In Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender for July there is a conversation between two shepherds about the relative merits of prominence and obscurity. Thomalin says:”He that strives to touch the starres, oft stumbles at a strawe”, while Morrell is of the view that Thomalin should climb his hill:
What ho, thou jollye shepheardes swayne
come up the hyll to me:
Better is, than the lowly playne
als for thy flocke and thee.
The hill is allegorically conjectured as a place of importance. But Thomalin will have none of it, fearing the consequences of such presumption. Hills are dangerous places. As the gloss puts it, he “takes occasion to prayse the mean and the lowly state as that wherein is safetye”. Morrel’s reply is that “perfect felicitie dwelleth in supremacie”. The relative merits of hill and dale are thus discussed in the guise of rustic conversation which is also an allegorical vehicle for observations on religious enthusiasms as opposed to worldly pragmatism.
There is also a statement about poetic diction and style here. In the June entry Colin Clout (alias Spenser) had said “I never lyst presume to Parnasse hyll”. The pastoral conventions of retreat and the quiet life also reflect a commitment to native literary style (a conscious return to Chaucer) and avoidance of fancy literary language in favour of simpler, more homely (though archaic) diction. If this also reflected the contemporary conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism , it only shows how difficult it is to separate art from politics, culture from the exercise of power. Spenser later became involved in the exercise of power in Ireland. As with Virgil, his own progression from pastoral to epic also reflects – if not allegorically at least figuratively – a progression from the politics of retreat to those of engagement.
His ploughshare must become a sword; his shepherd’s crook a sophisticated pen. And so the hill is climbed and “perfect felicitie” achieved. Or perhaps not. Returned from his Irish campaigns he died in London in the words of Ben Jonson,“for lack of bread”. Posterity was kinder to him and he has a tomb next to Chaucer’s in Westminster Abbey. So between Thomalin’s In medio virtus and Morrell’s In summo felictitas, we might conclude, as a modern poet did of Virgil, that
They gave him for his faith a happy lot:
The waving of the meadows in his song
And the spontaneous laurel at his tomb.
(Oliver St John Gogarty)
Or, nearer his own time, the words of Dekker:
“Grave Spenser was no sooner entered into this chapell of Apollo but these elders, Fathers of the divine Furie, gave him a Laurer and sung his welcome … closing their lippes in silence and turning all their eares for attention, to heare him sing out the rest of his Faerie Queene’s praises.”