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The Chaucer-Function: Spenser’s Language Lessons in The Shepheardes Calender

David Hadbawnik

June 16, 2014


Abstract: This essay argues that in The Shepheardes Calender, Spenser takes advantage of lessons learned from Richard Mulcaster and the example of Chaucer to situate himself as a poet furthering the project of language formation in English via what I call the “Chaucer-function.” The “Chaucer-function” is a set of authorial effects built into the poem, comprised of two components: first, an active process of basing authorship on a “collection of authors” who (using Mulcaster’s ideas about language “enfranchisement”) bring various linguistic backgrounds into play within a text, and the subsequent, interrelated effect of attribution based on the incorporation of words from those backgrounds into poetic diction. I argue that Spenser constructs his authorship of The Shepheardes Calender on the different speech backgrounds of the shepherds and their tendency to interpret and mediate each other’s poetic utterances. “Reader-critics” within the text respond to the collection of authors, helping Spenser attain the reputation for language-formation in English that had built up around Chaucer over the previous two centuries.


In this essay, I argue that The Shepheardes Calender both takes advantage of and produces what I call the “Chaucer-function,” a set of authorial effects built into the poem. The term “Chaucer-function” follows from Foucault’s idea of the “author-function” and was suggested by Alexandra Gillespie’s writing on Chaucer’s “disruptive” kind of authorship in The Canterbury Tales (Foucault; Gillespie 17-19). While Foucault describes the way the author-function limits texts by enabling readers to classify them according to a name, for Gillespie the “collection of authors” in The Canterbury Tales opens up the text, confronting readers with not only the pilgrims who tell the tales, but also those they cite as authorities, the “Chaucer” who narrates the pilgrimage as a whole, the poet Chaucer who intermittently appears in the tales, and so on (17-18).1 According to Gillespie, this absence of a single author position within Chaucer’s texts exacerbates and contributes to the subsequent effort to define Chaucer as an author: “We are left with the Chaucer ‘effect,’ the author who is a ‘function’ of the creation, circulation, and interpretation of his texts, paratext, and others’ texts about his work . . . [E]arly representations of Chaucer were a source of, as well as solution for, the problems raised in his texts” (19).

The implications of this effect are far-reaching, but for the purposes of this essay I wish to limit the scope of the Chaucer-function by defining it in relation to language. In other words, there are two language-based components to the Chaucer-function following from Gillespie’s argument: first, the wide range of linguistic footprints left by Chaucer’s author-pilgrims (including but not limited to the accurate depiction of Northern English featured in “The Reeve’s Tale”); second, the particular kind of criticism and attribution that this linguistic range inspires. The special status of Chaucer as an author — “the father of English literature,” or even “the father of English” — is founded in part on his perceived ability to select and naturalize words from Romance languages into his poetic diction during the fourteenth century (Cannon 195-210). While Chaucer’s actual linguistic innovation has been exaggerated in comparison to other poets, his practice of sorting, deploying, and interrogating words from various regional and class-based types or “registers,” as David Burnley calls them, contributes to the effect that credits Chaucer with founding literary English (156-76). Spenser taps into both Chaucer’s practice and its perceived results, which offer the still-anonymous creator of The Shepheardes Calender a two-pronged purchase on authorship and poetic authority, based not on the prestige or political power of a Philip Sidney but on words themselves. These are, to state it more succinctly, the two stages of the Chaucer-function:: first, an active process of inventing a “collection of authors” that bring various linguistic backgrounds into play and confuse the question of authorial identity within a text, and second, the interrelated effect of attribution (“the father of English poetry,” etc.) based on the incorporation of words from those backgrounds into poetic diction.

I argue that Spenser constructs his authorship of The Shepheardes Calender on the different speech backgrounds of the shepherds and their tendency to interpret and mediate each other’s poetic utterances. More specifically, as with the mediating relationship of Lydgate to Chaucer that presides over the poem, Spenser’s authorship is built on the various lexicons of poetic personae at further and further removes from the author himself, as each one mediates the previous iteration with new and different language. By “the author himself,” I mean the spectral figure for whom Colin Clout, according to E.K., is meant to stand. If we begin with the premise that Colin is Immerito, the anonymous author eventually revealed as Spenser, we are forced to grapple with the fact that this already-slippery identity continues to slip away, precisely on the grounds of language. Eventually, the text discloses its truth: No one shepherd is meant to represent the author, despite what the poem’s editor asserts. (Or perhaps, reading E.K.’s assertions more closely, this is exactly what he means.2 In this model, shepherds blend together, with the “New Poet” representing a range of language backgrounds, from classical to modern, rustic to central.

Spenser adapts a Chaucer-function for his own project, using what he learned from Chaucer’s poetry and its reception so that The Shepheardes Calender produces Spenser the author in much the same way that readers had produced Chaucer the author over the prior two centuries. The key feature of his adaptation is a collection of reader-critics, including but not limited to the editor E.K., who respond to the poem’s collection of authors. The knowledge that went into making the text came not only from Chaucer’s texts and reputation, but also from Richard Mulcaster, the important humanist scholar who also served as Spenser’s headmaster at the Merchant Taylor’s School. In the first part of the essay I examine what Spenser learned from Mulcaster and Chaucer before turning to how he deployed this approach in The Shepheardes Calender. In addition to producing Spenser the author, The Shepheardes Calender gave new life to the Chaucer-function in a larger sense as print works of Chaucer and examinations of his language proliferated in the late sixteenth century. I illustrate this process with tables of Spenser’s words in the eclogues under consideration, and figures of shepherd word usage drawn from the tables. The baseline standard for flagging a word as “unusual” is simply whether E.K. glosses it for meaning. Further detail is culled from prior philological studies, as well as the Oxford English Dictionary and Middle English Dictionary.3

By developing the Chaucer-function concept, this essay fills a gap in contributions other critics have made in explaining the unusual language of The Shepheardes Calender. Harry Berger, Jr. examines how the poem’s antiquated and rustic speech shapes what he calls the shepherds’ “recreative” or “plaintive” attitudes.4 Many of the shepherds who employ such speech fall into the plaintive category (e.g. Thenot in February, Piers in May, Thomalin in July, Diggon Davie in September). In the “moral eclogues,” they dispute with recreative speakers and moralize against political and religious problems under the guise of allegory (Berger 294). Berger rightly recognizes that the diction of the poem is not mere “antiquarianism,” but he calls Spenser’s “moral pastors” “short on mental and verbal subtlety” (292). While the moral speakers use sophisticated “allegorical camouflage” in making their points, they are also “artless,” with “honest but poor rhetoric” (304, 311). This claim leads Berger to conclude, “morality needs more articulate advocates, and this means that rhetorical skill such as Colin Clout commands must be brought to bear on social problems” (292). For Berger rustic and antiquated language therefore serves as a contrast and demonstrates the need for Colin’s superior language skills.

Some critics have recognized that the archaic and dialect words in The Shepheardes Calender contribute more positively to the poem. Patricia Ingham notes that Spenser employs a largely Northern dialect in the poem not only because it provides “rustic realism to the speech of his shepherds,” but also because “it was also sometimes thought of as a traditional literary medium which could be drawn on to make poetic language more striking” (165, 168). Paula Blank argues that The Shepheardes Calender is a project of “linguistic innovation” that attempts to “produce an ‘original’ English . . . that would have even greater claims to a national status than the ‘common’ vernacular of London and the court” (120-121). By incorporating “high and low diction,” the New Poet draws attention to his language but also makes a compelling argument for opening up English to different kinds of acceptable speech. Blank acknowledges that Spenser was less successful in the latter enterprise than in establishing a model for “literary diction” (125).

While these critics take account of strange language in The Shepheardes Calender in various ways, either looking at shepherds in isolation or groups of shepherds in relation to E.K.’s glosses, they do not consider the poem’s language in a detailed and systematic way in order to explore how it might intersect with Spenser’s eventual claim to authorship. For example, Berger’s claim that rustic and archaic speech denotes inferior rhetoric falls apart when it is revealed that Colin Clout, whom Berger sees as the poem’s model rhetorician, actually uses a good deal of such speech himself — often enough to make him comparable to many other shepherds, including the “plaintive” Thomalin in July.5 Given Berger’s emphasis elsewhere on nuance and the “interplay” between different attitudes in the poem, it is odd that he holds so fast not only to an idea about which shepherds use strange language, but what that language may mean. Blank and Ingham, like many critics who explore dialect in The Shepheardes Calender, also tend to make general statements about the poem’s rustic and archaic speech. Even though Blank considers specific shepherds and recognizes that Colin cannot be easily disentangled from the regional voices at play, she only looks closely at the language of Diggon Davie in September. A more detailed examination might further complicate these analyses and provide clues about Spenser’s authorial strategy.

Critics have also noted the way in which Spenser anticipates Bakhtin’s concept of the “dialogic” with his multi-vocal shepherd-poets, who not only converse and argue but “borrow” and recite each other’s poems. Bakhtin writes,

Not a single instance of verbal utterance can be reckoned exclusively to its utterer’s account. Every utterance is the product of the interaction between speakers and the product of the broader context of the whole complex social situation in which the utterance emerges. . . . Language and its forms are the products of prolonged social intercourse among members of a given speech community (41).

The concept of language as an interactive, social construct is implicit in The Shepheardes Calender, and this reading of Spenser seems especially appropriate when Bakhtin goes on to discuss “heteroglossia” and the way in which language “is stratified not only into linguistic dialects in the strict sense of the word (according to formal linguistic markers, especially phonetic), but also into . . . languages of social groups, ‘professional’ and ‘generic’ languages, languages of generations and so forth” (75). The exploration of different strata of English speech, ranged along a spectrum both geographic (central to rustic) and temporal (archaic to modern) seems, again, to be one of Spenser’s implicit aims.

Yet the Chaucer-function as I conceive it differs from the dialogic, both as Bakhtin describes it and as later critics apply it to Spenser, in two ways.6 First, while I consider the way that shepherds mediate and remediate each other’s language in the exchanges that constitute The Shepheardes Calender, I also examine the active process of language-shaping that Spenser adapted from Richard Mulcaster as a part of a broader national linguistic project, one that critics, poets, and grammarians such as Mulcaster found themselves acutely engaged in during the sixteenth century. In a famous and much-referenced passage from a letter to Gabriel Harvey, Spenser writes, “Why a God's name, may not we, as else the Greeks, have the kingdom of our own language?” (306). This question has often been heard as Spenser’s announcement of his own national language project.7 In the same letter, however, Spenser anthropomorphizes words in an almost pathetic way, comparing language that will not behave properly (according to accent) to lame goslings and dogs; just prior to his call for a “language kingdom,” he echoes Mulcaster, writing that proper language for poetry must “be won with Custom, and rough Words must be subdu’d with Use” (305-306). But what is the “custom” and “use” that would rehabilitate English words from their seemingly degraded state, making them fit subjects, so to speak, in this language kingdom? Mulcaster’s theories on this process inform Spenser’s approach in The Shepheardes Calender, with the result that his shepherds do not merely reflect different speech backgrounds for comedic or contrastive purposes, but (as I show) actively participate as linguistic proxies in rehabilitating words in English, making them fit for not only poetic diction but, in a broader sense, political and theological debate.

Second, the Chaucer-function attempts to account for the related process of attribution that Spenser wishes to inherit from Chaucer, building into The Shepheardes Calender the type of scholarly apparatus that accrued to Chaucer’s poetry in the centuries after his death. Jonathan Goldberg comes closest to articulating the role of E.K. in this apparatus, writing, “E.K.’s is another voice, another text, generated precisely as the voices ‘in’ the text have been. His knowledge constitutes no authority; it represents a reading of the text and, palpably, a rewriting of it. E.K. may be an invention for this text; he is, at any rate, made possible by it” (64). It is precisely as “another voice” (alongside the reader-critics constituted by the various shepherd-poets) that E.K., and by extension his editorial matter, relates to and extends the dialogic structure of the book as a whole. By interacting with shepherds’ linguistic choices through the glosses — directing readers’ attention to literary source texts, providing etymologies, misleading, interfering, and so on — E.K. does not merely foreground or even estrange language, but attaches a significance to specific words and to classes of words that Spenser’s poetry maps out, such that one is sent (back) to the classroom or the archive, or (forward) into new modes of poetic diction. Further, E.K. contributes to the impression of the text as the originator of these classifications, helping to compress the long project of establishing Chaucer as a “language father” into the slim volume of The Shepheardes Calender. To expand on Goldberg’s point, The Shepheardes Calender does not merely make possible E.K., but also the practice of glossing, hard-word listing, and English-diction classification that became so widespread in its wake.

I. Mulcaster, Chaucer, and Lydgate

Spenser studied at Richard Mulcaster’s Merchant Taylors’ School during the 1560s, prior to his matriculation at Cambridge in 1569. Mulcaster’s grammar and education handbook The First Part of the Elementarie provides a view of his approach to urgent linguistic issues of the day, particularly the question of whether English as a rising vernacular tongue had the potential for poetic and philosophical expression. Mulcaster writes:

If the spreading sea, and the spacious land could use anie speche, theie would both shew you, where, and in how manie strange places, theie have sene our peple, and also give you to wit, that theie deall in as much, and as great varietie of matters, as anie other peple do, whether at home or abrode. (90)

This poetic, quasi-anthropomorphizing of English country and seas figures language formation as an interactive and fluid process, one to which all of England (past and present, human and nonhuman) contributes, bolstering the mother tongue and proving that it can speak as eloquently on as many subjects as “any other people.” It is an attitude brimming with confidence in the inherent value of English, an attitude that that other contemporary critics seem to lack.8 The passage is worth lingering over, for in it Mulcaster suggests a creative, even subversive approach to shaping the language that responds positively to the deep-seated insecurity English-speakers felt alongside the classical languages, which amounted to a linguistic inferiority complex.9 He writes that English is in fact versatile, “bycause it is conversant with so manie peple,” and this diversity and variety offer “mean[s] to enlarge it” (90).

The process of “enlarging” the language by bringing in foreign words was contentious to say the least.10 Resistance to incorporating too many foreign words on the one hand and a sense of inferiority about English on the other amounted to a dilemma, which Mulcaster proposed solving by taking advantage of the language’s rustic antiquity:

if the strangeness of the matter do so require, he that is to utter, rather then he will stik in his utterance, will use the foren term, by waie of premunition, that the cuntrie peple do call it so, and by that mean make a foren word, an English denison. (90-91)

This solution complicates the allegory of sound that governs the Elementarie. Mulcaster describes “Tarquinus Sound” as a tyrant who must be brought into balance with “Custom” and “Reason” in the governance of language (particularly orthography); custom, informed by reason, does not mean “common use” but “best and fittest” (71). As John Wesley writes, “On the surface, Mulcaster's allegory seems fairly straightforward: an oral past represented by Sound’s monarchy is gradually replaced by a written culture in which Art, according to the advice of Reason and Custom, fixes language into visual and spatial units” (“Mulcaster’s Tyrant Sound”). Yet, “Sound, not writing, is the troubling element in the Elementarie” (Wesley). Sound is troubling because, as Mulcaster hints in the above excerpt on the utterance of “cuntrie peple” and elsewhere, its “empowerment . . . relies upon its association with the bodies that produce it” (Wesley).11 This reliance of sound on bodies reveals a key to Spenser’s establishment of authorship through language in The Shepheardes Calender, and an overlooked element of his project with dialect. As I will show, in The Shepheardes Calender authorship is intimately tied to the performance of songs by different shepherds using different sounds (meaning not only words but also the regional way of sounding that goes with them). Mulcaster’s lesson is that “country” language can be employed to accomplish what he calls “enfranchisement,” smuggling new words in as needed, making of them proper English “denizens.” In this way, the liminal elements of a language are invested with a kind of cultural authority. That is, marginal English authorizes the entry of foreign words and new coinages, loaning them a protective connotation of Englishness as they acquire currency. The poet-scholar who commands language’s margins thus trades on that authority as well – all the more so if, building on Mulcaster’s suggestion, he is able not only to employ a variety of marginal linguistic “sounds,” but also to designate their origins, even if he has to invent them.

Spenser’s other master in learning how to play with language was Chaucer, whose method of making words in English during the fourteenth century helps set the tone for Spenser’s during the sixteenth. Chaucer’s linguistic “innovation,” and the credit he received, beginning almost immediately after his death, for building up English, perhaps suggested to Spenser a strategy for burnishing his own authorial role by building such an apparatus (linguistic innovation and praise) into his text. Examining Chaucer’s English, Christopher Cannon takes a dictionary-based approach, and while he acknowledges the inherent problems in doing so, he offers compelling reasons for pursuing it anyway – not least of all because distrust of the apparent “simplicity” of word study has perhaps blinded critics to the insights it might provide.12

What Cannon’s analysis shows — and what is of particular relevance to the language experiment of The Shepheardes Calender — is the procedure that Chaucer uses in constructing his language, and how both his language and procedure partake of a tradition already well in place during the fourteenth century. For example, although Chaucer does borrow extensively from French and Latin, so many words had already made their way into English from those languages that new borrowing slowed dramatically after 1375 (Cannon 72). Many words that seem borrowed had been absorbed into English long before that date; “mayster-hunte” from Book of the Duchess is one such term, with both parts of the compound “essentially English” (Cannon 78). Similarly, “mere-maiden” in Romance of the Rose uses an Old English compound to construct a new term while translating from French. As Cannon concludes, “Chaucer could invent his English out of English. . . . [E]ven when English was made in the service of transferring French traditions, it involved the re-making of English by the recombination of its extant parts” (82, 85).

This kind of recombining is precisely what Spenser does in The Shepheardes Calender, as he blends archaic with rustic terms, or with French borrowings, or with new coinages (or some variation of the above). The difference is that Spenser has a glossing apparatus in place that actively situates the diction of the poem in ways every bit as potentially misleading as later characterizations of Chaucer’s lexicon. The glossing apparatus, combined with E.K.’s work drawing attention to diction in the epistolary preface and the shepherds’ references to the apparatus in the poem, tends to estrange rather than “naturalize” the words individual shepherds use. Whereas Chaucer’s procedure for establishing new words in English (either by borrowing foreign terms or combining English ones, as mentioned above) takes place with minimal comment from the author and largely relies on later critics to notice and characterize it, Spenser’s process everywhere announces itself as process. The commentary and poetic mediation built into The Shepheardes Calender is part of Spenser’s expansion of the Chaucer-function aimed at producing his authorship.

The reason for Spenser’s adapting and expanding the Chaucer-function may be that he noticed how Chaucer was increasingly awarded special status as an author who selects and deploys different kinds of words in English. Lydgate is among the first to credit Chaucer as “the noble Rethor” who “fonde the floures, firste of Retoryke / Our Rude speche” (Lydgate 1629, 1635-36). Others followed over the ensuing centuries, with Lydgate soon amalgamated into the Chaucerian genius.13 No less an authority on the origins of the English language than the Oxford English Dictionary has the notion of “father Chaucer” written into its DNA: The OED “was designed to reflect back the kind of traditional understanding that writers like Lydgate . . . had constructed. . . . In the case of Chaucer, moreover, the scholars who played a significant role in the OED made no secret of Chaucer’s originary importance.”14

Megan Cook, writing on Spenser’s impact on the perception of Chaucerian language, argues that E.K.’s glossing in The Shepheardes Calender directly influences Thomas Speght’s appendix of “hard words” in his 1598/1602 edition of Chaucer’s Works. Thus both texts materially contribute to the cataloging of words in Chaucer that shaped the production of early English dictionaries during the sixteenth century, paving the way for the eventual OED. According to Cook, the purpose of E.K.’s glosses is twofold: alerting readers to unfamiliar words, and alerting them to “the antiquity of words still in regular use” (189). This notion spills over into Speght’s Chaucer edition, which he claims restores Chaucer “to his owne Antiquitie” (Cook 196). The establishment of an English antiquity that begins with Chaucer is a “crucial step,” one that “keeps Chaucer at the head of an English poetic tradition by attributing to the medieval writer the artistic mastery to which his sixteenth-century successors aspire, in the terms in which they aspire to it” (198). The terms that Spenser aspires to are those of authorship that the Chaucer-function in The Shepheardes Calender helps establish: an originary antiquity of English, which Spenser’s poetry partakes of and mediates for readers. The setting of those terms begins immediately in the text’s front matter.

The first sentence of E.K.’s epistle positions Chaucer as an authorizing figure behind the text who is mediated in part by poetic substitutes throughout the poem. Colin Clout stands in for Immerito, who in turn stands in for the poem’s anonymous author:

Uncouthe unkist, Sayde the olde famous Poete Chaucer: whom for his excellencie and wonderfull skil in making, his scholler Lidgate, a worthy scholler of so excellent a maister, calleth the Loadestarre of our Language: and whom our Colin clout in his Eglogue called Tityrus the God of shepheards, comparing hym to the worthiness of the Roman Tityrus Virgile. (25)

This piling up of poets, fictional and historical, as well as texts, creates a dense thicket of references that stretches ever backwards in time. “Colin Clout,” while standing in for Immerito, alludes to his namesake, Skelton’s fictional character. The authorial personae mirror those constructed for the poem’s guiding light, Chaucer: “[t]he layering of these three — Tityrus, Virgil, and Chaucer — suggests that, while Chaucer is already well-established as a model for vernacular poets, he is being recognized here as an exemplar who can sit comfortably alongside . . . Virgil himself” (Cook 193). The mediating persona and his “lodestar” operate on the authorship question — that is, the credentials of the author as properly English and classical — in much the same way as the glosses operate on language. Readers are distanced from but drawn to an archaic, but classical, Chaucer, through the apparatus of the poems and E.K.’s glosses. Within E.K.’s schema, Lydgate is positioned as a gate-keeper to Chaucer. As William Kuskin writes, “what Spenser learns from Lydgate is that authority is premised on the public consolidation of an authorial role, and so he constitutes Lydgate as a ‘scholler’ specifically to appropriate that role for E.K.” (23-24). Spenser recognizes the importance of Lydgate’s scholarly-poetic mediation of Chaucer — someone who comes after, explaining and interpreting, publicly burnishing Chaucer’s authority (and by extension, his own). E.K. is thus positioned as a Lydgate-like scholar built into the poem, one that represents its economy of loss and recovery.

Lydgate also serves to foreground the intervening fifteenth century, which “separates the present from a more fruitful language” (Kuskin 26). In a sense, temporal and linguistic separation is also E.K.’s objective in the fiction of The Shepheardes Calender. E.K.’s glosses distance readers from the poem’s language (reminding them that words are old, out of use, rustic, etc.). The glosses further present a second front for Lydgate-like moralizing and supplication.15 Most importantly, however, E.K.’s ancillary matter condenses the process of situating the author as a master of selecting and channeling different kinds of words in English, accomplishing immediately for Spenser what it had taken Lydgate and subsequent poets and critics centuries to do for Chaucer.

II. How Shepherds Mediate One Another

The Chaucer-function also operates within the poem, with shepherds mediating the absent Colin by reciting his songs. The April eclogue finds Hobbinoll disconsolate at his friend Colin’s broken heart, first reported in January. Thenot persuades Hobbinoll to recite one of Colin’s songs. This recitation begins the build-up of Colin as a poet laureate that continues, via Cuddie, in August and October. Hobbinoll outdoes Thenot in terms of strange language in the eclogue, but it must be noted that the eclogue itself is quite short, and the bulk of it is taken up with Hobbinoll’s recital of Colin’s poem (116 out of 161 lines in the eclogue). Colin, by way of Hobbinoll, actually brings most of the strange language to the poem.16

The most striking feature of Hobbinoll’s mediation of Colin is how different it is from the rest of the April eclogue [Table 1]. While the dialogue is in iambic pentameter following an abab rhyme scheme, Hobbinoll’s recital uses an “intricate nine-line stanza made up of varying lines” (Heninger 647). The song is a tour de force, showcasing Colin’s ability to turn love sorrow into praise for his sovereign, the Queen. The song also subtly invokes the specter of Troilus and Criseyde, and the ability of Chaucer to transform raw material into beautiful poetry via his own fictional characters. The key phrase comes in the description that Hobbinoll provides of the Muses performing for the Goddess: “So sweetely they play, / And sing all the way, / That it a heaven is to heare” (106-08). The figuring of art as “heavenly” is a favorite of Chaucer’s: “And of hire beaute, that withouten drede / It was an hevene his wordes for to here” (Troilus and Criseyde, 3.1741-42); “Herde I so pleye a ravisshing swetenesse / That God, that maker is of al and lord, / Ne herde never better, as I gesse” (The Parliament of Fowls, 298-300); in “The Squire’s Tale,” the music of Ghengis Khan’s minstrels is described as “lyk an Hevene for to heere” (271). Of this figure from Troilus and Criseyde, Cannon writes, “Chaucer defines the literary so accurately because he replicates its tropic effects in his description: to say that . . . Troilus’s words have been a ‘heven . . . to here’ . . . is itself a kind of ‘swetnesse’ that is a ‘hevene’ to hear” (37). In other words, Chaucer creates a character who uses the language that he has transformed into poetry (in this case, source material in Boccaccio, the philosophy of Boethius, and other Latin, French, and Italian sources) to represent the process of transformation; as a result, his authorial stand-in (here, the anonymous narrator of Troilus and Criseyde) can describe this language as “heavenly” in poetry that is itself beautiful. Spenser attempts a similar feat via Hobbinoll in April. Hobbinoll recites a poem by Colin in which the Muses’ praise for the Goddess mirrors Colin’s song of praise for the Queen, both of them a “heaven to hear.”

The language used by Hobbinoll (and glossed by E.K.) in the April eclogue as he performs Colin’s song is especially “heavenly” and Chaucerian, drawing attention to words for sweet, mellifluous things. These include “embellish” (“beautifye and set out”), a word also used by Thenot in February (118) in his recitation of a tale “cond of Tityrus” (92).17 “Embellish” may have first appeared in English in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women: “And eek hir teres ful of honestee / Embelisshed hir wyfly chastitee” (1736-37).18 In the lines immediately following Hobbinoll’s Chaucerian phrase, “heaven . . . to hear,” he continues,

Lo how finely the graces can it foote
        to the Instrument:
They dauncen deffly, and singen soote,
        in their meriment. (109-112)

Three of the words are glossed: “Deaffly) Finelye and nimbly. Soote) Sweete. Meriment) Mirth.”19 All three are archaic, and all three sound “sweet” and connote the heavenly. “Soote” has an obvious allusion to perhaps the most famous line in English poetry, especially appropriate for this eclogue: “Whan that Aprill with hise shoures soote” (The General Prologue, 1). This allusion underscores the one Thenot makes at the eclogue’s beginning, when he asks Hobbinoll why he is crying: “Like April shoure, so stremes the trickling teares / Adowne thy cheeke, to quenche thy thristye payne” (7-8). Notably, Thenot alters the Chaucerian imagery; whereas for Chaucer, April’s showers had “bathed every veyne in swich licour” (3), providing sweet relief from March’s drought, Thenot figures Hobbinoll himself as a desert landscape, dried out from grief and in need of quenching. In this way, Hobbinoll is like the spring at the opening of The Canterbury Tales; he is a kind of archaic Chaucerian ground from which the poem emanates.

One other word from Hobbinoll’s performance bears mention: “Chevisaunce.” Spenser surrounds it with flower names:

And Cowslips, and Kingcups, and loved Lillies:
        The pretie Pawnce,
        And the Chevisaunce,
Shall match with the fayre flowre Delice. (141-44)

Not glossed in April, the word is glossed when used by Piers in May: “sometime of Chaucer used for gaine: sometime of other for spoyle, or bootie, or enterprise, and sometime for chiefdome.”20 Chaucer does use “chevisaunce,” but in The Shipman’s Tale, for example, it twice connotes the basest kind of financial transaction and holds none of the “chivalric” flavor that Spenser and E.K. seem to find in it.21 “Chevisaunce” is nonetheless archaic, Chaucerian, and pretty-sounding. That is enough for Spenser and E.K. to adapt it, through a kind of Mulcastrian enfranchisement, in the service of pastoral poetic diction in The Shepheardes Calender. The OED entry for “chevisaunce” bears witness to the effects of Spenser’s adaptation:

Misused by Spenser and others after him, who have erroneously confounded the word with chevance, chivalry, chevauchee, etc.: Enterprise, performance; chivalrous enterprise or achievement; expedition on horseback; chivalry; prowess, etc.

The word’s appearance in later texts demonstrates the long-lasting influence of Spenser’s shift of meaning for “chevisaunce.” In 1624 it surfaces in F. Quarles’ Divine Poems: “Encreas'd in power, and high Chevisance Of Arms” (OED Online). In 1849, E. Bulwer-Lytton uses it in his King Arthur: “Frank were those times of trustful chevisaunce [note, chevisaunce, Spenser], / And hearts when guileless open to a glance” (OED Online). While Spenser “misuses” the word, he does so in the service of his adapted Chaucer-function, redefining “chevisaunce” with his misuse as a new original.

In August, Cuddie is a mediator in at least two senses: as a judge of the pastoral singing contest between Perigot and Willye, and as a representative of Colin [Table 2]. In his role as judge, he refuses to decide a winner between the two contestants in their rapid-fire exchange, exclaiming, “Fayth of my soule, I deeme ech have gayned” (131). In reciting Colin’s song — “in the metrical form of the sestina . . . a display of academic restraint in rhythm and studied manipulation in rhyme” (Heninger 648) — Cuddie presents a performance scrubbed almost entirely free of strange language, which E.K. declines to gloss at all. I argue that this linguistic purification is a deliberate choice on Cuddie’s part.22 From one point of view, Cuddie outdoes Hobbinoll and Colin himself in terms of formal inventiveness and achieving “control” of his words.23 If using language transparent enough to need no glossing were indeed a desirable trend for the “New Poet” through the eclogues, Cuddie has accomplished it — suddenly, and quite stunningly, given his prior usage of strange language in February and even in his limited number of lines prior to reciting Colin’s poem in August.24

But it is also possible to view Cuddie as an unreliable mediator, akin to a scribe cleaning up a poet’s language for a different dialect audience. This hypothesis is based on the trend of unusual words that Colin and his mediators use throughout the eclogues, as shown in Figure 3. While there is a discernible downward curve in strange language from Colin in January to Hobbinoll in April and Colin again in June, Cuddie’s downward spike in August is even more pronounced, and out of line with his and Colin’s “return” to a higher percentage of unusual words in the remainder of the eclogues. Removing Cuddie from the graph (Figure 4) shows this aberration more clearly. While tracking the accuracy of quotation and diction from one shepherd to another is, of course, impossible, the argument here is simply that Cuddie’s lines in August fall outside a “normal” range of unusual words in The Shepheardes Calender. The language used by Cuddie-as-Colin is essentially sealed off from the rustic tone of the rest of the eclogue, not to mention the poem as a whole. It is perhaps the case that Cuddie has swung to an extreme, away from unusual language, especially in the context of the pastoral, and alienated himself entirely from the pastoral scene. This alienation is hinted at in the lay itself, wherein Cuddie intones, “Here will I dwell apart / In gastfull grove” (169-170). From a linguistic standpoint, the “here” in which Colin, via Cuddie, dwells is undoubtedly the Italianate sestina, serious and “academic” in contrast to the folksy humor of the exchange between Willye and Perigot. Perhaps neither is ultimately suitable for the properly English poet. In October, Cuddie uses more strange language – but with a difference [Table 3].

Cuddie is described in the “Argument” to October as “the perfecte paterne of a Poete. . . . ” E.K. adds in a gloss, “I doubte whether by Cuddie be specified the authour selfe, or some other. For in the eyght Aeglogue the same person was brought in, singing a Cantion of Colins making, as he sayth. So that some doubt, that the persons be different” (The Shepheardes Calender, 128, 133). Why this conflating of Cuddie and Colin, both of whom stand in for Immerito, the New Poet, and presumably Spenser himself?25 As mentioned above, it is because Spenser’s still-anonymous authorship of the poem is based on different versions of other authors and their linguistic signatures, both presiding over (Chaucer, Lydgate) and residing within (Colin, Hobbinoll, Cuddie, etc.) the poem. The subject matter of the October eclogue is “the decayed state of poetry,” which takes the form of an argument between the optimistic Piers and the discouraged Cuddie (Heninger 649). Spenser employs this hypodiegetic level of persona in order to make his most subtle but forceful point about the New Poet. August found Cuddie responding to the rustic folksong exchange of Willye and Perigot with a performance too clean, bereft of pastoral forms and language. In October, Cuddie points toward the New Poet’s transition to a different phase of poetic diction. As E.K.’s gloss blurs the identity of Cuddie and Colin, linguistic identity is blurred within the eclogue. This blurring is the “escape route” from and within strange language that Spenser sketches.

The fact that both shepherds in October use less strange language than elsewhere is partially explained by the relative brevity of the eclogue. As shown in Table 3, Cuddie uses most of the strange language in October. Cuddie, discussing the “payne” of his piping up till now (7) and despairing of the poet’s “rewards” (33), has returned to a high level of strange language. Instead of the Italianate form Cuddie had employed in August, Cuddie and Piers together use a stanza form that “resembles that of [Spenser’s] maturity more than we find in any other eclogue” (Renwick 216). Grounded in classical and Chaucerian forms, Spenser begins to invent something new, made out of something old. “And out of olde bookes, in good feith, / Cometh al this newe science that men lere,” Chaucer wrote in one of his most bookish, early poems (Parliament, 24-25). Piers — a shepherd strongly associated with rustic, archaic speech, here and elsewhere — channels Chaucer’s statement in urging Cuddie to try something new, by following an old pattern: “Abandon then the base and viler clowne, / Lyft up thy selfe out of the lowly dust: / And sing of bloody Mars, of wars, of giusts” (37-39). Cuddie understands this instruction as reorienting the “Tityrus” figure from Chaucer back to its origins in Virgil: “Indeede the Romish Tityrus, I heare, / Through his Mecaenas left his Oaten reede…” (55-56). Even as he despairs of the irrecoverable antiquity of this model, Cuddie’s language points towards something new:

But ah Mecaenas is yclad in claye,
And great Augustus long ygoe is dead:
And all the worthies liggen wrapt in leade,
That matter made for Poets on to play:
For ever, who in derring doe were dreade,
The loftie verse of hem was loved aye. (61-66)

“Derring doe” is glossed as “In manhoode and chevalrie.”26 “Derring do” is, of course, the most successful of Spenser’s coinages, one of the few to enter the lexicon in a meaningful way. It represents the outermost edge of Spenser’s language experiment: a blurring of the line between linguistic regions and times. The rest of the eclogue includes at least two others: “ligge so layde” (“lye so faynt and unlusty”27), and “caytive corage” (“a base and abject minde”28). The first brings together northern dialect (“ligge”) with the familiar and current (“layde”), while the second, spoken by Piers, connects a familiar term (“caytive”) with an archaism (“corage”) (McElderry 147-48). In terms of mediation, this practice of stitching together the old with the new helps situate the departure that Cuddie-as-Colin (with both standing in for the New Poet) represents. Such suturing is one way of healing of the “degenerate” body of English that E.K. had described in the epistle.29

The strategy of glossing both terms in current-archaic pairs also recalls Chaucer’s way of “Englishing” his translations of French and other Romance-language texts by building new compounds in English. It is instructive to compare Chaucer’s characterization of his compound-formation with that of paired terms in The Shepheardes Calender. In The Romaunt of the Rose, Chaucer writes:

But it was wondir lyk to be
Song of mermaydens of the see,
That, for her syngyng is so clere,
Though we mermaydens clepe hem here
In English, as is oure usaunce,
Men clepe hem sereyns in Fraunce. (679-684)

Cannon points out that Chaucer is either “modest” or “disingenuous” in his explanation for translating “siren” as “mermaid,” since “siren” was already in use in English and the compound “mermaid” appears to be his own invention, albeit composed of Old English terms (82). For both of the above examples from October in The Shepheardes Calender, E.K. glosses all the terms, implying an equal level of unfamiliarity on the part of readers. Chaucer downplays strangeness; E.K. plays it up. In a sense, this discrepancy in attitudes between Chaucer and Spenser (and E.K.) can be explained by the very strategy for language-formation suggested by Mulcaster, who advises telling others that one first heard a foreign word from “cuntrie peple,” thereby investing the word with Englishness (90-91). Chaucer does something quite similar, claiming his likely coinage “is oure usaunce.” Despite this possible “false modesty,” later poets and critics would attribute broad powers of English-building to Chaucer. Yet because Spenser’s project involves producing such attribution within The Shepheardes Calender itself, he and E.K. prefer to draw attention not only to the language, but also, often, from whence it comes.

A different kind of mediation takes place in September, a “moral” eclogue in which Diggon Davie acts as another avatar for Colin, and hence Spenser [Table 4]. The highest volume of strange language and glossing occurs in February (Thenot and Cuddie), May (Piers and Palinode), and September (Diggon Davie and Hobbinoll). These also happen to be three of the obvious “moral” eclogues, and all three feature long moral fables told by the more “plaintive” shepherd (Thenot, Piers, and Diggon, respectively). More specifically, all three of the eclogues on some level address religious controversies in England. The oak vs. briar fable in February “offers a monitory reading of recent religious history as a contest between youth and age: the oak is the old Church in England displaced by the young Protestant Church represented as the upstart briar” (Brownlow 2). Palinode represents a Catholic priest arguing with “Piers the Protestant minister” in May. September features a two-tiered critique, “the first dealing with Protestantism’s self-betrayal by idle, greedy clergy, the second focused upon the threat from Catholics, that is, wolves in sheeps’ clothing” (Brownlow 3). The very opacity that strange language and E.K.’s intervention creates is in part what allows for the heavy moralizing of the shepherds, which at times verges on dangerous territory.

Consider, for example, the exchange between Diggon and Hobbinoll in September. While Diggon has been identified as “Richard Davies, Bishop of St. David’s in Wales,” he also appears to be another avatar of Colin, and hence Spenser; Hobbinoll is clearly a stand-in for Gabriel Harvey.30 Hobbinoll seems anxious in the eclogue to manage Diggon’s manner of speaking. After Diggon laments the loss of his sheep and blames his “straying abroad” (93), Hobbinoll prompts him, “Diggon, I praye thee speake not so dirke. / Such myster saying me seemeth to mirke” (102-03). Diggon responds, “Then playnely to speake of shepheards most what, / Badde is the best (this english is flatt)” (104-05). The latter half of this strange couplet requires unpacking; both “badde” and “flatt” are ambiguous modifiers for the speech that Diggon proposes to use.

By mentioning English outright, Diggon leaves little doubt that it is a certain kind of English he must use. But what kind of English? Archaic, dialect, and “foreign,” to be sure; Diggon uses the highest number of unusual words in The Shepheardes Calender. “Badde” has a possible etymology in “Old English bæddel, hermaphrodite,” and means not just “poor in quality” but “debased, counterfeit” (OED Online). The concept of “counterfeiting” has an obvious resonance in the moral import of the eclogue; Diggon’s fable ends when the “Argus-eyed” Roffy, although deprived of his dog Lowder, catches “the Woolfe in his counterfect cote, / And let out the sheepes bloud at his throte” (206-07). (This fable seems to describe an incident in which John Young, Bishop of Rochester, “uncovered and destroyed a subversive papist” [Heninger 649].) “Flatt,” meanwhile, means not merely “level,” but “prostrate” (OED Online). “Badde” and “flatt” therefore signify not just poor in quality and plain, but subversive and humble. This language — i.e., the high degree of archaic, dialect, and foreign language that Diggon displays — is a powerful weapon that can be shaped to both reveal and conceal. It can offer clear moral messages, and yet cloak those messages in obscure terms. In a sense, such language makes dangerous demands on readers, forcing them to meet it halfway by wandering into ancient texts and the hinterlands of England. Like Chaucer’s Reeve, Diggon (and the other “plaintive,” moral shepherds) understand how to deploy the ambiguity of regional speech to their advantage.31 Far from being inferior rhetoricians, they are effective speakers who demonstrate one linguistic strategy for approaching potentially explosive issues.

Hobbinoll continues to react ambivalently. He first responds, “Nowe Diggon, I see thou speakest to plaine,” and yet later urges him again, “Say it out Diggon, what ever it hight” (136, 172). This seeming debate about poetic diction maps onto real-life exchanges between Spenser and Harvey that ran concurrent with the composition of The Shepheardes Calender. In one letter, Spenser chides Harvey for a lack of levity and laments his own lack of “utility” — faults that leave them both short of the poet’s laurel, in Spenser’s estimation (Variorum X 256-58). Harvey responds to Spenser’s poetic efforts in another letter by scolding him for his “yonkerly and womanly humor” (Variorum X 444). Richard Helgerson characterizes this exchange as one that spills over from contemporary debates among poets and critics about proper poetic tone, and from Harvey’s point of view, whether poetry is a fit pursuit for mature men at all (79, 80-81). In the September eclogue, Spenser seems to internalize this debate, while blurring the line between its aesthetic and political dimensions. What kind of poetic language, he seems to ask and answer by way of Diggon, is powerful yet safe enough for remarking on grave matters of state, like politics and religion? “Badde and flatt” English is the response: English that is subversive, strange, of humble origins, native and yet foreign, “counterfeit” and yet natural, clear enough to make powerful statements, yet opaque enough to slip out from under them if need be. Spenser depicts Harvey’s poetical stand-in shrinking from, but ultimately urging on, the diction that allows Diggon to communicate and comment on political and religious controversies. Hobbinoll’s wavering back and forth is perhaps staged so that he can finally be won over by this language, and E.K. is left to rhapsodize in the gloss about Colin-as-author and Hobbinoll-as-Harvey, enlarging and elaborating on Hobbinoll’s praise within the eclogue.32

A closer look at the language of the September eclogue helps reveal what makes it so opaque and potentially subversive. For example, Diggon begins by greeting Hobbinoll with the pronoun “her,” which one critic has argued indicates a Welsh background33; this gloss would accord with the notion of Diggon as a stand-in for Richard Davies (McCabe 554). Yet Hobbinoll uses “her” as well in greeting Diggon, and “Diggon uses the pronoun ‘her’ for the possessive plural ‘their’ five times in the eclogue, a Middle English usage” (Blank 120). Indeed, Diggon’s opening lines are “barely comprehensible” (120):

Her was her, while it was daye light,
But now her is a most wretched wight.
For day, that was, is wightly past,
And now at earst the dirke night doth hast. (3-7)

What makes this passage difficult to parse is Diggon’s sliding diction. He begins by referring to himself in the third person. “Her was her”—it is almost as if Diggon comments not only on his own state of mind, allegorizing his changing fortune, but makes a point about language slippage as well, with “her” changing meanings as noted above. Even within the passage, words slip. “Wight” – from Old English, Old Saxon “wiht” (OED Online) – is not glossed, but already would have been a fairly archaic term. “Wightly” (glossed by E.K. as “quickly or suddenly”34) appears to have always been a northern term; its first two OED citations are from Robert Mannyng, likely from Lincolnshire, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, whose anonymous author is presumed to be northern (OED Online). In the space of just four lines, Diggon has traveled linguistically from Wales to the north of England, gathering words from Old and Middle English, shifting meanings along the way.

One example of the way Diggon uses ambiguous language to both say and avoid saying controversial things occurs after Hobbinoll has entreated him to speak more openly: “Other sayne, but how truely I note, / All for they holden shame of theyr cote” (110-11). W.L. Renwick writes of this couplet,

Lines 110-111 are difficult. Does cote mean coat, profession, or sheep-cote, employment. In the latter case it might be a reflection of Puritan arguments that the clergy should not exercise any civil authority and that they should stay in their parishes. In the former, the charge is vague and I can find little external evidence to support it. (212)

The word “cote” is not glossed, and indeed, does not seem especially archaic. Yet Diggon’s use of it is unusual, perhaps deliberately so. Code-switching by commanding different meanings associated with regional words is a way of both masking meaning and establishing authority. Describing a similar moment of dialect-use in The Reeve’s Tale, Robert Epstein writes, “Chaucer’s performances of ‘linguistic capacity’ are exhibitions of his linguistic capaciousness — ostensible proof, that is, that his English comprehends and supersedes all other variants” (103). Spenser’s demonstration of linguistic capaciousness with regards to dialect in The Shepheardes Calender is different, most notably because there was a much greater awareness of dialect in the sixteenth century. But Diggon Davie’s sophisticated and slippery use of different regional meanings for words bears some trace of this kind of performance.

No doubt part of Diggon’s strategy for speaking out on political and religious matters is to employ fables – also used in the other heavily archaic, moral satires in February and May – that are so allegorical as to be virtually opaque. But with Diggon using so much unusual language, diction must be considered part of the marginal territory he maps out. From this space he can moralize on religious and political matters. This power in the margins is ground that Spenser tried to claim more explicitly many years later, living in Ireland and returning to the pastoral with Colin Clouts come home againe, which “can be read to mean . . . that the poet considered himself no longer straightforwardly English, but a loyal (?) servant of the queen in a land where her authority counted for little” (Hadfield 41). The poem, while largely devoid of the language experiments of The Shepheardes Calender, does contain a scathing indictment of the life and language of court:

Where each one seeks with malice and with strife,
To thrust downe other into foule disgrace,
Himselfe to raise: and he doth soonest rise
That best can handle his deceitful wit,
In subtil shifts, and finest sleights devise. . . . (690-694)

Seemingly embittered, Spenser moves his language kingdom out of England entirely. As Andrew Hadfield observes, “What Colin Clouts come home againe would appear to register is the development of an alternative Englishness in Ireland, one which represents the interests of the English . . . better than those who actually possess authority. . . . The centre has shifted to the margins” (17). Yet already at the time of composing The Shepheardes Calender, Spenser had attempted to construct his authorship in the margins of England, adapting a Chaucer-function to turn marginal English into an authorizing force for his poetry, one that conjured and in some sense constructed Chaucer as a presiding original.

III. Enfranchisement and Estrangement: Adapting Mulcaster

Spenser’s adaptation and deployment of a Chaucer-function in The Shepheardes Calender had a lasting impact in terms of convincing others of the eloquence of the English language and influencing poetic diction in particular. Robert Foster Jones writes, “Contemporary references clearly indicate that Lyly’s prose and Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender . . . . were more responsible for opening the eyes of the Elizabethans to the artistic power of the vernacular than any other works” (211). Poets could take permission for delving into regional forms and literary antiquity, based on Spenser’s example. As far in the future of English poetry as Chatterton, Keats, and other Romantics, poets could still signal a “Spenserian” moment by using words from Chaucer by way of Spenser, or from Spenser himself. Chatterton employed “faux-medieval language, which consisted of . . . archaisms culled from etymological dictionaries and the works of Chaucer and Spenser,” “the instantiation of a specifically ‘literary language’ along the lines suggested by Spenser nearly two centuries earlier” (Russett and Dane 149-150). Keats himself expressed admiration for Chatterton’s “genuine English Idiom” (Russett and Dane 151), and became increasingly skillful at weaving in his own Spenserian moments in poems like “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil,” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (Keats 328, 345).

In the last section of this essay, I would like to demonstrate further how Spenser adapts the Chaucerian approach to authorship through language, and point toward some of its immediate repercussions. Spenser accomplishes this adaptation via a shrewd reworking of Mulcaster’s directions for “enfranchising” language — smuggling some words in as English “denizens,” as Mulcaster had suggested, but also reversing the movement to smuggle some English words outside – not completely outside of England, but far enough towards the margins of English that they become strange, stranger than they perhaps ought to be. For example, one word Thenot uses in February is the rare term “enaunter” (glossed as “least that”), which comes to Middle English in the fourteenth century from Old French (OED Online). Prior to Spenser, “enaunter” appears in over half a dozen widely dispersed manuscripts of Richard Coeur de Lion, and hardly anywhere else (MED Online). Spenser seems to have initiated a mini-vogue for the word, establishing it as an acceptable term in pastoral poetry: Puttenham gives it as an example for amphibrach meter in The Arte of English Poesie (101); Thomas Nashe uses it in the poem “Mar-Martine” that same year (1589); and it later appears in William Brown’s The shepheards pipe (1614) and W.L. Gent’s translation of Virgil’s Eclogues (1628).35 The word appears twice more in The Shepheardes Calender, by Piers in May and Diggon Davie in September – two shepherds who also speak with a high number of archaisms. Most interestingly, “enaunter” also appears in Paul Greaves’ Vocabularia Chauceriana (1594) — glossed precisely as E.K. glosses it — despite the fact that Chaucer never uses it (Greaves).

An unsuccessful attempt at enfranchisement is “crumenall,” used by Diggon Davie: “The fatte Oxe, that wont ligge in the stal, / Is nowe fast stalled in her crumenall.”36 (E.K. glosses it as “purse.”) “Crumenall” sparked no vogue, and makes no appearance in Chaucer glossaries influenced by The Shepheardes Calender. “Stanck,” used by Hobbinol and glossed by E.K. as “weary,” is another such unsuccessful enfranchisement.37 Brought over from Italian, the word fails to catch on in Spenser’s coinage – but it does succeed in fooling Greaves, who includes it in Chauceriana, again despite the word’s absence from Chaucer’s poetry (Draper 562). Successful coinages or not, words like these attempt to follow Mulcaster’s “immigration” policy for foreign words, adapting them to the sound and sense of English, as appropriate. But if this were Spenser’s only aim, he could have stopped (as many contemporary poets did) with coining new words and adapting foreign ones as needed, avoiding the taint of the inkhorn.

Instead, the sheer volume of archaic and dialect words, as well as foreign coinages — especially when taken with E.K.’s glosses — indexes a far more ambitious and risky venture. This venture amounts to linguistic estrangement: “a kind of ‘alienation effect’ for The Shepheardes Calender, to cultivate remoteness as a deliberate mode of relation to readers” (Nicholson 63). The estrangement produced by unusual diction and E.K.’s glossing operates not only on genuinely unfamiliar terms, but also on terms that still had currency in English. For example, Cuddie’s use of “elde” in February is glossed as “old age,”38 and it appears in Speght’s glossary of Chaucer’s hard words. Yet McElderry classifies “elde” as of “familiar and current usage” in Spenser’s day, having located a large number of OED citations for it prior to and after 1579 (148). Through the device of E.K.’s conspicuous glossing, Spenser manages to smuggle out a number of such terms, some Chaucerian, some not. A minor example is “guerdon” (used in November by Thenot, glossed as “reward”): it, too, finds its way into Chauceriana, Speght’s hard words list, and Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall (93). The word does appear in Chaucer, but not spelled that way; in Chaucer, it is spelled “gerdon” or “gerdoun.”

This estrangement is a product of the Chaucer-function that Spenser sets in motion in The Shepheardes Calender. Johan Kerling writes,

The relative absence of comments upon the incomprehensibility of Chaucer’s language in the first half of the sixteenth century is significant — as is also the gradual increase in the second half in the number of comments in which Chaucer’s language is said to be ‘out of use,’ ‘no longer with us,’ etc. . . . The very fact that Spenser used a considerable number of Chaucerian words, with glosses, shows that these words – and, by extension, Chaucer’s language — had become difficult to understand. (15)

Yet it must be added that the glossing of Chaucerian (and pseudo-Chaucerian) language in The Shepheardes Calender helps produce the difficulty mentioned above. Linguistic difficulty pushes Chaucer back in time, towards an invented English antiquity that seems closer to classical Rome (and Spenser’s other guiding lights, Virgil and Ovid) than early modern England. Spenser and E.K. can then use this antiquity to authorize Spenser’s own language. The archaic and rustic language provides a means of speaking truth to power from the margins. The Shepheardes Calender also maps out a departure from this linguistic margin, having “healed” the English language body by opening it up temporally and geographically.

At the Merchant Taylors’ School, Mulcaster employed a number of northern instructors whose language difference was noted by Bishop Edmund Grindal (later commemorated as “Algrind” in The Shepheardes Calender) during an inspection of the school in August 1562. Otherwise complimentary, the report also states,

And for the order of the teachinge of the vsshers, they founde in them this onely faulte, that they had not taught the children to | pronounce theire wordes and to speak Distynctly so well as they ought | to haue Done, The which proceded as they tooke it, for that the most | parte of the vsshers there were Northren men borne, and therefore Did not | pronounce so well as those that be brought vp in the schole of the south partes of the Realme. (Millican 212)

A moment such as this provides a stunning enactment of Mulcaster’s point from the Elementarie: that sound constantly interferes with the uniformity custom and reason would impose on writing.39 If we imagine the different figures of The Shepheardes Calender replacing Mulcaster’s northern ushers in this scene — perhaps mingled as well with E.K. and the poets from English antiquity he invokes, whose words those figures channel into their songs ­— we begin to arrive at Spenser’s playfully ambitious bid to found his authorship on such a circle, or cycle, of differing poetic sounds. For The Shepheardes Calender seems to everywhere expand Mulcaster’s idea, understanding that, in a poetic version of the scientific maxim, the reciter affects the thing recited — altering meaning and constructing new authors out of old (and rural, unusual) words. Thus the Chaucer-function in The Shepheardes Calender reveals that the most important author in the text may not even be the anonymous and ephemeral “New Poet,” but the various and humble new originals, always singing “in place of” or “like,” on whom Spenser’s authorial identity is eventually based, and from whom his linguistic ingenuity is ultimately derived.


I wish to thank Sara Gutmann, Nick Hoffman, Graham Hammill, Randy Schiff, Megan Cook, Will Rhodes, Will Stockton, Eileen Joy, the readers for Upstart: A Journal of English Renaissance Studies, and the participants of the Spenser panel at the 49th International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, MI, for valuable feedback and criticism as I developed this essay.

1This statement simplifies Foucault’s concept, but one could more specifically focus on the third and fourth characteristics of the author-function in relation to Chaucer: the “complex operation” by which later readers construct Chaucer as a poet and use that construction to authenticate Chaucerian texts; and the “plurality of self” that appears in Chaucer’s poetry, not only via the “collection of authors” in the tales, but through the ironic and differing self-representations Chaucer inserts. One could also situate Chaucer as a “founder of discursivity” who establishes “an endless possibility of discourse” on the authorial role mapped out in his poems (508-511).

2See the “Argument” to September and October in The Shepheardes Calender (116, 128).

3See Draper; and McElderry, Jr. Both seek to examine and classify Spenser’s language in The Shepheardes Calender using the Oxford English Dictionary and English Dialect Dictionary, among other philological tools. They do not always agree in their classifications, which attempt to establish how a reader in Spenser’s day would have perceived a given word. This attempt obviously involves some conjecture, and the greatest difficulty is making a distinction between “archaic” and “dialect” words. The reason can be discerned from Table 1: some words from Chaucer’s Middle English retained currency as regional dialect even as they disappeared from the London-based standard. Therefore I have chosen to be conservative and only marked as “dialect” those words both McElderry and Draper agree on, marking others as “archaic” based on the notion that then, as now, readers likely would have associated rustic with older speech. Other words (adoptions, coinages) are marked as well. McElderry adds some words that he believes would have registered as unusual, but that E.K. does not gloss; I marked these as “unglossed,” etc. I double-checked words using OED Online and MED Online.

Figures 1-2 show unusual words used by shepherds in every eclogue. Figure 1 shows total number of words for each shepherd, while Figure 2 shows number of words as a percentage of total lines of shepherds’ speech per eclogue. Information on word totals is drawn from E.K.’s glosses, supplemented by Draper; McElderry, Jr; and the OED and MED.

4Berger writes, “The recreative attitude is voiced by those speakers who have found paradise or are in it and see no reason for leaving it. The plaintive attitude is voiced by those speakers who have lost it, either through thwarted love or through experience of the world and its vicissitudes” (277).

5By my count Thomalin uses 16 archaic/dialect words over 158 lines in May. Colin uses nine in 78 lines in January, 14 in 168 lines in November, and 11 in 156 lines in December. See Figures 1 and 2.

6Patricia Berrahou Phillippy argues that “[Spenser’s] works reveal a new understanding and manipulation of palinode as an essentially dialogic strategy with the ability to point out the limitations of the monologic discourses that it confronts” (167). In her reading, The Shepheardes Calender “is the dialogic struggle against . . . two monologic structures: one is the escapist realm of the private, Petrarchan world of lyric stasis, the other the public, propagandistic realm of Court Poet. Both of these threaten to deprive Spenser of his own voice” (174). Borrowing a phrase from Bakhtin, she concludes, “The failure of Colin Clout in the Shepheardes Calender is the failure of ‘the poetic in the narrow sense’” (183) (i.e., the monologic, dominant mode of discourse). By dramatizing this failure, Spenser arrives at a “new” kind of lyric poetry, one that is dialogic. In Patrick Cullen’s analysis, “the Calender is constructed not as an exposition of a single, sure perspective, but as an exploration of perspectives” (112), wherein Spenser works to show the limitations of each, so that an “ambivalence” emerges from the viewpoints expressed by different voices (63). Paul Alpers locates the contentious and collaborative scene of The Shepheardes Calender within the tradition of Virgilian pastoral verse, and astutely recognizes E.K. as “an editor who can place the poet in relation to his European predecessors and who can annotate each of his eclogues” (85). Jonathan Goldberg writes of The Shepheardes Calender, “The text is, at the very least, an intertext, a play of text against text transferred indiscriminately from voice to voice, formally structured so that its movement fractures the formal markers and the inside is brought outside, the outside turned in” (54). All of these critics partake of and extend Bakhtin’s dialogic in relation to The Shepheardes Calender, pointing towards its multi-vocalism and intertextuality as deliberate and important features of the eclogues and glossing apparatus.

7In his Forms of Nationhood,Richard Helgerson uses the phrase “The Kingdom of Our Own Language” as the title heading of his introduction and this question of Spenser’s as an important introduction to his discussion of what he sees as a “generational project” to re-invent England/Britain during the 1590s (3).

8As Richard Foster Jones notes, “That the English language per se was considered uneloquent may be easily deduced from the adjectives most frequently used to describe it: rude, gross, barbarous, base, vile” (7). George Puttenham offers a characteristic example: “The foulest vice in language is to speake barbarously,” he writes, lingering on a definition of “barbarous” that hearkens back to the Latins and Greeks, who “reckon[ed] no language so sweete and civil as their owne, and that all nations beside themselves were rude and uncivil, which they called barbarous” (209).

9As Baugh and Cable write, “Beside the classical languages, which seemingly had attained perfection, the vulgar tongues seemed immature, unpolished, and limited in resource” (199).

10Blank writes, “[T]he period 1500-1659 saw the introduction of between 10,000 and 25,000 new words into the language, with the practice of neologizing culminating in the Elizabethan period. Although the need for new words in English, especially in fields previously dominated by Latin, was real enough, linguistic innovation in the Renaissance generated a polemic that is known to historians of the language as the ‘inkhorn’ controversy” (40).

11See also Mulcaster: “so likewise in the voice, tho in euerie one it passe thorough, by one mouth, one throte, one tung, one fense of tethe, and so furth, yet is it as different in euerie one, euen for giuing the sound, by reason of som diuersitie in the vocall instruments, as the faces be different in resembling like form” (77).

12For example, Cannon retraces the steps of Joseph Mersand’s Chaucer’s Romance Vocabulary, a 1937 study that attempted to measure precisely what its title suggests. While Mersand lacked access to the MED and seemed over-eager to attribute to Chaucer the first appearance of words in English based on OED citations, Cannon finds “surprising accuracy” in the 1,180 Romance words Mersand claims as first uses in Chaucer. The problem is that given his limited resources and bias towards Chaucer, Mersand does not go far enough. Using the MED, Cannon discovers a wealth of borrowing from Romance languages in Middle English amongst Chaucer’s predecessors and contemporaries – which means that some first uses attributed to Chaucer must be subtracted from the total. Yet the MED adds some, as well, so Chaucer’s “new” Romance lexicon total according to Cannon is 1,102 (38, 42, 58). Cannon’s main sources are the OED, MED, and Benson’s Glossarial Concordance.

13By 1470 Lydgate is associated with Chaucer by subsequent poets such as George Ashby: “Maisters Gower, Chaucer & Lydgate, / . . . / Embelysshing oure englisshe.” (Brewer 68). Similar praise continues circa 1503 from William Dunbar (“fresh, enameled terms”) (81). In 1531 Chaucer is credited by Sir Brian Tuke with beautifying and bettering the English tongue (88). In 1543 Peter Betham praises him for speaking plainly in “our owne termes” (99).

14This includes, of course, crediting Chaucer with a number of first usages even when the evidence is scarce (Cannon 201).

15See for example the “Argument” to April: “This Aeglogue is purposely intended to the honor and praise of our most gracious sovereigne, Queene Elizabeth” (Calender 60). See also May 174 and gloss.

16Tables 1-4 show shepherd (numbers in parentheses indicate total words per shepherd in table), word glossed for meaning, E.K.’s gloss, general category (archaic, dialect, etc.), Speght’s definition in Chaucer’s Works, Greaves’ definition in Chauceriana, and how word is used in Chaucer’s poetry.

17See April 63 and gloss on “Embellish.”

18See also “embellish” in the OED Online.

19See April 111 and gloss.

20See May 92 and gloss.

21Essentially, it involves borrowing: in the tale, a housewife asks a monk to borrow money from her husband, so that she can repay a loan; the wife gets her “chevisaunce” via the money, and the monk via a sexual favor from the wife (The Shipman’s Tale 347, 391).

22Richard McCabe notes, “As E.K. provides no gloss to Colin’s sestina it may have been added to the poem at a relatively late stage of composition” (Spenser, Shorter Poems 552). I count at least one word in the sestina, “gastfull” (“dreadful, terrible;” 170) as potentially archaic.

23According to my tables, Hobbinoll uses 14 unusual words in 116 lines in April. Colin uses nine in 78 lines in January, four in 72 lines in June, 14 in 168 lines in November, and 11 in 156 lines in December.

24Cuddie uses 16 strange words in 70 lines in February, 7 in 70 lines in October; see Tables 2 and 3.

25Harvey himself assumed that Cuddie was an “alias” for Spenser. McCabe writes, “Colin, as it were, dons the persona of Cuddie to criticize ‘the contempte of Poetrie’ evident in ‘Princes pallace’ (81)” (Spenser, Shorter Poems 559).

26See October 65 and gloss. Draper counts it as a combination of Middle English (“derring”) and northern/Midland dialect (“do,” in Spenser’s sense) (563). McElderry offers a more evocative note: “The words come incidentally in their ordinary sense and construction followed by the object ‘that’ (what, that which) in Chaucer’s Troylus; whence, in an imitative passage by Lydgate, in an absolute construction more liable to misunderstanding; Lydgate’s dorryng do was misprinted in the 16th c. editions (1513 and 1555) derrynge do, in which form it was picked up by Spenser and misconstrued as a substantive phrase” (160).

27See October 12 and gloss.

28See October 95 and gloss.

29“This Poete ... hath laboured to restore, as to theyr rightfull heritage such good and naturall English words, as have ben long time out of use and almost cleare disherited” (Spenser, Calendar 27).

30See Heninger Jr. (649); Nicholson (56); and McCabe’s gloss in Spenser (Shorter Poems (521).

31For example, the Reeve constructs a “rime riche” couplet in his Prologue based on different regional meanings for the word “chymbe”: “rim,” “sound” (I.3895-3896), an early signal that he is capable of wielding linguistic difference in a sophisticated way despite his use of “cherles termes” (I.3917). Mimicking northern speech in the tale, he provides a line every bit as incomprehensible as some of Diggon Davie’s: “Oure manciple, I hope he wil be deed / Swa werkes ay the wanges in his heed” (I.4029-4030). “Hope” is problematic because its northern meaning, “expect,” conflicts with the southern sense, “wish.” “Wanges” is commonly understood as “teeth,” but as Tolkien points out, it could also mean “temples” and thus indicate a severe headache (136-137).

32See September 176 and gloss.

33See Hulbert for a discussion of Diggon’s possible Welsh background.

34See September 5 and gloss.

35I searched for terms and variations using the EEBO search interface.

36See September 119 and gloss.

37See September 47 and gloss.

38See February 54 and gloss.

39“So . . . the voice, tho in euerie one it passe thorough, by one mouth, one throte, one tung, one fense of tethe, and so furth, yet is it as different in euerie one, euen for giuing the sound, by reason of som diuersitie in the vocall instruments, as the faces be different in resembling like form” (Mulcaster 77).

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David Hadbawnik lives in Buffalo, NY. Part one of his translation of the Aeneid was published in 2013 (Little Red Leaves); part two is forthcoming in 2014. In 2012, he edited Thomas Meyer’s Beowulf (Punctum Books), and in 2011 he co-edited selections from Jack Spicer’s Beowulf for CUNY’s Lost and Found Document Series. Other publications include Field Work (BlazeVOX, 2011), Translations From Creeley (Sardines, 2008), Ovid in Exile (Interbirth, 2007), and SF Spleen (Skanky Possum, 2006). He is the editor and publisher of Habenicht Press and the journal kadar koli, and a co-editor of eth press.

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