Thesis: Shepheardes Calender by Edmund Spenser

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Edmund Spenser

The Social Critique in Edmund Spenser's Pastoral Epic: The Shephearde's Calendar

The pastoral tradition of poetic verse is driven by a touch of romanticism for the common man. Indeed, by its very design, the style is intended to glorify the connection between peasantry and the land in its mythologizing of those who tended to the flocks. The 'pastoral' implications of this style of poetry genuinely referred to its content concerning those who wandered the meadows as pastors to a flock, often in solitude, as their charge of sheep grazed. It is worth speculating for the purposes of the research conducted here that the shepherd became a suitable subject for this type of glorification because he remained both productive and yet deeply connected to nature, a simplicity of lifestyle and a strength of character. To the poets who elaborated on the lives of such representative figures, there was something valuable and fleeting in this profession and lifestyle, as though the works of the pastoral poets somehow prefigured the invasion of modernity, industrialization and urban blight.

Quite in fact, by the time that the English pastoral works which contextualize this research had been composed, it had become increasingly less likely that the figure represented in literature was to be found in demonstration. In the Medieval period which contextualizes much of this compositional work, our research denotes that "Pastoral' (from pastor, Latin for 'shepherd') refers to a literary work dealing with shepherds and rustic life. Pastoral poetry is highly conventionalized; it presents an idealized rather than realistic view of rustic life." (Schwartz, 1) the purpose of this may well be seen as a political one, with myriad examples suggesting that the shepherd is used as a figure to be connected with an older set of values, a more steadfast relationship to the land and a bucolic simplicity all of which should be seen to elevate the common man. So was this the perception that is carried throughout Edmund Spenser's landmark 1579 composition, the Shepheardes Calendar.

A work that is often seen as the most prominent, important and representative pieces of its genre, the pastoral epic is constituted of twelve separate 'Eclogues,' a term borrowed from the template-setting pastoral work under that title by Virgil. These segments of the work are designed to represent the months of the year and constitute a reflection on the seasonal flux that forms the experience of a man well connected to the ebb and flow of nature. In this simple but evocative framing, Spenser succeeds even from his position of preeminent and courtly stature, in crafting a work that is sensitive to the plight of the peasantry. Indeed, at a time of monarchical inherency, Spenser provides a markedly populist perspective. The work in question is constituted of historical reference, linguistic approach and content choice all of which demonstrate both Spenser and the pastoral style of poetry to be distinctly minded toward a critique of the social and political structure defining 16th century European life.

Background on Spenser:

Perhaps we may deduce that though Spenser would express lifelong dedication to the crown and to Queen Elizabeth, the hazy mist surrounding his birth and early life might suggest more humble beginnings than many who had achieved the stature of court poet. To the point, much uncertainty persists in relation to his birth and parentage, which instead of being produced by a matter of public record or family reputation, is generally affirmed by the report of the poet himself. Of course, there is cause therefore to speculate as to the accuracy of the narrative account of one professionally given over to compositional fabrication. However, that which may be reported as a product of Spenser's own writing denotes that he was probably born in 1552 or 1553, and that this probably occurred in London. This is claimed in his own work entitled Prothalamion, where he refers to the city as 'Merry London, my most kindly nurse, / That to me gave this life's first native source.' (NNDB, 1)

From this claim, many historians have placed his birth in the capital city. However, it is also quite reasonable to cast a shadow of doubt on such an interpretation. Various abstractions in this concept of the city as a 'nurse' and 'native source' may be taken to suggest a more symbolic or artistic perception of birth. This scrutiny applies essentially to the understanding that little information exists to fully confirm what could be seen as Spenser's claim of a birth in London. The doubt which is cast upon his birth helps to suggest that Spenser was in fact of a more modest familial background, especially to the extent that his parentage remains up to doubt. All that we can conclude from his own remarks is that, like his wife and his queen, his mother was named Elizabeth. Beyond that, it could be suggested that the simple fact that so little is clear about his early life is in itself a fairly compelling reflection of his relative socio-economic commonness.

However, by his own elaboration once again, there is some shadow over the question of his socioeconomic status. This is a worthwhile feature of his biography to capture our focus, primarily for the reason that it feeds well into the argument made here concerning his position on the political, social and economic vagaries of the Medieval era. Thus, the lack of clarity which is cast upon this by his own report may suggest that in addition to commenting on it in his writing, Spenser was deeply conscious in general of the nature of socioeconomic inequalities in his time and place. This may function effectively as an explanation for the lengths to which he went to suggest himself as being of high birth, in spite of much evidence to the contrary. So is this noted in the profile provided to us by NNDB (2008), which referring again to Prothalamion, indicates that "in the same poem he speaks of himself as taking his name from "an house of ancient fame." Several of his pieces are addressed to the daughters of Sir John Spencer, head of the Althorp family; and in Colin Clout's Come Home Again he describes three of the ladies as 'The honor of the noble family / of which I meanest boast myself to be.' R.B. Knowles, however, is of the opinion that the poet's kinsmen must be sought among the humbler Spencers of northeast Lancashire." (NNDB, 1)

Indeed, his numerous biographers would go on to generally agree that his education at Cambridge, a step which helped to launch him into a different socio-economic echelon, would be made possible by a wealthy benefactor. This is to note that he was not by himself possessed of the means to pursue such an education, but would be on the receiving-end of a unique opportunity. Quite so, economic mobility in his time would be rarified to say the least. Even still, in reflection, it cannot be said with any certainty that Spenser distinguished himself at this most competitive of institutions. Research denotes that "little is known of Spenser's Cambridge career, except that he was a sizar of Pembroke Hall, took his bachelor's degree in 1572, his master's in 1576, and left Cambridge without having obtained a fellowship." (NNDB, 1) Again, we are reinforced in the perspective that Spenser may have straddled an economic line and a line in terms of stature both of which produced a unique duality of perspective. At once devoted to the crown and simultaneously aware of the inequities produced by its reign, Spenser would come to combine an elite scholar's education with an economically grounded vantage point.

His graduation from Cambridge would be followed by another three years of relative anonymity, all of which were most assuredly spent developing the manuscript for Shephearde's Calendar. During this intervening time, historians place him in the continued patronage of close friends, particularly a literature professor at Cambridge named Gabriel Harvey. (NNDB, 1) This man of high social standing and professional reputation helped to bring Spenser before individuals of influence, particularly in the face of his impending first manuscript. Indeed, Spenser's fast rise to the awareness of the court of London from a state of almost total anonymity highlights the unusual path taken toward distinction. NNDB indicates that following his marriage to a farmer's daughter, Harvey "introduced him to Sir Philip Sidney; that Sidney took to him, discussed poetry with him, introduced him at court, put him in the way of preferment -- are ascertained facts in his personal history. Grosart conjectures with considerable plausibility that he was in Ireland in 1577. The words "for long time far estranged" in the preface to the Shepherd's Calendar point that way. Spenser undoubtedly entered the service of the earl of Leicester either in 1578 or a year earlier." (NNDB, 1)

It would be under these terms that Spenser would channel his affections for the Greek pastoral tradition and such influences as Plato and Virgil, creating a work that would… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Shepheardes Calender by Edmund Spenser."  Essaytown.com.  October 9, 2009.  Accessed May 21, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/shepheardes-calender-edmund-spenser/2422126.