Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2397

The best of Edmund Spenser’s lyric poetry, his sonnets, wedding songs, and his hymns, were all products of the years during which he was preparing his great epic romance, THE FAERIE QUEENE, for publication, and they reveal him at the height of his powers. He had in his earlier years mastered many verse forms and experimented with a variety of subjects in his collection of pastoral poems, THE SHEPHEARDES CALENDAR, in the melancholy laments on mutability adapted from French and Italian sources in THE RUINES OF TIME, the VISIONS OF BELLAY, and the VISIONS OF PETRARCH, in the charming mock-epics, VIRGIL’S GNAT and MUIOPOTMOS: OR THE FATE OF THE BUTTERFLY, and in the clever satire, MOTHER HUBBERD’S TALE. The later works, the AMORETTI, the EPITHALAMION, the PROTHALAMION, and the FOWRE HYMNES, reveal throughout a beauty and control of language that is only intermittent in much of the poet’s earlier writing. They are, like THE FAERIE QUEENE, peculiarly the product of the Renaissance in their adherence to the Petrarchan conventions of courtly love and in their fusion of Christian theology and Platonic philosophy.

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The sonnet sequence, the AMORETTI, and the EPITHALAMION, were Spenser’s wedding gifts to his wife, Elizabeth Boyle. These works are remarkable for the skill with which the poet has managed to convey his personal feelings and at the same time to universalize his experiences. He is all bridegrooms addressing all brides in the marriage hymn, even while he alludes to the Irish landscape around his home, and he makes the sonnets a record of the typical scorned courtly lover’s entreating his proud lady for mercy, as well as a description of the course of his own courtship of his future wife.

The narrative framework of the AMORETTI is very sketchy; the poet meets with rejection for many months, and the early sonnets are often protests against the pride and cruelty of the lady. At last she relents and agrees to marry him, and he records his happiness in the later poems. The happy ending of the sequence is almost unique in Elizabethan poetry, for the typical Petrarchan lover was doomed to perpetual rejection.

Spenser characterizes his beloved as a proud, virtuous beauty. Even as he protests at her unkindness, he admires the moral strength that makes her all the more beautiful in his eyes. Many of the sonnets reflect the conventional Renaissance picture of the lady as a victorious warrior who has subdued her abject suitor and made him her vassal. The images of master and servant and of warrior and captive recur in a number of the poems. Sonnet XX begins with a characteristic description of the Petrarchan lover:

In vain I seek and sue to her for grace,And do mine humbled heart before herpour:The whiles her foot she in my neckdoth place,And tread my life down in the lowlyfloor.

Spenser’s lady is by no means always seen as cruel tyrant, however; more often he associates her with the Platonic concept of ideal beauty. The Renaissance Platonist viewed the love of a man for a woman as the first step toward ultimate union with the divine. The beauty of an individual woman led her lover to contemplation of the idea of beauty, and he could finally be lifted out of himself, freed from his personal lusts, to contemplate God. Seen in this light, a love affair has many elements of a religious experience, and it is as such that Spenser often describes his relationship with his future wife:

The sovereign beauty which I do admire,Witness the world how worthy to bepraised;The light whereof hath kindled heavenlyfireIn my frail spirit, by her from basenessraised:That being now with her huge brightnessdazed,Base thing I can no more endure toview;But looking still on her, I stand amazedAt wondrous sight of so celestial hue.

The lady becomes a channel for the light of God, which refines the soul of the lover as heat does base metal. Beauty is associated with absolute truth and good; Spenser praises his beloved not for her fair appearance, which time will blast, but for her spiritual graces, which are permanent:

But the true fair, that is the gentlewitAnd virtuous mind, is much morepraised of me.For all the rest, how ever fair it be,Shall turn to naught and lose that glorioushue:But only that is permanent and freeFrom frail corruption, that doth fleshensue.That is true beauty: that doth argueyouTo be divine, and born of heavenlyseed.

While the majority of the sonnets are either the protestations of the scorned Petrarchan lover or the ecstasies of the Platonist, a few seem to be simple statements of the poet’s sorrow or of the quiet happiness he experienced when he had once been accepted. Particularly fine is the seventieth sonnet, which moves suddenly into the world of nature with the fresh and spontaneous quality of the medieval lyrics:

Fresh Spring, the herald of love’smighty king,In whose coat-armour richly are displayedAll sorts of flowers the which on earthdo spring,In goodly colours gloriously arrayed,Go to my love, where she is carelesslaid,Yet in her winter’s bower, not wellawake;Tell her the joyous time will not bestayed,Unless she do him by the forelock take.

The AMORETTI have inevitably been compared with the sonnet sequences of Shakespeare and Sidney, but most critics find them less satisfactory than either of the others. Spenser does not have the metaphysical wit and intensity of Shakespeare or the natural ease of Sidney, and the unfamiliar conventions of Renaissance Platonism and courtly love place barriers between him and the modern reader. Nevertheless, the dignity and beauty of his language, the fusion of personal, traditional, and the quiet assurance of his love in the later poems, all combine to make the AMORETTI satisfying poems, if not the greatest in their genre.

No such criticism has been directed at the EPITHALAMION, which is certainly the best of Spenser’s shorter poems and perhaps the greatest of all English odes. It is a hymn of joy addressed to his bride on their wedding day, a stately poem whose tone becomes progressively more exalted as the poet moves through the events of the day from morning toward evening and the consummation of his happiness. The vocabulary and the imagery of the poem, as well as the genre itself, are classical. Spenser calls upon the Muses, the Hours, Hymen, the god of marriage, and Juno to bless his bride, and he models his description of the wedding procession, parts of the ceremony, and the feast on the epithalamia of Catullus and other classical poets. Many of the best parts of the poem, however, are reflections of Spenser’s closeness to the English tradition and to the landscape around him. He calls upon the Irish river nymphs to attend his bride:

Ye nymphs of Mulla, which with carefulheedThe silver scaly trouts do tend full well,The greedy pikes which use therein tofeed,Those trouts and pikes all others do excelAnd ye likewise which keep the rushylake,Where none do fishes take,Bind up the locks which hang scatteredlight,And in his waters, which your mirrormake,Behold your faces as the crystal bright,That when you come whereas my lovedoth lie,No blemish she may spy.

Spenser’s ability to bring clear visual images before his reader contributes greatly to the beauty of the poem. He describes his wife as she stands before the altar of the temple, which seems at once Christian and pagan:

Behold, whiles she before the altarstands,Hearing the holy priest that to herspeaks,And blesseth her with his two happyhands,How the red roses flush up in hercheeks,And the pure snow with goodly vermeilstain,Like crimson dyed in grain.

The greatness of the EPITHALAMION rests upon the near-perfect fusion of classical and native themes and images, upon the vivid evocation of the sights and sounds of the wedding, and especially upon the depth of feeling that sustains the exalted tone of the poem and makes it a universal, as well as a personal celebration of love and marriage. Spenser used many of the same technical devices, classical imagery, a refrain, and mythological characters, in the PROTHALAMION, a poem written for the marriages of the Lady Elizabeth Somerset and her sister Katherine, daughters of the Earl of Worcester, but he does not achieve the heights of the EPITHALAMION in the later work.

The PROTHALAMION is frankly a “public” poem, written to win the favor of the brides’ father rather than out of any intense feeling, and it makes its effect primarily through its rich, copious description. Spenser begins on a rather discordant note, describing how, in a fit of depression brought on by his long, hopeless quest for favor at court, he walked along the shores of the Thames. There he saw first a group of nymphs gathering flowers, then two beautiful swans, swimming toward Somerset House. As the nymphs threw flowers in the path of the birds, one of their number sang a wedding hymn:

Let endless peace your steadfast heartsaccord,And blessed plenty wait upon yourboard;And let your bed with pleasures chasteabound,That fruitful issue may to you afford,Which may your foes confound,And make your joys redound,Upon your bridal day, which is notlong:Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end mysong.

Somerset and the bridegrooms come out to meet the swans at the end of their journey; Spenser describes their meeting in typical classical images:

From those high towers this noble lordissuing,Like radiant Hesper when his goldenhairIn th’ocean billows he hath bathed fair,Descended to the river’s open viewing,With a great train ensuing.

A number of the philosophical themes and images from the AMORETTI appear again in the FOWRE HYMNES. Spenser states in his preface to these poems that he wrote the first two, the Hymnes in Honour of Love and Beauty, in his youth; the latter two, addressed to Heavenly Love and Heavenly Beauty, constitute a kind of recantation of the earlier poems. There is, however, much less to reject in the original HYMNES than his statement would suggest, for they deal with love and beauty primarily in the Platonic terms discussed in connection with the sonnets. Spenser’s Platonism is almost always colored by his Christianity; the Eros of the first hymn is not merely the mischievous boy Cupid but the creative force that binds together the discordant elements making up the universe, and the poet addresses him in terms that have distinctly Christian overtones: “My guide, my God, my victor, and my king.” In this poem, as in the AMORETTI, love is a purifying force:

Such is the power of that sweet passion,That it all sordid baseness doth expel,And the refined mind doth newly fashionUnto a fairer form, which now dothdwellIn his high thought, that would it selfexcel;Which he beholding still with constantsight,Admires the mirror of so heavenly light.

Beauty, glorified in the second Hymne, is described as a Platonic idea, created by God, with the power to kindle an essentially spiritual affection:

But that fair lamp, from whose celestialrayThat light proceeds which kindlesthlovers’ fire,Shall never be extinguished nor decay;But when the vital spirits do expire,Unto her native planet shall retire;For it is heavenly born, and cannot die,Being a parcel of the purest sky.

Spenser makes beauty almost synonymous with good or truth, for he sees a fair body as the “fleshly bower” of a beautiful soul and believes that “all that fair is, is by nature good.”

While the dominant tone of the first two hymns is Platonic, there are passages in both that treat love and beauty in Petrarchan terms, and the two elements are not always successfully united. The same god who is “lord of truth and loyalty,” lifting man out of himself toward Heaven, is also “tyrant Love” who laughs when he sees men “languishing like thralls forlorn,” captives of the fair servants of Venus who shoot “Armies of loves” from their eyes to enslave men.

The “Hymne of Heavenly Love,” the poem which comes nearest orthodox Christianity, relates the creation, the fall of man, and his redemption through the Incarnation of Christ, the “great Lord of Love.” Even Spenser’s Christianity is colored by his Platonism; it is the contemplative ideal, rather than the active life of service, that he praises in Platonic terms in his conclusion:

Thenceforth all world’s desire will inthee die,And all earth’s glory, on which men dogaze,Seem dirt and dross in thy pure sightedeye,Compared to that celestial beauty’sblaze,Whose glorious beams all fleshly sensedoth dazeWith admiration of their passing light,Blinding the eyes and lumining thespright.Then shall thy ravished soul inspired beWith heavenly thoughts, far above humanskill,And thy bright radiant eyes shallplainly seeTh’ idea of his pure glory present stillBefore thy face, that all thy spirits shallfillWith sweet enragement of celestial love,Kindled through sight of those fairthings above.

The difficult fourth hymn, perhaps the most Platonic of all, describes man’s progress from appreciation of the beauty of the earth to contemplation of “the glory of that Majesty Divine” that completely enraptures him. The poet embodies Heavenly Beauty in Sapience, wisdom, whom he makes a kind of fourth person of the Trinity, the “sovereign darling of the Deity.” She is “that Sovereign Light, from whose pure beams all perfect Beauty springs,” who inspires man’s love of God and lifts him above this “vile world.”

Spenser’s lyrics are not written in a style fashionable among present-day critics, who look for brevity, powerful personal emotion, and harsh dramatic rhythms of speech. However, his poems will continue to please those readers who appreciate the characteristic Renaissance poetic virtues of rich imagery, lavish description appealing to the eye and the ear, and lofty, graceful language. Few, if any, other English poets have expressed so clearly and so artistically the nature of Christian Platonism in the late sixteenth century, and an understanding of the religious and philosophical elements so well set forth in the AMORETTI and the FOWRE HYMNES can illuminate many parts of THE FAERIE QUEENE. Most readers will, however, continue to return to Spenser’s lyric poetry not for its philosophy, but for its lasting beauty.

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