What is a critical interpretation of "Sonnet 54" of Edmund Spenser's Amoretti?

Expert Answers
Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Sonnet 54 is from Spenser's Amoretti sonnet cycle (also called sonnet sequence). The conceit of the cycle is Spenser's unrequited love for Elizabeth Boyle, who being much younger, scorns the idea of accepting the courtship of a widowed man. The end of the Amoretti, though, shows that Spenser was ultimately successful in his suit for her love. The Amoretti is followed by the Epithalamion, which is the triumphal celebration of their wedding day and night.

Sonnet 54 in the cycle follows one Spenserian sonnet structure, which has several differences from Petrarch's original Italian sonnet form. It has the fourteen sonnet lines with an octave and a sestet, and the last two lines form a couplet: two lines that rhyme.

There is no line 5 volta, or turn in the subject of the topic (the topic is Elizabeth's rejection of his courtship). The first four lines of the initial octave introduce the metaphor of Elizabeth as a spectator at the play Spenser is performing in desperate desire to win her. Line 4 says that in this pageant he disguises his "troubled wits" of unrequited love.

There is no volta after line 4 because Spenser's innovation to the sonnet is devising a way to employ the rhyme scheme to carry on the logic of the first four line into the logic of the second four lines. This is in contrast to introducing a Petrarchan (or Shakespearean) paradox (or seemingly untrue contradiction) at line 5. Thus this sonnet is an example of how Spenser's ababbcbc rhyme scheme in the first octave allows the continuance of a logical thought through concatenation of the "linked" bb couplet at 4 and 5:

Disguising diversely my troubled wits.
Sometimes I joy when glad occasion fits,

The concluding sestet turns on a volta at line 9 that introduces the reactions of Elizabeth to Spenser's efforts to procure her love.

when I laugh, she mocks; and, when I cry,
She laughs, and hardens evermore her heart.

The resolution to his problem that comes in the ending couplet is to denounce her (for the moment ...) as "no woman, but a senseless stone" because he cannot "move her" to love with any ploy: "What then can move her?"

  • 14 line sonnet
    octave + sestet
    one volta "turn" at line 9
    continuing logic, no paradox
    rhyming resolution in ending couplet
    resolution is a conclusion from the foregoing logic
    rhyme scheme ababbcbc cdcdee
    concatenation at couplet lines 4/5 and 8/9: bb and cc
lit24 | Student

Edmund Spenser's "Amoretti" is a sonnet cycle which describes his courtship and marriage to Elizabeth Boyle.

Spenser's "Sonnet54" is made up of three quatrains and a couplet.

In the first quatrain Spenser compares the whole world to a stage and himself to an actor performing on that stage. His lover Elizabeth Boyle, of course, is the spectator watching him perform his different roles on that stage. He complains that all she does is "idly sit" and watch him strain to give an excellent all round performance:

all the pageants play,
Disguising diversely my troubled wits.

In the second quatrain, Spenser remarks that he is adept at displaying the entire gamut of emotions from joy[comedy] to sorrow [tragedy] in order to entertain her:

Sometimes I joy when glad occasion fits,
And mask in mirth like to a comedy:
Soon after, when my joy to sorrow flits,
I wail, and make my woes a tragedy.

In the third quatrain, Spenser expresses his disappointment and exasperation saying that all his efforts at entertaining her are of no use. She observes him critically, and very  unsympathetically mocks at him when he tries to make her laugh or ridicules him when he expresses sorrow:

Yet she, beholding me with constant eye,
Delights not in my mirth, nor rues my smart:
But, when I laugh, she mocks; and, when I cry,
She laughs, and hardens evermore her heart.

Spenser concludes his sonnet with a couplet in which he calls his vain and unsympathetic lover "a senseless stone" because she is so cold and incapable of any emotion:

What then can move her? if nor mirth nor moan,
She is no woman, but a senseless stone.