Edmund Spenser the Social Critique essay

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Still, his union with a woman also of common birth leaves us to reflect that in all likelihood, Spenser himself would enter the court after an upbringing of modestly. This denotes the distinction of Spenser as a critique of reigning structures of authority in his time and place. This also helps to introduce our discussion to the historical context into which he deposited his first important work of poetry.


The choice of language in the poem is a curious one, at least insofar as it can be regarded as somewhat misleading of the work's time of origin. Its composition in 1579 and the poet's declared affection for and indebtedness to the works of Geoffrey Chaucer are facts submerged beneath the linguistic affectations which Spenser felt were necessary to carry the pastoral form. (Bear, 1) Indeed, the prologue which is composed by an otherwise anonymous writer signing as E.K., provides some measure of insight into the decision to use an older English tongue.(Bear, 1) it is the conclusion of Bear (2006) that this decision was made in an attempt to bypass what Spenser felt was a pointedly bastardized mode of English. But we also understand from E.K.'s prologue that a significant interest was taken in emulating the Greek writers which had broken ground on the pastoral form of lyricism.

Accordingly, the prologue offers something of a catalogue of the literature towers that hovered over the work, telling that "...and as young birdes, that be newly crept out of the nest, by little first to proue theyr tender wyngs, before they make a greater flyght. So flew Theocritus, as you may percieue he was all ready full fledged. So flew Virgile, as not yet well feeling his winges So flew Mantuane, as being not full somd. So Petrarque. So Boccace; So Marot, Sanazarus, and also diuers other excellent both Italian and French Poetes, whose foting this Author euery where followeth, yet so as few, but they be well sented can trace him out. E.K. predicts that Spenser, "our new Poete...shall be hable to keepe wing with the best." (Bear, 1) the prologue indicates that this is to be Spenser's entry into a literary tradition of acolytes. Of course, this may also be suggested as a shameless device of self-promotion, as the anonymous E.K. is quite often presumed to be an alter-ego of Spenser himself.(Bear, 1) Lacking any evidence to the contrary, it may be perceived that this is Spenser's disclaimer both justifying the linguistic decisions there made and pointed to the many from whom he had drawn inspiration for the project in question. His dedication to topics of relative historical importance is also perhaps softened to the point of being palatable by being couched in an outmoded English linguistic approach and in a Greek allegorical device of presentation such as the pastoral series of eclogues.

Certainly, it is not a coincidence that such social critics as Plato and such cultural contexts as the democratizing and simultaneously imperial Greek would provide the groundwork for Spenser's work. These are features not just of the aesthetic and stylistic decisions made. They also provide some cloaking for the otherwise explicit philosophical and social protestations in the work itself. Still, this is perhaps the most problematic feature of Spenser's work, causing it to run afoul of the taste or sentiment of many critics who found the linguistic approach to be disingenuous and fundamentally inauthentic with respect to the pastoral tradition. To this point, NNDB asserts that "a reader not already interested in Spenser, or not already familiar with the artificial eclogue, would find little to attract him in the Shepherd's Calendar. The poems need a special education; given this, they are felt to be full of charm and power, a fresh and vivid spring to the splendid summer of the Faerie Queene. The diction is a studiously archaic artificial compound, partly Chaucerian, partly North Anglian, partly factitious; and the pastoral scenery is such as may be found in any country where there are sheep, hills, trees, shrubs, toadstools and running streams." (NNDB, 1)

Such is to say that the linguistic conceits of he work do not make it easily read or interpreted. Thus, it is probably less accessible than one might desire of a work with pointed social critique. However, the artifices that make this such an academic labor of reading would also be those same that would catapult it to a high status amongst the literary denizens of the royal court, if not for its message, than for its fashionable nature. Indeed, the text was a significant piece of popular literature for its time, with the verse there presented coming into vogue by the recommendation of such aforementioned patrons to Spenser as Harvey and Sir Phillip Sidney. (NNDB, 1) Their endorsements produced no small following for Spenser, which helped to catapult an otherwise abstruse piece of literature into the mainstream.

As this concerns the language, there is some merit to the claim that its details are rewarding upon close inspection. The metaphor addressed in the section hereafter reveals the depth and emotional acuity of Spenser's writing, even as it is dulled somewhat by the distance that we may feel from his style of English. To be sure, this is similar to the distance experienced by his first readers.

As this approach concerns the nature of social critique, perhaps we can deduce that there is a far greater value in targeting the elite with such messages as perhaps it in only this conscience which can effect change. The assurance that academics would be reading this work also strengthened the likelihood that its message would hit home. In a sense, Spenser was an outsider making his entrance into this world. It can be deemed as fairly appropriate, then, that this first foray would take a linguistic voice itself quite alien to the 16th century court of England. Spenser would wear his social status as an 'other' on his sleeve, producing an altogether more tangible critical perspective as a result.


The commentary provided by Hales (2004) introduces us to the general content of Spenser's epic poem. Its structure is a familiar literary and metaphorical device which describes the life of man in parallel to the passing of the seasons. As Hales outlines, "It consists of twelve eclogues, one for each month of the year. Of these, three (i., vi., and xii.), as we have seen, treat specially of his own disappointment in love. Three (ii., viii., and x.) are of a more general character, having old age, a poetry combat, 'the perfect pattern of a poet' for their subjects. One other (iii.) deals with love-matters. One (iv.)

celebrates the Queen, three (v., vii, and ix.) discuss 'Protestant and Catholic,' Anglican and Puritan questions." (Hales, 1) This is a useful outline as it helps us to clarify some of the themes which are constructed to align with individual seasons. Though such themes become self-apparent with a fuller reading of Spenser's poem, this is a constructive guide for understanding the implications of individual passages. It also helps us to isolate some individual stanzas that, when left on their own, provide some stark positions on the social order and economic structure of Spenser's time.

Indeed, the degree to which Spenser's work functioned as a social critique may perhaps best be discovered in his sympathies. In his work, he extended these with an unflinching description. The poetic devices borne of his old English affectations help to make palatable an otherwise brutal description of the fate of the poor. In the Eclogue for the month of Maye,, the speaker observes from the comfort of his doorstep, an old impoverished man struggling in what may be his last wretched moments of life:

"all as a poore pedlar he did wend,

Bearing a trusse of tryfles at hys backe,

As bells, and babes, and glasses in hys packe.

A Biggen he had got about his brayne,

For in his headpeace he felt a sore payne.

His hinder heele was wrapt in a clout,

For with great cold he had gotte the gout.

There at the dore he cast me downe hys pack,

And layd him downe, and groned, Alack, Alack.

Ah deare Lord, and sweet Saint Charitee,

That some good body woulde once pitie mee." (Spenser, Maye)

Here, Spenser provides an observation that in the composition of Enlightenment writers and Marxist ideologues several centuries hence would become quite commonplace. But recalling that in fact, at the time of this work's release, Spenser had only recently invited to make an appearance before the court of the queen, this type of empathetic portrayal is hardly to be seen as the normative. The suffering man in the Maye description is neither a beggar or a transient. He is a peddler of honest but limited means. The agony, illness and harshness of the elements which factor into this description evoke a sense of moral…[continue]

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