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.
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...
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