Wherever I go these days, strangers come up to me begging to know spoilers for The Shepheardes Calender, Edmund Spenser’s great 12 part poetic masterpiece from 1579 (which Ferrebeekeeper is publishing in its entirety, month by month, to universal acclaim). Will spring return to the picturesque English countryside? Will the shepherds ply their Arcadian trade while exchanging classical allusions? Will romantic contrivances lead to deeper questions concerning the human condition? Will love triumph anon?
I can’t answer these burning questions. You will just have to wait for each additional installment and keep reading…but, by coincidence, here is the March eclogue. The grim months, January and February, are giving way to spring, when all of nature awakes. Two callow shepherd youth, Willye and Thomalin, discourse upon the beauties of the waxing season. Willye lightly teases his friend Thomalin concerning the season’s longstanding connection with amorous pursuits (as adolescent boys everywhere are wont to goad their fellows), whereupon Thomalin tells a hunting anecdote of firing his crossbow at a beautiful winged child. This supernatural entity easily avoids the inexperienced shafts of the shepherd and gravely wounds the farm lad with a return arrow. Oh! The wanton follies of love!
Spenser follows up this little scene with an author’s gloss (which makes use of playfully ironic language to hint at deeper and unspoken undercurrents buried in the allusions). But enough of my prating, you came here to read Spenser and contemplate the paradoxical nature of love as explained by a 16th century aesthete. So, without further preamble, here is…
The Shepheardes Calender: March
A R G V M E N T.
IN this Æglogue two shepheards boyes taking occasion of the season, beginne to make purpose of loue and other pleasaunce, which to springtime is most agreeable. The speciall meaning hereof is, to giue certaine markes and tokens, to know Cupide the Poets God of Loue. But more particularlye I thinke, in the person of Thomalin is meant some secrete freend, who scorned Loue and his knights so long, till at length him selfe was entangled, and unwares wounded with the dart of some beautifull regard, which is Cupides arrowe.
Thomalin, why sitten we so,
As weren overwent with Woe.
Upon so fair a Morrow?
The joyous time now nigheth fast,
That shall alegg this bitter Blast,
And slake the Winter Sorrow.
Siker Willy, thou warnest well;
For Winter’s Wrath begins to quell,
And pleasant Spring appeareth:
The Grass now ‘gins to be refresht
The Swallow peeps out of her Nest,
And cloudy Welkin cleareth.
Seest not thilk same Hawthorn Stud,
How bragly it begins to bud,
And utter his tender Head?
Flora now calleth forth each Flower,
And bids make ready Maia’s Bower,
That new is uprist from Bed.
Tho shall we sporten in delight,
And learn with Lettice to wex light,
That scornfully looks askaunce:
Tho will we little Love awake,
That now sleepeth in Lethe Lake,
And pray him leaden our daunce.
Willy, I ween thou be a Sot;
For lusty Love still sleepeth not,
But is abroad at his Game.
How kenst thou that he is awoke?
Or hast thy self his Slumber broke?
Or made privy to the same?
No, but happily I him spide,
Where in a Bush he did him hide,
With Wings of purple and blue:
And were not, that my Sheep would stray,
The privy Marks I would bewray,
Whereby by chaunce I him knew.
Thomalin, have no care for-thy,
My self will have a double Eye,
Ylike to my Flock and thine;
For alas at home I have a Sire,
A Stepdame eke as hot as Fire,
That duly adays counts mine.
Nay, but thy seeing will not serve,
My Sheep for that may chaunce to swerve,
And fall into some Mischief.
For sithens is but the third morrow,
That I chauncst to fall asleep with Sorrow,
And waked again with Grief:
The while thilk same unhappy Ewe,
Whose clouted Leg her hurt doth shew,
Fell headlong into a Dell,
And there unjointed both her Bones:
Mought her Neck been jointed attones,
She should have need no more Spell.
Th’ Elf was so wanton and so wood,
(But now I trow can better good)
She mought ne gang on the Green.
Let be, as may be, that is past;
That is to come, let be forecast:
Now tell us what thou hast seen.
It was upon a Holy-day
When Shepherds Grooms han leave to play,
I cast to go a shooting:
Long wandring up and down the Land,
With Bow and Bolts in either Hand,
For Birds in Bushes tooting:
At length within the Ivy tod,
(There shrouded was the little God)
I heard a busie bustling.
I bent my Bolt against the Bush,
Listning if any thing did rush,
But then heard no more rustling.
Tho peeping close into the thick,
Might see the moving of some quick,
Whose Shape appeared not;
But were it Fairy, Fiend, or Snake,
My Courage earn’d it to awake,
And manfully thereat shot.
With that sprang forth a naked Swain,
With spotted Wings like Peacocks Train,
And laughing lope to a Tree;
His gilden Quiver at his Back,
And silver Bow which was but slack,
Which lightly he bent at me.
That seeing, I level’d again,
And shot at him with Might and Main,
As thick, as it had hailed.
So long I shot, that all was spent.
Tho pumy Stones I hastily hent,
And threw; but nought availed
He was so wimble and so wight,
From Bough to Bough he leaped light,
And oft the Pumies latched.
Therewith afraid, I ran away;
But he, that earst seem’d but to play,
A Shaft in earnest snatched,
And hit me running, in the Heel;
For then I little smart did feel,
But soon it sore increased.
And now it rankleth more and more,
And inwardly it festereth sore,
Ne wote I how to cease it.
Thomalin, I pity thy Plight,
Perdy with Love thou diddest fight:
I know him by a Token.
For once I heard my Father say,
How he him caught upon a day,
(Whereof he will be wroken)
Entangled in a Fowling-Net,
Which he for Carrion-Crows had set,
That in our Pear-tree haunted:
Tho said, he was a winged Lad,
But Bow and Shafts as then none had;
Else had he sore be daunted.
But see, the Welkin thicks apace,
And stooping Phoebus steeps his race:
It’s time to haste us homeward.
To be Wise and eke to Love,
Is granted scarce to Gods above.
Of Honey and of Gall, in love there is store:
The Honey is much, but the Gall is more.
THIS Æglogue seemeth somewhat to resemble that same of Theocritus, wherein the boy likewise telling the old man, that he had shot at a winged boy in a tree, was by hym warned, to beware of mischiefe to come.
Flora) the Goddesse of flowres, but indede (as saith Tacitus) a famous harlot, which with the abuse of her body hauing gotten great riches, made the people of Rome her heyre: who in remembraunce of so great beneficence, appointed a yearely feste for the memoriall of her, calling her, not as she was, nor as some doe think, Andronica, but Flora: making her the Goddesse of all floures, and doing yerely to her solemne sacrifice.
Lethe) is a lake in hell, which the Poetes call the lake of forgetfulnes. For Lethe signifieth forgetfulnes. Wherein the soules being dipped, did forget the cares of their former lyfe. So that by loue sleeping in Lethe lake, he meaneth he was almost forgotten and out of knowledge, by reason of winters hardnesse, when al pleasures, as it were, sleepe and weare out of mynde.
Est mihi namque domi pater, est iniusta nouerca &c.
Spell) is a kind of verse or charme, that in elder tymes they vsed often to say ouer euery thing, that they would haue preserued, as the Nightspel for theeues, and the woodspell. And herehence I thinke is named the gospell, as it were Gods spell or worde. And so sayth Chaucer, Listeneth Lordings to my spell.
Swaine) a boye: for so he is described of the Poetes, to be a boye .s. alwayes freshe and lustie: blindfolded, because he maketh no difference of Personages: wyth diuers coloured winges, .s. ful of flying fancies: with bowe and arrow, that is with glaunce of beautye, which prycketh as a forked arrowe. He is sayd also to haue shafts, some leaden, some golden: that is, both pleasure for the gracious and loued, and sorow for the louer that is disdayned or forsaken. But who liste more at large to behold Cupids colours and furniture, let him reade ether Propertius, or Moschus his Idyllion of wandring loue, being now most excellently translated into Latine by the singuler learned man Angelus Politianus: Whych worke I haue seene amongst other of thys Poets doings, very wel translated also into Englishe Rymes.
In the heele) is very Poetically spoken, and not without speciall iudgement. For I remember, that in Homer it is sayd of Thetis, that shee tooke her young babe Achilles being newely borne, and holding him by the heele, dipped him in the River of Styx. The vertue whereof is, to defend and keepe the bodyes washed therein from any mortall wound. So Achilles being washed al ouer, saue anely his hele, by which his mother held, was in the rest [invulnerable]: therfore by Paris was feyned to bee shotte with a poysoned arrowe in the heele, whiles he was busie about the marying of Polyena in the temple of Apollo. Which mysticall fable Eustathius vnfolding, sayth: that by wounding in the hele, is meant lustfull loue. For from the heele (as say the best Phisitions) to the preuie partes there passe certaine veines and slender synnewes, as also the like come from the head, and are carryed lyke little pypes behynd the eares: so that (as sayth Hippocrates) yf those veynes there be cut a sonder, the partie straighte becometh cold and vnfruiteful. which reason our Poete wel weighing, maketh this shepheards boye of purpose to be wounded by Loue in the heele.
Hereby is meant, that all the delights of Loue, wherein wanton youth walloweth, be but follye mixt with bitternesse, and sorow sawced with repentaunce. For besides that the very affection of Loue it selfe tormenteth the mynde, and vexeth the body many wayes, with vnrestfulnesse all night, and wearines all day, seeking for that we can not haue: euen the selfe things which best before vs liked, in course of time and chaung of ryper yeares, whiche also therewithall chaungeth our wonted lyking and former fantasies, will then seeme lothsome and breede vs annoyaunce, when yougthes flowre is withered, and we fynde our bodyes and wits aunswere not to suche vayne iollitie and lustfull pleasaunce.