Bacon and Spenser

Always inclined to procrastinate, Francis could move quickly enough when he felt the wind at his back.  With Oxford’s encouragement he had his first work ready to publish in no time, a series of twelve “eclogues,” short poems in a traditional form.  Adopting the then popular format of an almanac, the two literary conspirators came up with an elegant little book , fleshed out with a series of elaborate glosses by Oxford, one for each chapter, while Bacon doffed his cap to Ovid in a delightfully brief introductory poem.  Through his contacts in the publishing community, Oxford was able to get an attractive woodcut to illustrate each month, and The Shepherd’s Calender was ready for the booksellers by late December or early the following year (1580).  They chose the penname Immerito, meaning “without merit,” seemingly modest but perhaps also a wry reference to his lack of a Court position.

I think we can take the date of April 1579 in E.K.’s introduction with a grain of salt.  The purposeful backdating of title pages and prefaces was one of the ways he (and others) used to obscure authorship.  April was too soon after Bacon’s arrival for him to have written The Calender.  It wasn’t registered with the Stationers until December 5, 1579.

At eighteen Bacon was still learning by imitating.  A born chameleon who prided himself on his ability to imitate the style of anything he read, his pride would not allow him to imitate a living English writer for anything but foolery, at least not one he knew personally, one he respected.  He had to find a style of his own.  The Calender was the first conscious reach in this direction, and like the Faerie Queene, that he probably embarked upon at the same time, it looked to the past for both a style and a purpose.  The Calender was a portfolio piece, something to gain entry into the rarified Court literary coteries surrounding Oxford and Sidney, and to get the freelance secretarial work he needed to support himself.

The Shepherd’s Calender is a highly conscious pastiche of the styles and purposes of Bacon’s, and his nation’s, literary forbears: the Latin poets through the eclogues that introduced Vergil to the Court of Augustus and Ovid through the opening verse; the early English poets Chaucer and Lydgate through the archaisms of style and vocabulary.  By including the satirist John Skelton (from the era of Henry VIII), whose protagonist, Colin Clout, he resurrects, he may be warning that something a bit more daring (his Complaints) was already in process.

The dream coterie

Each monthly chapter in the Shepherd’s Calender celebrates an imagined conversation between members of Bacon’s dream coterie, cast, as in Vergil, as a band of poor shepherds.  The pastoral tradition was a favorite fantasy of Renaissance Courts, who liked to imagine themselves far from the tension, expense, and boredom of Court life, drifting about in some dreamy, bucolic setting where life was easier and simpler, and where, apparently, it never rained or snowed.  Of course no real shepherd ever behaved the way these did, with their songs and poems about the cruelty of disdainful dames.

The shepherds in Bacon’s Calender are personifications in thin disguise of the poets at the Elizabethan Court, all brought together in one congenial if fictional setting.  Today we may have a difficult time identifying them, but certainly one or another of them represents Sidney, Dyer, Oxford, Bacon himself, with Greville and Raleigh as possibilities.  Sir Henry Lee has been suggested.  Another possible member is Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, who had quit writing poetry officially, but may still have been indulging on the QT.  Bacon himself (probably) took the persona of Colin Clout.

Oxford as E.K.

Thinly disguised as one “E.K.,” Oxford’s role as publisher is revealed by the lavish praise with which he announces the advent of the “New Poet,” while the commentaries that accompany the poems (fleshing out the otherwise slender book) give him an opportunity to descant on subjects dear to his heart much as he did in his 1571 Latin introduction to Bartholomew Clerke’s translation of Castiglione’s The Courtier.

Those familiar with Oxford’s voice at this time will hear him loud and clear as he parades his learning in a way he will cease to do as the focus shifts from his courtier friends to a broader readership.  All but three of the 22 classical authors he mentions in his glosses can be found in Sir Thomas Smith’s library list, whence they got absorbed into his memory banks during the eight years he lived with Smith in his childhood.  These are Vergil, Cicero, Valla, Livy, Sallust, Aesop, Macrobius, Theocritus, Tacitus, Cicero, Chaucer, Politian, Homer, Petrarch, Hesiod, Boccaccio, Plutarch, Diodorus Siculus, and Plato. (Those not on Smith’s list are Valla, Mantuan, and Sanazario, which does not mean of course, that Oxford had no access to them.)  Oxford finds a way to compliment Smith, who’s been dead for two years, and Smith’s book on “government,” the famous de Republica Anglorum, still available only in manuscript.  He is grateful to Gabriel Harvey for giving him a copy, so presumably he did not have one until then.

He demonstrates his knowledge of classical rhetoric with terms like epanorthosis and paranomasia.  He quotes Hesiod and Homer in Greek.  He knows the Saxon etymology of words like Kent.  He uses the term “ornament” for descriptive language, as he did in his 1571 preface to Clerke’s translation of Castiglione.  He uses witty phrases like “disorderly order.”  Like Shakespeare he uses bowling terms: “the compass of his bent,” and also like Shakespeare, displays his fondness for bird imagery and his knowledge of falconry and its terminology in an extended metaphor that compares the development of a great poet to that of a fledgling bird.  He likes the word “beautify,” (the word Polonius terms “vile”).  He reveals Shakespearean knowledge of English history when he explains the origin of the Tudor Rose.

He endorses the then controversial effort to change the beginning of the year from March to January; in fact, the Calender itself may be partly intended as a means of helping to make that change.  Displaying a rather stunning depth of knowledge on this arcane subject he also reveals a Shakespearean knowledge of astrology when he refers to astrologers “Andalo” [di Negro of Genoa] and Macrobius.  He delves into the astrological reasons for beginning the year in March, followed by a detailed explanation why for Christians it’s better to begin in January.  In the March commentary he reveals Shakespearean medical knowledge in a long description of how certain fluids move through the body in a manner that corresponds to the meridians in Chinese medicine.

In May he refers to a story about Lord Hastings’s horse stumbling as a warning of trouble one he will repeat in Richard III Act 3 Scene 4.  For June he comments on the history of the Guelphs and the Ghibelines, the source, he claims, for the English words elf and goblin.  He has an anecdote to offer about “brave Talbot,” a leading character in Henry VI Pt 1.  For July he has an anecdote from the history of Danish Britain, with comments on the myth of Endymion and the Moon and on the death of Aeschylus.  For September he offers two long footnotes on the medicinal powers of music as claimed by Plato and Pythagoras, reminiscent of Lorenzo’s thought in Merchant of Venice that “music hath power to sooth the savage breast.”

In November, in line with that month’s focus on death (Halloween and All Saints Day) he comments on “the manner of Tragical Poets, to call for help of Furies and damned ghosts: so is Hecuba of Euripides, and Tantalus brought in of Seneca,” which reminds us of his early poem (#4) about the loss of his good name and Hamlet’s “What’s [the actor] to Hecuba, or Hecuba to him, that he should weep for her?”  He comments on George Gascoigne and the myth of Philomele,

the nightingale whom the Poets feign once to have been a lady of great beauty, till being ravished by her sister’s husband, she desired to be turned into a bird of her name.  Whose complaints be very well set forth of Mr. George Gaskin [Gascoigne] a witty gentleman, and the very chief of our late rhymers, who and if some parts of learning wanted not (albee it is well known he altogether wanted not learning) no doubt would have attained the excellency of those famous poets, for gifts of wit and natural promptness appear in him abundantly.

Gascoigne was the acquaintance from Cecil House days to whom was ascribed the early plays later used by Shakespeare as subplots in Shrew and MSND.

E.K.’s erudition has never been properly dealt with by Early Modern literary historians.  If he was the Edward Kirk they sometimes term him, who was this erudite polymath whose interests were so similar to Shakespeare’s and why is it that he appears in literature only this once?  Do the orthodox really believe that such knowledge was commonplace at that time? Do the Baconians really believe that this voice is the same as Bacon’s?  Yes, E.K. knows many of the same things that Bacon knows, but this is not his voice, nor could Bacon have absorbed the material in Smith’s library in a way that Oxford could.

Importance of the Calender

In a field where so much has been hidden, The Shepherd’s Calender is one of those transitional works where important clues peep forth that can tell us a great deal about both these poets if we will only listen.  Although Oxford has published a number of his early works already, this is the beginning of a new phase.  He has just passed the peak of his experiment with Euphuism (Euphues and his England may already be at the printers), and is relaxing into the voice he’ll be using through most of the ’80s.

Oxford was at the peak of his Court career when Bacon arrived on the scene and they began their collaboration.  At twenty-nine he must have been extremely attractive, in good physical condition from fencing, bowling, dancing and riding.  In love with Ann Vavasor, with two full length novels published and secure in his position as chief playwright for Sussex’s Court Stage, he was sitting in the catbird seat.  Of course the axe was about to fall, but not for another year.

Bacon too reveals himself in this early work.  We see his love of Nature in metaphors that compare the original Church to an ancient oak, envied by a fresh young briar (the kind of dissident cult spawned by the Reformation), who when winter comes is left to freeze because the oak that sheltered it from the storms of politics has collapsed, leaving it without defense.  Like Erasmus, Bacon wants reform, but without schism.  Disgusted as he is with the current state of the world and eager for change, he holds no brief for violent upheavals of any sort, an attitude revealed by every one of his various literary personae.

Their partnership

That Shepherd’s Calender is a first foray by the cousins into educating the reader about literature is clear from the use to which E.K. puts his comments and his glossary.  The accent is all on words and language.  E.K. defends the author’s use of archaic or peculiar words and his style, in hopes that by increasing the English vocabulary  “we might be equal to the learned of other nations.” In introducing the mysterious author and his eclogues (or aeglogues, as he insists), he explains how

by means of some familiar acquaintance I was made privy to his counsel and secret meaning in them, as also in sundry other works of his, which albeit I know he nothing so much hateth as to promulgate [advertise], yet thus much have I adventured upon his friendship, himself being for long time far estranged [away in Paris for two years] hoping that this will the rather occasion him to put forth divers other excellent works of his which sleep in silence . . . .

Bacon dedicates his book to Philip Sidney and is lavish with praise and encouragement for Gabriel Harvey, who he must have come to know in his early teens at Cambridge, and to whom he obviously still hopes to fulfill his promise to involve him with the Court poets.  Unfortunately this spells the end of their pleasant relationship, for within months or perhaps even weeks he will destroy it by publishing Harvey’s private letters.  Why he does this remains a mystery, but whatever has caused his love for Harvey to turn to hatred will eventually lead to one of the most perplexing episodes in English letters.

Oxford has kind words for both Sidney and Harvey, urging Harvey to bring forth his own works, in particular his Latin poems, which, both for “invention and eloqution are very delicate and super-eloquent.”  If Oxford’s Court position won’t allow him to openly fraternize with either poet, his role as his nation’s Lord Great Chamberlain makes it his duty to do whatever he can to stimulate a European-style Renaissance in England, something that will never happen unless English writers start getting published.  This means promoting everyone he possibly can.  That Bacon is with him in this endeavor is clear from the way that, even more vigorously than Oxford, he will promote his fellow writers in everything he publishes from then on under whatever persona he adopts.

Authorship “shadowed”

Finally, in this relatively transparent early work we find many clues to the primary issue of the authorship question, the hiding of names.  Oxford does this a number of times in his commentaries, first mentioning how a poet “secretly shadoweth himself” under a pseudonym as Virgil did when he called himself Tityrus.  He refers to Colin: “under whose person the author’s self is shadowed.” In August: “Perigot maketh his song in praise of his love, to whom Willy answereth every under verse.  By Perigot who is meant, I cannot uprightly say . . . .”  In April: “He calleth Rosalind ‘the widow’s daughter of the glen,’ that is, of a country hamlet or borough, which I think is rather said to colour and conceal the person, then simply spoken,” commenting that Rosalind’s name and description as a country maid are “feigned” as was true of a whole list of names: “And this generally hath been a common custom of counterfeiting the names of secret personages.” If he isn’t letting the reader in on the subterfuge, why does he bring it up, and more than once?

Many Spenser scholars have tried to identify the shepherds, but it may be impossible.  What was intended to slip past outsiders at the time will be be even harder for outsiders in time like ourselves.  In October, where Cuddie is described as “the perfect pattern of a poet,” one who’s feeling down about continuing to write since he gets no recognition from the Court, “I beat the bush, the birds to them do fly,” E.K. himself pretends confusion:  “I doubt whether by Cuddy be specified the author’s self or some other.  For in the eighth eclogue the same person was brought in, singing a Canton of Colin’s making, as he saith.  So that some doubt [suspect] that the persons be different.”  Thus is confusion piled on confusion.  Both of them, but Bacon in particular, learned well how to tease without telling.

2 thoughts on “Bacon and Spenser

  1. Bacon was no poet, I am afraid. For me, Spencer is Oxford in disguise.

    I found this in “The Shepherd’s Calendar: October. Aegloga Decima,” by Edmund Spencer.

    The dapper [i.e. pretty] ditties that I wont devise
    To feed youth’s fancy and the flocking fry
    Delighten much; what I the bet forthy?
    They have the pleasure I a slender price:
    I beat the bush the birds to them do fly:
    What good thereof to Cuddie can arise?

    This is De Vere’s complaint in “Cardanus’s Comfort” six years before (1573):

    “For he that beat the bush, the bird not gets,
    But who sits still–and holdeth fast the nets.”

    If one notices that “The Shepherd’s…” was published anonymously and with the poesie “Inmerito”, as well the italian expressions contained in this work, something is smelling like Oxford’s hands.

    Colin Clout come home again” (1595) has these verses:

    To her my life I wholly sacrifice: (v. 475)
    My thought, my heart, my love, my life is shee,
    And I hers ever onely, ever one:
    One ever I all vowed hers to bee,
    One ever I, and others never none.

    “The Ruins of Time” has more passion. Look at this:

    Thy lord shall never die the while this verse
    Shall live and surely it shall live for ever
    For ever it shall live and shall rehearse
    His worthy praise and virtues dying never
    Though death his soul do from his body sever
    And thou thyself herein shalt also live
    Such grace the heav’ns do to my verses give.

    This is the language of the Shake-speares Sonnets. The wordplay on “ever” and “never” is prominent.

    I can’t hear, as Nina Green postulates, sweet Oxford in Thomas Nashe’s broken prose, but Robert Greene’s has Oxford’s rapid and active style all through his works.

    Now, who do you think could be behind Nashe and Martin Mar–prelate?

    Nashe, in his “Anatomy of Absurdity” (1589), stands for science and knowledge as the solution of the social decay; the fact that Nashe/Bacon is against “blank verse” and poems seems to fit Bacon’s philosophical mind. If he was a friend of Oxford, then Nashe’s preface to Greene’s “Menaphon” (1589) seems to be the first time Bacon/Nashe wrote in one of Oxford’s books.

  2. Riccardo,

    As for Bacon being no poet, please! Everyone wrote poetry then. Why would he, one of the most brilliant writers of his day, stand apart? Of course he wrote poetry, just not under his own name. True, he was more of a prose stylist by nature, but that doesn’t mean that in a time when every chambermaid wrote poetry, when his brother was a famed sonneteer, Francis was the one holdout. There’s no more beautiful line in all of English literature than his: “All rising to a great place is by a winding stair,” a poem in itself.

    “He that beats the bush” is an old English proverb. You’ll find it online as “One beats the bush and another catches the bird.” It can’t be attributed to any particular person any more than we could attribute “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Both Oxford and Bacon would have known it from childhood.

    Spenser’s style, both as Colin Clout and in The Faerie Queene is nothing at all like anything Oxford ever wrote. Oxford used old material and ideas, but from first to last the trend with him was to modernize, while Spenser not only looked to the past for material, but for style as well. Clearly Spenser, whoever he was, loved Chaucer as much for his sound as his stories, which was not the case with Oxford/Shakespeare. This plus a dozen other differences separate the true author of Spenser from the true author of Shakespeare. Somebody had to write the Spenser stuff, and there’s Bacon, apparently sitting around, writing and publishing nothing for decades. Waiting until Nashe for Bacon to show himself in print is simply waiting too long. Also, Spenser is concerned with the Church, as was Bacon, something that Oxford never touches. Oxford had a lot to do with The Calender. As E.K. his “hands” are all over it.

    Yes, as I’ve said a number of times here and elsewhere, Bacon was Nashe, but not until he’d had his fill of Spenser.

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