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

Other Elizabethan Lyrics: 
Pastoral Poetry; Women's Voices


On Pastoral: read or review Sidney's comments on pastoral poetry (943) and the Introduction 485-90, paying particular attention to discussion of the Pastoral mode (489-90); then read the online reading Backgrounds to Pastoral Poetry. Know 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: read or review 479-85, paying particular attention to Elizabeth's situation as a female monarch and to the issues of women's education, literary activity and participation in the public sphere, as well as the headnote (only) to Isabella Whitney (606) on the issue of women writing.  Read or review the headnotes to all poets assigned: Queen Elizabeth (593-4), Spenser (614-6), Ralegh (878-9), Marlowe (970-1), Mary Herbert (957-8), Campion (1196).  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).

Primary Readings checklist: 

  • Edmund Spenser, selections from The Shepheardes Calender, "To His Booke" and "October" (NA 617-22); 
  • Christopher Marlowe, "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love"  (NA 989); 
  • Sir Walter Ralegh, "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" (NA 879); 
  • Thomas Campion, "I care not for these ladies," "There is a garden in her face," "Thinkest thou to seduce me then" and "Fain would I wed" (NA 1196-1200); 
  • Mary Herbert, "A Dialogue Between Two Shepherds" (on e-reserve); 
  • Queen Elizabeth, "On Monsieur's Departure" (NA 595) and "The Golden Speech" (NA 598-600).
  • Also review assigned sonnets from Mary Wroth's Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, #1, 16, 39, 40, 74, 77, 103 (NA 1428-32).
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 Sidney, Defense of Poesy, 943), 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.) 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 particularly enjoy.

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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 (615). 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" [617], the first poem in the collection).

Read the two selections from the Shepheardes Calender ("To His Booke" and "October," NA 617-22) 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, 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" (989) and Thomas Campion's "I Care Not for these Ladies" (1196-7)Sir Walter Ralegh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" (879), 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" (1199-1200).  Campion also adopts a female perspective in "Fain Would I Wed" (1200), which gives voice to an unmarried woman's desire for erotic love.  Given societal expectations of appropriate gender behavior, it is not surprising that this poem was 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 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. 

Such gender-specific expectations significantly limit the female poet's freedom to play with the conventions of the pastoral genre (a similar phenomenon was noted in Mary Wroth's sonnet cycle Pamphilia to Amphilanthus). It is thus not surprising that while Mary Herbert edited her brother Sir Philip Sidney's pastoral romance, Arcadia, she did not herself write pastoral love poetry.  Indeed, her "A Dialogue Between Two Shepherds" (click for text on e-reserve) 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 pp. 960-964 -- check them out if you are interested; but these are NOT required readings!). 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" (595) 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 (595 n. 1), yet Elizabeth presumably never really intended to marry him (see 481-2). 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" (598-600) offers another perspective on that sacrifice.  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.  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.

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1997-2005

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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