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The Hugh MacLean Lecture 2019: What Does Colin Clout Know, and How Does He Know It?
by Katherine Eggert

It’s been quite a year for Colin Clout. Such a year that he almost seems like a different person at the end of the calendar than at the beginning. Still a shepherd, but what a change in his shepherd skills! And what a change, I would argue, in the knowledge base that supports or doesn’t support those shepherd skills. Today, I’ll be exploring with you what constitutes Colin Clout’s knowledge base and what counts as knowledge acquisition for Spenser’s pastoral persona. While Colin’s acumen vastly expands from ‘Januarye’ to ‘December’ of The Shepheardes Calender, what I am going to propose, by the end of this talk, is that our last glimpses of Colin Clout in Book 6 of The Faerie Queene are of a shepherd who has given up, both on knowing and on thinking about how he knows.

What does Colin Clout know in the ‘Januarye’ eclogue? First, the basics. He knows how to pipe—and how to break his pipes. He knows how to complain. And he knows how to churlishly hand over Hobbinol’s daily gifts and courtesies, ‘His kiddes, his cracknelles, and his early fruit,’ to Rosalind (‘Januarye,’ 58).[1] That regifting is telling in the way that it draws an extreme contrast between Colin’s and Hobbinol’s pastoral skills, in the process delineating what Colin does not know. Even though it is only January, Hobbinol seems to have a superabundant supply of foodstuffs that you would expect him to have access to only later in the spring—namely, baby goats and ‘early fruit.’ We are not sure whether Hobbinol obtains these dainties through husbandry or through trade, but either way, the fact that he can do so draws attention to Colin’s own shortcomings. Whereas Hobbinol can produce livestock and delicious edibles out of season, Colin seems to have no clear idea of either productivity or season.

Which leads me to this surmise: it has often been observed that Colin Clout is not a terribly attentive shepherd in the ‘Januarye’ eclogue, but what has never been argued, as far as I have been able to tell, is that he simply does not know how to be a good shepherd; he has not learned his craft. But only pastoral ignorance explains why in the world Colin is leading his flock out into the January landscape. Yes, it is true that having been penned up for quite awhile has done his sheep harm: ‘So faynt they woxe, and feeble in the folde, / That now unnethes their feete could them uphold’ (‘Januarye,’ 5-6). But Colin’s taking them out into ‘barrein ground, whome winters wrath hath wasted’ seems hardly a remedy for their wasted condition (‘Januarye,’ 19). Especially since, as it turns out, the sheep’s frail state is not the result of unavoidable winter chill and winter dearth but of Colin’s doing. Their ‘knees,’ he admits, ‘are weak through fast and evill fare’ (‘Januarye,’ 44). He’s fed them haphazardly, and he’s fed them dreck.

Colin himself would have us believe that his sheep understand that it’s really he who suffers. He says to his ‘feeble flock’ that they ‘Mayst witnesse well by thy ill governement, / Thy maysters mind is overcome with care.’ So that we don’t miss the point, he aligns the sheep’s plight with his own by means of parallelism and chiasmus that is positively euphuistic in its heavy-handedness: ‘Thou weake, I wanne: thou leane, I quite forlorne: / With mourning pyne I, you with pyning mourne’ (‘Januarye,’ 45-48). The pathetic fallacy is strong in Colin—and it is just as strongly and patently and damagingly wrong. The young shepherd who imagines the ground in January is barren because it has been ‘made a myrrhour’ of his own plight also imagines that his sheep are love-lorn rather than what they are: starving (‘Januarye,’ 20). The level of stupidity seems much higher here than what Colin would like us and his sheep to believe, that he has been inattentive through being ‘overcome with care’ (‘Januarye,’ 46). The narrative depiction of Colin at this eclogue’s end, as he drives his sheep homeward ‘halfe in despight’ (‘Januarye,’ 76) brings into relief the willfulness and narcissism of Colin’s ignorance: a shepherd who half despises his sheep would rather imagine them hanging their heads in sympathy for his human woes than understand how to care for their ovine needs. Surely, among the bare minimum of things a shepherd is expected to learn is how to care for sheep. But Colin’s half loathing of his flock indicates to me that he hasn’t learned, and it is for lack of trying that he hasn’t.

My harsh assessment of Colin’s anti-educational and even anti-vocational demeanor ought, perhaps, to be meliorated by the poem’s insistence that shepherds’ simplicity is a matter of custom and decorum rather than true ignorance. E. K. advises us in his notes on ‘Aprill,’ for example, that Colin calls the Queen ‘Elysa’ because a shepherd ought not appear to know better. Although it seems as if Colin misspeaks ‘as through rudenesse tripping in her name,’ in actual fact he does so on purpose, his rudeness a graceful acknowledgment that it is ‘very unfit, that a shepheards boy brought up in the shepefold, should know, or ever seme to have heard of a Queenes roialty’ (78-79). Similarly, after rehearsing scholarly and historical arguments about when to begin the calendrical year, the General Argument notes that ‘our Authour … thinketh it fittest according to the simplicitie of commen understanding, to begin with Januarie’ (25). It sounds at first as if ‘our Authour’ has made this decision so that simple, common folk, possessed of ‘the simplicitie of common understanding’—of whom shepherds, perhaps, are the prototypical examples—might grasp the poem’s calendrical structure. But then the General Argument complicates this condescension by declaring that ‘our Authour’ made this decision ‘wening it perhaps no decorum, that Shepheard should be seen in matter of so deepe insight’ (25). It’s unclear here whether the determination of decorum is the author’s, or the shepherds’ own. Perhaps the author ‘wenes’ the decorum of shepherds not by means of his own linguistic or rhetorical wisdom, but because he is aware of how shepherds enforce the decorum of feigned ignorance upon themselves, in the same way that they pretend not to be able to pronounce the name ‘Elizabeth.’ A decorous ignorance is, then, a kind of knowledge. Moreover, it’s supported through its own type of knowledge acquisition, one that involves not book learning but rather habit and the accustomed observance of social mores. Shepherds in this regard resemble ‘our Authour’ himself, whom the Epistle describes as manifesting a ‘seemely simplycitie of handeling his matter’ (14). In the author’s case, simplicity includes the use of archaisms that he has picked up not intentionally, but merely through osmosis: ‘how could it be, … 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’ (14). One learns simplicity, but not through dint of effort: it’s literally in the air as well as in the ear.

So far, then, in our taxonomy of knowledge in The Shepheardes Calender we have two options: willful ignorance on the one hand, and unforced learning on the other. The poem also, however, suggests a third option: perhaps Colin has engaged deliberately in a structured knowledge acquisition process, rather than merely soaking knowledge up. In other words. perhaps Colin Clout is, in the more conventional sense, a student, and probably a very good one at that. This possibility is established by E. K. in the Epistle by way of analogy. E. K. notes that just as Lydgate called Chaucer ‘the Loadestarre of our Language,’ so too does Colin Clout compare Chaucer to Virgil (13).[2] And Lydgate, as the Epistle tells us, was a ‘worthy scholler’ of his ‘maister’ Chaucer (13). Perhaps, then, E. K. is claiming that Colin, having recognized Chaucer’s excellence the way Lydgate does, is a worthy student of Chaucer’s, too. Here we have E.K. recognizing, very early in Spenser’s career, what Jeff Dolven calls Spenser’s propensity to ‘pedagogical inquiries.’[3] Dolven’s focus is on the characters in The Faerie Queene, who aren’t aware that they’re in a scene of instruction, no matter how much they either learn or fail to learn. Colin Clout, in contrast, is set up in E. K.’s Epistle as fully aware of his engaging in a learning process as mediated through his choice of literary precedent.

When we get to ‘June,’ we find a combination of the modes of learning I have described for Colin thus far. In ‘June,’ Colin is still remarkably uninterested in what it would take to raise sheep successfully. The sharp shepherd Hobbinol advises him that there’s much better ground for feeding his flock than the hills to which Colin has betaken himself, hills on which there seems to be nothing green, even at midsummer: 

Then if by me thou list advised be,
Forsake the soyle, that so doth thee bewitch:
Leave me those hilles, where harbrough nis to see,
Nor holybush, nor brere, nor winding witche:
And to the dales resort, where shepheards ritch,
And fruictfull flocks bene every where to see. (‘June,’ 17-22)

Despite this wise counsel from his expert colleague, however, Colin seems not to comprehend this basic lesson that successful shepherds feed their sheep in the valleys, not on the hills. Less than a hundred lines later, Colin asserts the rather muddled notion that shepherds their ‘flocks do feede, / Whether on hylls, or dales, or other where’ (‘June,’ 106-107; emphasis added). The inescapable implication is that when it comes to sheep and their care, Colin seems still to be not just ignorant but willfully so. No wonder that at the end of this eclogue, Hobbinol has to remind the obtuse Colin of the rather obvious pastoral principle that because night is coming on, ‘now is time, I gesse, homeward to goe’ (‘June,’ 117). It would never to occur to Colin himself to think so.

And yet this is also an eclogue in which Colin refers to having been explicitly instructed in the art of poetry: ‘The God of shepheards Tityrus … / taught me homely, as I can, to make’ (‘June,’ 81-82). In case you missed E. K.’s decoding of this pastoral pseudonym in the Epistle, his gloss of these lines again calls out Tityrus as Chaucer. And Colin in turn makes clear in his account of his own knowledge acquisition that Chaucer’s predecessor vernacular has replaced classical topoi. When Hobbinol recounts how he has witnessed the Muses running toward the sound of Colin’s piping, only to see them then recoil in shame when they saw that it was a shepherd who was beating them at their own art, Colin replies, ‘Of Muses Hobbinol, I conne no skill’ (‘June,’ 65). This line’s meaning is slyly dual. On the one hand, Colin voices the stance of decorous ignorance that we have already seen. It is simply unseemly for a shepherd to profess any knowledge of the Muses, whom Colin calls ‘daughters of the hyghest Jove’ (‘June,’ 66), and thus, he tells us, he has no knowledge (‘I conne no skill’) of the Muses. We almost imagine him tugging his forelock. But the line may also be read as Colin’s pointed rejection of the Muses’ instruction: ‘I learn (‘conne’) no knowledge (‘skill’) from the Muses.’ Having engaged Tityrus, not the Muses, as his teacher, Colin has nothing to learn from them; he bests them without their tutelage.

The nature of Colin’s training in turn rewrites the nature of poetic achievement. Learning his Chaucerian lesson well enough might allow Colin to reframe the ultimate classical scene of poetic accomplishment as a vernacular scene of poetic teaching. If he truly had Tityrus’s skill, Colin says, he would become Orpheus. Colin’s Orpheus, however, would be not simply a poet but also a schoolmaster: ‘I soone would learne these woods, to wayle my woe, / And teache the trees, their trickling teares to shedde’ (‘June,’ 95-96; emphasis added).[4] Colin Clout’s agenda merges here with the Spenserian aim familiar to us from Richard Helgerson’s Forms of Nationhood: moving beyond earlier humanism’s reverence for classical precedent and instead establishing English poetry as the kingdom of our own language.[5] However, Colin Clout’s experience in ‘June’ also supplies a new texture to how that vernacular kingdom gets established: not through ambient absorption, as the Epistle would have it, but rather through structured and applied efforts of teaching and learning.

What, then, do we make of the vast expansion of Colin Clout’s knowledge base by the time ‘December’ rolls around? And what do we make of his not only knowing more, but knowing through other means than he previously did? Indeed, the ‘December’ eclogue makes the shift from knowing poetry to knowing other topics by other means an explicit part of the poem’s structure. In the springtime of his years, according to this eclogue’s opening narration, Colin learned as he said he did back in ‘June’: Colin ‘wel could pype and singe, / For he of Tityrus his songs did lere’ (‘December,’ 3-4). E. K.’s wonderfully irritable gloss identifies Colin’s teacher Tityrus once again: ‘Chaucer: as hath bene oft sayd’ (209). Here, though, the mode by which Colin learned in those days is further elucidated by the addition of a new teacher, a ‘good old shephearde’ by the name of Wrenock, usually associated by editors with Spenser’s schoolmaster at the Merchant Taylor’s School, Richard Mulcaster (‘December,’ 41). Colin relates that because he was spotted as being ‘Somedele ybent to song and musicks mirth,’ Wrenock ‘Made me by arte more cunning in the same’ (‘December,’ 40, 42). Note the repetition from ‘June’ of the linguistic root for knowing: Colin said in ‘June’ that ‘I conne no skill’ of the Muses, whereas here in ‘December’ he remembers Wrenock as having made him more ‘cunning’ in the art of song (‘June,’ 65; ‘December,’ 42; emphasis added). Both ‘conne’ and ‘cunning’ imply being well versed, the kind of knowledge you get through diligent study or long training. The kind of knowledge, for example, that you get through being taught the humanistic arts.

The case is altered, however, by the time Colin relates in this eclogue the second, summer season of his years. Astonishingly, after all this time of slipshod shepherding, Colin seems to have applied himself diligently to learning practical skills. He learned, he says, how to make ‘fine cages for the Nightingale, / And Baskets of bulrushes’ (‘December,’ 79-80). He got quite good at hunting beasts and catching fish. He was even finally moved to acquire some suitable timber and make some decent sheep-cotes, ‘Such as might save my sheepe and me fro shame’ (‘December,’ 78). At last, Colin has devoted himself to obtaining the skills of animal husbandry that serve a shepherd and rural man well.

There is yet another set of skills that Colin has picked up in these years, however, that vaults him into a far different category of disciplinary knowledge and a far different method of knowledge acquisition:

I learned als the signes of heaven to ken,
How Phoebe  fayles, where Venus sittes and when.
And tryed time yet taught me greater thinges,
The sodain rysing of the raging seas:
The soothe of byrds by beating of their wings,
The power of herbs, both which can hurt and ease:
And which be wont tenrage the restlesse sheepe,
And which be wont to work eternall sleepe. (‘December,’ 83-90)

In these lines, Colin seems to have gained more than the ‘cunning’ kind of knowledge of the lyric arts of which he previously spoke. He also seems to have become something more than an able shepherd and hunter. He has become a ‘cunning man’ in the sense of being an astrologer, an herbalist, perhaps even a magician who can raise the raging seas and know what is ‘soothe’ or truth in the mind of a bird.[6] These new arenas of knowledge, to my mind, are notable for two reasons: they are affiliated with new topics associated with natural philosophy, and they extend beyond the modes of learning that Colin has employed so far. Heretofore, Colin has learned imitatively, humanistically, or practically: he can speak as a shepherd should, he can emulate a predecessor poet, and he can make a sheep-pen or catch fish in a basket. Now he is learning scientifically and experimentally: he understands not only cause and effect, but also how to adjust the cause so as to obtain the desired effect. At least that is what I hear in his knowledge of ‘The power of herbs, both which can hurt and ease.’ To me, this sounds like not just the knowledge of which herbs to let your sheep graze upon, but also the ability to accurately titrate the potency of herbal treatments so that they can either cure or kill. Colin Clout now quite astonishingly knows, if he needs to, not just how to sing but also how to ‘work eternall sleepe’ or commit veterinary assault—’ewe-cide,’ we might call it.

What I want to emphasize, though, is not only how Colin Clout’s field of knowledge and modes of knowledge acquisition have expanded, but also how the ‘December’ eclogue registers such an expansion as a kind of epistemic crisis. First of all, as Colin is the first to admit, all of this skill has gone for naught in the face of his having failed to win Rosalind’s favor. Second, and more important, Colin ties himself into veritable linguistic knots when he describes how he has failed as an herbalist to cure his own inner hurt: 

But ah unwise and witlesse Colin cloute,
That kydst the hidden kinds of many a wede:
Yet kydst not ene to cure thy sore hart roote,
Whose ranckling wound as yet does rifelye bleede. (‘December,’ 91-94)

Let me explain how I see epistemic crisis in these lines. I take very seriously Evelyn Tribble’s contention that cognition, not only in lived experience but also in acute literary representation of lived experience, is a distributed network that involves both neuro-biological processes and material and social environments.[7] I also take seriously Steven Mullaney’s argument, however, that massive disturbances in social, political, or theological environments can cause equally massive disturbances in individuals’ sense of their own ability to know anything well at all. In the face of incomprehensible change, Mullaney says, not only emotion but also cognition itself can feel ‘unmoored.’[8] On the face of it, Colin’s botanical comments that I have just quoted seem to be in Colin’s familiar vein of love complaint: histrionic, but not cataclysmic. Looking closer, however, we find an epistemic rift so severe that Spenser has found it necessary to concoct a new word for how one knows things. Colin ‘kydst the hidden kinds of many a wede: / Yet kydst not ene to cure thy sore hart roote’ (‘December,’ 92-93; emphasis added). Spenser would have gotten the word ‘kyd’ from Lydgate. But in Lydgate, ‘kyd’ always means ‘to exhibit’ or ‘to tell’ or ‘to reveal’; it never means ‘to understand’ or ‘to know.’[9] Lydgate would never use ‘kyd’ to describe understanding the ‘hidden’ qualities of plants and what they will do to a person or a creature when applied or ingested. And yet that is how Colin Clout uses the word, and it is only here in his poetry that Spenser uses it. Knowing the occult properties of plants and their effect is evidently so important and so innovative that it requires a word to be wrenched from its proper meaning and given both a new meaning and a unique application.

Within the text of the ‘December’ eclogue itself, it is difficult to say why Colin’s new knowledge vectors provoke such a linguistic rupture. It is not as if language otherwise proves inadequate to his newfound capacities. And it is not as if this new word marks a kind of transfiguration of Colin into the figure of the magus. Quite the contrary: the minute Colin employs the verb ‘kydst,’ his occult skill seems to diminish. Not only can he not cure his own wound, but he immediately turns himself from an herbalist into a mangled botanical appendage, a ‘sore harte roote’ (‘December,’ 93). But I think we can turn to historical context to explain why and how the end of The Shepheardes Calender might signal a crisis in epistemology. The context has to do with how modes of knowledge compete in the late sixteenth century, in a manner similar to the way they compete in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This hypothesis is quite speculative and preliminary, I warn you, and I thank you in advance for indulging me.

I begin by returning us to the fact that among his other flourishing new abilities in the ‘December’ eclogue, Colin Clout has become adept at astrology: ‘I learned als the signes of heaven to ken, / How Phoebe fayles, where Venus sittes and when’ (‘December,’ 83-84). E. K. comfortingly and conservatively explains away Colin’s astrological activities in these lines as appropriate to a shepherd’s normal skill set and to the pastoral literary tradition: ‘All which skill in starres being convenient for shepheardes to knowe as Theocritus and the rest use’ (210). But it seems to me that something more portentous and less predictable is involved in this kind of astrological prediction. After all, Colin Clout is launched into this more skillful and more occult stage of his career through astrological portent. The summer in which Colin takes up natural philosophy is an usually hot one because ‘A comett stired up that unkindly heate’ (‘December,’ 59). I will not go so far as to try to identify which historical comet, exactly, streamed across Colin’s summer sky, but I will note that comets are not especially Theocritan or Virgilian when they appear in late sixteenth-century literature. They are current and contemporary and, above all, novel. Along with the supernova of 1572, first described by Tycho Brahe, the late sixteenth century saw the appearance in European skies of an unprecedented number of comets perceptible to the naked eye. In just seven years immediately following the appearance of Brahe’s supernova, there were four remarkable comets: one in 1573, one in 1576, an especially bright one in 1577, and one in 1579. In total, then, there were no less than five significant unforeseen astrological events in the decade in which the Shepheardes Calendar was written.[10] Among these celestial phenomena, only the 1572 supernova and the 1577 comet have retained their renown, because Brahe used both of them as evidence that classical thinking, which generally tended to affirm the unchanging nature of the celestial realm, could not satisfactorily account for the appearance of new celestial bodies. In truth, comets’ possible disproof of both Aristotelian and Ptolemaic cosmology had been under discussion throughout the sixteenth century; Brahe was not the first to propose this thesis.[11] But comets made the 1570s a significant decade for astronomical uncertainty not simply because of their novelty, but because of their frequency, which seemed unprecedented and was certainly unpredicted by previous cosmological models. Celestial innovation seemed to have become the new normal. The issue, then, was not only what comets were—what were they made of? where did they come from? were they sublunary or superlunary?—but when they were. Their lack of predictability made them dangerous. As John Donne would later write, ‘no Almanack tells us, when a blazing starre will break out, the matter is carried up in secret; .  . . and that which is most secret, is most dangerous.’[12]

In his Hugh MacLean lecture five years ago, Joseph Loewenstein expressed the opinion that the correspondence between Spenser and Gabriel Harvey published in 1580, just after the appearance of The Shepheardes Calender, expresses the two friends’ ‘longing to know and shape a future that holds itself frustratingly beyond their grasp and knowledge.’ Loewenstein also sees in these letters the Spenserian ‘sensitivity to the predicament of uncertainty’ that will later permeate The Faerie Queene.[13] At the time the letters appeared, Spenser and Harvey had considerable personal, occupational, and political reasons to be uncertain about the future. What I am suggesting is that we can add cosmological causes to that list.

At the same time, though, I would also suggest that Colin Clout’s sudden mastery of astrology gestures toward those of Spenser’s contemporaries who were claiming to have successfully managed that uncertainty. Astrology, as it turns out, had a surprising disciplinary status in the 1570s and early 1580s. Among some of Spenser’s acquaintance or adjacent to Spenser’s circle, astrology—not what we would now call astronomy, but true astrology—was being proposed as a replacement for Aristotelian science, just as Peter Ramus’s method was being proposed as a replacement for Aristotelian logic. Why would you want astrology instead of Aristotle’s Meteorology when it comes to explaining, say, comets? Because astrology seemed accurately predictive of the future. John Dee, for example, understood his astrological forecasts as part and parcel of his prescient understanding of mathematics as not only governing the universe but predicting how things both celestial and terrestrial might move and change.[14] Two of Dee’s students were Gabriel Harvey’s brothers, Richard and John Harvey, both of whom subscribed to the prediction promulgated by the Bohemian astrologer Cyprian Leowitz that the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter coming up in 1583 would coincide with a set of apocalyptic events.[15] It is important to stress here that these astrological practitioners viewed their celestial measurements and forecasts as precisely the opposite of mystical mumbo-jumbo; they intended them as precise and up-to-date science. In this context, we might view Colin Clout’s knowledge of eclipses and of the position of Venus in the same light as his knowledge of herbal medicine: as an experimentalist and proto-scientific practice of calibrating cause and effect to achieve the desired results. At least for a short time, astrology was the STEM field of its day, a hardheaded and serious alternative to the increasingly frivolous and useless discipline of the humane letters.

This context might also encourage us to take more seriously those astrological signs in the sky in The Shepheardes Calender’s woodcuts: they are not just decorative reminders of the calendrical cycle or allegorical commentary on the eclogues but also a mode of projecting with some confidence what is to come. The ties of specific signs to specific predictions made by John Dee’s astrological pupils are suggestive. For example, Leowitz had put the 1583 conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the constellation of Aries, an astrological sign associated with the Hapsburgs, and had predicted a golden Hapsburgian age commencing in April 1583. Dee’s associate James Sandford, however, reinterpreted this beneficent apocalyptic fallout as applying not to the Holy Roman Empire but to the realm of Queen Elizabeth (and likely leading, in her case, to a further great change to come about in 1588).[16] And so The Shepheardes Calender’s encomium of Elizabeth in the month of April, under the sign of Aries, may owe its placement not only to an imitation of Virgil’s fourth eclogue but also to an astrological reading of a celestial event that, at the time of Spenser’s publication of his poem, was a mere four years hence. If you want to predict the future of your nation—or indeed, of your own mind—with accuracy, put down your Virgil and pick up your chart of the stars.[17]

In the end, it did not go well for the likes of the two youngest Harvey brothers. Glyn Parry has argued that newly influential figures in the Elizabethan court of the 1580s and beyond, like Richard Whitgift and Christopher Hatton, worked to undermine and destroy the credibility of predictive astrology, fearing that such discourse would become the tool of insurrection rather than of supporting the crown.[18] Richard Harvey was mocked in derisive ballads and in the onstage comedy of Richard Tarlton, and John Harvey recanted many of his astrological opinions.[19] What we also know, though, is that this retreat of astrology as a proto-new science was not matched by a resurgence of confidence in humanistic letters. Drawing on the foundational work of scholars such as Hiram Haydn, I (like others) have argued that humanism was showing its age in England as early as the 1570s, and that iconoclastic, counter-humanistic thinkers like Montaigne, Paracelsus, and Bruno found such a foothold in England as the sixteenth century waned in part because humanism as a civic and educational program had proved not to be as powerful as many had hoped.[20]

My sense is that when we last see Colin Clout, on The Faerie Queene’s Mount Acidale, we are getting at least a partial reminiscence of Colin Clout’s expanded knowledge practice in The Shepheardes Calender. But we are also getting a portrayal of that knowledge practice’s ultimate dead end, as well as a portrayal of the quandary in which learning is left. The dance of the Graces on Mount Acidale is rapturous, mystical, and even, as Patrick Cheney has argued, sublime.[21] But for all its raptures, all of its delights, and all of its sublimity, this episode also represents another epistemic failure. Certainly it is so for Calidore, who breaks into the dance ‘resoluing, what it was, to know,’ only to see the maidens vanish, ‘which way he neuer knew’ (6.10.17-18).[22] But it is also a failure, in some ways, for Colin Clout himself and for the varieties of knowledge he eventually mastered in The Shepheardes Calender. While he is perhaps even better at piping than before—the mythological maidens here, unlike the Muses in ‘June,’ do not flee once they realize it’s a lowly shepherd who plays so well—he is no longer Orphic in his powers. Pipe as he may, proficient as he is, he cannot compel the maidens to draw near, ‘For being gone, none can them bring in place, / But whom they of them selues list so to grace’ (6.10.20). Even Colin’s former knowledge of how to maintain decorum through the appearance of simplicity seems to be somewhat strained. His technique for addressing his beloved is an unsortable mixture of decorously naming her a ‘countrey lasse’ and Gloriana’s ‘poore handmayd,’ on the one hand, and hubristically elevating her to goddesshood proclaimed alongside Gloriana’s fame, on the other (6.10.25, 28).

As for Colin Clout’s scientific skill, it seems to reappear in the Mount Acidale episode only as signs evacuated of interpretive possibility. The dance takes place in two concentric circles, a circle of a hundred women outside a circle of three Graces, with Colin’s country lass in the middle. While each of these numbers—one, three, and the square of ten—is mathematically significant as an indicator of perfection, the ratio of 1:3:100, as near as I can tell, has no special mathematical portent whatsoever. The same might be said of the astrological constellation that presides above the dance, Ariadne’s crown or the Corona Borealis. It’s a legible metaphor, as critics have argued, for cosmological order of one kind or another, such as the Ptolemaic universe (so say Patrick Cheney and P. J. Klemp).[23] It’s even legible as a constellation connected with Queen Elizabeth’s nativity, as Frances Yates has argued.[24] But beyond that, it has no predictive value for Colin himself in terms of the scene at hand, not unless we want to associate Ariadne’s banishment or Elizabeth’s childlessness with Colin Clout’s country lass. 

Is this the end of pastoral’s offering a successive development of learning practices? Is there no learning here at all? The best I can offer is the possibility that Mount Acidale is such a radically different episteme that Colin Clout himself has no access to it and no vocabulary for it. That episteme might be called wonder, and it might be encapsulated in the unusual way in which the narrative introduces the constellation of the Corona Borealis:

Looke how the Crowne, which Ariadne wore
… … … … … … … … … … … … … … …
Being now placed in the firmament,
Through the bright heauen doth her beams display… . (6.10.13)

In The Passions of the Soul, Descartes describes wonder as that pause or interface between encounter and knowledge where the unknown phenomenon is being taken into the mind but has not yet been possessed by the mind. Luce Irigaray, in turn, imagines this Cartesian interface of wonder as an action that need not proceed on to the ownership that knowledge so often implies. ‘A wonder that lasts,’ Irigaray calls it, ‘In which the stake is to wonder again and again without ever stopping. To steer incessantly toward the unpublished.’[25] Wonder is a feeling, a passion; but it is also a new kind of thinking, a thinking that need never come to conclusions about the future or about cause and effect. But it is an entree to understanding nonetheless. That new kind of thinking appears on Mount Acidale when, setting Colin Clout’s expertise aside in favor of addressing us directly, the poem invites us here not just to ‘look at,’ but to ‘Looke how.’  

There is motion and action and light and, one might thus say, even physics to be observed in this canto’s presiding constellation. That observation is not astrological; it’s not predictive. But ‘looking how’ a star works, or how a plant grows, or how a poem operates in this Spenserian fashion might revive an early modern combination of observation and wonder as a new model for healing the breach between the sciences and the arts. If there is an epistemic crisis on Mount Acidale, it is a crisis in a good cause. Colin Clout can’t see his way out of it, but we can. Just look how.[26]

Katherine Eggert

University of Colorado Boulder


[1] Edmund Spenser, The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, ed. William A. Oram et al. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989). All further citations of The Shepheardes Calender are from this edition. The eclogues are cited by line number, and the prose material by page number.

[2] E. K. is referring to ‘June,’ discussed below.

[3] Jeff Dolven, Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 137.

[4] Orpheus’s Neoplatonic reputation was that he was a teacher in the sense that his poetry was a force of civilization. As Henry Peacham puts it, ‘what were the songs of … Orpheus but Naturall and Morall Philosophie, sweetened with the pleasaunce of Numbers, that Rudenesse and Barbarisme might the better taste and digest the lessons of ciuilitie?’ (The Compleat Gentleman [London, 1622], 79). Spenser alludes to Orpheus’s civilizing skills frequently—in, for example, The Shepheardes Calendar’s October eclogue, Book 4 of The Faerie Queene, ‘Virgil’s Gnat,’ and ‘The Ruines of Time.’ To my knowledge, however, Spenser gives the impression that Orpheus taught (rather than charmed or enchanted or tamed) the animal, vegetable, or mineral creatures or creations of nature only here in ‘June.’

[5] Richard Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 35.

[6] It is a bit of a stretch, I acknowledge, to read ‘The sodain rysing of the raging seas’ in the sense of Colin’s being able to raise the raging seas. The OED does record ‘rise’ as a transitive verb in the sixteenth century, used in the sense of ‘raise to life’ (‘rise, v.,’ OED Online. March 2019. Oxford University Press. [accessed 30 May 2019]). Still, I would not read ‘rise’ as attesting to Colin’s magical powers if it were not for the subsequent line, in which Colin understands the ‘soothe’ of birds by the beating of their wings. This magicianship is not implied in Marot’s ‘Eglogue du Roy,’ which ‘December’ otherwise closely imitates. In Marot, knowledge has to do with understanding nature but not with plumbing the depths of unfathomable secrets like this. See Owen J. Reamer, ‘Spenser’s Debt to Marot—Re-examined,’ Texas Studies in Literature and Language 10 (Winter 1969): 504-27.

[7] Evelyn B. Tribble, Cognition in the Globe: Attention and Memory in Shakespeare’s Theatre (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 7.

[8] Steven Mullaney, The Reformation of Emotions in the Age of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 5.

[9] For example, Lydgate’s Troy Book, which Spenser certainly read, uses ‘kyd’ as ‘revealed’ when Priam realizes that deception has led to his city’s destruction:

And now the galle of conspiracioun,
That under sugre of symulacioun
Hath so longe closid ben and hidde,
In dede is now execut and kyd. 

(John Lydgate, Troy Book: Selections, ed. Robert R. Edwards [Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1998], 4.6321-24.) Kyd, also spelled as kithe and  other similar variants, did exist as a Middle English verb meaning ‘to know’ or ‘to understand’; however, this sense seems to have been rare, and the Middle English Dictionary cites as post-Anglo Saxon uses only the Proverbs of Alfred (c. 1150), the early fourteenth-century Cursor Mundi, and the mid-fourteenth century William of Palerne (‘kīthen v,’ Middle English Dictionary, ed. Robert E. Lewis, et al. [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1952-2001]; online edition in Middle English Compendium, ed. Frances McSparran, et al. [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 2000-2018],, accessed 31 May 2019). Both uses of kyd or kithe, as well as the past particle couth, meaning ‘revealed,’ ‘known,’ or ‘familiar,’ derive from Old English cūþ, past participle of of cunnan, ‘to know.’ Jean Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse (London, 1530) mistakenly cites Lydgate as using ‘kydde’ to mean ‘to know,’ noting also, however, that ‘this term is nat yet in vse’ (2v). Citing ‘December,’ for which E. K. glosses ‘kidst’ as ‘knewest’ (211), the OED in turn declares that Spenser has ‘misused’ the verb in the same fashion as Palsgrave (‘kyd | kydde, v.,’ OED Online. March 2019. Oxford University Press. [accessed 31 May 2019]). While Palsgrave’s citation of Lydgate may well be a mere mistake,  Spenser’s extensive acquaintance with Lydgate makes it highly unlikely that Spenser’s use of ‘kidst’ to mean ‘knew’ is anything but a purposeful shifting of the verb away from its Lydgatean usage.

[10] Fifteen more comets would be seen in England before 1607. For these comets, the unusual nature of their frequency, and their appearance in English literary and other texts of the time, see David H. Levy, The Sky in Early Modern English Literature: A Study of Allusions to Celestial Events in Elizabethan and Jacobean Writing, 1572-1620 (New York: Springer, 2011), 13-26. Levy points out the comet in ‘December’ of The Shepheardes Calender and speculates that it refers either to a comet that appeared in 1579 or to the particularly bright ‘great comet’ of 1577 (Levy 15, Table 2.1).

[11] See C. Doris Hellman, The Comet of 1577: Its Place in the History of Astronomy (New York: AMS Press, 1944).

[12] John Donne, ‘10. Meditation,’ in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, ed. Anthony Raspa (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 52.

[13] Joseph Loewenstein, ‘The Literary Biography of a Collective: The Familiar Letters of G.H. and Signior Immerito,’ Spenser Review 43.1.1 (Spring-Summer 2013),, accessed 30 May 2019.

[14] See Deborah E. Harkness, John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 133-214; and Glyn Parry, The Arch-Conjuror of England: John Dee (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2011).

[15] Glyn Parry, ‘John Dee and the Magical Origins of the British Empire,’ New Dawn 133 (July-August 2012),, accessed 30 May 2019.

[16] Parry, ‘John Dee and the Magical Origins of the British Empire’; Parry, The Arch-Conjuror of England, 152.

[17] Gerard Passannante details how the certainty of astrology was seized upon by some in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as an antidote to the careening atoms of Epicurean materialism and to the unexpected brain-swerves that materialism might cause; see Catastrophizing: Materialism and the Making of Disaster (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 79-113.

[18] Parry, The Arch-Conjurer of England, 207-16.

[19] Bernard Capp, ‘Harvey, Richard (bap. 1560, d. 1630), astrologer and polemicist,’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004),, accessed 30 May 2019; ‘Harvey, John (bap. 1564, d. 1592), astrologer,’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004),, accessed 30 May 2019.

[20] Hiram Haydn, The Counter-Renaissance (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1950); Katherine Eggert, Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015),14-54.

[21] Patrick Cheney, English Authorship and the Early Modern  Sublime: Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 81-87.

[22] Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2001). All further citations are from this edition.

[23] Patrick Cheney and P. J. Klemp, ‘Spenser’s Dance of the Graces and the Ptolemaic Universe,’ Studia Neophilologica 56 (1984): 27-33.

[24] Frances A. Yates, Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1977), 73-74.

[25] Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984), 80-81. For the importance of wonder to the emergence of early modern science, see Loraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998).

[26] I am grateful to the International Spenser Society and especially to its president Tiffany Werth for the kind invitation to present this lecture, and I thank the attendees in Chicago for their stimulating and thought-provoking questions, comments, and discussion. Professor Werth’s suggestions before and after the lecture have been especially helpful. I also thank Glyn Parry for discussing with me the Harvey brothers and astrology in Elizabethan court and intellectual circles.


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Cite as:

Katherine Eggert, "The Hugh MacLean Lecture 2019: What Does Colin Clout Know, and How Does He Know It?," Spenser Review 49.2.1 (Spring-Summer 2019). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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