Kreg Segall – Names and Real Names in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe: A Response to Maurice Hunt

Names and Real Names in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe: A Response to Maurice Hunt

Kreg Segall

Published in Connotations Vol. 23.2 (2013/14)

Maurice Hunt's study of the difficulty of successful naming in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe considers issues that would be familiar to the White Knight of Lewis Carroll's Looking Glass Land.1) For example, if someone is named, but they are called by a name that is not really their name, have they then been really named? What if you strongly imply their name but never say it? Does that count as naming? Hunt is on to something important in this article: names and naming are very much at stake here, and his discussion gets at the structural importance of this theme to the poem as a whole. I do, however, want to offer some questions, objections, and provocations in response to some of Hunt's conclusions and arguments with the hope of stimulating further discussion of this poem.

In addition to names already familiar to readers of The Shepheardes Calendar, like Colin Clout, Cuddie, Rosalind, Hobbinol, as well as “Sir Walter Raleigh” and “Ed. Sp.” from the dedication, Colin Clouts Come Home Againe offers the reader a riot of names introduced for our delectation in the description of court, including Harpalus, Corydon, Alcyon, Daphne, Merifleure, Palin, Alcon, Palemon, Alabaster, Daniell, Amyntas, Amaryllis, Aetion, Astrofell, Urania, Theana, Marian, Mansilia, Galathea, Maa, Neaera, Stella, Phyllis, Charillis, Flavia, and Candida. The traditional reading of these names is that they refer to contemporaries who Spenser wished to discuss under pastoral [→page 311] pseudonyms. In some cases, the riddle is easy: we can without difficulty discern that “Astrofell” is meant to be Philip Sidney; in other cases, there are only reasonable guesses, like Thomas Lodge for “Alcon.” But some names are totally obscure (“Flavia” and “Candida”) and may never have been intended to indicate anyone specific; and two names are wholly undisguised: “Alabaster” and “Daniell” for William Alabaster and Samuel Daniel (see Hunt 247). One thing is for sure: this list has no easy one–for–one translation of person–for–pseudonym.

Hunt's primary argument, then, begins with the recognition that naming is not always a straightforward process in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, and, as he suggests, this uncertainty about whether someone is named or not, is thematically at the core of the poem. Hunt's title is witty—he is not implying that people get named and then get unnamed—he is implying that naming and unnaming are difficult to distinguish, and melt into each other.

The story of Bregog and Mulla is a good test case for Hunt's thesis. Bregog the river, in seeking to secretly possess his love Mulla without the permission of Father Mole, is punished by being “scattred all to nought, / And lost emong those rocks into him rold,” and thus “Did lose his name” (153–55). Hunt notes that the story serves also to allegorize Ralegh's loss of status at court (which Hunt equates to “equivalent to the erasure of his name”), where Elizabeth Throckmorton equates to Mulla and Queen Elizabeth to Father Mole. Hunt offers this reading as an example of the poem's “focus on the loss of identity” (240–41). Hunt's example here is a good one for his claim (though I would question whether Elizabeth “regularly” [Hunt 240] referred to herself with a masculine pronoun—Elizabeth as Mole seems a shaky analogy). I wonder whether Bregog's identity is as lost as we might first think, considering that the name wasn't at all lost: surely we can see that the sentence “the name Bregog has been lost” is a paradox. But the interesting ambiguity goes even deeper. As Hunt notes, “Bregog” means “deceitful” according to Colin Clout (118, see Hunt 238). But he is called “Bregog” because of his deceit that got his name destroyed—so what was he called before? [→page 312]

Full faine she lov'd, and was belov'd full faine,
Of her owne brother river, Bregog hight,
So hight because of this deceitfull traine (116–18)

Hunt translates “hight” as “named”; I would prefer to take the etymological ambiguity of “hight” from OE hatan, “to be called.” That is, Bregog is called Bregog, called “deceitful,” after his scheme is committed, while his real, previous name is lost forever or morphed into his new name. So there is a plausible reading of this episode as one not only of unnaming, but renaming. This serves to underscore Hunt's central point: names are fragile in this poem.

The moment where Colin Clout most explicitly grapples with naming is his attempt to describe his queen:

For when I thinke of her, as oft I ought,
Then want I words to speake it fitly forth:
And when I speake of her what I have thought,
I cannot thinke according to her worth.
Yet will I thinke of her, yet will I speake,
So long as life my limbs doth hold together,
And when as death these vitall bands shall breake,
Her name recorded will I leave for ever.
Her name in every tree I will endosse,
That as the trees do grow, her name may grow:
And in the ground each where will it engrosse,
And fill it with stones, that all men may it know.
The speaking woods and murmuring waters fall,
Her name Ile teach in knowen termes to frame:
And eke my lambs when for their dams they call,
Ile teach to call for Cynthia by name.
And long while after I am dead and rotten:
Amongst the shepheards daughters dancing rownd,
My layes made of her shall not be forgotten,
But sung by them with flowry gyrlonds crownd.
(Hunt 243; Colin Clouts 624–43)

Hunt notes that, in this passage, “[f]ive times Colin names the never–named name of the queen, which is Elizabeth—not Cynthia” (243). This reading of Colin's speech is central to Hunt's argument, as he [→page 313] uses it to demonstrate the contrast between this failed naming of the queen and the later, more successful, paean to Elizabeth Boyle. Hunt's point is that this Cynthia–focused section is a failed bit of naming—that the naming does not work, because “Cynthia” is not the queen's real name. However, Hunt's reading of this passage brings up a number of questions. I would argue that, if we are playing with names in the way an allegory asks us to do, then “Cynthia” is indeed the name of the woman Colin is speaking of. Hunt continues, “(If Cynthia were in fact the queen's name, Colin—Spenser—would not in this passage express such frustration about naming her. He would have named her five or six times, not simply once as Cynthia)” (243–44).2) If we can perform the dash–mediated hop of “Colin—Spenser,” from pseudonym to real name, then “Cynthia—Elizabeth” seems a reasonable jump to make as well. This is not an isolated moment, as the name “Cynthia” or a form of it appears twenty–five times in the poem; further, Colin speaks his words in response to the request of his fellow shepherd, Aglaura, who specifically requests “the storie” “of great Cynthiaes goodnesse and high grace” (588–89).3)

Hunt calls this passage a “remarkably sustained emphasis upon the indistinctiveness or loss of name” (245) in the poem. He offers additional evidence for this emphasis by observing how the Cynthia passage is “focused” by other figures like Aetion, briefly mentioned in the list of names at court, but not positively identified in the way “Astrofell” can be. Hunt notes that “[t]he point is not whether Aetion is Michael Drayton, or William Shakespeare, or someone else, but that knowing who he represents died with Spenser and those court readers in the know, so to say” (246). It is here that I find it most difficult to travel along with Hunt, as, far from focusing, Aetion makes Hunt's definition more fuzzy: if the point of Aetion is that his real identity is dead (an assertion that I think we could argue about as well) it is not clear how that operates as an analogue or focusing lens for the Cynthia passage, whose referent is perfectly clear.4) Hunt, I suspect, would respond by noting that he is pointing to poetic frustration over both indistinct names and lost names—that Cynthia is an indistinct name [→page 314] and Aetion is a lost name (or, rather, who “Aetion” stands for is lost). It seems to me that Colin's—Spenser's—frustration about failure to successfully name the queen is a different sort of frustration, a different frame of meaning, than contemporary scholars' frustration in being unable to identify Aetion.

Finally, Hunt comes to the numerical and aesthetic center of the poem, Colin's paean to his beloved:

The beame of beautie sparkled from above,
The floure of vertue and pure chastitie,
The blossome of sweet joy and perfect love,
The pearle of peerlesse grace and modestie:
To her my thoughts I daily dedicate,
To her my heart I nightly martyrize:
To her my love I lowly do prostrate,
To her my life I wholly sacrifice:
My thought, my heart, my love, my life is shee,
And I hers ever onely, ever one:
One ever I all vowed hers to bee,
One ever I, and others never none. (468–79)

Hunt introduces this passage by observing that “[s]ome commentators on Colin Clouts Come Home Againe believe that Spenser's beloved […] is the Rosalind of The Shepheardes Calender” while “others believe that she is his second wife Elizabeth Boyle, or that she is the queen herself” (248).5) Hunt accepts Elizabeth Boyle as the subject of the passage, stating that “Spenser's beloved, described in Colin Clout, is not Rosalind” (248).6) Hunt says of the passage as a whole: “Carefully, beautifully, Spenser never names his beloved, but intimately, privately, names her forever in his heart in the twelve–verse passage quoted above” (249).

I, too, feel the tremendous power of this passage, but Hunt's argument here seems like special pleading. Why, when the absence of “Elizabeth” or “Aetion” is problematic, is this name's absence not felt as a loss, a hole in the poem? “She, too, will one day die, but she will remain alive as long as printers reproduce Colin Clout and readers exist who can infer her name” (249). Why is this inference relatively [→page 315] unproblematic, while the far easier connection between Elizabeth and Cynthia is vexed? Hunt makes the good point that the ubiquity of the name “Elizabeth” in the sixteenth–century would make it difficult to name Elizabeth Boyle with the loving precision and adoration that the poet might desire (235). However, I am less certain that we can clearly call this absence of name an “indistinct” name, an “unorthodox naming” and most surprisingly, “this central process of successful naming” (235–36).

In other words, to sum up my objection, in the Elizabeth/Cynthia section of Hunt's argument, the presence of pseudonym points to the absence of name, to the hole in the poem; in the case of Colin's beloved, the absence of any name at all (even a pseudonym), far from suggesting absence, indicates a transcendent presence. As I noted earlier, Hunt does say that naming and unnaming are difficult to distinguish. I would argue that this looseness of definition, however, makes it more difficult to accept Hunt's thesis that we are to read a sharp distinction between the beloved's successful naming at the center of the poem, and the problematized unnaming and failed naming of figures like Bregog and Queen Elizabeth.

Regis College
Weston, MA

Works Cited

Hadfield, Andrew. Edmund Spenser: A Life. Oxford: OUP, 2012.

Hadfield, Andrew. “Spenser’s Rosalind.” Modern Language Review 104.4 (Oct 2009): 935–46. <> (available after free registration at JSTOR).

Spenser, Edmund. Colin Clout Comes Home Againe. The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989

Spenser, Edmund. The Fairie Queene. Ed. A. C. Hamilton. Second edition. Harlow: Pearson, 2007.