Home / Articles / The Earl of Oxford as Spenser’s “Perfecte Pattern of a Poet, Cuddie”

The Earl of Oxford as Spenser’s “Perfecte Pattern of a Poet, Cuddie”

by Eva Turner Clarke

Excerpted from Eva Turner Clarke’s 1933 book, The Satirical Comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost (New York: William Farquhar Payson, 1933), 129-135.



October illustration from Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender, published in 1579.

I must digress long enough to point out an extraordinary parallel between this address of Harvey’s and the October eclogue of Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender, wherein is set forth an argument between Pierce and Cuddie, “the perfect paterne of a poet,” Pierce calling Cuddie to task for his complaints at the lack of recognition he has received for his poetry.

Shortly after the publication in 1579 of the Shepheardes Calender, Harvey wrote in reply to one of Spenser’s letters that he could not encourage Spenser to follow the career of a writer of poetry since he could not hope to receive a reward commensurate with his needs, and he added, “For, I pray now, what saith Master Cuddie, alias you know who, in the tenth eclogue of the foresaid famous new Calender?” He followed this question by quoting two stanzas of Cuddie’s reply to Pierce:


Piers, I have pyped erst so long with payne,
That mine oten reedes bene rent and wore:
And my poore Muse bath spent her spared store
Yet little good hath got, and much lesse gayne.
Such pleasaunce makes the grasshopper so poore,
And ligge so layd, when winter doth her straine.
The dapper ditties that I wont devise,
To feede youthes fancie and the flocking fry,
Delighten much: what I the bett forthy?
They han the pleasure, I a sclender prise:
I beate the bush, the byrds to them doe flye:
What good thereof to Cuddie can arise?

These lines of Cuddie’s are reminiscent of certain verses by the Earl of Oxford, written in commendation of and published with Bedingfield’s translation (1576) of Cardanus’ Comfort, of which the last stanza follows:

So he that takes the pain to pen the book,
Reaps not the gifts of goodly golden muse;
But those gain that, who on the work shall look,
And from the sour the sweet by skill doth choose;
For he that beats the bush the bird not gets,
But who sits still and holdeth fast the nets.

Spenser puts Oxford’s thought so clearly into Cuddie’s part of the dialogue in the October eclogue that we must perforce consider further the possibility of his intention to represent Oxford as Cuddie. Let us now continue the dialogue:

Piers. Cuddie, the prayse is better than the price,
The glory eke much greater than the gayne:
O what an honor is it, to restraine
The lust of lawlesse youth with good advice,
Or pricke them forth with pleasaunce of thy vaine,
Whereto thou list their trayned willes entice!

Soone as thou gynst to sette thy notes in frame,
O how the rurall routes to thee doe cleave!
Seemeth thou doest their soule of sense bereave,
All as the shepheard, that did fetch his dame
From Plutoes balefull bowre withouten leave:
His musicks might the hellish hound ~ did tame.

Cuddie. So praysen babes the peacoks spotted traine,
And wondren at bright Argus blazing eye;
But who rewards him ere the more forthy?
Or feedes him once the fuller by a graine?
Sike prayse is smoke, that sheddeth in the skye,
Sike words bene wynd, and wasten soone in vayne.

Spenser continues to repeat in the last stanza such words of discouragement as the Earl of Oxford is known to have expressed in various poems and letters, as, for example, the following verse from a poem published in the Paradise of Dainty Devices (1576):

The drone more honey sucks, that laboureth not at all,
Than doth the bee, to whose pain least pleasure doth befall:
The gard’ner sows the seeds, whereof the flowers do grow,

And others yet do gather them, that took less pain I trow.
So I the pleasant grape have pulled from the vine,
And yet I languish in great thirst, while others drink the wine.

That the bitterness of thought expressed in this stanza was personal with the young Earl, we know from a letter written by him to Lord Burghley, January 3, 1576, while he was in Italy, of which the following is an excerpt: “For having made an end of all hope to help myself by Her Majesty’s service-considering that my youth is objected unto me, and for every step of mine a block is found to be laid in my way … I am to content myself according to the English proverb that it is my hap to starve while the grass doth grow.

Sidney, in “The Lady of the May, puts a similar thought into the mouth of the Shepherd, Dorcas: “So that with long-lost labour, finding their thoughts bear no other wool but despair, of young courtiers they grow old shepherds.”

In the next two stanzas of the eclogue, Pierce admonishes Cuddie in language so akin to Harvey’s Latin address to the Earl of Oxford at Audley End (contemporaneous with the writing of the “Shepheardes Calender ), that I am constrained to believe that it is intended for the same person, a parallel which has been called to my attention by Captain B. M. Ward, author of The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford (1928):

Piers. Abandon then the base and viler clowne:
Lyft up thy self e out of the lowly dust,
And sing of bloody Mars, of wars, of giusts:
Turne thee to those that weld the awful crowne,
To doubted knights, whose woundlesse armour rusts,.
And helmes unbruzed wexen dayly browne.
There may thy Muse display her fluttryng wing,
And stretch her selfe at large from east to west:
Whither thou list in fayre Elisa rest,
Or if thee please in bigger notes to sing,
Advaunce the worthy whome shee loveth best,
That first the white beare to the stake did bring.
And when the stubborne stroke of stronger stounda
Has somewhat slackt the tenor of thy string,
Of love and lustihead tho mayst thou sing,
And carrol lowde, and leade the myllers rownde,
All were Elisa one of thilke same ring.
So mought our Cuddies name to heaven sownde.

When Spenser, through Pierce, says to Cuddie, “Abandon then the base and viler clowne,” together with the two succeeding lines, we have the interpretation of Harvey’s request to Oxford to give up the “writings that serve no useful purpose. The word “clowne clearly suggests stage plays, and the adjectives associated with it indicate the lowly place held by the stage and drama in Elizabethan society. As Spenser begs Cuddie to “sing of Mars, of wars, of giusts,” so Harvey assures Oxford, “now is the time for thee to sharpen the spear and handle great engines of war.” The similarity of thought between Spenser’s poem and Harvey’s Latin address to the Earl of Oxford, contemporaneous as they were, is so striking that it is obvious both were addressed to the same person.

In Spenser’s suggestion that Cuddie will prosper if he will

Advaunce the worthy whome shee loveth best,
That first the white beare to the stake did bring

there is a definite reference to the Earl of Leicester.

Oxford, however, was a friend and follower of Lord Chamberlain Sussex, who was bitterly antagonistic to Leicester. Furthermore, although he was not on friendly terms with his father-in-law, Lord Burghley, for four or five years after his return from Italy, he must have absorbed, through the earlier years he had spent under the Lord Treasurer’s roof, a feeling of distrust for Leicester which would have made impossible to him any thought of trying to secure Leicester’s influence in his behalf.

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