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Syrithe Pugh, Spenser and Virgil: the Pastoral Poems
by Philip Hardie

Pugh, Syrithe. Spenser and Virgil: the Pastoral Poems. Manchester UP, 2016. x + 339 pp. ISBN: 978-1526101174. $89.00 cloth.

Syrithe Pugh, author of one of the most searching and detailed studies of Spenser’s uses of Ovid, now turns her attention to Spenser’s engagement with Virgil in his pastoral poems, with some reference also to pastoral elements in The Faerie Queene.[1] Virgil’s Eclogues are, self-evidently, the foundational text for the Medieval and Early Modern tradition of pastoral poetry in the Latin west (although one of the services of the present book is to bring out the importance of Theocritus for Spenser, who had more Greek than many of his contemporaries, educated as he was at Mulcaster’s Merchant Taylors’ School and Cambridge). Pugh’s major contributions to our understanding of Spenser and Virgil are two. Firstly, she shows that, whatever Spenser’s manifold debts to post-Virgilian pastoral, The Shepheardes Calender, “Astrophel,” and Colin Clout’s Come Home Againe reach far beyond a general and intermittent homage to Virgil, that they are “filled with imitation of and allusion to the poems of Virgil,” primarily but not exclusively Virgil’s Eclogues, and that this imitation extends both to the large-scale structures and movements of Spenser’s pastoral poetry book and his later exercises in the genre, and to the detailed verbal texture of the poems (1).

Secondly, Pugh undertakes a thoroughgoing revision of a prevailing view of Spenser’s “Virgilian career,” regarded as an ascent through the genres of Virgil’s three major works as schematically represented in the rota Vergiliana (“wheel of Virgil”), an ascent from the largely private world of music-making and love in the Eclogues, through the productive labour on the farm in the Georgics, to the epic world of history and politics in the Aeneid. Spenser famously signals his move from pastoral to epic in the proem to Book I of The Faerie Queene in his rewriting of the Ille ego proem of the Aeneid, putting aside his “lowly Shephards weeds” and enforced “For trumpets sterne to change mine Oaten reeds” (I.i.1.2, 4.  The Shepheardes Calender replicates the moves in the central poems of Virgil’s Eclogues book (Eclogues 4, 5, 6) towards a grander epic poetic production, but frames these moves within a pessimism even starker than that of the last two eclogues of Virgil (9 and 10). “Astrophel” laments the death of Sir Philip Sidney at the same time as it criticises both Sidney’s public career and the sterility of Sidney’s Petrarchan love poetry to Stella. Colin Clout’s Come Home Againe uneasily combines extravagant praise of the queen and the ladies of her court with overt satire of the social climbing and false religion of love of Elizabeth’s courtiers, within a plot that reverses the Virgilian direction of travel from pastoral landscape to city and monarchical court, through a homecoming that is also an exile (a thoroughly Virgilian paradox).

Pugh places emphasis on a socio-political reading of the Eclogues. This is a reading encouraged by the uses to which Virgil was put in the English Renaissance school curriculum, as part of the formation of a gentleman for public roles. Pugh also draws on recent receptions of Virgil’s poetry by classicists who seek to transcend tired “optimist” versus “pessimist” readings with a more dynamic notion of bargaining with power, whereby the gift-exchange model associated with both the amoebaic song-contests and the erotic gifts of the genre of pastoral is mapped on to the negotiations between poet and imperial patron.[2]

Central for Pugh’s project is an identification of the political and the amatory in the Eclogues. She starts from the late-antique commentator Servius’s report of a reading of Eclogue 2, Corydon’s unrequited love song to the boy Alexis, as an allegory of Virgil’s unsuccessful appeal to Caesar Octavian (the future Augustus) for the return of his confiscated lands. In this reading Corydon’s last words, addressed to himself, “you will find another Alexis, if this Alexis rejects you,” literally mean “you can find another emperor.” If this kind of allegorical reading, typical of Servius’s commentary, is not in fashion today, modern Virgilians certainly see significant parallels and contrasts between Eclogue 1, celebrating Tityrus’s successful “wooing” of the young man in charge at Rome, probably Octavian, for the retention of his lands, and Eclogue 2, Corydon’s failed wooing of Alexis. Pugh draws these connections tighter still through some cunning analysis of the Theocritean intertextualities shared between Eclogues 1 and 2. She also seeks to push still further back in date a reception of the Eclogues that closely connects the political and the erotic, through a reading of the pseudo-Virgilian Dirae, one of the poems in the Appendix Vergiliana that were accepted as genuinely Virgilian in the Renaissance. For the purposes of reading Spenser reading Virgil, it does not matter whether or not the modern Virgilian critic rejects Servian allegorizing, but this is a case in which a Renaissance focus on a late antique reading might well have the effect of shifting current perceptions of the relationship between public and private desires in Virgil. Pugh points out that in Ovid’s exilic elegy the emperor takes the place of the stony-hearted girl who shuts out the lover in Latin love elegy. For another ancient example of the erotics of praise one might compare Horace Odes 4.5.9-12, on the Roman people’s longing for the absent Augustus, “[As a mother calls for the return of her son voyaging overseas] so does your faithful homeland, stricken with longing, look for its Caesar” (translated by David West).[3]

In late sixteenth-century England the political and the erotic are inextricably intertwined in representations of the relationship between the Virgin Queen and her subjects. At the time when Spenser was writing The Shepheardes Calender the queen’s subjects were particularly exercised by the possibility of a real sexual liaison, the marriage of Elizabeth to the Duc d’Alençon. Chapter 2, “Virgilian negotiations in The Shepheardes Calender,” offers close readings of the four eclogues, “Januarye,” “Aprill,” “June,” “Nouember,” that center on the several female figures who variously shadow Elizabeth: Rosalind, Elisa, Dido. Where previous scholars have tended to point to the Petrarchan elements in Colin’s songs, Pugh places equal weight on the Virgilian. Furthermore, she sees Spenser’s contamination of Petrarchan lyric with Virgilian pastoral as alluding to the complex intermingling of pastoral and elegiac operative in Virgil’s final eclogue, 10, in which the elegist Gallus, “dying” of love, attempts to cure his lovesickness by entering the pastoral world, but to no avail. Gallus was both love poet and statesman, who later was forced by the displeasure of Augustus to end his life literally. Following the Servian conflation of the political and erotic, the Renaissance humanist Juan Luis Vives asserts in his commentary that “Virgil laments the death of Gallus, under the pretext of talking about his loves.”[4] In this case chronology rules out the interpretation, but it is a telling example of a Renaissance way of reading the Eclogues.

Eclogue 10, with the despairing Gallus’s recognition of the powerlessness of song, enters recurrently into Pugh’s readings of Spenserian pastoral, reinforcing a gathering identification on Spenser’s part with the exilic experience of Meliboeus in Eclogue 1 and the corresponding detachment from the Tityran-Virgilian praise poetry that is also paraded in Eclogue 1. Even the lay to Elisa in “Aprill,” the most overt passage of panegyric of Elizabeth in the book, and indebted to the prophecy of the wondrous cosmocratic boy in Virgil’s fourth Eclogue, is distanced in a manner that draws on the framing in Virgil’s ninth Eclogue of snatches of panegyric within a drama of failed song and of exit from the pastoral world. The pessimism of Eclogue 9, Pugh argues, is also invoked in Spenser’s own penultimate eclogue, “Nouember,” coloring the sustained imitation of Eclogue 5, with its paired songs on the death and apotheosis of Daphnis.

The Dido of “Nouember” has gone to a Christian heaven, so draining the politico-panegyrical content of Eclogue 5, where Daphnis apotheosed is usually read as an allegory of the deification of Julius Caesar. In both “Astrophel” (taken together with the “Lay of Clorinda”) and Colin Clout’s Come Home Againe, a Virgilian ascent from pastoral to epic is sabotaged through alternative lofty destinations. Astrophel/Sidney is raised to a pure neoplatonic love, in a locus that is recognizably Spenser’s very own Garden of Adonis (The Faerie Queene III.6); thereby Spenser both puts in its place Sidney’s own sterile Petrarchan love poetry and transcends the political telos of the Virgilian career. Colin Clout’s Come Home Againe substitutes for idolatrous deification of the monarch praise of a cosmogonic and celestial Cupid, powered by an Orphic afflatus that refers us to the poetic elevation and inspiration of Gallus at the end of the Song of Silenus in Eclogue 6, and occludes the ending of the other Gallus poem, Eclogue 10, with its failure of song and enslavement to an unproductive love.

It is not possible in a short review to detail all the twists and turns of Pugh’s intertextual Virgilian readings of Spenser’s pastoral, for the most part persuasive and only occasionally testing credulity. A general point however may be made about the relationship of English and Latin studies. Allusivity and intertextuality have been at the center of much work on ancient Latin poetry over the past few decades, and a reading for complex and self-conscious dialogues between texts has greatly enriched our experience of these texts. Formalist analysis has fed fruitfully into ideological and cultural-historical readings. Pugh’s methodology is not different in principle from that which Latinists have applied to the intricate networks of allusivity in Virgil’s own works, for example the detailed and combinatorial imitation in the Eclogues of Theocritus, the Greek “father” of bucolic or pastoral, a process in which intertextuality works closely with intratextuality, i.e. the connections between the individual poems in Virgil’s Eclogues book. Pugh is commendably up to date not just with Spenser criticism, but also with criticism of classical Latin poetry, and she is in personal contact with a number of Latinists. There is then a third way in which the book makes a major contribution to our understanding of Spenser and Virgil, through the demonstration that the transfer of ways of reading Virgilian intertextuality to a reading of Spenser’s reading of Virgil yields handsome dividends. There is a larger question about the transferability of ways of reading ancient texts to Early Modern texts, a question one simple answer to which may be that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. In the case of Spenser, as of Milton, both university poets, and thus “learned poets” of a kind comparable, in general at least, to the docti poetae of Alexandria and late Republican and Augustan Rome, this should not be too surprising. If Pugh has profited from time spent with classical Latinists, her reading of Spenser’s reading of Virgil has much of interest to offer Virgilians reading Virgil, just as, for example, and to stay within the ambit of classical antiquity, Ovid’s reading of Virgil can enrich a modern reading of Virgil.

In chapter 3, “Virgilian structure in The Shepheardes Calender,” Pugh also makes productive use of a strand of Virgilian criticism that has now gone rather out of fashion (as it has in Spenserian studies), the structural and numerological analysis of the Eclogues book. Pugh resuscitates the project of Alastair Fowler’s Triumphal forms (1970), a book which already looked to Virgilian origins for Spenserian symmetries.[5] Unfashionable does not mean unworthy of attention, and there are some persuasive (with some less persuasive) analyses, which are usefully tied in to the larger concerns of the book.

Pugh is to be commended on a major contribution to Spenser studies and to the study of the reception of Virgil. This is a book that deserves to be pondered by Early Modernists and classicists alike.

Philip Hardie
Trinity College, Cambridge

[1] Syrithe Pugh, Spenser and Ovid, Ashgate, 2005.

[2] For the application of an anthropological model of gift exchange to Virgil’s poetry see Martin Stöckinger, Vergils Gaben. Materialität, Reziprozität und Poetik in den Eklogen und der Aeneis, Universitätsverlag, Winter 2016.

[3] Horace, Horace. The Complete Odes and Epodes, translated with an Introduction and Notes by David West, Oxford UP, 1997.

[4] J. L. Vives, In Publii Vergilii Maronis Bucolica interpretation, potissimum allegorica, Antwerp, 1543, C6v.

[5] Alastair Fowler, Triumphal Forms, Cambridge UP, 1970. 


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Cite as:

Philip Hardie, "Syrithe Pugh, Spenser and Virgil: the Pastoral Poems," Spenser Review 47.2.31 (Spring-Summer 2017). Accessed March 21st, 2018.
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