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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.1 (2002) 1-24

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The Politics of Time in Edmund Spenser's English Calendar

Alison A. Chapman

[H]e compiled these xij. Æglogues, which for that they be proportioned to the state of the xij. monethes, he termeth the SHEPHEARDS CALENDAR, applying an olde name to a new worke.

--E. K.'s Dedicatory Epistle to the Shepheardes Calender 1

Oddly enough, despite its title, Edmund Spenser's first work, The Shepheardes Calender, Conteyning Twelue Æglogues Proportionable to the Twelue Monethes (1579), has not been adequately examined as a calendar, a highly politicized reorganization of annual time published during an era obsessed with time and forms of time reckoning. The reason for this gap in criticism of The Shepheardes Calender lies in the nature of our experience with calendrical time, specifically in the calendar's ability to naturalize a given ideological or political freight--such as a certain set of religious rituals--by incorporating it into the fabric of everyday life. We typically experience the annual calendar as simply a neutral temporal framework, as one of the unquestioned furnishings of quotidian existence. The calendar, however, governs behavior by synchronizing various forms of practical observance--Sunday worship, a Friday afternoon drink, and spring cleaning. Thus, instituting a new calendar is a radical gesture, as registered by the fact that three of the major political revolutions of the modern age--French, Chinese, and Bolshevik--established a new calendar in order to make the experience of time itself serve the [End Page 1] new revolutionary ideology. Christianity similarly reorganized time both by counting years from the date of Christ's birth and by tying annual time to the cycles of the liturgical year. Even the secular holidays patterned by the modern U.S. calendar, such as Martin Luther King Day, Washington's Birthday, and Veterans' Day, memorialize a prescribed version of history. We tend, however, to forget the ideological force of such ritualized forms of memory, largely because they coexist in calendrical practice with "apolitical" observances like the solstices and equinoxes. The calendar's close implication with the annual change of the seasons naturalizes our sense of calendrical time, making the calendar seem as inevitable as the first frost or the coming of spring.

Critics of The Shepheardes Calender seem to have projected backwards their sense of the calendar as "natural" by explaining the text's calendrical format as a necessary complement to the eclogues' pastoral character. Mary Parmenter, for instance, shows how the content of each eclogue reflects the seasonal nature of its titular month: for instance, "Februarie's" debate between the elderly Thenot and the young Cuddie accords with February as "the proper month for the contests between Age and Youth, Winter and Spring." 2 This treatment naturalizes The Shepheardes Calender's calendar form by making it simply a fitting vehicle for Spenser's pastoral portrayal of life in a bucolic world. 3 Yet by subsuming the calendar within the conventions of pastoral, critics such as Parmenter disregard the fact that the calendrical format constitutes Spenser's break with the conventions of pastoral, since no precedent exists in pastoral poetry for his text's monthly arrangement. A. C. Hamilton points out the novelty of The Shepheardes Calender's format--"Spenser's contribution to the pastoral form was the Calendar"--yet he then includes Spenser's innovative calendar in the tradition of pastoral anyway, arguing that "The form of the Calendar allows Spenser to return to the ritual origins of pastoral." 4 In her recent study of pastoral, Susan Snyder registers the calendar format as Spenser's own innovation, yet she then argues that this novel temporal structure accords with the Shepheardes Calender's "pastoral process" (her book's title) and thematic "analogy of human life with the seasons." 5 Although Snyder's treatment of the text is insightful, the calendar is seen, once again, as an apolitical and almost "organic" entity. 6

What such views overlook is that, to inhabitants of sixteenth-century England, the calendar would have seemed...


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