So far the literary quality to be registered has not been high among those owing allegiance to the regular pastoral tradition. The next step to be taken is a long one. The pastoral writings of Spenser not only themselves belong to a very different order of work, but likewise brings us face to face with literary problems of a most complex and interesting kind.
In the Shepherd’s Calender we have the one pastoral composition in English literature which can boast first-rate historical importance. There are not a few later productions in the kind which may be reasonably held to surpass it in poetic merit, but all alike sink into insignificance by the side of Spenser’s eclogues when the influence they exercised on the history of English verse is taken into account. The present is not of course the place to discuss this wider influence of Spenser’s work: it is with its relation to pastoral tradition and its influence upon subsequent pastoral work that we are immediately concerned. This is an aspect of the Shepherd’s Calender to which literary historians have naturally devoted less attention. These two reasons—namely, the intrinsic importance of the work and the neglect of its pastoral bearing—must excuse a somewhat lengthy treatment of a theme that may possibly be regarded as already sufficiently familiar.
The Shepherd’s Calender, which first appeared in 1579, was published without author’s name, but with an envoy signed ‘Immerito.’ It was dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney, and contained a commentary by one E. K., who also signed an epistle to Master Gabriel Harvey, fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge. ‘Immerito’ was a name used by Spenser in his familiar correspondence with Harvey, and can in any case have presented no mystery to his Cambridge friends. Among these must clearly be reckoned the commentator E. K., who may be identified with one Edward Kirke with all but absolute certainty. Within certain well defined limits we may also accept E. K. as a competent exponent of his friend’s work, and his identity, together with that of Rosalind and Menalcas, being matters of but indirect literary interest, may be left to Spenser’s editors and biographers to fight over. It will be sufficient to add in this place that however ‘literary’ may have been Spenser’s attachment to Rosalind there is no reason to suppose that she was not a real person, while however little response his advances may have met with there is reason to suppose that his sorrow at their rejection was not wholly conventional.