a wide border showing the genealogical lines of the Lancastrians, Beauforts–Tudors, and Yorkists, culminating in the union of all three in Henry VIII. In 1598, shortly before Spenser's death, a new folio edition of the Works appeared, with a portrait page designed by John Speed (better known as England's mapmaker) that gives Chaucer himself pride of place at the centre of an analogous family tree. It shows him surrounded by the genealogy and heraldry of the lineage of the Lancastrian and Tudor monarchs down to Henry VII, on one side, and the de la Pole dukes of Suffolk on the other (though with the man designated by Richard III as his heir judiciously excised). At the bottom of the page is the tomb of his son Thomas, itself adorned with twenty heraldic shields, eight of which bear some variant of the royal arms of England modified for cadet lines or for marriage. The de la Poles were direct descendants of Chaucer through his granddaughter Alice; the royal lines get into the picture through the liaison and eventual marriage of Chaucer's sister-in-law Katherine Swinford, nÉe Roet, with John of Gaunt. The name at the top centre of the family tree is therefore not in fact Chaucer but his father-in-law, though that is not the impression that the page aims to give. As its alternative designation as the ‘progeny page’ indicates, it is designed to portray Chaucer not only as the father of English poetry, but as the father of the English nation. As the work of Chaucer's poetic son and heir, Spenser's national epic helped to prepare the way for such a representation.

Spenser's tribute to Chaucer as his predecessor in The Faerie Queene 4. 2 is the fourth in a series of backward sweeps that draw history into the poem. Book 2 contains the great summary of Geoffrey of Monmouth's version of the early history of Britain (the version still standard in English chronicles, including Holinshed), from its original habitation by giants forwards. The history is one of alternating triumph and tragedy, imperial expansion and internecine strife; its protagonists include Lear (210. 27–32), Gorboduc (Gorbogud, 10. 34), and Cymbeline (Kimbeline, 10. 50). The birth of Christ is noted under his reign, as is the later legendary bringing of Christianity to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea—who ‘preacht the truth, but since it greately did decay’ (10. 53). The account breaks off in mid-sentence as it arrives at the diegetic present of the narrative with Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon (2. 10. 68). Spenser declares at the start that the Queen's ‘realme and race | From this renowmed Prince derived are’ (10. 4), though he never specifies exactly which prince is at issue, presumably either Brut or Arthur. The Tudors claimed a connection with Arthur, but Spenser is perhaps playing coy since one of the few consistent facts about Arthur in all versions of his story was that he died childless. The more immediate Tudor lineage was equally problematic, since Henry VII's seizure of the (p. 762) throne represented the sharpest break in the lineal descent of the crown since the Norman Conquest. Spenser accordingly switches into a faery genealogy from Elfe, created by Prometheus, which only coincides with history once it reaches Elficleos, alias Henry Tudor, and his heirs down to Gloriana herself, and so to the extradiegetic present of the poem (10. 75–6). Later, a teleological account of Saxon and Welsh history culminating in the Tudors, but with the end broken off, is out lined by Merlin in the form of his prophecy in 3. 227–50. A third historical excursus on the founding of Britain occurs in 3. 9, when Britomart tells of her own descent from Aeneas and Brutus in the diaspora following the sack of Troy, of the founding of Troynovaunt—London, and of the city's continuing strength as ‘a wonder of the world’ (3. 9. 45). Book 4's eulogy of Chaucer continues the sequence in different terms, to bring poetic history up to the literary present of the poem in Spenser himself.

The rhetorical Chaucer was most admired, by followers such as Lydgate and later commentators such as Puttenham and Sidney, for Troilus and Criseyde. It was that poem that established rhyme royal as the dominant prosodic form for serious narrative poetry—for Hawes, for the narrative sections of Wyatt's Penitential Psalms, for many of the tragedies of the Mirror for Magistrates, for Shakespeare's Lucrece. Spenser uses it only in the otherwise un-Chaucerian Ruins of Time and Four Hymns, but his preference for long stanzas is itself in the Chaucerian as well as the Italian tradition: the nine-line stanza of the Faerie Queene overgoes both. He uses riding rhyme, the couplet form that predominates in The Canterbury Tales, only rarely, and then as an explicitly lower-style medium, as in Mother Hubberd's Tale; ‘February’ and ‘May’ use a shorter, four-stress couplet that intermingles iambs and anapaests, and that may itself be an attempt to imitate the rough metrics of the printed Chaucers. In terms of content, both poets have a fondness for complaint (cf. ‘June’, 85), The Book of the Duchess contributes to Daphnaida, and The Parliament of Fowls gets an honourable mention in the Mutability Cantos (7. 7. 9); but for Spenser, Chaucer was above all the poet of The Canterbury Tales. His Chaucer is the teller of ‘wise’ tales, tales ‘of truth […] And some of love, and some of chevalrie’ (‘February’, 91–9), ‘mery tales’ (‘June’, 87), ‘antique stories’ such as the Squire's (4. 2. 32). It was in the 1590s that Chaucer was beginning to be associated primarily with the more rumbustious of the Tales, so Spenser's insistence on the variety, wisdom, and venerability of his storytelling seems designed to ward off the shift in critical perception. He cites him as his model for the fable of the oak and the briar, despite E.K.'s objections (and if E.K. was indeed Spenser himself, Edmundus Kalendarius, rather than Edward Kirke, the redefinition of Chaucer becomes all the more pointed). Mother Hubberd's Tale implicitly claims descent, by virtue of its title, from The Canterbury Tales, though this one is told not in gratitude for recovery from sickness but to cheer a sick man, not in the month of the regeneration of the earth but in ‘the month wherein the righteous maid [i.e. Astraea, the maiden Justice] | Fled back to heaven’ (1–2), leaving a world diseased and corrupt. Spenser further offers to make good the damage wrought (as he sees it) on The Tales by time, by providing supplements or endings to Chaucer's unfinished tales (the Squire's in book 4, ‘Sir Thopas’ in the 1590 version of 3. 7. 48, in (p. 763) which Thopas destroys his giant); and he famously reclaims ‘Sir Thopas’ for serious otherworldly vision in Arthur's dream of Gloriana. Above all, The Tales offered him a model of the gathering up within a single work a whole array of examples of good love and bad, virginity and married faithfulness, and false accusations and adultery.15 In his most extended quotation from Chaucer, Britomart is given the lines on the nature of mutual human love from ‘The Franklin's Tale’ as her first, and therefore defining, words:

  • Ne may love be compeld by maisterie;
  • For soone as maisterie comes, sweet love anone
  • Taketh his nimble wings, and sooneawayisgone.16
Modern criticism tends to read the lines cynically; Spenser, in a world that still believed that human values had a real existence, did not.

Spenser's first tribute to Chaucer had, however, been given a less ambitious setting, within the humbler pastoral mode of The Shepheardes Calender. Chaucer himself wrote no eclogues, but Spenser borrows his description of the

  • pipes made of grene corn
  • As han thise lytel herde-gromes
  • That kepen bestis in the bromes
  • (The House of Fame, lines 1224–6)
for his ‘February’, the eclogue that contains his first eulogy to the earlier poet. Although the idea of an eclogue cycle is Virgilian, Spenser follows at least as much in more recent pastoral footsteps: the neo-Latin Mantuan, whose Adolescentia had become a standard school text and which was translated by George Turberville in 1567; the eclogues written or ascribed to Clement Marot, some of them tending markedly to ecclesiastical criticism; and, whether by imitation or through the wider influence of a shared medieval pastoral tradition, the English eclogues of Alexander Barclay (c. 1513–14, reprinted 1570) and Barnabe Googe (1563)(see H. Cooper 1977: 115–26). Barclay's eclogues, the first to be written in English, slanted the whole genre markedly towards the satiric, an angle that had indeed become commonplace over the course of the Middle Ages. He also made his poems insistently English in detail and reference even when his sources stemmed from Italy. He devoted his first three eclogues to criticism of court life, a topic that might seem paradoxical for pastoral but which is made plausible, as it is in Colin Clout's Come Home Again and Melibee's account in FQ 6. 9. 24–5, through the device of the shepherd—speaker's having visited the court and been horrified by what he has seen there. Googe's eclogues mix love laments, moral criticism of love, and also, in his account in his third eclogue of the Marian burning of the good shepherds Daphnes and Alexis, ecclesiastical vituperation and panegyric (see Googe 1989: 51–5). Spenser's assumption that the pastoral tradition incorporates moral teaching and commentary on the state of the Church (p. 764) follows from these traditions much more than from Virgil; and if Virgil is primarily responsible for Spenser's laments over unrequited love, his eulogy of the ruler, and the set-piece poems and singing matches, the rest of what the Calender does is inspired by post-Virgilian traditions. The habit of substituting debate for singing match had been standard practice ever since the Carolingian era, and Spenser, with typical eclecticism, places the two traditions side by side. The eclogue is often thought of as the most classical of all the Renaissance genres; but the Middle Ages had redefined pastoral in ways that turned the mode in significantly different directions from the classical, and those differences were transmitted to English humanist poets by way of an abundance of neo-Latin poets including Petrarch and Mantuan, and by way of a lively vernacular tradition that used the shepherd as the voice of the teacher, the pastor, or the suffering common man. The name Spenser gives himself, Colin, recalls Clement Marot's pseudonym as shepherd—poet; but, as Colin Clout, he takes on John Skelton's voice of complaint against corruption in Church and government. The good shepherd Piers of ‘February’ invokes the ploughman tradition, and the Diggon Davie of ‘September’ alludes at once to Bishop Richard Davies and Churchyard's plain-speaking Davy Diker. The Calender woodcuts themselves are notably reminiscent of the portrayal of shepherds in the work from which it took its name, the Calendar of Shepherds—a compendium of lore supposedly told by a wise master shepherd to his fellow herdsmen, which first appeared in print in Scotland in 1503 and in England three years later, and was reprinted every few years into the seventeenth century.

The Calendar of Shepherds kept a remarkably stable Catholic element throughout its reprints, including a full calendar of festive days, the Conception of the Virgin and Thomas Becket among them: perhaps it was too familiar a work for anyone in authority to notice. Spenser's poetic teacher for his own Calender, Chaucer, had, however, by the later sixteenth century been firmly adopted for the Protestant cause, a process encouraged not only by his criticism of corrupt ecclesiastics but by the ascription to him of various proto-Protestant works. These included the Lollard Plowman's Tale, incorporated into editions of Chaucer's works from 1542, and Jack Upland, which together inspired John Foxe to claim him as ‘a right Wicklevian’, able to bring readers to ‘the true knowledge of religion’ (Foxe 1841: ii. 357–63, iv. 249–50). That Chaucer was not only England's greatest poet, but also a Protestant poet, made him doubly attractive as a model for Spenser. The sixteenth-century editions of his works included a prefatory poem, originally written by Hoccleve for Henry V, but now addressed to Henry VIII as ‘veray sustaynour’ of Holy Church and to the Garter knights as those that ‘ben of saynt Georges lyvere [livery]’, urging them to suppress heresy and popular theological disputation. It was first incorporated when Henry could still just about be regarded as fidei defensor, Spenser presumably read it in Elizabeth's reign as referring to a rather different Church. Of the mid-century attempts to reclaim Chaucer for Catholicism, William Forrest's casting of Katherine of Aragon as a new Griselda had remained unpublished and was forgotten, and the tomb erected for Chaucer in Westminster Abbey in 1556 could change ecclesiastical allegiance with the abbey itself.

(p. 765) Tomb monuments, as Spenser knew as well as did the Shakespeare of the Sonnets, were temporary: ‘All such vaine moniments of earthlie masse, | Devour'd of Time, in time to nought doo passe’ (The Ruins of Time, 419–20). In The Ruins of Time, Spenser imagines poetry as resisting Time's ravages; in The Faerie Queene, as he contemplates Chaucer, he is not so sure:

  • But wicked Time that all good thoughts doth waste,
  • And workes of noblest wits to nought out weare,
  • That famous moniment hath quite defaste,
  • And robd the world of threasure endlesse deare.
  • (FQ 4. 2. 33)
The overt topic is the missing ending of ‘The Squire's Tale’, but the defaced monument suggests not just something missing, but the bad condition of what has survived. ‘Moniment’ is a key word in Spenser's poetry. It means a memorial of the past existing in the present: the ruins of Rome, the tomb of Mausolus, the works of Chaucer. It can therefore signify what has been lost, Rome in her glory, as much as what survives; or, as in the lines just quoted, it can record the process of loss, of time wearing away what remains. The 1598 edition of Chaucer commented on the damage done to Chaucer's prosody over the years of transmission, and for the first time provided a glossary, a physical memorial to a language that had passed out of current use. Spenser's own works were represented as his monument in many of the poetic tributes paid after his death—in compensation, perhaps, for the fact that no memorial was erected for his grave until 1620.17 By that time, Chaucer's tomb itself, alongside which Spenser had been buried, the son alongside the father, was also showing signs of wear. Spenser's poetry constituted a living memorial to Chaucer, just as it drew in all the English traditions available to him; but poetry designed as a monument rapidly becomes a tribute to the pastness of its own life. Spenser's works constitute a vast monument to the Tudor era, but he built it as a younger world was coming of age.

Primary Works

Barclay, Alexander (1955), The Life of St George, ed. William Nelson, EETS, o.s., 230.Find this resource:

Chaucer, Geoffrey (1987), The Riverside Chaucer, ed. L. D. Benson (New York: Houghton Mifflin).Find this resource:

Dekker, Thomas (1955), The Magnificent Entertainment given to King James, in The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. Fredson Bowers, 3 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953–8), ii.Find this resource:

Erceldoune, Thomas of (1875), The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune, ed. J. A. H. Murray, EETS, o.s., 68.Find this resource:

Foxe, John (1841), Acts and Monuments, ed. S. R. Cattley, 8 vols (London: Seeley and Burnside).Find this resource:

(p. 766) Googe, Barnaby (1989), Eclogues, Epitaphs and Sonnets, ed. J. M. Kennedy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press).Find this resource:

Hawes, Stephen (1974), The Example of Vertue, in The Minor Poems of Stephen Hawes, ed. F. W. Gluck and A. B. Morgan, EETS, o.s., 271.Find this resource:

Malory, Thomas (1969), The Morte dʼArthur, ed. J. Cowen (Harmondsworth: Penguin).Find this resource:

Peele, George (1952), ‘A Farewell to the Most Famous Generalles’, in The Life and Minor Works of George Peele, ed. D. H. Horne (New Haven: Yale University Press), 220–3.Find this resource:

Sidney, Philip (2002), An Apology for Poetry, ed. G. Shepherd, 3rd edn, rev. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Manchester University Press).Find this resource:

Spenser, Edmund, FQ (1981), The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton, H. Yamashita, and T. Suzuki, 2nd edn (London: Longman).Find this resource:

———(1912a), The Ruins of Time, in The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (London: Oxford University Press).Find this resource:

———(1912b), The Shepheardes Calendar, in The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (London: Oxford University Press).Find this resource:

———(1912c), Three Proper Wittie Familiar Letters, in The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (London: Oxford University Press).Find this resource:


(1) References to The Faerie Queene (Spenser 1981) will be given as FQ throughout this essay

(2) See also Claire McEachern, who starts from the insight that ‘the Tudor—Stuart nation is profoundly preoccupied with its own historicity’ (1996: 33); and, for the earlier decades, Shrank (2004b), which is especially valuable on attitudes to the language.

(3) See also the reproduction which serves as frontispiece to Hawes (1974). On Una's parents, see the Letter to Ralegh and FQ 1. 11. 3.

(4) Cf. the Portuguese expedition of 1589 under Norris and Drake going ‘Under the sanguine Crosse, brave Englands badge, | To propagate religious pietie’, as described by George Peele (1592) in ‘A Farewell to the Most Famous Generalles’ (lines 25–6).

(5) On Spenser and Langland, see J. Anderson (1976); W. Davis (2002, esp. 153).

(6) See FQ 6. 3. 1: Spenser ascribes the equation of lineage with virtue to Chaucer, though Chaucer, following Boethius and Dante, recurrently insists on their independence; Canterbury Tales, 3. 1109–76; ‘Gentilesse’; and Boece, bk 3, pr. 6, m. 6.

(7) See Foxe (1841, esp. i. 516–17; and, on the ploughman tradition, ii. 728–47).

(8) Citations to Malory are as printed by Caxton and his successors and known to Spenser (Malory 1969).

(9) The agent of reconciliation in both cases is a beautiful woman on horseback, the Virgin Mary in the 1529 text, a female Genius of the city of London in Dekker (1955).

(10) On Hawes, Batman, and Goodyear as possible sources for Spenser, see Kaske (1990); Prescott (1989); Evans (1951).

(11) The Hawes woodcuts are reproduced in Hawes (1974). For a similar series closer to Spenser, see the set from Batman's Crystal Glass, reproduced in the Spenser Encyclopedia s. v. ‘Seven Deadly Sins.’ In contrast to standard literary and iconographic tradition, but in common with Langland at the end of his poem (B-text: 20. 114–17), Spenser makes his Lechery male.

(12) See E.K.'s comment: ‘Whom he calleth the God of Poetes for his excellencie’. The identification of Chaucer as Tityrus is first made in ‘February’, 92 (‘I suppose he meane Chaucer, whose prayse for pleasaunt tales cannot dye, so long as the memorie of his name shal live, and the name of Poetrie shal endure’); see also ‘December’, 4, and Envoy, 9. For Virgil as the ‘Romish Tityrus’, see ‘October’, 55. John Burrow (1990) gives an excellent account of Spenser's use of Chaucer. For Chaucer as influencing Spenser's ‘artistic self-definition’, see J. Anderson (1998).

(13) Spenser's rivers, like his model of poetic tradition, are hierarchical, in contrast to the chorography of Leland and Drayton and the practice of the mapmakers: see FQ 4. 11. 8–53 and Helgerson (1992: 141–3).

(14) ‘That same framing of his style to an old rustic language I dare not allow, since [none of the canonical pastoral authors] did affect it’ (Sidney 2002: 110).

(15) ‘The Faerie Queene is really all about love’ (Logan et al. 1990, p. xi).

(16) FQ 3. 1. 25; cf. Canterbury Tales 5. 764–6.

(17) See the ‘Obituary Verse’ section in R. Cummings (1971: 100–13).