ENGL 204 / 331: Renaissance Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Other Elizabethan Lyrics: 
Pastoral Poetry; Women's Voices
[page numbers refer to NA 9th ed., 2012]

Required Background Readings for the Pastoral Tradition: 

Primary Readings (Pastoral Tradition):
  • Christopher Marlowe: "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" (NA 1126); 
  • Sir Walter Ralegh: "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" (NA 1024-5); 
  • Thomas Campion: "I care not for these ladies," "Never love unless you can" and "There is a garden in her face" (NA 1018-20); online readings, "Think'st thou to seduce me then" and "Fain would I wed" (REQUIRED READINGS -- click on link, print out poems, and be sure to bring them with you to class!)
  • Edmund Spenser: using study guide, skim through selections from The Shepheardes Calender, "To His Booke" and "October" (NA 769-74) 
  • Mary (Sidney)  Herbert: using study guide, skim through "A Dialogue Between Two Shepherds" (on e-reserve -- REQUIRED READING -- print out and bring with you to class!)
Required Background Readings for Womens's Voices: Required Primary Readings (Women's Voices):
  • Mary (Sidney) Herbert: review "A Dialogue Between Two Shepherds" (skim using study guide; text is on e-reserve -- print out and bring with you to class!); look over Herbert's settings of Psalms 52 and 139 (NA 1103-6) 
  • Mary Wroth: sonnets and songs from the sonnet cycle Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, #1, 16, 28, 39, 40, 74, 77, 103 (NA 1566-71) 
  • Queen Elizabeth: "On Monsieur's Departure" (NA 758-9); "Verse Exchange between Elizabeth and Sir Walter Ralegh" (NA 761-2); "Speech to the Troops and Tilbury" (NA 762-3); "The Golden Speech" (NA 763-6).

General:  As usual, read or review the headnotes to all poets assigned; know their life spans (dates), social class, religious and/or political affiliation, education, profession(s), and the dates of composition and/or publication of their principal works (as represented by assigned readings). Know names of the principal Greek and Latin models for pastoral poetry, the most common topics of pastoral works, and what is meant by an "eclogue" and an "elegy."  

On Women's Voices: As you read the assgined background materials, pay attention to the issues of women's education, literary activity and participation in the public sphere. How did each of these women obtain her education?  What sort of works did each write?  Mary Herbert used her fine humanist education as a writer, translator, and as the editor of her brother's (Sir Philip Sidney's) work.  Pay attention to the kind and variety of works she produced and to the themes and tone of her pastoral eclogue; how does it differ from assigned pastoral poems by male writers? Consider in the regard the pastoral themes which she does not treat and the sorts of work she apparently chose not to undertake. Review the headnote to Lady Mary Wroth  To what extent do you think gender played a role in these three women poets' specific choices of literary projects, genres, themes and imagery?

Pastoral Poetry 

Because the Roman poet Virgil wrote Pastoral poetry in his youth (the Eclogues) and his epic, The Aeneid, in his maturity, young Renaissance humanists with poetic aspirations were likely to try their hand at pastoral poetry.  Because the pastoral was thought to be the humblest type of poetry (see NA 554-5 and Sidney, Defense of Poesy, NA 1062-3), experimentation with the pastoral was considered an appropriate first step in a poetic apprenticeship.  (By contrast, the "noblest" genre, the epic, was only to be undertaken by a mature poet at the height of his craft; see NA 554 and Sidney on the "Heroical" mode, Defense of Poesy, NA 1065.) Spenser and Milton, both of whom aspired to be "new Virgils" for their times, wrote pastoral poetry early in their careers (the Shepheardes Calender and Lycidas, respectively) while their great epics were produced in their last decade of life. (We will see later this quarter some of the ways in which Spenser's Faerie Queene and Milton's Paradise Lost were consciously modeled on Virgil's Aeneid.)

As you read the assigned poems, refer back to the "Hints for Reading the Poems" on the previous study guide.  You will not have time to go through the full "Approach to Reading and Writing About Poems" for all assigned readings, but you should keep them at hand and use them to analyze one or two assigned poems which you find particularly intriguing or enjoyable.

*   *   *

The Shepheardes Calender (1579) clearly indicates Spenser's preoccupation with his status as a poet and his desire to show off his poetic prowess.  Just as he invented a sonnet form more complicated than the typical English sonnet for his Amoretti, he uses the Shepheardes Calender to showcase his poetic craft.  The ambitious series includes eclogues and songs in thirteen different meters, some of which he invented and only a few of which were in common use. Spenser's dedication of the collection to Sir Philip Sidney suggests it was his response to Sidney's call for a new English poetry that could rival the quality and prestige of classical literature (a viewpoint expressed most fully in the Defense of Poesy, which was probably written around the same time that Spenser published the Shepheardes Calender).  While Sidney praised the poetic quality of the eclogues, he disliked their deliberately archaic diction (word choice) and spelling.  Ironically, this archaic language was itself a response to Sidney's call for the establishment of a distinctly English poetic tradition.  It was part of Spenser's imitation of and homage to the medieval English poet Chaucer (whose Troilus and Criseyde is quoted in the opening line of  "To His Booke" [NA 769], the first poem in the collection).

Read the two selections from the Shepheardes Calender ("To His Booke" and "October," NA 769-74) over quickly.  Don't worry about the details, but note the deliberately archaic language and spelling; the use of the "eclogue" genre (like most of Virgil's eclogues, "October" is a dialogue between two shepherds, who in this case are called Piers and Cuddie); the display of humanist erudition, particularly in the footnotes of "E.K." included in the original publication of the work (this commentary, which may have been written by Spenser itself, models for the audience how seriously the literary and intellectual qualities of the collection were to be taken).  Note also the emphasis on the role of poetry and the poet's responsibility in the world; these themes recall some of Sidney's preoccupations in the Defense of Poesy as well as the glorification of the power of poetry in Spenser's and Shakespeare's sonnets.

Much (but not all) Pastoral lyric poetry is about the pursuit of erotic love (an notable exception is the pastoral elegy, a lament for a dead friend; see e.g. Milton's Lycidas, which we will read later this quarter).  Neither the "shepherd" who seeks a lady's favor nor the "shepherdess" he loves is truly rustic, however; they are "stand-ins" for the poet and his (real or imagined) beloved.  Because a shepherdess was conventionally depicted as being more free with her favors than would be proper for a well-bred lady, pastoral poetry allowed the poet to imply or reveal erotic unions in a playful way (or simply to indulge in wish-fulfillment fantasy). Full of sexual longing, these poems represent the lover's attempts to seduce his mistress, express the frustration of a would-be lover unable to enjoy the object of his desire, or allude to his joy at a consummated union.  Examples of this type of poem include Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love" (NA 1126) and Thomas Campion's "I Care Not for these Ladies" (NA 1018-20).  Sir Walter Ralegh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" (NA 1024-5), a response to Marlowe's poem, offers the perspective of a woman skeptical about the shepherd's sincerity who doubts his love will endure if she allows herself to believe his pretty words.  A similar concern with being seduced and abandoned underlies Campion's "Think'st Thou to Seduce Me Then" and "Fain Would I Wed" (online readings), in both of which Campion adopts a female perspective; in the first, the woman speaker voices her scepticism about her suitor's sincerity, while the second gives voice to an unmarried woman's desire for erotic love.  Given societal expectations of appropriate gender behavior, it is not surprising that these poems were written by a man; it would have been far riskier for a woman poet writing in the first person to voice premarital erotic desire. 

Women's Voices

It is noteworthy that the above-mentioned poems in which the poet adopts a woman's voice were in fact written by men.  For implicit in these poems is the knowledge that women are subject to erotic desire and potentially can be seduced -- an admission that would not be considered proper for a woman poet writing in the first person.  A woman's "virtue" was equated with her chastity before marriage and her fidelity to her husband thereafter.  Admitting to erotic desire (particularly if the object of that desire was not her husband) could significantly damage a woman's reputation.  By contrast, a man would be unlikely to be criticized (and might even be admired) for his erotic longing or exploits. 

As you read the sonnets of Mary Wroth's in her sonnet cycle Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, ask yourself the following questions:  What type(s) of love does she celebrate? What sorts of imagery does she use? How does her work compare to the sonnets written by male authors? Does a woman have the same freedom in writing about her love experience as a male poet would? Did (and for that matter, does) society have different attitudes about sexual desire in men and in women? About the expression of sexual desire in men and in women? About women participating in "public discourse" in the first place? How are these differences in societal expectations reflected in her poetry (and in that written by other women)? 

Wroth was unusual in her open treatment of erotic love from a female perspective.  By contrast, gender-specific expectations appear to have significantly limited the freedom of other female poets to play with the conventions of the pastoral genre. For instance, while Mary Herbert edited her brother Sir Philip Sidney's pastoral romance, Arcadia, she did not herself write pastoral love poetry.  Indeed, her pastoral eclogue "A Dialogue Between Two Shepherds" (REQUIRED READING on e-reserve in Polylearn) more closely resembles Spenser's eclogue 10 ("October") than the pastoral poetry of Marlowe, Ralegh or Campion. (The second of her two shepherds, Piers, even shares a name with one of Spenser's shepherds.)  In this eclogue, a dialogue between two male shepherds, Herbert avoids the dangerous ground of feminine erotic desire, sticking to a safer topic: praise of Queen Elizabeth (whom she calls "Astrea").  Interestingly, while Spenser also devotes an eclogue of the Shepheardes Calender to the praise of Elizabeth (Eclogue 3, "March"), it contains a love element absent from Herbert's work (his shepherds allude to an unhappy love affair). Another affinity between Herbert and Spenser is her experimentation with complex stanzaic and metrical forms in her 107 English settings of biblical Psalms (two examples of which are found NA 1103-6 -- NOT required reading, but do check them out if you are interested!). Like the conventional praise of her sovereign, the translation of Biblical texts was evidently a "safer," more appropriate subject for a female poet than erotic desire.

Queen Elizabeth's "On Monsieur's Departure" (NA 758-9) offers an interesting variation on the rule that women should be wary about expressing erotic desire.  The poem is rife with contradictions.  She reveals her grief at the breaking off of a love relationship while complaining about the necessity of hiding her feelings. The poem was apparently written in response to the breaking off of her marriage negotiations with the French Duke of Anjou (see NA 758 n. 1), yet Elizabeth presumably never really intended to marry him (see NA 749). Only if she remained single could she continue to rule her kingdom in her own right, but as an unmarried Queen, she  needed to maintain at least a public appearance of virginal purity.  (Iin fact, it is probable that she did have love affairs with at least some of her "favorites.")  Elizabeth's poetic voice is thus constrained not only by the conventions governing the expression of feminine desire, but also by her role as Queen.  Her participation in the public sphere, the "male" domain of governance, makes her an honorary "man" who can admit to erotic desire more freely than could a woman of lesser rank.  But she is also constrained by the necessity of maintaining a virginal image and of putting public duty before private desire.  Her poem is a touching testimonial to the fact that her participation in the public (and traditionally male) sphere of governance may have come at considerable personal cost.  "The Golden Speech" (NA 763-6) offers another perspective on the tension between public duty and private desire.  As you read through this short speech, notice that Elizabeth refers to herself as a "king" or "prince" (or as "kingly" or "princely") more often than as Queen; similarly, in the Speech to the Troops and Tilbury" (NA 762-3), she states that she has "the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and tomach of a king" (NA 763).  Note also her emphasis on a different kind of love:  that between herself and her parliament or the English people.  This public and impersonal "love" replaces the private and personal love she had to sacrifice to be queen, the loss of which she mourns in her lyric poem "On Monsieur's Departure."  Finally, have a look at the poetic exchange between Elizabeth and Sir Walter Ralegh (NA 761-2).  In these brief poems, note how the conventions of erotic love poetry have been appropriated and are used to express the mutual love and respect between a loyal and devoted courtier and his Queen.  Perhaps this sort of poetry -- and of courtly relationship -- served in part as emotional compensation to the woman whose public duty and persona made it impossible to openly live out her private desires.

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1997-2017

Click here for Backgrounds to Pastoral Poetry

Click here for Sonnets study guide

Click here for 17th-century Lyrics study guide

Click here for An Approach to Reading and Writing About Poems

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