- Why Colin Clout Came Back: English Reformation Literature and Edmund Spenser’s Late Work
In 1595, some 16 years after his debut in The Shepheardes Calender, Colin Clout, Edmund Spenser’s pastoral persona, returned to print as an Irish shepherd in Spenser’s eclectic epyllion, Colin Clouts Come Home Againe. One year later, in 1596, Colin Clout appeared in The Faerie Queene, once again as a shepherd in the recognizably Irish setting of the pastoral cantos of book 6. The return of Colin to Spenser’s verse after such a long absence is one of the more puzzling aspects of Spenser’s career, since The Shepheardes Calender encourages its readers to see it as a youthful, preparatory exercise for a linear, careerist development from pastoral to epic. Why bring back a figure and a genre that suggested youth and pre-epic pastoral experimentation when Spenser’s poetry had come so far since the Calender along its path from bucolic experiment to heroic maturity? While this question may remain one of the lingering mysteries of Spenser’s career, the Skeltonic source of Colin Clout’s name offers a clue to what pastoral meant to Spenser in Ireland, where he eschewed courtly bucolics in favor of an approach that looked back to the prophetic and critical agrarian reformist verse of the earlier sixteenth century.1 Mid-Tudor vernacular reformism renovated a Middle English tradition of using rural workers and landscapes to criticize the abuses of the non-laboring religious estate. Updated for the era of the dissolution of the monasteries, vernacular agrarian reformism anticipates the unparsable interaction of land, labor, and literary production that would occupy Spenser’s last years as a New English planter-poet.2 As early Reformation polemicists understood, changes in the way people lived and worked upon the land were inextricably bound to changes in religious culture and literate practice. Spenser found in this vernacular tradition a way to express the overlapping determinations of land, labor, and writing in the process of authoritarian cultural change.
Critics readily note Colin Clout’s source in John Skelton’s poetry and the English Reformation literature he influenced—the corpus of poetry and polemic encompassing figures like Jerome Barlowe [End Page 503] and William Roye, John Bale, Robert Crowley, Luke Shepherd, and Thomas Churchyard—for the ecclesiastical satires and stylistic variety of The Shepheardes Calender. But this source rarely figures in analyses of the late pastorals.3 For many critics, Colin Clout’s reappearance in 1595–96 is anomalous, disrupting the idea of Spenser’s career as a linear, programmatic enterprise. Colin Clouts appears, in Patrick Cheney’s words, as one of “Spenser’s veerings,” while the pastoral episode of book 6 invites critics to discern a break from or reorientation toward the epic moral project of The Faerie Queene.4 Given this apparent divergence from what seems to be a carefully planned career development after any number of classical and continental models, Colin Clout appears a figure out of place in the works of the 1590s. But in diverging from Spenser’s ongoing heroic project in favor of a pastoral mode that resembles courtly pastoral in some respects, but which also smacks of earlier Reformation traditions of agrarian complaint, he avails himself of the resonances of a reformist canon that bound the desire for cultural reform to fundamental transformations in the agrarian political economy and landscape.
As the influential Elizabethan poetics of George Puttenham and Sir Philip Sidney attest, by the time Spenser was completing A View of the Present State of Ireland, Colin Clouts, and book 6 in the 1590s, the poetry and polemics of the early Reformation had become thoroughly unfashionable, with their popular diction, simple meters, and insistent focus on controversies of land, labor, and economic justice current around the time of the dissolution of the monasteries.5 But Spenser’s experience of establishing a colonial plantation in Ireland, and of thinking about how to reform Irish culture by intervening in its forms of property ownership and labor regimes, made the earlier reformist fixation on the agrarian basis of religious reform newly generative. And after all, Spenser had never fully rejected earlier forms of English poetic...