Spenser and Archaism


As is well known, Spenser adopted for his 1579 book of eclogues, The Shepheardes Calender, an artificial and archaic diction probably derived from his long immersion in the books of those poets he considered to be his English antecedents: Chaucer, Lydgate, Langland, and Skelton. In explaining and apologizing for Spenser's use of archaism in The Shepheardes Calender, E. K. writes in the 'Epistle' to Gabriel Harvey that:

I graunt they be something hard, and of most men unused, yet both English, and also used of most excellent Authors and most famous Poetes. In whom whenas this our Poet hath bene much traveiled and throughly redd, how could it be, (as that worthy Oratour sayde) but that walking in the sonne although for other cause he walked, yet needes he mought be sunburnt; and having the sound of those auncient Poetes still ringing in his eares, he mought needes in singing hit out some of theyr tunes. But whether he useth them by such casualty and custome, or of set purpose and choyse, as thinking them fittest for such rusticall rudensse of shepheards, eyther for that theyr rough sounde would make his rymes more ragged and rustical, or els because such olde and obsolete wordes are most used of country folke, sure I think, and think I think not amisse, that they bring great grace and, as one would say, auctoritie to the verse.
Spenser was at pains throughout his poetic career to document his inheritance from rugged, primitive, plainspeaking English poets; his own poetic persona, Colin Clout, derives from one of John Skelton's most 'ragged' rhymes, the satirical poem Collyn Clout, and Spenser often explicitly acknowledges his indebtedness to 'Dan Geffrey', 'well of English vndefyled'. The archaisms of The Shepheardes Calender, like the archaisms of The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596, 1609), establish Spenser as the 'new poet' in a distinctively native English tradition.

E. K. makes another case for Spenser's archaisms that should not be ignored, one that is forward-looking rather than self-consciously retrospective. As he continues in his 'Epistle' to Harvey:

But if any will rashly blame such his purpose in choyse of old and unwonted words, him may I more justly blame and condemne, or of witlesse headinesse in judging, or of heedelesse hardinesse in condemning, for not marking the compasse of hys bent, he wil judge of the length of his cast. for in my opinion it is one special prayse, of many whych are dew to this Poete, that he hath laboured to restore, as to theyr rightfull heritage such good and naturall English words, as have ben long time out of use and almost cleare disherited. Which is the onely cause, that our Mother tonge, which truely of it self is both ful enough for prose and stately enough for verse, hath long time ben counted most bare and barrein of both. which default when as some endevoured to salve and recure, they patched up the holes and peces and rags of other languages, borrowing here of the french, there of the Italian, every where of the Latine, not weighing how il, those tongues accorde with themselves, but much worse with ours: So now they have made our English tongue, a gallimaufray or hodgepodge of al other speches. Other some not so wel seene in the English tonge as perhaps in other languages, if them happen to here an olde word albeit very naturall and significant, crye out streight way, that we speak no English, but gibbrish, or rather such, as in old time Evanders mother spake. whose first shame is, that they are not ashamed, in their own mother tonge straungers to be counted and alienes. The second shame no lesse then the first, that what so they understand not, they streight way deeme to be sencelesse, and not at al to be understode. Much like to the Mole in Æsopes fable, that being blynd her self, would no wise be perswaded, that any beast could see. The last more shameful then both, that of their owne country and natural speach, which together with their Nources milk they sucked, they have so base regard and bastard judgment, that they will not onely themselves not labor to garnish and beautifie it, but also repine, that other it shold be embellished. Like to the dogge in the maunger, that him selfe can eate no hay, and yet barketh at the hungry bullock, that so faine would feede: whose currish kind though cannot be kept from barking, yet I conne them thanke that they refrain from byting.
Spenser's systematically archaic diction, E. K. argues, ought to be interpreted as a patriotic attempt at language enrichment, part of the wider Elizabethan practice of 'embellishing' the English tongue to bring it into parity and equal commerce with the well-established vernaculars of continental Europe. Most students and scholars are familiar--through the citation elements of entries in the Oxford English Dictionary if not from his works themselves--of the decisive role Shakespeare probably played in introducing new words into English, and (through the increasing popularity and cultural reach of his plays) in fixing them in regular usage. The success of Shakespeare's neologisms, which are largely though not exclusively made up of borrowings, tends to overshadow other equally interesting linguistic experiments of the age, such as Spenser's. It is usually assumed that Spenser contributed little to English beyond the term 'braggadocchio' and the misunderstood 'derring-do'; but it is difficult to gauge how effective Spenser was in revitalizing and giving new purchase to Chaucerian and Skeltonic terms. We also tend to think that, because the borrowings of Shakespeare and his accomplices turned out to be successful and permanent additions to the language, they chose the better strategy. But E. K.'s points about the convenience of old English words and their pure association with the stronger, woodier elements of our own native tongue, are hard to dismiss; without submitting to E. K.'s nationalist pride in the fledgling vernacular, it is straightforward to see that Spenser wanted older English words, rather than Latinate terms or their Romance derivatives, in part because he was attempting to preserve a particularly English rhythm and cadence in speech and verse. Alliteration, for example, works well with hard consonantal initials, and with words having a strong forward stress; mellifluously tripping French borrowings, with the vestiges of their declensional and conjugational endings and their habitual stress on the antepenult and penult, made hard work, or gibberish, of traditional English prosody.

Ben Jonson later censured Spenser for his archaisms. 'In affecting the ancients', he wrote in Timber, 'Spenser writ no language.' But then, Spenser probably did not mean to write a standard English. The first few lines of Book 1 of The Faerie Queene, where the knight of the Redcrosse is introduced laboring motionlessly across an invisible landscape encased in a heap of ancient metal, is an apt emblem for Spenser's artificially antique language:

A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,
Y cladd in mightie armes and siluer shielde,
Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,
The cruell markes of many a bloudy fielde;
Yet armes till that time did he neuer wield:
His angry steede did chide his foming bitt,
As much disdayning to the curbe to yield:
Full iolly knight he seemd, and faire did sitt,
As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt. (FQ I. i. 1)

Crucially, Redcrosse is wearing an ancient armor that is not his own, concealing in a veneer of reverent age something as yet unproved, but possibly very muscular and noble indeed. He seems jolly and fair, and suited perfectly for a 'fitt' (OED n. 1: 'A part or section of a poem or song; a canto') about knightly jousts and fierce encounters. Spenser seems not to be unaware of the comedy of the mismatch between Redcrosse, the younker knight, and his grave and antique armor: as John Upton long ago (in 1758) remarked of this stanza, Redcrosse immediately signals his incapacity by both spurring ('pricking') his horse and reining ('curbing') him at the same time. While the manage of a horse in this way is not far-fetched, as part of Spenser's emblematic introduction of the Redcrosse knight, it fits within an overall series of narrative and visual incongruities in the opening scene: Redcrosse, Una, and Una's dwarf are travelling, apparently together, but at hugely different speeds on incompatibly different mounts. In this context, the 'mightie armes and siluer shielde' that give to Redcrosse his name sit uncomfortably on his shoulders--and all the more significantly for that discomfort.

But if Spenser was willing to acknowledge the possible comedy of his archaism, he also seems to have been alive to its literary possibility. The tale of the Oak and the Briar, a tale that Spenser indicates in the 'Februarie' eclogue of The Shepheardes Calender that he learned out of Chaucer, presents in a lively fable the conflict between age and youth. Thenot, an old shepherd, castigates Cuddie, a stripling, for his variableness and immaturity, while Cuddie in turn ridicules the elder Thenot for his withered vigor and crusty irreligion. To take the upper hand, Thenot tells the tale of the Oak and the Briar, in which the Briar, an ambitious but delicate plant, incites the local husbandman to chop down the now outdated, largely dead Oak. Unfortunately, the towering Oak, though dead, had overhung the Briar and thus protected it from the worst of the winter weather; but come 'the breme winter with chamfred browes, full of wrinckles and frostie furrowes', the now peerless Briar is for the first time exposed, and droops to his demise. Though Thenot intends this as a moral and religious tale about reverence for 'eld' and truth in religion, and although E. K., Spenser's glossator, interprets it as such, its positioning so close to the beginning of the collection of eclogues, and its (false) association with Chaucer suggests that it may, in part, also allegorize Spenser's use of language in the poems. If the Oak is read allegorically as a symbol for a poet's archaic words, and the Briar for a new and innovative literary ambition, the tale can work equally as a caution--in the style of E. K.'s prefatory epistle--against those who would enrich English by lavish borrowings instead of trusty, if slightly crabbed, English stock. But the overhangingness of the Oak, and the beauty of the Briar, suggests a further complexity to this interpretation: Spenser's old words, by their very alien and rough feel, may work to contain and protect delicate and beautiful ideas in the same way that, for example, fables conceal moral or religious truths. An alien and Gothic language becomes, rather than a barrier to a poetic sense, an invitation to traverse the linguistic in search of that sense, while at the same time a protection for that sense.

The association between archaism and Protestantism tenuously posited in the 'Februarie' eclogue--where the Oak-and-Briar combination looks something like the 1562 Elizabethan settlement on Calvinist doctrine and more conservative, 'Anglican' externals--suggests another reason why Spenser was keen to embellish his poetic language with ancient terms. Chaucer had been cited by John Foxe in Actes and Monuments as a Lollard (almost proto-Protestant) agitator, and some of his poetry noted in the canon of texts that advanced the reformist cause in the early days of resistance to Rome. By the time Spenser published The Shepheardes Calender, Chaucer's language had ideological associations with the 'primitive church', the pristine state of English Catholicism before its supposed contamination by Popish interference. The decision to use an archaic diction might thus be thought a central part of Spenser's particularly Protestant poetics.

If Spenser's archaism is nationalist, part of an effort to enrich English, basic to our understanding of his political and literary ambition, and a hallmark of his Protestant poetics, where can we find it? One of the particularly vexing problems of reading a linguistically experimental and innovative poet like Spenser at such a great historical distance is that it becomes very difficult to register exactly which parts of his verse qualify as innovative. What looks convincingly like archaism to us today might not, to an Elizabethan, have seemed strange at all. By contrast, words that we now accept as standard, or quasi-standard, might have seemed unfamiliarly archaic to Elizabethan readers. How can we separate out and distinguish those words that would have seemed archaic to an Elizabethan? There is of course no safe method--historical studies of language rarely afford such precision--but it is nonetheless possible to reconstruct some sense of Spenser's intentions by reading, as he did, in poets like Chaucer and Skelton. The resources presented in this part of Hap Hazard are designed to supplement that historical linguistic work by offering a kind of crib sheet, or several crib sheets: lists of hard words printed in Elizabethan editions of medieval texts, defining 'old and obscure' terms for contemporary readers. While many of these words, abstracted from Chaucer's works or from the works of similarly ancient authors, do not appear in Spenser's vocabulary, many others do; and as a whole the lists give a sense of the kinds of words, compounds, prefixes, suffixes, and other linguistic features that made old words seem old to Elizabethan readers.

This is a developing resource of historical linguistic materials relating to Spenser's experiments with archaism and neologism. If you know of a good contemporary hard-word list, or have some information on Spenser's word-use that it would be useful to share, please let me know by writing me here.


Andrew Zurcher
Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, 2005