The Shepherds’ Calendar

“He that strives to touch the stars
Oft stumbles at a straw.”

Edmund Spenser

I’m deep in the Dread Dale of Revision at the moment, Constant Reader, hence the proliferation of obscure texts from the Dawn of Time appearing here as I read everything I was supposed to read last year in a vast and intemperate hurry. The Shepherds’ Calendar, published in 1679, is a group of pastoral poems, allegories using shepherd figures to talk about the political and ecclesiastical issues of the day. It’s particularly suited to revision-reading, partly because it’s moderately short (120 pages in the Penguin Shorter Poems of Spenser), and partly because it’s a wealth of interesting and eminently analysable literary techniques, political opinions and other useful bits and pieces to take into an exam. Also, Spenser is a craftsman of language, and it’s easier to appreciate and enjoy this when the poems are as short as they are here, broken up into months, each month accompanied by a “gloss” from the mysterious E.K. (who, if the truth be known, is probably Spenser himself). It reminded me, absurdly, of Pope’s very different Dunciad in its weird, self-abrogating metatextuality; but then the two writers’ projects are not perhaps so very different. Both are redefining classical forms for a modern age (Spenser the pastoral, and Pope the epic). Both have a slightly schizophrenic relationship to authorship and patronage. Pope is very dull, though, and Spenser isn’t – at least, he isn’t if you’re not tired and desperate to read the entire thing in as little time as humanly possible.

I’m wondering, though, if The Shepherds’ Calendar would be read if it weren’t for The Faerie Queene; outside the confines of academia, I mean. The diction is archaic, and not overly accessible – you do need a good edition, with plenty of notes, to make sense of the contemporary allusion. It’s also unapologetically intellectual verse, with no intention of making anything easy for the reader, even for its contemporaries. You really have to think about it to get anything out of it; it demands engagement, study, probably an essay or two. And while all works of literature reward this kind of engagement, of course, even the fantastically intricate Faerie Queene has its plot, its allegory, to read for, aside from the quality of the verse and its political statements. What I think I’m getting at here is that, despite its eminent technical skill, The Shepherds’ Calendar doesn’t ever manage to transcend its own context and its own intellectualism in the way that The Faerie Queene does. It doesn’t quite work as art on its own.

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