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In 1595, Edmund Spenser published his long pastoral poem Colin Clouts Come Home Againe. It allegorically describes Spenser’s bitterness towards Queen Elizabeth I’s court as he sees himself as a literary exile in Ireland. Through his poetic persona as the shepherd Colin Clout, Spenser relates his experiences in Cynthia’s land that is a transparent allusion to Elizabethan England. His bitterness towards the queen’s court and her courtiers becomes apparent in the following lines describing Cynthia’s servants:

For either they be pufféd  up with pride,

Or fraught with envy that their galls do swell,

Or they their days to idleness divide,

Or drownded lie in Pleasure’s wastyeful well. (lines 759-62)

The verbs ‘pufféd’ and ‘swell’ are metonyms for the Elizabethan courtiers’ vanity. They are so narcissistic their gall bladders are almost bursting with bitterness. The courtiers are redolent of the sheep in Petrarch’s Querulus or Lamentation, which influenced John Milton’s poem Lycidas (1637) whose sheep ‘rot inwardly’ and spread ‘foul contagion’ (line 127). In both poems, the sheep are an allusion to church corruption. Through the use of the verbs ‘pufféd’ and ‘swell’, Colin describes the courtiers’ inflated egos in order to suggest corruption. More damaging is that some courtiers spend their ‘days’ divided between  ‘idleness’ and ‘Pleasure’s wasteful well’. I contend that the well represents Cynthia’s/Elizabeth’s womb that provides her courtiers with an hedonistic space. Therefore, ‘Pleasure’s wasteful well’ replaces a responsible governing body.

In the context of Elizabeth’s womb, I propose that ‘wasteful’ can also mean unproductive. The ‘wasteful well’ becomes the queen’s unused womb. The image of a woman as a dry unproductive vessel recalls Geoffrey Whitney’s emblem ‘Superbiae Ultio’ (Punishment for Pride) from his 1586 book A Choice of Emblemes. The woodcut depicts Niobe who has been turned to stone because she has upset Latona by boasting she has seven children compared to Latona’s paltry two – Apollo and Diane. Niobe’s scorn also made Latona order Apollo to murder all of Niobe’s sons, and Diane her daughters. Even as she is transformed to ‘marble stone’ (line 5), Niobe continues weeping as all her children are killed.

Of NIOBE, behoulde the ruthefull plighte,
Bicause shee did dispise the powers devine:
Her children all, weare slaine within her sighte,
And, while her selfe with tricklinge teares did pine,
  Shee was transform’de, into a marble stone,
  Which, yet with teares, dothe seeme to waile, and mone.

This tragedie, thoughe Poëtts first did frame,
Yet maie it bee, to everie one applide:
That mortall men, shoulde thinke from whence they came,
And not presume, nor puffe them up with pride,
  Leste that the Lorde, whoe haughty hartes doth hate,
  Doth throwe them downe, when sure they thinke theyr state.

The image of the leaking stone indicates Niobe is becoming a dry empty vessel. Her tears denote a slippage of meaning from a woman able to give life to one connoted with death. The ‘marble stone’ is a ‘wasteful well’ because Niobe ‘did dispise the powers devine (line 2). Niobe’s sin of pride results in a punishment that prevents her from producing more children, as well as losing the ones she already has. The implication of Cynthia’s ‘wasteful well’ and Niobe’s punishment indicates that childbirth is a woman’s natural role; an analysis that reinforces the ‘Renaissance constructions of gender whereby man is associated with culture and woman with nature’ (Maclean 2-4 cited Paster 47). Man’s association with culture sublimates him into a creative role that means he can change his environment through learning.

The text poem accompanying the emblem uses the classical story of Niobe to warn men of the egotistical dangers of their cultural role:

That mortall men, shoulde thinke from whence they came,

And not presume, nor puffe them up with pride,

Leste that the Lorde, whoe haughty hartes doth hate,

Doth throwe them downe, when sure they thinke theyr state. (lines 9-12)

Like the Spenserian shepherd Colin Clout, Whitney uses the image being puffed ‘up with pride’ to denote corruption. In both texts, corruption is linked to an idealised female identity that is considered only as a vessel as ‘That mortall men, shoulde thinke from whence they came’ testifies. The epithet ‘mortall men’ implies a divine/mortal dichotomy to reveal that these men are God’s children who are punished by ‘the Lorde’ through their sins.

In Cynthia’s land, the courtier’s narcissistic self-destruction is shown by the phrase ‘Pleasure’s wasteful well’. The well connotes a vessel holding water that could also be ‘wasteful’ through leakage. The well’s spillage through continual sexual desire mirrors the courtier’s excessive indulgences. Like Niobe’s children, the sexual pleasures associated with Queen Elizabeth’s corrupt court in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe results in the courtier’s untimely deaths.

References

Abrams, M.H. & Stephen Greenblatt, eds. Lycidas, by John Milton. 1637. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume One. 7th Ed. London & New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Maclean, Ian. The Renaissance Notion of Woman: A Study in the Fortunes of Scholasticism and Medical Science in European Intellectual Life. 1980. “Leaky Vessels: The Incontinent Women of City Comedy”. Gail Kern Paster. Renaissance Drama. 18 (1987): 43-65.

Spenser, Edmund. Colin Clouts Come Home Againe. 1595. The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser. Eds.  William A. Oram et al. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1989.

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