And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

mandag 6. mai 2013

Then came faire May

Woodcut for Ægloga Quinta of The Shepheardes Calender (1579), image from luminarium

The month of May is synonymous with merriment and joy in the Western European consciousness, and this association has a long tradition in folklore. In this blogpost I will present how my favourite poet, Edmund Spenser, presents the month of May in two of his most important works, The Shepheardes Calender and The Faerie Queene. Regular readers will recognise my love for Spenser's poetry, as this has been a subject for several blogposts, which can be found here, here and here.

First up is an extract from Spenser's poetic debut, The Shepheardes Calender, which studiously emulates Virgil's Eclogues, but in a completely modern manner. The deceptive simplicity and straightforwardness of the twelve-part poem hides a political acuteness which I will not get into here, and this was a key aspect of pastoral poetry. In the poem's fifth eclogue - or conversation - the two shepherds Piers and Palinode allegorically debate the religious division in England at that time. Piers is the spiritual part of the conversation, modelled on William Langland's Piers Plowman. Palinode is his worldly counterpart. Since this is a blogpost about May, however, I will only give you an excerpt pertinent to the topic, while the rest of the poem can be read here.

IS not thilke the mery moneth of May,
When loue lads masken in fresh aray?
How falles it then, we no merrier bene,
Ylike as others, girt in gawdy greene?
Our bloncket liueryes bene all to sadde,
For thilke same season, when all is ycladd
With pleasaunce: the grownd with grasse, the Wods
With greene leaues, the bushes with bloosming Buds.
Yougthes folke now flocken in euery where,
To gather may bus-kets and smelling brere:
And home they hasten the postes to dight,
And all the Kirke pillours eare day light,
With Hawthorne buds, and swete Eglantine,
And girlonds of roses and Sopps in wine.
Such merimake holy Saints doth queme,
But we here sytten as drownd in a dreme.

The next excerpt is from the Cantos of Mvtabilitie, which were most likely intended as a part of Spenser's epic Faerie Queene, and they are sometimes referred to as the seventh book. This excerpt comes from canto VI, which can be read in its entirety here.

Then came faire May, the fayrest mayd on ground,
Deckt all with dainties of her seasons pryde,
And throwing flowres out of her lap around:
Vpon two brethrens shoulders she did ride,
The twinnes of Leda; which on eyther side
Supported her like to their soueraine Queene.
Lord! how all creatures laught, when her they spide,
And leapt and daunc't as they had rauisht beene!
And Cupid selfe about her fluttred all in greene.

For the information included above, I have used the following editions:

Spenser, Edmund, The Faerie Queene, edited by Thomas P. Roche Jr., Penguin, 1987

Spenser, Edmund, The Shorter Poems, edited by Richard McCabe, Penguin, 1999

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