Edmund Spenser’s sonnet sequence, the Amoretti (meaning “little love gifts” in Italian), ranks among the most notable of the collections produced during the golden age of English poetry, also the heyday of the English sonnet. Beginning in fourteenth century Italy with Petrarch’s tributes, in sonnet form, to his beloved Laura, the sonnet cycle describing the lover’s pangs and the inamorata’s remote beauty quickly became a poetic standard. The introduction of this poetic form to England is generally credited to Sir Thomas Wyatt, who brought it from France and adapted it to the English taste and tongue. Although the prestige of the sonnet had begun to decline by the time Spenser produced his sequence, no notable poet of the period could afford to ignore the sonnet or the sonnet cycle. As had William Shakespeare and Sir Philip Sidney before him, Spenser used the sonnet cycle as part of his claim to literary fame.
The Amoretti differs from Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella (1591) sequence and from Shakespeare’s sonnets in ways that have too often led to comparisons unfavorable to Spenser. Not only does Spenser use a more labored rhyme scheme (adapted from the French), but also his subject matter is subtler and less dramatic. Shakespeare and Sidney address their rhymes to amorous objects presented in a highly fictionalized and formalized context. Spenser, on the other hand, blends traditional elements of idealization of the love object with elements of the actual courtship of his future wife. For this reason, the Amoretti wavers somewhere between the dramatic outpourings of emotion typical of Shakespeare and the elegantly crafted tributes to the lady’s charms typical of Sidney. As a result, Spenser’s reader must look beneath the “artificial” elements of the sonnets to see their “natural” appeal. They record the vagaries of real courtship, with all its alternating moments of doubt, despair, hope, tenderness, elation, and joy sketched with characteristic Spenserian delicacy and tact.
This delicacy may create problems for the reader who demands more straightforward vigor; it can best be appreciated by noting how the sonnets’ unusual rhyme scheme produces a graceful modulation between and within lines. Although each of Spenser’s sonnets closes with a ringing couplet, traditional in the sonnet in English, its scheme as a whole is tighter and subtler than that of the more ordinary form. Ending each quatrain with the rhyme that will begin the next, Spenser achieves a remarkably smooth, graceful, and highly unified effect. While some critics have criticized this rhyme scheme as overly artificial, it is very well suited to the fine modulation of emotions expressed by a forty-year-old poet seeking the hand of a beautiful and socially superior young lady. Similarly, while the character of this lady tends toward the ideal, Spenser ably sketches the personality of a real woman. His Elizabeth Boyle is not the inaccessible mistress of Petrarchan tradition, nor is her lover its traditional victim. Each partner to this courtship exhibits strengths and weaknesses, each ultimately being referred back to the perfecting grace of God. Spenser’s sonnet sequence is a remarkable achievement: It is one of the first fully realized attempts in lyric poetry to represent an actual, rather than an ideal, human relationship. The Amoretti creates one of the earliest and greatest tributes to the Protestant virtues of married love and domestic tranquillity.
The sequence also is unique in charting a real-time sequence, the period between late 1592 and June 11, 1594, the day on which Spenser’s wedding was finally solemnized, and which his famous Epithalamion (1595) celebrates. The New Year’s Days of 1593 and 1594 are observed in the sequence, as are the occasions of Easter, the couple’s betrothal, and their separation for a brief period before their wedding. Along with these time markers, many purely conventional elements are included, as in the first sonnet, a traditional dedication to love, to poetry, and to the muse. Characteristic of Spenser, this classical theme is Christianized by the poet’s asking his book to testify to “that angels blessed look,/ My souls long lacked food, my heavens bliss.” However, instead of merely borrowing the language of religion to praise the ecstatic “bliss” of the lady’s beauty, the poet uses it to...
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