Monday, October 6, 2008

Norton Anthology: Edmund Spenser, The Shepheardes Calender

I don't care a great deal for Spenser's faux-archaisms, but this work is tremendously fascinating for purely formal reasons (though the poetry is sometimes quite good). Here's why:
When The Shepheardes Calender was published in 1579, each of the twelve eclogues was followed by a "Glosse," which contained explications of difficult or archaic words, together with learned discussions of—and disagreements with—Spenser's ideas, imagery, and poetics. The Glosses are by one "E.K.," whose identity has never been satisfactorily ascertained. Although certain scholars have suggested that E.K. was Spenser himself, it is equally possible that he was a friend.
So in other words, The Shepheardes Calender is a late 16th century Pale Fire. (!)

What makes the reading of it more interesting still is that in addition to the Glosses, you also have the accretion of footnotes from scholars (as in the Norton). And in the case of the Norton Anthology, E.K.'s Glosses and the editors' footnotes often run together and are formatted identically. Talk about challenging the idea of a singular author! And this doesn't even begin to account for the multiple voices that are in the actual body of the text, which is constructed as a series of dialogues among shepherds. It's a fascinating experience just reading the damn thing.

And then there are passages like this:
The vaunted verse a vacant head demaundes,
Ne wont with crabbèd care the Muses dwell.
Unwisely weaves, that takes two webbes in hand.
An excellent online version can be found here.

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