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First edition of Spenser

The Folger copy of Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender is one of only seven extant copies of the first edition, published in 1579.

Opening in a book. On the left is a page titled “June” followed by a half page of poetry, beneath which is a head surrounded by a decorative design. On the right is a page titled “Julye” with a small woodcut of two men each holding a shepherd’s crook, surrounded by sheep. Beneath the image is a poem titled “Aegloga septima”.

Edmund Spenser. The Shepheardes Calender. London, Hugh Singleton, 1579. Folger call number STC 23089. Purchased with the assistance of James O. Edwards, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Trustees Fellowship and Acquisitions Fund, and Friends of Eric Weinmann.

The Folger copy of Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender, shown here open to the first page of the month of July, is one of only 8 extant copies of the first edition, and the only one with the final quire in an early uncorrected state. Upon its publication in 1579, the book established Spenser’s poetic genius among his contemporaries. Presented in 12 eclogues, based ultimately on Latin pastoral verse, it is a poetic tour de force. Each eclogue is written in a different meter, and all are in a deliberately archaic English of Spenser’s own creation, meant in part to honor the medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer. 

Like all of Spenser’s works, the poem is highly allegorical. At one level, it tells the story of Colin Clout, a lovelorn shepherd who laments ill treatment by his beloved Rosalind. But the poem’s many shepherds also represent the pastors of the English Protestant Church, and a character named Elisa is surely Elizabeth I. In the month of July, the shepherds Morrell and Thomalin debate whether to take to the hills to avoid the scorching heat of high summer. Morrell, seated on a small hill, represents “proude and ambitious Pastours,” a preamble explains, while the more worthy Thomalin prefers the plains below.

Spenser, who died in 1599 before completing all 12 projected books of his best-known work, The Faerie Queene, was buried at Westminster Abbey near his literary hero Chaucer, establishing the tradition of the Poets’ Corner. On Spenser’s monument is carved the verdict of his contemporaries: “The Prince Of Poets In His Tyme.”

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