01 December 2012

Rhyme or Reason

Back in 1589, Edmund Spenser had been an admired poet by the rich and famous. His pastoral poems called The Shepheardes Calender in 1579 was a great success at court.

But poets did not make a living selling books, but by having rich patrons. Running short on money, Spenser took a position as a secretary to Lord Grey, the new Deputy to Ireland.

At 28-year, Edmund went to Ireland, where Grey crushed an Irish rebellion against the English, seized lands and gave Spenser about 3,000 acres, with hills, streams, and a castle to live on. Sweet deal.

Spenser worked for Grey for ten years and worked on a new epic poem.

Fellow poet and well known adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh lived nearby on his 12,000-acre estate and in 1589, Raleigh visited Spenser, who showed him his first three parts of his new epic, The Faerie Queene.

Raleigh thought that Spenser should present it personally to Queen Elizabeth. They traveled to England together that fall, and Spenser registered the poem for publication with a dedications to "the most mightie and magnificent empress Elizabeth."

Elizabeth heard him read his poem aloud and she did love it. He was hot in the circles of society again and hoped to receive enough patronage to stay in England.

Elizabeth suggested that Spenser be paid £100 but her chief advisor, Lord Burghley, who wasn't high on poetry or Spenser, objected. The story is that Elizabeth told him to pay the poet "what is reason."

Burghley didn't pay him at all.

After a few months, Spenser sent Elizabeth this short verse:

I was promised on a time
To have a reason for my rhyme;
From that time unto this season,
I received nor rhyme nor reason.

Spenser got his payment, and we got the phrase "rhyme or reason." Today it means "without purpose, order, or reason" as in "The statistics were so disorganized, that the conclusions were without rhyme or reason."


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