What are some aspects of Edmund Spenser's performance as a love poet in his Amoretti sonnets 19 and 37?
Edmund Spenser’s talents as a love poet are very much on display in his sonnet sequence titled Amoretti. Two representative poems from that sequence are sonnets 19 and 37. In sonnet 19, the male speaker describes the reaction of birds in springtime to the arrival of Cupid, the god of love. The cuckoo celebrates Love’s coming, and other birds also praise his arrival. Only the female beloved pays no attention to Cupid and offers him no honor; she rebels against the kind of love associated with Cupid, thus frustrating the male speaker.
In sonnet 37, the male speaker accuses the female beloved of a kind of guile (that is, trickery or deceit) because she uses a golden net over her already golden hair. He asks whether she does this so that
. . . mens frail eyes, which gaze too bold,
she may entangle in that golden snare:
and being caught may craftily enfold,
their weaker hearts, which are not well aware?
In the second half of the poem, the speaker warns himself not to get caught in such nets of gold, however attractive they might be. In other words, he must protect himself from romantic entrapment.
These two poems can be related to conventions of English Renaissance love poetry in a number of ways, including the following:
- Sonnet 19 alludes to Cupid, who appears often in the love poetry of the era.
- In sonnet 19, Cupid, the birds, and the speaker are all aligned with one another (with the speaker and the birds honoring Cupid), whereas the female beloved fails to pay tribute to the god of secular love.
- The speaker accuses the female beloved of being a rebel, but from one perspective it is actually the speaker who is the rebel since he rebels against the god of true love (Christ), who is the opposite of Cupid and to whom the lady presumably pays allegiance. (Her allegiance to Christ will become clearer later in the sequence.)
- The speaker, like so many male speakers in so many Renaissance sonnets, seems frustrated that the lady will not pay either Cupid or him the kind of attention the speaker desires. The speaker’s desire for the lady, at this point, is chiefly physical; only later will he learn to appreciate and love her truly, in the deepest (Christian) senses of the word “love.”
- In both sonnets, the speaker is presented as a bit of a fool.
- In sonnet 37, the speaker accuses the beautiful lady of guile and of being concerned with superficial beauty, when in fact it is he, rather than she, who is guilty of an attraction to the merely superficial. She is guilty of no guile at all.
- In sonnet 37, the speaker tries to blame the lady for his own inappropriate desires, when in fact he bears full responsibility for any inappropriate feelings he may have.
- In sonnet 37, the speaker implicitly admits that he is responsible for guarding himself against the wrong kind of attraction, although he tries to make the lady seem responsible for the attraction he does in fact feel.
- In both poems Spenser, like Sir Philip Sidney in Astrophil and Stella and like many other Renaissance love poets, implicitly mocks the male speaker and implicitly pays tribute to the virtue and honor of the lady who refuses the male speaker’s inappropriate attention. Although such poems are often read as if we are meant to sympathize with the male speakers, Renaissance poets often have much fun satirizing romantically desperate men, as Spenser does here.