Renaissance Era: Edmund Spenser’s the “Amoretti” & “Epithalamion” (Sonnets 58 through 85)

THE ‘AMORETTI’

These were printed in one volume in 1595. It is unlikely that all the sonnets of Amoretti were written at one time, or that all were originally addressed to Elizabeth Boyle, whose marriage to Spenser is celebrated in the Epithalamion. It is possible that the form of the volume, which presents a sonnet sequence dealing with the vicissitudes of a courtship, crowned by a marriage-ode, is accidental: a pleasing fancy of the publisher, William Ponsonby. If so, he had an original mind: this is the only example of a sonnet sequence in English leading to such a conclusion. It seems more likely that Spenser collected existing sonnets, adding to their number with such an arrangement in mind. This would be in keeping with his conception of love, as creative and fruitful both physically and spiritually, and marriage, as sacramentally presenting this fulfillment. The figure of Charissa (Charity-Faerie Queene I, 10), and the quest of Britomart which is to end in marriage, present the same essential image.

Amoretti is a sonnet-cycle tracing the suitor’s long courtship and eventual wooing of his beloved. The work begins with two sonnets in which the speaker addresses his own poetry, attempting to invest his words with the power to achieve his goal (the wooing of Elizabeth Boyle). From the third sonnet through the sixty-second sonnet, the speaker is in an almost constant state of emotional turmoil and frustrated hopes. His beloved refuses to look favorably upon his suit, so his reaction ranges from despairing self-deprecation to angry tirade against her stubbornness. Most often the speaker dwells upon his beloved’s beauty, both inner and outer, and the overpowering effects this beauty has upon him. He uses a variety of motifs to explicate his feelings and thoughts toward the subject of his ardor: predator and prey, wartime victor and captive, fire and ice, and hard substances that eventually soften over long periods of time. Each of these is intended to convey some aspect of his beloved’s character or his own fears and apprehensions.His use of sonnets written in praise of other beauties would be in keeping with this Platonic conception of Love, for in Elizabeth Boyle he saw a closer approximation to the Idea of Beauty itself than in all other women: all praise given to them was by right indirectly hers. As Donne says in The Good Morrow: 

                                    But this, all pleasures fancies be,

                                    If ever any beauty I did see

                              Which I desired and got, ’twas but a dream of thee. 

Spenser is in fact putting his earlier work to its proper purpose, now revealed to him in the beauty of his beloved.

The sonnets are in Spenser’s own rhyme scheme, which appears occasionally elsewhere in his work: a strict variation of the ‘Shakespearean’ form (abab/bcbc/cdcd/ee). The sequence is made up of eighty-nine sonnets, with three lyric pieces at the end.

The sonnets themselves express the moods of the courtship at different stages. There is a definite progression from distant adoration to the intimacies of mutual and accepted love, with adoration to the intimacies of mutual and accepted love, with various vicissitudes on the way. The subject of the sonnets is love for a woman whose beauty and virtue show their divine origin. They deal not so much with this human revelation of beauty, as with the lover’s reaction to it. Each sonnet presents a point of view, a part of the whole subject. The presentation of the actual, personal relationship is disciplined at every point by the appropriate conventions of thought and expression. (Spenser owes much to other writers, notably Desportes and Tasso, as well as Petrarch.)

This magnificent sequence is far too complex in its detail to examine closely, but certain points may be noted. The progress of the courtship’s, like Colin’s love in The Shepheardes Calendar, linked to the passing of the seasons. At the opening it is spring: 

Then you faire flower, in whom fresh youth doth rain, 

Prepare your self new loud to entertain.   Amoretti IV

Again, the penitential season of Lent has its parallel in the devotions of the lover: 

therefore, I likewise on so holy day,

for my sweet Saynt some seruice fit will find.

In the sixtieth sonnet he says his courtship has now lasted a year, and in the sixty-second hopes that the passing of winter may bring him grace: 

So likewise loue cheare you your heavy spright,

and change old years annoy to new delight.

This year it is not Lent but Easter which suggests a more direct plea (this sonnet is often-disastrously-sung as a hymn):

So let vs loue, dearer loue, lyke as we ought, 

loue is the lesson which the Lord vs taught.

Such an application of religion to love is not blasphemous: his love and service to his ‘saint’ is inspired by what is divine in her: it is not a distraction from his adoration of his Creator, but and aid to it. 

The sequence ends on a minor tone, and the imagery is autumnal. Spenser laments his love’s absence, ‘Lyke as the Culuer on the bared bough’ (LXXXIX). This melancholy conclusion, to be reversed by the triumph of the Epithalamion, perhaps an effect of the convention by which sonnet sequences end, for the most part, either in rejection and despair, or as in Petrarch’s case, with the loss of the beloved through death: at least the loss of her physical presence. 

One of the most interesting aspects of the courtship is Spenser’s approach to his beloved. At first, he adores her from afar, overawed by her beauty and right pride. He is her servant, not her equal. It is through his power, as a poet, to immortalize her transient manifestation of eternal beauty, that he attains her level: 

Faire be no lender proud of that shall perish, 

but that which shal you make immortall, cherish.  XXVII

This recalls the end of the Epithalamion, when he bids his song: 

Be veto her a goodly ornament, 

And for short time an endlesse moniment. 

The three lyrics at the end of the Amoretti provide a transition to the triumphant joy of the Epithalamion. They are slight, witty exercises, on the theme of Cupid’s arrows, and recall the March Eclogue.

‘EPITHALAMION’

The Epithalamion is an ode written to commemorate the nuptials of the speaker and his bride. The song begins before dawn and progresses through the wedding ceremony and into the consummation night of the newlywed couple. It is without doubt the most glorious celebration of marriage in English. It is written within an established genre, for which there are many models in classical antiquity, notably in the work of Catullus and Theocritus. Spenser would also have been familiar with examples in French. Of all the traditions available to him he makes full use. It is interesting to compare this poem with the various epithalamia of other writers of the period, especially Herrick and Donne, a little later.

Spenser’s inventive genius for devising verse forms here reaches its supreme triumph. He has developed a verse of eighteen lines, with the most complex orchestration of rhyme, and varying line lengths, and a refrain- ‘The woods shall to me answer and my Eccho ring’- subtly altered as the poem proceeds, tracing the progress of the wedding-day from dawn to night.

Spenser’s love for the Irish countryside is clear through his vivid descriptions of the natural world surrounding the couple, while his political views regarding English supremacy is hinted at in the relationship between the bride and groom themselves.

Other critics have seen Spenser’s gift to his bride not simply as a celebration of their wedding day, but a poetic argument for the kind of husband-wife relationship he expects the two of them to have.

 

Analysis of Sonnets 58 to 85:

This set of sonnets continues to express and explore the ongoing struggle of the speaker in dealing with an unresponsive beloved. He reiterates previous motifs, such as the battle and the contrast of fire and ice. He also introduces another motif of analogies: predator and prey. The beloved is the hunting beast, ferocious and bloody, while the suitor is her prey, helpless and–in one case–submissive to her attack. He knows he will be devoured; he wants only to stay the pain in favor of a quick kill. Continue Reading: Renaissance Era: Edmund Spenser’s the “Amoretti” & “Epithalamion” (Sonnets 58 through 85)

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