Two new titles every week when you join Gateway to the Classics
SPENSER—THE "SHEPHERD'S CALENDAR"
 WHEN Henry signed Surrey's death-warrant he himself was near
death, and not many weeks later the proud and violent king met
his end. Then followed for England changeful times. After
Protestant Edward came for a tragic few days Lady Jane. Then
followed the short, sad reign of Catholic Mary, who, dying, left
the throne free for her brilliant sister Elizabeth. Those years,
from the death of King Henry VIII to the end of the first twenty
years of Elizabeth's reign, were years of action rather than of
production. They were years of struggle, during which England
was swayed to and fro in the fight of religions. They were years
during which the fury of the storm of the Reformation worked
itself out. But although they were such unquiet years they were
also years of growth, and at the end of that time there blossomed
forth one of the fairest seasons of our literature.
We call the whole group of authors who sprang up at this time the
Elizabethans, after the name of the Queen in whose reign they
lived and wrote. And to those of us who know even a very little
of the time, the word calls up a brilliant vision. Great names
come crowding to our minds, names of poets, dramatists,
historians, philosophers, divines. It would be impossible to
tell of all in this book, so we must choose the greatest from the
noble array. And foremost among them comes Edmund Spenser, for
 glory of the new literature broke in England with Edmund
If we could stand aside, as it were, and take a wide view of all
our early literature, it would seem as if the names of Chaucer
and Spenser stood out above all others like great mountains. The
others are valleys between. They are pleasant fields in which to
wander, in which to gather flowers, not landmarks for all the
world like Chaucer and Spenser. And although it is easier and
safer for children to wander in the meadows and gather meadow
flowers, they still may look up to the mountains and hope to
climb them some day.
Edmund Spenser was born in London in 1552, and was the son of a
poor clothworker or tailor. He went to school at the Merchant
Taylors' School, which had then been newly founded. That his
father was very poor we know, for Edmund Spenser's name appears
among "certain poor scholars of the schools about London" who
received money and clothes from a fund left by a rich man to help
poor children at school.
When he was about seventeen Edmund went to Cambridge, receiving
for his journey a sum of ten shillings from the fund from which
he had already received help at school. He entered college as a
sizar, that is, in return for doing the work of a servant he
received free board and lodging in his college. A sizar's life
was not always a happy one, for many of the other scholars or
gentlemen commoners looked down upon them because of their
poverty. And this poverty they could not hide, for the sizars
were obliged to wear a different cap and gown from that of the
But of how Spenser fared at college we know nothing, except that
he was often ill and that he made two lifelong friends. That he
loved his university, however, we learn
 from his poems, when he tenderly speaks of "my mother Cambridge."
When he left college
Spenser was twenty-three. He was poor and, it would seem, ill,
so he did not return to London, but went to live with relatives
in the country in Lancashire. And there about "the wasteful
woods and forest wide"
he wandered, gathering new life and
strength, taking all a poet's joy in the beauty and the freedom
of a country life, "for ylike to me was liberty and life,"
says. And here among the pleasant woods he met a fair lady named
Rosalind, "the widow's daughter of the glen."
Who Rosalind really was no one knows. She would never have been
heard of had not Spenser taken her for his lady and made songs to
her. Spenser's love for Rosalind was, however, more real than
the fashionable poet's passion. He truly loved Rosalind, but she
did not love him, and she soon married some one else. Then all
his joy in the summer and the sunshine was made dark.
"Thus is my summer worn away and wasted,
Thus is my harvest hastened all too rathe;
The ear that budded fair is burnt and blasted,
And all my hopéd gain it turned to scathe:
Of all the seed, that in my youth was sown,
Was naught but brakes and brambles to be mown."
At twenty-four life seemed ended, for "Love is a cureless
"Winter is come, that blows the baleful breath,
And after Winter cometh timely death."
And now, when he was feeling miserable, lonely, desolate an old
college friend wrote to him begging him to come to London.
Spenser went, and through his friend he came to
 know Sir Philip
Sidney, a true gentleman and a poet like himself, who in turn
made him known to the great Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth's
Spenser thought his heart had been broken and that his life was
done. But hearts do not break easily. Life is not done at
twenty-four. After a time Spenser found that there was still
much to live for. The great Earl became the poet's friend and
patron, and gave him a post as secretary in his house. For in
those days no man could live by writing alone. Poetry was still
a graceful toy for the rich. If a poor man wished to toy with
it, he must either starve or find a rich friend to be his patron,
to give him work to do that would leave him time to write also.
Such a friend Spenser found in Leicester. In the Earl's house
the poor tailor's son met many of the greatest men of the court
of Queen Elizabeth. On the Earl's business he went to Ireland
and to the Continent, seeing new sights, meeting the men and
women of the great world, so that a new and brilliant life seemed
opening for him.
Yet when, a few years later, Spenser published his first great
poem, it did not tell of courts or courtiers, but of simple
country sights and sounds. This book is called the Shepherd's
Calendar, as it contains twelve poems, one for every month of the
In it Spenser sings of his fair lost lady Rosalind, and he
himself appears under the name of Colin Clout. The name is
taken, as you will remember, from John Skelton's poem.
Spenser called his poems Aeclogues, from a Greek word meaning
Goatherds' Tales, "Though indeed few goatherds have to do
herein." He dedicated them to Sir Philip Sidney as "the
president of noblesse and of chivalrie."
"Go, little book: Thy self present,
As child whose parent is unkent,
To him that is the president
Of Noblesse and of Chivalrie;
And if that Envy bark at thee,
As sure it will, for succour flee
Under the shadow of his wing;
And, asked who thee forth did bring;
A shepherd's swain, say, did thee sing,
All as his straying flock he fed;
And when his honour hath thee read
Crave pardon for my hardyhood.
But, if that any ask thy name,
Say, 'thou wert basebegot with blame.'
For thy thereof thou takest shame,
And, when thou art past jeopardy,
Come tell me what was said of mee,
And I will send more after thee."
The Shepherd's Calendar made the new poet famous. Spenser was
advanced at court, and soon after went to Ireland in the train of
the Lord-Deputy as Secretary of State. At that time Ireland was
filled with storm and anger, with revolt against English rule,
with strife among the Irish nobles themselves. Spain also was
eagerly looking to Ireland as a point from which to strike at
England. War, misery, poverty were abroad in all the land. Yet
amid the horrid sights and sounds of battle Spenser found time to
After eight years spent in the north of Ireland, Spenser was
given a post which took him south. His new home was the old
castle of Kilcolman in Cork. It was surrounded by fair wooded
country, but to Spenser it seemed a desert. He had gone to
Ireland as to exile, hoping that it was merely a stepping-stone
to some great appointment in England, whither he longed to
return. Now after eight years he found himself still in exile.
He had no love for Ireland, and felt himself lonely and forsaken
there. But soon there came another great Elizabethan to share
his loneliness. This was Sir Walter Raleigh, who, being out of
favor with his Queen, took refuge in his Irish estates until her
anger should pass.
 The two great men, thus alone among the wild Irish, made friends,
and they had many a talk together. There within the gray stone
walls of the old ivy-covered castle Spenser read the first part
of his book, the Faery Queen, to Raleigh. Spenser had long been
at work upon this great poem. It was divided into parts, and
each part was called a book. Three books were now finished, and
Raleigh, loud in his praises of them, persuaded the poet to bring
them over to England to have them published.
Spenser read the first part of his book, "The Faery Queen" to Raleigh.
In a poem called Colin Clout's come home again, which Spenser
wrote a few years later, he tells in his own poetic way of these
meetings and talks, and of how Raleigh persuaded him to go to
England, there to publish his poem. In Colin Clout Spenser calls
both himself and Raleigh shepherds. For just as at one time it
was the fashion to write poems in the form of a dream, so in
Spenser's day it was the fashion to write poems called pastorals,
in which the authors made believe that all their characters were
shepherds and shepherdesses.
"One day, quoth he, I sat (as was my trade)
Under the foot of Mole, that mountain hoare,
Keeping my sheep amongst the cooly shade,
Of the green alders by the Mulla's shore:
There a strange shepherd chanst to find me out,
Whether alluréd by my pipe's delight,
Whose pleasing sound y-shrilléd far about,
Or thither led by chance, I know not right:
Whom when I askéd from what place he came,
And how he hight, himself he did y-clep,
The Shepherd of the Ocean by name,
And said he came far from the main sea deep.
He sitting me beside in that same shade,
Provokéd me to play some pleasant fit;
And, when he heard the music that I made,
He found himself full greatly pleased at it."
 Spenser tells then how the "other shepherd" sang:—
"His song was all a lamentable lay,
Of great unkindness, and of usage hard,
Of Cynthia, the Lady of the Sea,
That from her presence faultless him debarred.
When thus our pipes we both had wearied well,
And each an end of singing made,
He gan to cast great liking to my lore,
And great disliking to my luckless lot,
That banished had myself, like wight forlore,
Into that waste, where I was quite forgot:
The which to leave henceforth he counselled me,
Unmeet for man in whom was ought regardful,
And wend with him his Cynthia to see,
Whose grace was great, and bounty most rewardful.
So what with hope of good, and hate of ill
He me persuaded forth with him to fare."
Queen Elizabeth received Spenser kindly, and was so delighted
with the Faery Queen that she ordered Lord Burleigh to pay the
poet 100 pounds a year.
"What!" grumbled the Lord Treasurer, "it is not in reason. So
much for a mere song!"
"Then give him," said the Queen, "what is reason," to which he
But, says an old writer, "he was so busied, belike about matters
of higher concernment, that Spenser received no reward."
long-run, however, he did receive 50 pounds a year, as much as
400 pounds would be now. But it did not seem to Spenser to be
enough to allow him to give up his post in Ireland and live in
England. So back to Ireland he went once more, with a grudge
in his heart against Lord Burleigh.