The Homosexual Pastoral Tradition by Rictor Norton

2. Edmund Spenser

Two Goat herdsmen resting at the foot of a tomb, Michel Corneille des Gobelins, 1642-1708

Hobbinol's love for Colin in Edmund Spenser's The Shepheardes Calender (1579), inspired by Corydon's love for Alexis in Virgil's second eclogue, portrays the love between shepherds as the infatuation typical of the pederasts criticized by Socrates in Plato's Symposium rather than the ideal friendship praised by Diotima and the numerous commentators on Plato's seminal work such as Marsilio Ficino. The Calender was written while Spenser was still an unmarried young man, long before he became "sage and serious" and had subsumed the ethical friendship theory of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics and Cicero's De Amicitia, both of which he would use only later, in the fourth book of The Faerie Queene (1596). The masculine love in the Calender comes more from the feeling human heart than from the aspiring neoplatonic spirit. Hobbinol's Socratic and emotional love rather than Platonic and educative love for Colin does not indicate the carnal lust that we too simplistically take to be the primary component of homosexual love, but neither does it altogether preclude all desire for physical contact. No textual evidence explicitly states that Colin wishes to copulate with Rosalind, but surely we are justified in describing this as heterosexual love; similarly, although explicitly erotic textual evidence is lacking, in so far as Hobbinol's love for Colin parallels Colin's love for Rosalind, we are justified in classifying it as homosexual love.

This is not a post-Freudian reading that violates the temper of Spenser's times. At least one of Spenser's contemporaries acknowledged that the poem was liable to a homosexual interpretation. The first critic to notice the ambiguity of the relationship between Hobbinol and Colin is the scholar, critic, and learned pedant whom we know only by his initials E. K. His "glosse," published together with the Calender, calls attention to the homosexual connotations in the January eclogue even while taking pains to discount them. I quote it in full because it is the first critique of a homosexual theme in literature:

In thys place seemeth to be some sauour of disorderly loue, which the learned call paederastice: but it is gathered beside his meaning. For who that hath red Plato his dialogue called Alcybiades, Xenophon and Maximum Tyrius of Socrates opinions, may easily perceiue, that such loue is much to be alowed and liked of, specially so meant, as Socrates vsed it: who sayth, that in deed he loued Alcybiades extremely, yet not Alcybiades owne selfe. And so is paederastice much to be praeferred before gynerastice, that is the loue which enflameth men with lust toward woman kind. But yet let no man thinke, that herein I stand with Lucian or hys deuelish disciple Vnico Aretino, in defence of execrable and horrible sinnes of forbidden and vnlawful fleshlinesse. Whose abominable errour is fully confuted of Perionius, and others.

E. K. is correct that Maximus Tyrius in his Dissertationes and Joachim Perionius in his Commentary on Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics both condemn the physical aspects of youth- love, though he does not point out that the subject is not comradeship but boy-love (from paidos, "boy," and astia, "love") - the lover being an adult, and the beloved being a male between the ages of twelve and seventeen, or until the hairs begin to sprout on his chin. A typical passage from Tyrius runs thus: "The one love is mad for pleasure; the other loves beauty. The one is an involuntary sickness; the other is a sought enthusiasm. The one tends to the good of the beloved; the other to the ruin of both. . . . The one is Greek, the other is barbarous. The one is virile; the other effeminate" (trans. John Addington Symonds).

For the reverse of the medal, E. K. is correct that Lucian, in his Amores, Dialogues of the Gods, and Dialogues of the Hetaerae praised physical boy-love. In a dialogue between a lesbian and a girl, Lucian puts forth as a seduction- argument the reasonable syllogism that if male homosexual love is good, then female homosexual love must be equally good; Achilles and Patroclus are given as examples of the former. E. K. is further correct that Pietro Aretino could be considered Lucian's disciple - though more mischievous than devilish - in so far as his Ragionamenti (1534) were modeled upon Lucian's similar dialogues between aging prostitutes. Pietro, otherwise known as "the Divine Aretino," was most famous for his sixteen obscene sonnets accompanying Marcantonio Raimondi's engravings of Guilio Romano's equally obscene mural depicting the Modes of Intercourse (1524), which came to be known as "Aretine's Paintings" in most Renaissance literature. Despite the exclusively heterosexual natural of these sonnets (only one of which praises heterosexual anal intercourse, an ecclesiastical crime that was certainly included among the sins of Sodom), Aretino himself was a well-known homosexual, and wrote such works as Il Marescalo, a play in which a Mantuan courtier marries a girl whom he later discovers - to his delight - to be a boy in disguise.

E. K.'s understanding of Xenophon's Symposium is debatable, since Socrates is therein realistically portrayed as a bantering coquette, and his discussion of boy-love occurs within the framework of erotic jest. E. K.'s reference to Plato may be to the spurious Alcibiades I, but this work is largely irrelevant to the subject at hand, and the reference is more likely to the pertinent Symposium, often referred to either as the Alcibiades or the Androgyn because of its main character and subject. Most of the speakers in the Symposium were overt homosexuals, but the dramatic and often jesting framework does not allow any one opinion to predominate. Many Renaissance readers felt that Aristophanes' speech about the primal hermaphrodite was at least as profound as Diotima's speech about the ladder of perfection, despite their different attitudes toward boy-love. But the important point as far as this present study is concerned is that contemporary Renaissance opinion does not unanimously concur with E. K.'s opinion. Sir Philip Sidney, for example, in his Defense of Poesy (probably written at almost the same time as Spenser's Calender) says that Plato in his Phaedrus and Symposium, and Plutarch in his Discourse on Love, both "authorize abhominable filthiness"; and Socrates was often called Alcibiades Paedogogus with an intended pun upon pedant, pedagogue, and pederast. Sidney, incidentally, is correct that Plato in the Phaedrus "authorized" the physical aspects of boy-love. This suggests that we should think of boy-love in three aspects rather than the usual two: spiritual, to be praised; physical, to be condemned; and physical and spiritual, to be condoned. E. K.'s "disorderly love" need not refer to both of the latter. In sum, although modern critics have accepted E. K.'s refutation as a matter of course, it raises so many possibilities that his argument would not be convincing to a learned Renaissance gentleman.

William Webbe, in A Discourse of English Poetrie (1586), attempts to grapple with the problems raised by this glosse. Webbe paraphrases E. K.'s argument, and agrees that the pederastic reading "overshooteth the poet's meaning," but he strangely vacillates in his own opinion. He backtracks a little, mentions that his circle of literary acquaintances had debated the problem (which apparently aroused some controversy), ponders the problem a bit more, and then asserts (justly) that critics have no right to prescribe a poet's morality - the soundest judgement of the whole Discourse. Then he notices that the ambiguity exists also in the June eclogue, whereas E. K. had mentioned it only in regard to January. Then he offers a speculation upon Spenser's non-literary behaviour: "perhaps he learned it from the Italians," who were believed to have a notorious penchant for sodomy - a possibility that hardly concurs with E. K.'s reading. And finally, with uncertainty and doubt, he ends in defeat: "But some will discuss this I hope of better ability."

Much later, Francis Palgrave in the nineteenth century felt that "E. K.'s awkward apologetic gloss rather draws attention to the anachronistic impropriety of this allusion [to Virgil's second eclogue] than to justify it. Spenser is here, of course, only obeying the literary impulse of the age towards classical reproduction." Palgrave is here, of course, only obeying the complacent moral impulse of his own age, and his comment is merely an apologetic attempt to remove the tarnish that might adhere to the work of a favourite poet. We could just as easily say that Spenser's Epithalamium exhibits mere literary imitation, and that its praise of heterosexual love has no relevance to his own personality at the time. The argument that whatever is morally inconvenient is a mere literary imitation, if applied universally and consistently, would render null and void all meaning in all literature, leaving only a dull vista of skilful literary exercises. The speciousness of this argument can be illustrated by Richard Barnfield's own assertion, in a work we will discuss shortly, that he was merely imitating Virgil in The Affectionate Shepheard, even though his work is filled with sentiments such as "If thou wilt be my Boy, or els my Bride."

But the main objection to Palgrave's interpretation is the implication that Spenser is not in control of his poetic materials. It would in fact be more beneficial to Spenser's reputation as a highly conscious literary artisan to assume that he was aware of the ambiguity of the relationship, and left it ambiguous for a deliberate purpose. Spenser may have wished to establish a nearly exact parallel which could be mathematically expressed as "Hobbinol is to Colin as Colin is to Rosalind" in order to show that the male-male-male bond is spiritually and artistically superior to the male-female bond, and to establish in high relief the contrast between the negative Colin-Rosalind gynerasty and the positive Hobbinol-Colin pederasty (some would-be philosophers feel that the insertion of an "a" in this term renders it more spiritual; it does not). Although the Renaissance concept of friendship was admittedly "stronger" than our own, the parallel would be not nearly so exact as that required by Spenser's characteristic literary technique if the erotic element were rigidly excluded.

The parallelism of pederasty and gynerasty becomes apparent in the Calender when we compare Colin's remarks in January with those of Hobbinol in April: Colin says,

It is not Hobbinol, wherefore I plaine,
Albee my loue he seeks with dayly suit;
His clownish gifts and curtsies I disdaine,
His kiddes, his cracknelles, and his early fruit.
Ah foolish Hobbinol, thy gyfts bene vayne:
Colin them giues to Rosalind againe.

And later Hobbinol replies to Thenot,

Nor thys, nor that, so much doeth make me mourne,
But for the ladde, whome long I lovd so deare,
Now loues a lasse, that all his loue doth scorne:
He plongd in pain, his tressed locks dooth teare.
. . .
Colin thou kenst, the Southern Shepheardes boye:
Him Loue hath wounded with a deadly darte.
Whilome on him was all my care and ioye,
Forcing with gyfts to winne his wanton heart.

The analogues are clear: Colin, with the tressed locks of the Virgilian formosus puer or the seductive Eros of Strato's Mousa Paidika, is as much a disdainful mistress as Rosalind. His wanton heart is sought after by his daily suitor Hobbinol, who attempts to force his heart - just as a lover storms the fort of his fair mistress. The gifts one gives to one's beloved were termed love-tokens and enticements-to-love in the lover's complaint tradition; a courtier never gives such gifts to his faithful friend in the Aristotelian-Ciceronian friendship tradition and it is nonsense to suggest that such gifts are given from an intellectual motive. The enticements-to-love that Hobbinol gives to Colin are the very same kidds and cracknelles, or chestnuts, that Corydon offered to his similar "shepheardes boye," Alexis. The passing on of these identical love-tokens to Rosalind indicates that Hobbinoll's desire for Colin parallels Colin's desire for Rosalind. The parallels in both passages are systematic enough to be intentional. Hobbinol, as much as Colin, is attempting to win the wanton heart of his cruel fair. The only difference between these otherwise identical situations is that Hobbinol is concerned with Colin's sorrow as well as his own, while Colin is concerned with only his personal sorrow. The effect of this contrast is to suggest that Hobbinol's pederastic love is a love whose human sympathies remain open, while Colin's gynerastic love is a love which blinds one to the emotional experiences of others.

Just as Plato, Mantuan, Barnabe Googe, and numerous medieval and Renaissance writers, particularly those influenced by the classical and native anti-feminist tradition, reject gynerastic love outright, so there are numerous medieval anti-feministic and anti-heterosexual elements in Spenser's Calender. The overall tone is set in January, where "love" (here synonymous with heterosexual love) causes pains akin to the cold of winter. Willye's satirical emblem in March is "To be wise and eke to loue, / Is graunted scarce to God aboue." Likewise, Thomalin's emblem in March is "Of Hony and of Gaule in loue there is store: / The Honye is much, but the Gaule is more." E. K. in his gloss to these lines explains that "Hereby is meant, that all the delights of Love, wherein wanton youth walloweth, be but follye mixt with bitternesse, and sorow sawced with repentaunce." In May Piers the good Protestant rejects love and sees it as mere lust, the standard view of heterosexual love. In July Thomalin tells of a shepherd who "left hys flocke, to fetch a lasse" as an exemplum of the sin of pride. In August Perigot and Willye discuss not only the pain caused by Cupid's arrow, but how a shepherd in love commonly neglects his sheep. December concludes the cycle with an enumeration of the sorrows and destruction caused by gynerasty and reestablishes the link between (heterosexual) love and winter. Of course we could argue, as did Palgrave, that Spenser is here again "obeying the literary impulse of the age towards classical reproduction." But conventions do not exist without a purpose, and are not selected for imitation without reason. The conventions of anti-heterosexual love complement the conventions of pro-masculine love, and indicate the psychic attitude of many Renaissance writers. In The Shepheardes Calender the conventions are supported by tone and structure to such a degree that E. K. justly claimed that the primary purpose of the entire work was to warn of the follies of (heterosexual) love.

The homoerotic theme of the Calender goes beyond the mechanics of literary imitation. The immediate motivation behind the work was Spenser's need to discover himself as a poet, and even within this context the contrast between pederasty and gynerasty is importantly linked to the source of literary creativity. In December Colin falls in love with Rosalind and is rejected, and therefore breaks his pipe and ceases to sing. In April Hobbinol sings the song in praise of fair Eliza which Colin had written before he had fallen in love with Rosalind. The meaning, later made explicit, is that poetical talent is lessened by heterosexual love. The two songs that Colin does create are about Eliza and Dido, the first a virgin queen, manly-woman warrior, and Amazonian statesman, the second a dead queen: both women are unavailable for gynerasty. The elegy for Dido in November appropriately follows the discussion in October concerning heroic rather than pastoral verse, and Cuddie observes that Colin, "were he not with loue so ill bedight, / Would mount as high, and sing as soote as Swanne." Piers argues that love inspires poetry, but Cuddie contends that

All otherwise the state of Poet stands
For lordly loue is such a Tyranne fell:
That where he rules, all power he doth expell.

In November Thenot complains that Colin's Muse has been "Lulled a sleep through loues misgouernaunce," and asks him to sing again. It is significant that when Colin agrees to take up his pipe again, his elegy on the death of a great lady will foreshadow the death of his love for Rosalind. Colin's last statement in December is that he was a good poet until (heterosexual) love led his astray, which resulted in his spring being blasted, his summer being wasted, his autumn reaping only cares, and his winter enveloping this very spirit.

Only Hobbinol remained true to Colin, and most of the positive elements in the Calender focus upon him. Hobbinol's love for Colin is referred to in the very first and very last lines of the entire work, and his constancy is contrasted with the faithlessness of Rosalind. Just as Rosalind and winter form the negative framework, so Hobbinol's love forms the positive framework. He appears or is referred to at structurally significant points, and appears in one of each kind of eclogue: recreative, plaintive, and moral.

In April, Hobbinol appropriately recounts Colin's former recreative pastimes and follows this up by proving Colin's "excellencie and skill in poetrie" by reciting the song of fair Eliza. The plaintive eclogue in which Hobbinol appears, June, is the climax and turning-point of the cycle as Colin and Hobbinol are brought together again, and Hobbinol is again the positive point of reference against which all others are measured:

O happy Hobbinoll, I blesse thy state,
That Paradise hast found, whych Adam lost.

Colin's pagan earthly Eden is where Colin was inspired to compose his joyful song of Eliza, "where Byrds of euery kind / To the waters fall their tunes attemper right." As several critics have suggested, the Calender is an allegory on the fall of man, and because of the paradox of felix cupla Hobbinol's Eden can be simultaneously very positive and yet inadequate; in order for Colin to be saved, it is necessary that he fall. In his supposed maturity he abandons Hobbinol's "shepherd's Pan" for "the Great Pan," i.e. the Christian god.

The moral eclogue in which Hobbinol appears, September, is a polemic on the abuses of Popish prelates, which curiously establishes sympathetic and complex nature of Hobbinol's personality. Colin and the other shepherds are mere figurae with one-dimensional concerns, whereas Hobbinol has a multi-layered personality.

Say it out Diggon, what euer it hight,
For not but well mought him betight,
He is so meeke, wise, and merciable,
And with his work his worke is conuenable.
Colin clout I wene be his selfe boye,
(Ah for Colin he whilome my ioye)
Shepheards sich, God mought vs many send,
That doen so carefully theyr flocks tend.

This reply of Hobbinol to Diggon concerning Roffyn illustrates a man who relates everything to his main interest in life, i.e. Colin, but at the same time shows his moral integrity and his human sympathies.

The central paradox of the Calender is "that love should breede both joy and payne" (January, 54). This paradoxical emotion is experienced by Hobbinol in his pederastic love for Colin as well as by Colin in his gynerastic love for Rosalind. This joy- pain, fire-ice paradox is a standard convention in the lover's complaint tradition, originating in glukupikron, yet the whole tenor of the Calender suggests that Hobbinol's pederastic love is fundamentally joyful whereas Colin's gynerastic love is fundamentally painful. Hobbinol's diction abounds in terms such as "pleasant," "gentle," "calm," "friendly," "delight," "chereful," and "pierlesse pleasures," while Colin's diction abounds in terms such as "unhappy," "angry," "lucklesse," "plaintive," "weary," "carefull," "piteous," and "woe." Within a religious context, Hobbinol's love for Colin symbolizes the grace of God's bounty, whereas the pain caused by Colin's love for Rosalind symbolizes damnation; Hobbinol says she is "void of grace." He also calls her a "witche" who has "bewitched" Colin (just as Mantuan in his third eclogue portrays all women as "sorceresses") and led him into the dark night of the soul, a realm of night ravens, elvish ghosts and ghastly owls. Colin's emblem, Gia spema spenta, indicates, as E. K. suggests, that Colin's hopes for salvation are "cleane extinguished and turned into despeyre." The argument put forward by some modern interpreters that Hobbinol's Pan is not the true deity is based upon Colin's rejection of "The shepheards God (perdie was he none)" (December. 50). But "Tytrus" (i.e. Virgil) is also called "The god of shepheardes" (June, 81), and it is possible that Colin is rejecting him. The real meaning of his statement may be that he should have worshipped Pan rather than the archpoet of heterosexual love. Colin, the fallen Adam., has misdirected his love, his faith, hope, and charity, towards the witch-Eve Rosalind rather than towards the unfallen Adam-Christ Hobbinol.

It is curious that the major metaphor of supposedly heterosexual love - being shot with Cupid's arrow - is most vividly expressed in the Calender by an ambiguously erotic ritual combat between Thomalin and Cupid in the March eclogue. This eclogue begins with a eulogy on the sacred precinct as though it were a place in which a shepherd sports with his shepherdess, with references to the phallic pride of the budding "tender head" of the "hawthorne studde," to "flora's flowers," to "Maia's bower," to dancing with Lettice and awakening Love from Lethe, and, in general, "sporten in delight." But there are in fact no women in this eclogue. As it opens, an older man named Willllye comes upon Thomalin, who is "overwent with woe." Thomalin says that this is the third day in which he has "chaunst to fall a sleepe with sorowe, / And waked againe with grief" because three days ago an ewe had fallen into a dell and "unjoynted both her bones." This symbolic episode is recounted as a parallel to a more specifically castration-like event that happened to Thomalin several days ago, indicating a symbolic identity between himself and the ewe (equivalent to Hylas as the fawn). His story is modeled upon a similar story in Theocritus' third idyll: one day, while hunting for birds, he heard a rustling within an ivy cope (the sacred precinct) and saw something moving about. "But were it faerie, fiend, or snake," he could not tell. In spite of his ignorance, he "manfully thereat shotte," and there "sprong forth a naked swayne, / With spotted winges like peacocks trayne." Naked Eros or Cupid then leaped into a tree, and Thomalin, even though he now recognized him, kept shooting arrows at the boy. His "manly sport" is that of male orgasm: "So long I shott that al was spent: / The pumie stones I hastly hent." Cupid, unheart, playfully leaped from bough to bough for awhile, but then he let loose his own arrow in earnest. The shaft hits Thomalin in the heel - the basic castration motif associated with figures such as Achilles, a symbol recognized by E. K. in his gloss long before Frazer or Freud: "by wounding in the hele is meant lustful love. For from the heele (as say the best phisitions) to the previe partes there passe certain veines and slender synnewes . . . so that (as sayth Hipocrates) yf these veynes there be cut asonder, the partie straighte becometh cold and unfruiteful." The eclogue ends without a resolution, with Thomalin's wound festering and "rankling more and more," just as Colin "rankles" with love for Rosalind.

Hobbinol's Edenic garden, like Maia's bower, is rightly called by Colin a "Paradise" lost by Adam, whereas Rosalind's realm is that of the witch, of night ravens, of ghosts and black night where she wipes away his "wanton toyes." "Wanton" means both "foolish" and "erotic"/"amorous" in Spenser's diction, and these "wanton toyes" are the same love-tokens which Hobbinol had given to Colin. Since Hobbinol already receives from Colin all the elements requisite for even the strongest form of friendship according to friendship theory spiritual love, respect, and trust his desire to "win his wanton heart" is a desire to receive amorous love in all its aspects. In the Calender itself there is no explicit condemnation or praise of amorous love between men. Spenser's other poems are similarly ambiguous on this point. He quite reasonably condemns the giant Oliphant for pursuing a young boy with purely lustful purposes in mind:

. . . a young man, the which fled
From an hugh geaunt, that with hideous
And hatefull outrage long his chaced thus;
It was that Ollyphant, the brother deare
Of that Argante vile and vitious,
. . .
For as the sister did in feminine
And filthy lust exceede all woman kind,
So he surpassed his sex masculine,
In beastly use, all that I ever finde:
[he did] The fearefull boy so greedily poursew.
(Faerie Queene, 3. 11. 34)

But this exemplum cannot be generalized into a condemnation of amorous love between men, for it clearly involves the immoralities of violence or force, pure lust for its own sake, and the abuse of a minor. There is no similar condemnation of Apollo for loving "Fresh Hyacinthus, Phoebus paramoure / And dearest love" (Faerie Queene, 3. 6. 45). Nor is there any condemnation of the obviously pederastic love between Sylvanus and Cyparissus: gazing upon fair Una, Sylvanus "grinnith to revive / His ancient love, and dearest Cyparisse" (Faerie Queene, 1. 6. 17). Likewise, Spenser shows no moral outrage when in the Garden of Adonis, Eros "With faire Adonis playes his wanton partes" (Faerie Queene, 3. 6. 49) just as he "playes" with Psyche the repeated term "playes" has erotic connotations in the former situation if it has any in the latter. In the medieval masque, the portrait of the boy Fansy is a portrait of a homoerotically attractive Virgilian formosus puer:

. . . like a lovely boy,
Of rare aspect and beautie without peare,
Matchable ether to that ympe of Troy,
Whom Jove did love and chose his cup to beare,
Or that same daintie lad, which was so deare to great Alcides.
(Faerie Queene, 3. 12. 7).

The homoerotic allusions to Ganymede and Hylas are clear, and these loves seem to inspire the creative imagination rather than to cause moral degradation.

Colin of course is Spenser himself, and Hobbinol is his friend Gabriel Harvey. The two biographical, rather than literary, questions are whether or not Harvey's love contained any erotic motives, and the degree to which Spenser reciprocated his love. As for the latter, it is clear that Spenser-Colin in the Calender at least pursued a female and that he "disdained" Harvey-Hobbinol's advances. There is no substantial biographical material on Gabriel Harvey which would either prove or disprove homosexual orientation. Harvey met Spenser in 1570, when Harvey entered Pembroke College. Spenser may have been eighteen years old, Harvey may have been twenty (their respective birth dates of 1552 and 1550 are not absolutely certain). Their friendship became quite close, lasted throughout their lives, for long periods involved almost daily contact, and was certainly "intimate" however we may wish to define that term. Spenser did not marry until the age of forty-four, and Harvey never married. This is the extent of the evidence or non- evidence, and one may be forgiven for inferring that these two men were not very enthusiastic heterosexuals. We would do best to accept, along with its ambiguities, E. K.'s estimation that Harvey was Spenser's "very speciall and most familiar freend, whom he entirely and extraordinarily beloued."

Go on to 3. Affectionate Shepherds. Go to Pastoral Bibliography.
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