"The Death of the 'New Poete': Virgilian Ruin and Ciceronian Recollection in Spenser's the Shepheardes Calender". *

By Helfer, Rebeca | Renaissance Quarterly, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

"The Death of the 'New Poete': Virgilian Ruin and Ciceronian Recollection in Spenser's the Shepheardes Calender". *


Helfer, Rebeca, Renaissance Quarterly


Critics working in the field of English Renaissance literature often discover in Edmund Spenser's (ca. 1552-99) pastoral poetry the birth of a sacred cow: a "new" Virgil for a renewed era. Spenser, after all, seemingly embodied an entire nation's cultural aspirations and thus became a spokesman for some dearly-held truths about what the very word "renaissance" means: the desire to disinter the past, the endeavor to reconstruct its ruins anew--that is, to imitate Virgil. But particularly with The Shepheardes Calender, a work first published in 1579 and self-consciously intended to launch his soon-to-be illustrious career as the "new Poete," Spenser articulates ambivalent attitudes about and, indeed, dramatically alters the terms of his literary inheritance. (1)

For many reasons, Spenser's Calender marked a strange debut on the English literary stage. This calendric collection of bucolics with its illustrative, rough woodcuts adapted a popular medieval form that made it appear neither very old nor very new, as did the Calender's accompanying critical apparatus, a series of glosses by Spenser's first and anonymous critic, "E.K.," whose commentary attempted to cover the Calender with the patina of antiquity it otherwise lacked. Despite evidence of Spenser's catholic tastes, E.K.'s epic assertions of the Calenders classical ambitions and Spenser's eminent status as a "new" Virgil continue to dominate our understanding of this work; consequently, Spenser's modern critics often echo E.K.'s forceful claims for Spenser's fame. Yet, as this essay argues, E.K.'s struggle to construct Spenser's authority in Virgilian terms--and his failure to accomplish this effort--enacts the Calender's central drama: a dialogue between E.K. and Spenser about how to remember the ruins of the past. Far from reconstructing an ideal of permanence that best represents Virgilian ambitions, The Shepheardes Calender reimagines the architecture of immortality in ruin itself.

At stake here is our desire to see Spenser as a new Virgil. Spenser's critics, including E.K., frequently attempt to accommodate the ways in which the Calender explicitly challenges cultural assumptions about the role of Virgilian imitation, often assuming that Virgil's example represented the best (and sometimes only) available path to literary immortality and laureate renown. Yet what makes the Calender remarkable, beyond the subjective realm of literary merit, lies in what it reveals about its particular cultural moment: not only a real reluctance to follow in Virgil's path but also a profound questioning of what expectations such imitation entailed--an heroic vision of authorship--coupled with an endeavor to find alternative models for emulation.

As the Calender makes clear, Virgil stood less for a single author than a whole host of literary and imperial values exerting a set of pressures to which Spenser responds in complex ways. Even as Virgil finds a central place in the Calender, Spenser's reluctance to perform a Virgilian role in English culture takes center stage. This essay examines how E.K.'s bold assertions as literary critic, and Spenser's subtle opposition to them, establish a crucial tension in the Calender between two competing patterns of imitation, two divergent models of authorial and cultural formation: Virgil's and Cicero's. The Calender locates its pivotal conflict in E.K.'s longing to cast Spenser and his authorial persona Colin in Virgil's mold, in his desire for Spenser-cum-Colin to follow the "perfecte paterne of a Poete" embodied in Virgil's ideal (170). Such a pattern emerges as the generic movement from pastoral to epic poetry and, moreover, as a pattern of cultural ruin and repair. For E.K. and the shepherds, only one true Virgil exists--the Virgil of epic poetry. Rather than seeing a Virgil of variegated works, or recognizing the varied Virgils of eclogue, georgic, and epic, they focus on the idea of the Virgilian rata, the career trajectory whose most important point they locate as its end: the cultural and literary immortality promised in his Aeneid as the translation of Troy's ruins for Rome's "empire without end.

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