By Emanuel Costache '09 

Sitting modestly among the buildings of the Library of Congress and in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol is Henry Clay Folger’s gift to the nation: the largest collection of early English books in the country, beginnning with William Caxton’s 1477 edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and the largest and finest collection of Shakespeare materials in the world.

The Shepheardes Calendar, 1597
When Emanuel Costache '09 went to the Folger, he
was after its first-edition, first-state copy of The
Shepheardes Calender. Detail. Edmund Spencer. The
Shepheardes Calender. London, 1597. 

Each year, the Folger Shakespeare Library invites two or three Amherst students to make use of this impressive collection during the weeks in January when no formal courses are held. This year, the students were Jamie Ling ’09, Emily Wright ’09 and yours truly. In the Reading Room, we took our seats with both distinguished and emerging scholars in early modern culture to study, among other things, medieval grammar books (Jamie) and the history of the Irish language (Emily).

I was after the Folger’s first-edition, first-state copy of Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender. This 1579 book is a strange one, to say the least. Published anonymously and introduced and extensively glossed by a mysterious “E.K.,” the book is a collection of 12 English pastoral poems called eclogues, one for each month, each with a woodcut and a “Motto,” or moral. We’ve gotten used to reading anthology pieces with voluminous footnotes and the occasional illustrative diagram. Spenser’s book looks more like a 16th-century almanac—in fact, the title is lifted from a popular almanac, Kalender of Shepardes, which featured moralistic verse extolling the virtues of sowing seeds and tending to one’s sheep.

The Shepheardes Calender, however, is much more than an almanac or cycle of eclogues. It is perhaps the first conscious attempt to create a book that looked wholly English: English typefaces, English shepherds, English woodcuts. It is—and I say this with the little, brief authority my time at the Folger has given me—Spenser’s self-conscious attempt to bring poetry out of the Latin, Italian and Provençal traditions and languages and into the English ones of Chaucer and Skelton. Never mind that it might be, as one critic put it, “the worst poetry in the world.”