Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1813
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 consecrate the institution of holy matrimony, which will in turn prepare the couple for their heavenly home. This theme is reiterated with new emphasis in sonnet 3, in which the poet speaks of his beloved’s beauty as having kindled heavenly fire:
In my frail spirit, by her from baseness raised:That being now with her huge brightness dazed,Base thing I can no more endure to view;But looking still on her, I stand amazedAt wondrous sight of so celestial hue.
Even in this sonnet, however, some customary aspects of the poet’s praise are apparent. Drawing upon the Neoplatonic conception of the relationship among light, beauty, and virtue, the poem praises a conventionally fair lady, a golden-haired ideal of Elizabethan loveliness. More than a compendium of Christian virtues, then, she is also celebrated for her classically aristocratic “virtue” of pride. In sonnet 5, Spenser associates her pride not only with nobleness of spirit and mind but also with chastity:
For in those lofty looks is close impliedScorn of base things, and disdain of foul dishonor;Threatening rash eyes which gaze on her so wide,That loosely they ne dare to look upon her.Such pride is praise, such portliness is honor.
This theme continues with variations throughout the sequence. The poet also argues that women are like trees even while he laments the suffering that their “hardness” inflicts upon him. His protests of the suffering caused him by the hardness and remoteness of the love object rank among the most conventional devices of the Amoretti. Comparing his lady’s eyes to blinding darts or beams capable of inflicting life or death, he eventually grows outraged in sonnet 10 at “the huge massacres which her eyes do make”; at how, in sonnet 11, a warrior takes him hostage without ransom; and at how like a huntress she seeks to despoil his poor “hart.” The pun on the human heart and the tender “hart,” or deer (with an additional pun on “dear”), is conventional. Such techniques date back to Petrarch, although Spenser uses them with a characteristically personal emphasis. For example, he begins sonnet 15 with a traditional metaphor of love as a form of journey, courtship as a labor of exploration, and his beloved as a precious mine: her lips are rubies, her teeth pearls, her skin ivory, her hair gold, and her hands silver. Rather than extending the metaphor and making this blazon or ceremonial poetic device culminate in an ultimate jewel or setting, the poet unexpectedly declares that her true worth is as immeasurable as the invisible beauty of “her mind.” A series of metaphors that are concrete and particular culminate not in a summary of the concrete and particular aspects of the loved one’s beauty but rather in an abstraction. Spenser’s characteristically Protestant emphasis falls on the inner self, the invisible realm of human and divine perfection.
This mixing of Petrarchan convention and a more individual approach persists throughout the sequence, with the innovative approach ultimately triumphing. As the poet’s love prospers, so does the originality of his inspiration. This triumph is foreshadowed by Spenser’s continual refusal, even in despair, to regard his beloved as merely the trite goddess of lyric tradition. What he wants is a companion and a virtual equal. Although her feminine beauty is a predictably perfect blend of “Nature and Art,” its true purpose is not only to humble her suitors but also to “train and teach” her lover, in sonnet 21, with “such art of eyes I never read in books.” Spenser combines the literal eye of beauty with the metaphoric “mind’s eye” of Platonic tradition. Spenser’s vision of the lady amplifies her human completion: Neither her beauty nor her pride can be reduced to earthly treasures of art or nature; both must be seen as spiritual treasures, on earth as in heaven. This thought, lacking in the Petrarchan tradition, constitutes Spenser’s most remarkable contribution. Even when lamenting the lady’s cruelty, the speaker continually encourages her to examine and refine her motives. In sonnet 30, for example, his comparison of her to ice and of himself to fire is resolved into a kind of “miracle” in which each becomes capable of taking on the properties of the other.
Once the lady graciously accepts him (this is also a significant departure from convention), both lady and lover are free to develop their personal characteristics in a new context. The turning point in the sequence and the courtship appropriately concurs with the arrival of the new year in sonnet 62. The passing of the solstice and the “storms and tempests” of winter in sonnet 63 are sealed with a kiss as sweet as all the gentle blooms of spring in sonnet 64. Some doubts remain in her heart, however, so the poet reassures his lady that her miraculous gift will increase rather than diminish her liberty: She will free them both to each other. The most successful sonnets of the sequence surround this turning point, which culminates with Spenser’s praise of the “lord of life,” whose example, at Eastertide in sonnet 68, teaches the lovers the lesson of rebirth by means of self-sacrifice. Marriage is celebrated as a “sweet prison” of freedom and “eternal peace” in sonnet 71.
The final sonnets of the Amoretti rank among the most elevated and moving examples of the Renaissance sonnet tradition. They sometimes merely rewrite Petrarch by way of Wyatt (the metaphor of the huntsman, for example, in sonnet 67), but examples of the sonnets’ considerable originality (which, in the poet’s time, was not as important in poetry as it has been since the Romantic era) include the poet’s personal admiration, in sonnet 71, of his love’s “drawn work.” He characteristically interprets her drawing as signifying the reign of an “eternal peace.” His celebration of her “thrice happy” name in sonnet 74 and his denunciation in sonnet 85 of a gossip who threatens their relationship are other examples of Spenser’s original use of personal experience in actual courtship. Interspersed with these personal reflections are some of Spenser’s loftiest spiritual sonnets, such as sonnet 79. Perhaps the most successful sonnet of the sequence incorporates the mundane and the lofty. Sonnet 75 begins with the poet’s unsuccessful attempt to write Elizabeth’s name on the sand. The tide erases her name and speaks to the poet, mocking him for his efforts. The sonnet ends with a meditation on how in the poet’s praise of her “virtues rare,” “Our love shall live, and later life renew.” Conventional as this theme is, Spenser’s complex reflection on the tides of time and of human life produces a timeless work of art.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 350
Dasenbrock, Reed Way. “The Petrarchan Context of Spenser’s Amoretti.” PMLA 100, no. 1 (1985): 38-50. Makes a comprehensive statement of the case for the originality and vigor of the Amoretti. Includes bibliography.
Gibbs, Donna. Spenser’s “Amoretti”: A Critical Study. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1990. Excellent sourcebook on the poetic structure, personas, and philosophical background of the Amoretti, as well as its current critical reception. Thorough bibliography and index.
Hadfield, Andrew, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Spenser. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Collection of essays providing an overview of Spenser’s life and work. Some of the essays discuss the relevance of Spenser, his life and career, the historical contexts of his work, his use of language, and his literary influence. The references to Amoretti are listed in the index.
Lethbridge, J. B., ed. Edmund Spenser: New and Renewed Directions. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006. Reprints a collection of papers originally delivered at a conference about Spenser. Includes discussions of the Spenserian stanza, Spenser’s relationship to Ireland, and the trend toward a new historical criticism of his work.
Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. A classic study of the Amoretti in the context of Western culture’s evolving ideas about love and marriage.
McCabe, Richard A. Spenser’s Monstrous Regiment: Elizabethan Ireland and the Poetics of Difference. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Analyzes how Spenser’s experiences of living and writing in Ireland challenged his ideas about English nationhood. Assesses the influence of colonialism on the themes, imagery, language, and structure of his poetry.
Martz, Louis L. “The Amoretti: “Mostly Goodly Temperature.” In Form and Convention in the Poetry of Edmund Spenser, edited by William Nelson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961. A generally sympathetic treatment of the Amoretti from the perspective of the sonnets’ emotional and literary development.
Spiller, Michael R. G. “The Elizabeth Sonnet Vogue and Spenser.” In The Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1992. An invaluable and highly perceptive guide to the place of the Amoretti in the sonnet tradition.