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  • Prudence and Her Silence: Spenser’s Use of Chaucer’s Melibee
  • Judith H. Anderson

In an important recent essay on the relation of Spenser’s late lyrics to The Faerie Queene, Paul Alpers is especially concerned to defend Spenser’s Melibee, the kindly old shepherd destroyed in the sixth book by marauding brigands, from other readers’ charges of laziness, carelessness, or blindness. In terms of traditional morality, Alpers seeks to defend Melibee from the charge of imprudence in the style of his life. To this end he asserts Melibee’s “parity” in book 6 with Colin Clout, Spenser’s own pastoral persona, who invokes the celebrated vision of the Muses on Mount Acidale. 1 By “parity,” Alpers means that both characters “speak with pastoral authority,” and therefore that they share the kind of lyric domain that he has earlier defined in a seminal essay on The Shepheardes Calender. 2

As Alpers conceives this domain in the earlier essay, it is an “‘aesthetic space’ in terms of rule and authority,” and it has “a qualified but nonetheless genuine independence” from history and politics — that is, from a world outside the poem. According to Alpers, its independence resembles the legal concept of demesne or, more generally, that implied by the word domain itself, a cognate of demesne similarly derived from Latin dominium. F. W. Maitland explains the legal concept of demesne as follows:

The ultimate (free) holder, the person who stands at the bottom of the scale, who seems most like an owner of the land, and who has a general right of doing what he pleases with it, is said to hold the land in demesne. 3

As Alpers translates this definition to a poetic domain, the freeholder has “a kind of literary authority” over his lyric realm — whence the authority he attributes equally to Colin and Melibee, the focal singers of pastoral in book 6.

Much of Alpers’ argument for the parity of these two pastoral figures hinges on their origin as “two kinds of pastoral song” in Vergil’s first Eclogue. 4 For Alpers, the name of Spenser’s Melibee evidently derives from that of Vergil’s exiled Meliboeus, and in book 6 Melibee represents the “wisdom of the fortunatus senex,” although [End Page 29] he must represent it somewhat paradoxically since he turns out to be considerably less than fortunatus. Albeit not in name, Colin similarly derives from Vergil’s more fortunate Tityrus in the same eclogue. Together, Vergil’s Meliboeus and Tityrus voice two versions of pastoral, the one belonging to the romantic woodlands (“silvestrem musam ”) and the other to the open fields (“calamo agresti “). Spenser subsequently realigns these landscapes with Colin and Melibee, giving Melibee the fields, and Colin-Tityrus the “wood / Of matchlesse hight.” 5

I agree that Spenser draws on Vergil’s Eclogue and that Melibee and Colin can be paired in the way Alpers outlines, but I also think that their pairing is greatly complicated by other ancestors, particularly by two of the native British ones, whose lineal burden is moral and whose bearing on the pastoral cantos limits their authority. This is particularly true in the case of Melibee, on whom my essay will focus, since he is the more problematic figure who is sacrificed to enable and to define Colin’s paradisal landscape. Yet even in Colin’s case, there are qualifying signs that hedge his lyric authority. His name comes directly from moral contexts — from Skelton’s moral complaint Collyn Clout and from an eclogue by Marot, a poet who figures the moral dilemma of withdrawal and engagement, or — in Annabel Patterson’s more politicized phrasing — of accommodation and dissent. 6

Melibee’s name carries a warning still stronger than Colin’s. It alludes not only to Vergil’s Meliboeus, who is dispossessed of his native lands and driven into exile, but also, with equal clarity, to Chaucer’s relentlessly moral tale of a culpable Melibee. Chaucer’s Prudence, the wife of Melibee, renders his name, “a man that drynketh hony,” indeed, one who has “ydronke so muchel hony of sweete temporeel richesses, and delices... of this world,” that he is “dronken” and has forgotten the conditions of his creaturely...

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