Edmund Spenser and E K- a response to Michael Peverett

In a recent blog I made the statement that it is ‘glaringly obvious’ that E K is Edmund Spenser. This view has been challenged by Michael who points to his own ‘feebly indecisive’ remarks. Let me say at the outset how delighted I am that at least one reader of this blog cares about E K’s identity because I’m of the view that it’s really Quite Important. I also need to point out that most debates of this sort are utterly meaningless outside the narrow confines of the academy primarily because we will never know the answer but also because the answer doesn’t really matter. So, given that the identity of E K adds nothing to the quality or enjoyment of ‘The Shepheardes Calendar’, I shouldn’t care one way or the other just as I don’t have a view about the two-handed engine in ‘Lycidas’ and get annoyed by both sides of the debate about what exactly occurred at Todtnauberg.

In this instance it does matter, at least to me, because the epistle preceding the Calendar, in which E K justifies a number of devices, seems to outline a quite distinct manifesto which is carried through in Spenser’s later work and because the use of a self-penned gloss is utterly typical of the Spenser that exists in my head. In retrospect and after careful consideration, ‘glaringly’ may be an adjective too far because we all carry different Edmund Spenser’s about with us.

For those unfamiliar with the ‘Shepheardes Calendar’, it is the earliest surviving poem of any significance that we have and it moves away from the ‘standard’ pastoral sequence by using a range of verse forms across the twelve poems (one for each month). It demonstrates a degree of technical virtuosity and deploys a range of archaisms, a practice which is explained and justified in E K’s epistle.

There are three main factions on the E K debate:

  • E K Is Edward Kirke who also attended Pembroke College;
  • E K is not Edward Kirke but is not Edmund Spenser either;
  • E K is either Edmund Spenser or a combination of Edmund Spenser and Gabriel Harvey.

Michael seems to be opting for the second of these – at this stage it is probably useful to look at the evidence for each case. As will be seen, the hard evidence in support of any of these is very thin.

The evidence for Edward Kirke

According to Andrew Hadfield in the DNB, these are the facts upon which this argument is based;

  • he matriculated from Pembroke College in 1571, to years after Spenser- Gabriel Harvey was made a fellow of the college in 1570;
  • he was ordained rector at Risby on the institution of Sir Thomas Kyston who was the uncle of the Spenser sister of Althorp who make an appearance in ‘Colin Clouts Come Home Again’ (536-70) – a poem that can be read as an updating of the Calendar;
  • one of Kirke’s account books shows that he bought a ‘Shephard’s calender’ in 1582 for two shillings;
  • letters between Harvey and Spenser refer to ‘E K’ and to ‘Mystresse Kerke’.

As can be seen, this is making the facts work really quite hard. As an aside, as far as I can tell the only reason the Edward Kirke is in the DNB is due to the fact that he might be ‘E K’ even though Hardfield’s entry gently dismisses this claim.

E K as somebody else

David Shore probably provides the most cogent argument against the ‘E K as Spenser’ faction. Following C S Lewis he points out the differences in view between E K and Spenser with regrad to:

  • Marot, as in “and used of the French Poete Marot (if he be worthy of the name of a Poete);
  • fairies and elves (although Lewis’ reading of the gloss does seem one-sided);
  • Arthurian romance as the product of ‘fine fablers and lowd lyers.

Shore also makes the point that Spenser would not have written such a blatant piece of self-promotion as the epistle and goes on at length to find fault with the intellectual level of the gloss.

E K as Spenser

I’m the first to concede that the hard evidence here is even thinner than that outlined above but the soft evidence is much more compelling. The hard evidence (according to Thomas H Cain in the Yale edition) is that the same translation of Cicero is used in the gloss and in the first of the three letters to Harvery and that the mistake made when glossing ‘furies’ (Persephone instead of Tisiphone) is repeated in “Teares of the Muses”.

In terms of soft evidence, Cain makes the point that this device is more light-hearted than we currently think, that there’s more than a degree of the banteringv in-joke in both the epistle and the text. It is likely that this kind of material would find a ready audience around the Spenser/Harvey circle.

Shore undermines his own argument by pointing out that E K actually glides over the more contentious aspects of the sequence. This only makes sense if the gloss was composed purely as a gloss and not as part of the manifesto containe in the epistle. Viewed in this way, it should be reasonably obvious that both are more interested in justification than explanation.

Finally, what we know of Spenser suggests that he was one of those late Tudor grammar school boys with huge ambition- one of the men on the make who were delighted to gain wealth and status in Ireland that they could never have achieved at home. In short, a bit of a chancer (in the Raleigh mould) who would pen fulsome praise to himself and his abilities and (with a little assistance from Harvey) pass this off as the work of a disinterested third party…

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2 responses to “Edmund Spenser and E K- a response to Michael Peverett

  1. Thank you very much for responding in such detail. I’m starting to realize that this is moving well beyond my comfort-level with Elizabethan literary history, but that’s a good thing. We can agree, at any rate, about the Shephearde’s Calendar introduction containing important manifesto-style material that originated with Spenser and was endorsed by him.

    [I also learnt a lot from Nina Green’s essay:
    Who Was Spencer’s EK: Was He the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford? , which shouldn’t be ignored even though it emanates from within the despised Shakespeare-authorship subculture. (I don’t mean that I buy into her positive hypothesis). ]

    • The other things that I forgot to mention are about the similarities in language use and thought process between E K and Spenser. “Hereunto have I added a certain Glosse or scholion for thexposition of old wordes and harder phrases: which maner of gloseing and commenting, well I wote. will seeme straunge and rare in our tongue….” This is how Spenser thinks, this is how Spenser writes, not to mention “I scorne and spue out the rakehellye route of our ragged rymers”.

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