In their article “The New Poet Presents Himself: Spenser and the Idea of a Literacy Career,” Helgerson explains the English transition from the “poet” to the “Poet,” focusing on Spenser, who in large part is the first English embodiment of the new “Poet.” For Helgerson’s purposes, “poet” refers to the traditional English poet of the time. These poets were defined as the “youth beguiled by love” (897). Poetry, for these writers, was not a career, but rather just a foolish hobby that only the young, love-struck men were entangled with. “poets” of the time would have included the likes of Sidney, Lodge, and Harington, who all spoke poorly of their own poetry and eventually matured and turned away from the craft. Spenser, however, is an example of the new “Poet.” The new Poet was, in a sense, a career poet. That is to say that poetry, was not just a hobby, but rather a career. Poetry, for the new Poet, is not a foolish endeavor; it is not necessarily an entirely private practice. For the new Poet, poetry is created with the intention and knowledge of being public. The new Poet was the contemporary realization of the Greek’s Homer, the Roman’s Vergil, the Italian’s Ariosto, etc. The Poet was self-proclaimed and relevant both to the contemporary idea of the pastoral poet, the “shepherd,” and the classic and “professed national Poet,” the “knight” (908).
The contemporary poet viewed poetry as the private endeavor. It was simply a hobby in which the individual would write the inner-most aspect of their soul, but only for the purpose of private contemplation. These poets were, in a sense, embarrassed of their work. Poetry was viewed as the foolish work of love-struck young gentlemen. While accepted by society, this type of poet was expected to grow up and out of the hobby. They would eventually move on from their love-sick verses and turn their life to public service. With poetry being a hobby, not a sustainable job, the only people who were privileged enough to carry on the hobby were those gentlemen of the higher classes. They would never risk the “major déclassement” that would accompany the new Poet (896). Spenser, however, was “a gentleman only by education” (896). He considered poor in academia and only could attend Cambridge as a sizer, or work-study/scholarship student. Unlike Sidney, Harington, and Lodge, who all would have given up their elite titles, had they taken the step necessary to become a Poet, Spenser faced no major déclassement. At least from the social graces perspective, this allowed Spenser to pursue poetry beyond the bounds that limited most gentlemen. Spenser managed to find a balance between the shepherd and knight roles, being able to both be ranked among the contemporary poets and to define “him as the unique English member of the species of professed national Poets” (908). Spenser marks an important shift in the definition of the poet, paving the way for other English Poets to pursue a literary career.