Metapoetry in Edmund Spenser's Amoretti.
This famous description of the Garden of Venus represents one of Edmund Spenser's most striking testimonials to the power of art, and the centrality of art in Spenser's epic has long been recognized. Less often noted, however, is the similarly crucial role assigned to art in Spenser's masterful sonnet sequence Amoretti. The Amoretti has been read, among other things, as an autobiographical lyric record of the poet's courtship of his future wife Elizabeth Boyle, a vehicle for Spenser's views on Christian marriage doctrine and proper gender relations, and an exercise in ingenious calendar symbolism, (1) but I believe that the most fruitful way to view the sequence is as a clever exploration of and reflection on the poet's craft, one in keeping with the contemporary conception of sonnets as "witty toys." (2) It is of course notoriously difficult to separate the political, religious, erotic, and artistic threads of Spenser's carefully textured poetry, and conventional sonnet subjects such as love, liberty, and loss matter greatly in the sequence, but at least equally important is the subject of language, the effort to see just what the poet can accomplish with his chosen words in this most confining yet capacious literary arena. A defining characteristic of the Amoretti sequence is an emphasis on poems about the poet's craft, an emphasis here termed "metapoetry." Self-referentiality is a key aspect of the Amoretti, part of what A. Leigh DeNeef has described as Spenser's career-long effort "to articulate the ways in which language speaks to us about the ways we speak the language." (3) It is no accident that this is the only major English sonnet sequence named after its own poems.
Spenser was in many ways the first professional English poet, painstakingly crafting his public persona and literary path. (4) From his carefully orchestrated 1579 public debut with The Shepheardes Calender through the ritual offering of the epic Faerie Queene and other works during the 1590s, Spenser strove to present himself as an author to be reckoned with, a man who would achieve national prominence through his artistic worth rather than his middling birth. The publication of Amoretti was one of the meticulously designed stages on this poetic journey. As Patrick Cheney notes, "Throughout Amoretti, Spenser provides evidence for defining the sonnet sequence as a careeric gesture--as a series of Petrarchan poems in which a poet fictionalizes his attempt to unite with a beloved in order to advance, ritualistically, a nationally significant literary career." Arthur Marotti observes that Spenser "offered his sonnet sequence as part of a literary tradition in which aesthetic value was the main criterion of merit, competing on equal terms with predecessors and contemporaries.... He used the publication of sonnets as yet another occasion to claim 'laureateship,' proclaiming artistic authority in a world that consistently frustrated his economic and political ambitions." (5) One useful way to view the Amoretti, then, is as a self-designed command performance, Spenser's carefully choreographed effort to show that his sonneteering intellectually and artistically equals or exceeds that of any poet of the time.
A careful look at two of Spenser's major foci in the Amoretti will illustrate the centrality, of metapoetic examination in the sequence. The multilayered handling of poetic address and the ongoing exploration of the role of literary tradition both clearly show a poet interrogating and redefining his craft. As in his other works, Spenser does not claim to have all the answers, but he is full of interesting questions, and for this author it is through investigating questions that the writer's role is shaped.
FORMS OF ADDRESS
Spenser addressed a wide and varied audience from the outset. The fact that the Amoretti seems to have debuted in public print rather than private manuscript is highly significant, because, as David Kastan notes, "the material forms in which poetry circulates, its modes and mechanisms of transmission, are what shapes its intelligibility, and a consideration of them is necessary to clarify what poetry is, as both utterance and artifact." (6) While the courtier Sidney could afford to produce his sonnets in manuscript form for a coterie audience, Spenser's effort to achieve social legitimacy through letters led him to conceive of and produce the Amoretti as a public document, an utterance and artifact demonstrating his bona fides as a writer of one of the most popular and competitive poetic forms of the time. These sonnets are as much about the act of writing poetry as about their ostensible subjects of love and loss, an idea evidenced by Spenser's complex treatment of both audience and the persona addressing it.
The Amoretti begins with an envoi, a poem presenting the sequence as a fair accompli, a completed series of artistic products. The language of the sonnet is resolutely literary. In the opening line we hear that the poet's "Happy ... leaves" are on their way to the lady's "lilly hands" (1); (7) those leaves are already, of course, in the reading audience's hands as we begin to scan and contemplate the sequence. In line 3 we learn that the leaves are to be held in "loues soft bands," which are "the cords, which in book-binding cross the back of the book to bind the gatherings together." (8) In the second quatrain the speaker celebrates the "happy lines" about to be met by the lady's "lamping eyes," eyes that will "reade the sorrows of my dying spright, / written with teares in hart's close-bleeding book" (5-8). The third quatrain speaks of how these "happy rymes" will be bathed in the sacred brook of Helicon, home of Euterpe and the other muses (9-12). The closing couplet commands "Leaves, lines, and rymes, seek her to please alone, / whom if ye please, I care for other none" (13-14, emphasis added throughout). Strikingly, these lines are all addressed to the poem itself. Where Sidney begins Astrophil and Stella with an address to a presumably sympathetic reader, Daniel's first sonnet invokes his "sweet maide" Delia, Shakespeare's opener speaks to the young man, and Drayton's first sonnet in Idea is addressed "To the Reader of these Sonnets," Spenser instead speaks to his own words. As Cheney observes, "Spenser writes Sonnet 1 to introduce the self-referential nature of the sequence and to create an index to his poetics. By addressing the volume of poetry directly ('Leaves, lines, and rymes')--not Elizabeth Boyle--he indicates the careeric dimension of the erotic relationship." (9) The lady may well read these poems, but only as one member of a variegated audience all scanning the same printed pages.
Sonnet 2 continues Spenser's conversation with his own work, addressing an "Unquiet thought" rather than any sonnet-lady. "Unquiet thought" has long been taken to represent various forms of psycho logical distress apparently felt by the speaker and/or poet. (10) Though plausible, such readings neglect the possibility that the "unquiet thought" of Sonnet 2 is not the prelude to poetry, but poetry itself, an artistic correlative for the speaker's assumed internal stress. When looked at in this way, the sonnet is not about the pain that may lead to poetry, but about the pain of making poetry, of constantly probing the limits of language, a theme echoed in Amoretti 33, Book VI of The Faerie Queene, and numerous other places in Spenser's work. (11) While one must always be cautious about assuming that the narrator speaks directly for the historical Edmund Spenser here or elsewhere, the burdens of writing poetry plainly seem to be an ingredient Spenser throws into the sequence's conceptual mix.
The speaker opens Sonnet 2 by saying that these poems have been "bred / Of th'inward bale of my love-pin'd hart / And sithens have with sighes and sorrowes fed, / Till greater than my wombe thou woxen art" (1-4). He is speaking of completed products, sonnets developed through a long, painful process, but now ready to be shared with the world. In urging the poems to "Breake forth at length out of the inner part / In which thou lurkest lyke to vyper's brood: / And seeke some succour both to ease my smart / And also to sustayne thy selfe with food" (5-8), the speaker reveals both the painfully consuming nature of poetic creation and the possible payoffs: relief from the driving need to invent, and potential recognition and reward for the literary products being offered. "Food" is sought to "sustayne" not only the poems, but also the poet behind them.
A close look at the sestet of Sonnet 2 further reveals that the "unquiet thought" of line 1 clearly involves something much more than psychological unrest:</p> <pre> But if in presence of that fairest proud Thou chance to come, fall lowly at her feet: And with meeke humblesse and afflicted mood, Pardon for thee. and grace for me intreat.
Which if she graunt, then live, and my love cherish: If not, die soone, and I with thee will perish. (9-14) </pre> <p>The "restlessness and the internal quality of the love experience" posited by Peter Cummings or Carol Thomas Neely's "desire and conflict" (note 10) are unlikely to come directly into the "presence of that fayrest proud," as these poems presumably will (the poems, unlike feelings, could also indeed "fall lowly at her feet"), nor would those internal drives be likely to obey the speaker's directives of "meeke humblesse and afflicted mood," as words of his choosing might. Presumably any major psychological discords would be erased, or at least defused, by the lady's consent, and the speaker would be unlikely to tell those discords to "live and my love cherish" if his desires were fulfilled. In the event of the lady's rejection, such feelings would almost certainly not "die soone," barring the speaker's suicide.
The sestet makes perfect sense, however, when "unquiet thought" is taken to mean poetry itself. If the sonnets succeed in winning favor from the lady, then they will be preserved and cherished by the speaker; if not, they will "die soone." While the speaker's death would presumably be figurative, the writings' demise might well be literal; as the lady demonstrates in Sonnet 48, manuscripts are easily burned.
These opening sonnets also introduce the carefully constructed persona of the sequence's poet-lover. This persona was for centuries taken uncritically as the historical Edmund Spenser, but recent scholars have come to recognize the narrator-figure as just one of many poetic tools artfully employed by Spenser. (12) The sophistication of Spenser's narrative persona is clearly revealed in sonnets such as 54. Set in "this worlds Theatre in which we stay" (1), the poem emphasizes performance and artistry throughout. The speaker laments the way in which the lady "lyke the Spectator ydly sits, / Beholding me that all the pageants play, / Disguysing diversly my troubled wits" (2-4). He tells us that he varies his dramatic approach, sometimes "mask[ing] in myrth lyke to a Comedy" and other times "wail[ing] and mak[ing] my woes a Tragedy" (6-7), but that the lady with her "constant eye / Delights not in my merth nor rues my smart" (9-10). Instead of responding as desired, the lady "mocks" when he laughs, and laughs when he cries (11-12), leaving the speaker to seemingly helplessly wonder "What then can move her? if nor mirth nor mone, / She is no woman, but a sencelesse stone" (13-14). The frustrated, bitter speaker lamenting the lady's unwillingness to respond to his devotion presents all the expected characteristics of the conventional Petrarchan sonnet-lover. What sets this sonnet apart, however, is the perception by both the speaker and the lady that such a role is being played. (13) Theatrical language permeates the poem, as does a shared awareness of the artifice of the situation. The speaker plays the sonnet-lover, the woman plays the sonnet-lady, and Spenser wittily demonstrates both his skill at depicting stock sonnet situations and his ability to create a self-aware persona who simultaneously inhabits, transcends, and winks at such situations, here and elsewhere in the sequence. The creation of such a sophisticated persona, one who could clearly hold his own with Sidney's Astrophil or any other sonnet-lover, is an important component of Spenser's metapoetic structure.
Spenser's emphasis on addressing language continues through the sequence's closing sonnets as well. Sonnet 85, which Cheney labels "a verse defence of poesy," (14) draws a distinction between the speaker's true poetic voice as the mavis (song-thrush) and the false songs of the cuckoo, using a key graphic image to suggest the speaker's skill and sincerity: "Deepe in the closet of my parts entyre, / Her worth is written with a golden quill" (9-10). Sonnet 86 embodies the power of language by describing the terrible effects of slanderous "false forged lyes" (7) spread by "Venemous toung tipt with vile adders sting" (1). Detraction was a lifelong obsession for Spenser, one that ostensibly brought The Faerie Queene to a sudden halt at the abrupt end of Book VI. Whether or not the slander of Sonnet 86 causes the apparent separation of the lovers in the final three sonnets, the poem is manifestly in large part a testimony to the striking power of words.
The final sonnet in the Amoretti presents an image of the speaker-poet sitting alone "Lyke as the Culver on the bared bough, / Sits mourning for the absence of her mate" (1-2). The speaker says he will "Seek with my playnts to match that mournful dove" (8) in expressing his sense of isolation as well as his anxiety to be reunited with his love, and the sonnet concentrates on that linguistic effort. What is important is that here, as throughout the sequence, the focus is on the poet's text; the absent lady. is a pretext for poetry, but the song of this sonnet is self-referential, and the "playnts" composed here are the very lines "written with teares in hart's close bleeding book" mentioned in Sonnet 1. The Amoretti thus comes full circle. It is an inward-looking circle, for Spenser, like Hamlet, knows that "words, words, words" are often the writer's subject as well as his or her medium.
TIME AND TRADITION
A second important way in which the Amoretti both typifies and transcends the sonnet conventions of the era is the manner in which Spenser skillfully locates his work on a poetic continuum, paying tribute to the writers of the past while simultaneously signaling that his verse promises to surpass the work of those earlier masters. Time is thus a central concern of the sequence, and the Amoretti presents an ongoing exploration of poetry's power to control temporality through the power of words. While emphasis on the eternizing power of poetry reaches at least as far back as Ovid, Spenser's sonnet sequence is remarkable for the number and nature of the variations it plays on this theme.
Poetry's potential gift of lasting life is incorporated subtly rather than directly in several sonnets. Sonnet 13 seemingly traces the path of a neo-Platonic ascent to the divine and then closes with the couplet "Yet lowly still vouchsafe to looke on me, / Such lowlinesse shall make you lofty be" (13-14). These lines suggest that the speaker can facilitate the lady's ascent into bliss, that his poetic skill offers the means of lifting her name up for all to admire. In Sonnet 49 the speaker begs the lady to have mercy on him, and promises, "Such mercy shal you make admyred to be, / So shall you live by giving life to me" (13-14), the obvious implication being that she and her noble reputation will live on through the power of his words. Sonnet 66 explores the argument that the lady is reaching too far below her heavenly self by considering the speaker, but states that he is a much better foil for her than a "princes pere" (10) would be and concludes "Yet since your light hath once elumind me, / With my reflex yours shall encreased be" (13-14). Poetry is not explicitly mentioned in any of these sonnets, but all three clearly suggest that the speaker's poetic art is what has the power to make the lady deservedly live beyond her time.
The issue is treated more directly in Sonnet 48, in which we are immediately informed that the lady's "cruell hand" has burned the speaker's "Innocent paper," making it a "sacrifize unto the greedy fyre" (1, 4). The aggrieved speaker testifies that the paper represented an honest outpouring of deep feeling, one that certainly did not deserve to meet the "so bad end for hereticks ordayned" (5-6). Despite the lady's harshness, however, the speaker directs his work to "Yet live for ever, though against her will, / And speake her good, though she requite it ill" (13-14). The exact nature of the charred document is never specified, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the work in question is either an earlier version of the very sonnet we are reading or another very much like it. The lady's effort to obliterate the piece has only intensified the speaker's determination to preserve both the work and the woman. Whether or not such a fire ever really happened is immaterial: as we peruse the sonnet over four hundred years after its alleged attempted destruction, Spenser's readers are left with a very clear reminder that papers may be destroyed, but poems live on.
This point is made even more explicitly in Sonnet 27. After asking the opening question "Faire proud, now tell me, why should faire be proud, / Sith all worlds glorie is but drosse uncleane?" (1-2) and reminding the lady that her beautiful worldly self will "be forgot as it had never beene" (7), the speaker concludes</p> <pre> Ne any mention shall thereof remaine: But what this verse, that never shall expyre, Shall to you purchas with her thankles paine. Faire, be no lenger proud of that shall perish, But that which shal you make immortall, cherish. (10-14) </pre> <p>Love is here once again not the be-all and end-all of the sequence, but rather a pretext for the introduction of a meditation on the lasting power of poetry and a testimony to the value of verse.
Sonnet 69 further advances Spenser's consideration of poetry's memorializing force. The first four lines describe how the famous warriors of antiquity erected stately monuments in which to house the records of their great deeds; line 4 includes a pun on the word "emprize," which likely refers both to the warriors' enterprises and to the poetic inscriptions on the memorials commemorating those deeds. In the second quatrain the speaker asks "What trophee then shall I most fit devize," to "record the memory / Of my loves conquest, peerelesse beauties prise?" (5-7). (The floating Spenserian syntax of line 5 allows "most fit" to modify either "trophee" or "devize," and here, as throughout the sequence, "fit" is a key word that may work either as an adjective meaning "appropriate" or as a verb meaning "made" or "created." (15)) The answer to the speaker's creative and temporal dilemma, we soon learn, is that</p> <pre>
Even this verse vowd to eternity, Shall be thereof immortall moniment:
And tell her prayse to all posterity, That may admire such worlds rare wonderment: The happy purchase of my glorious spoile, Gotten at last with labour and long toyle. (9-14) </pre> <p>On the surface this seems to be a standard celebration of the power of poetry to make beloved figures live on: the Amoretti is unique among major English sonnet sequences in its celebration of married love, and part of what Spenser is doing here may well be extolling his love for his second wife and his determination to have her be remembered in the future. A close look at the final lines of the sonnet, however, suggests that the speaker is quite possibly talking about creating poetry at least as much as he is about celebrating love. "The happy purchase of my glorious spoile, / Gotten at last with labour and long toyle" may not be so much the romantic conquest of Elizabeth Boyle as it is the composition of this sequence of poems about her. As we hear in the opening sonnets and are frequently reminded throughout the Amoretti, composing poems is hard work, and that work is what seems to be the focus of attention here. Poetry is thus presented as having the power to eternize not only the lady and the poet composing verse about her but also the very act of writing itself, an act that the Amoretti anatomizes continually. The poem occupies a key place in the sequence, immediately following as it does the glorious Easter Sonnet (68), and Spenser's emphasis here once again suggests the importance of metapoetry throughout the Amoretti.
Probably the best-known sonnet in the sequence is Sonnet 75, "One day I wrote her name upon the strand," and it is in this piece that the idea of poetry's immortalizing powers receives its richest consideration. The sonnet opens with a demonstration of seemingly ephemeral writing as the speaker twice watches the lady's name he has written in the sand being washed away by the waves and then hears her say that his effort to immortalize a mortal being is inevitably doomed to failure, "'For I my selve shall lyke to this decay, / And eek my name bee wiped out lykewize'" (7-8). Cummings blames the speaker for producing "mechanical inscriptions of her name into the sand, which are as thoughtless as the waves that wash them away," while William C. Johnson says "In an enthusiastic move poetically and relationally retrograde, he now seeks to immortalize the lady through verse [but] ... the poet's action has no more long-lasting an effect than a name written in watery sand." (16) A closer look at signifier and signified is called for here, however. While the lady's name might be washed away from the beach within the fiction of the sonnet, we know from the previous poem that the name is Elizabeth, and we cannot help but see that name written in the literary sand before the waves seemingly wash it away. The sand-writing may be ephemeral within the action of the particular sonnet, but the paper-writing describing the action is lasting in terms of both the individual sonnet and the Amoretti sequence. (17)
This scene is followed by the speaker's most ringing declaration of the power of verse, a declaration seemingly echoed by the poet behind the speaker:</p> <pre> "Not so," quod I, "let baser things devize
To dy in dust, but you shall live by fame: My verse your virtues rare shall eternize, And in the hevens wryte your glorious name.
Where whenas death shall all the world subdew, Our love shall live. and later life renew." (9-14) </pre> <p>Here the idea of eternizing the beloved receives yet another twist: not only will these poems make the lady's fame and virtues live forever, but the heavens themselves will become a great writing tablet for the poet as the perpetual endurance of poetry blends with the eternity of Christian salvation after the second coming. Composing poetry is thus no longer just a noble act; now it has become a sacred one. Eternal life from the poet's hand and from God's are one and the same. The poet and God are both presented as figures whose author-ity creates, and the power of poetry receives perhaps its highest testament.
Another of Spenser's metapoetic concerns in the Amoretti is to locate his work in the contexts of both classical and contemporary poetic tradition. Classical myths are more freely used and more freely adapted in the Amoretti than in any other Renaissance sonnet sequence, artfully demonstrating Spenser's poetic awareness and versatility. Sonnet 23 opens with a mention of Homer's Penelope and then cleverly links that faithful character's weaving of fabric to the poet's weaving a tapestry of words, highlighting Spenser's metapoetic technique in the sequence:
In part, the weaving and unweaving are extensions of the poet's comments on his own craft, in which comments Spenser presents the poet in many forms--maker, craftsman, and weaver. The woven work, like the well-wrought poem, captures its beholders; the poet becomes the weaver, bringing into existence something that, before, did not exist. He spins his tales and holds the various strands before him as the tapestry ... unfolds before us. (18)
In subsequent sonnets Spenser creates "a new Pandora, sent as a scourge to cleanse from evil rather than punish with it" (19) (24), inverts the Daphne myth so that her transformation into a laurel tree becomes punishment from the gods rather than protection (27), and seems to suggest that Narcissus might have been on to something with his single-minded devotion to a vision (provided that the "Yet" in line 9 is taken to mean "still" rather than "but") (35). The Amoretti speaker then goes on to compare his art to that of two legendary mythological wordsmiths, Arion and Orpheus, in a key pair of sonnets located near the midpoint of the sequence. In Sonnet 38 the speaker describes how Arion was able to use "the sweet musick which his harp did make" (3) to lure a dolphin into rescuing him from drowning during a tempest, then goes on to lament, "But my rude musick, which was wont to please / Some dainty eares, cannot with any skill / The dreadfull tempest of her wrath appease, / Nor move the Dolphin from her stubborne will" (5-8). Tempest and dolphin have been poetically transformed by Spenser into attributes of the lady, but the speaker's metrical music proves ineffectual in moving either one. The blame may lie with the cruel fair's coldness, yet the speaker also raises the possibility that the fault may in fact rest with the limitations of his "rude musick." The contrast with Arion's "sweet music" is in part a modesty topos, but it is also a comment on the difficulty of successfully transmuting ideas into poetic gold, a reminder that composing poetry can be a painful and thankless process. Similarly, in Sonnet 44 the speaker praises Orpheus's ability to artistically tame strife among "those renoumed noble Peres of Greece" (1), notes his own ongoing emotional turmoil, then mourns</p> <pre> But when in hand my tuneless harp I take, Then doe I more augment my foe's despight, And griefe renew, and passions doe awake To battaile fresh against my selfe to fight. Mongst whome the more I seeke to settle peace, The more I fynd their malice to increace. (9-14) </pre> <p>Instead of charming outside audiences as Orpheus's words did, the speaker's language serves only to accentuate his own internal agony. The fierce foe the speaker combats is not only emotional distress but also the struggle to adequately express his feelings in words. In this pair of sonnets Spenser thus illustrates the difficulty of poetic persuasion by depicting the poet-lover's artistic inefficacy while at the same time showing the power of verse to express the seemingly inexpressible. In these and the other mythological sonnets of the Amoretti Spenser displays his familiarity with classical legends while simultaneously demonstrating his artful ability to transfigure those tales for his own poetic ends.
The Amoretti also addresses the work of later poets. Petrarch has long been recognized as a key influence, and one common way of reading the sequence is as a record of the speaker's growth from a limited, egoistic Petrarchan sonnet-lover outlook into a more mature, mutual, and spirit-centered from of love. (20) Sonnet 10, based on Petrarch's Rime 121, demonstrates Spenser's ability to simultaneously present and question Petrarchan sonnet roles, Sonnet 30 drives standard Petrarchan conceits regarding fire and ice to the point of absurdity, Sonnet 72 addresses the idolatry problem so burdensome for the Italian poet, and numerous other poems respond to Petrarch's work in ways large and small. Tasso's work also receives much attention. At least five of the sonnets (including 72) are loose or faithful translations, and the key Sonnet 67 paints variations on both Petrarch's Rime 190 and Tasso's "Questa fera gentil." (21) Ovid, Virgil, Dante, and Desportes are among the other poets whom Spenser treats in the sequence, as are the English sonneteers of his day, including Sidney, Wyatt, and Surrey. (22)
What is most striking about this treatment, however, is the way in which Spenser expertly uses the works of other writers as adornments to his own metapoetic effort. As Kenneth J. Larsen observes,
Amoretti owes much to Petrarchist topoi, conceits and mannered structures.... Yet Spenser's debt is seldom specific, and searching Petrarch, Desportes or Tasso for equivalences is rarely helpful. Generally he recalls such precedents with a freedom and imprecision which makes their use his own.... by confining his Petrarchist debt to the shortest of glimpses and by hurrying his lines onward to create the semblance of a Petrarchist mode, Spenser continually thwarts any conventional expectation. (22-23)
What Spenser provides is an ongoing conversation with his fellow poets and a witty assertion of his claim to a place in the poetic pantheon. The Amoretti sonnets are in large part tributes to the poet's predecessors as well as challenges to his contemporaries. Spenser was perhaps the most self-aware of early modern poets, and the Amoretti's overt and covert references to writers both past and present highlight the sequence's central concern with issues of poetic language.
One of those present writers was Spenser himself, and two of the clearest examples of metapoetry in the Amoretti may be found in the pair of sonnets referring to The Faerie Queene, numbers 33 and 80. In sonnet 33 the speaker confesses, "Great wrong I doe, I can it not deny, / To that most sacred Empresse my dear dred, / Not finishing her Queene of faery, / That mote enlarge her living prayses dead" (1-4), but then apparently asks Spenser's friend Lodovick Bryskett if Bryskett doesn't consider the pursuit of such an epic undertaking to be "Sufficient worke for one man's simple head, / All were it as the rest but rudely writ" (7-8). The words "rudely writ" in part represent conventional modest posturing but also seem to reflect a writer's dissatisfaction with his inability to perfect his masterpiece due to lack of time, energy, and/or means. The speaker then goes on to ask,</p> <pre>
How then should I without another wit, Thinck ever to endure so taedious toyle? Sins that this one is tost with troublous fit,
Of a proud love, that doth my spirite spoyle? Ceasse then, till she vouchsafe to grawnt me rest, Or lend you me another living brest.
(9-14) </pre> <p>Here we see the poet's predicament: the speaker is apparently being criticized for failure to complete his promised celebration of England's Gloriana, but says he is having great trouble finishing even this sonnet sequence due to emotional distress. Spenser's characteristic floating pronoun references factor in here: the "one" of line 11 may refer to "wit" (9), suggesting that this is what is paralyzed by love, but "one" might also plausibly refer to the "taedious toyle" of line 10, meaning something like "When this relatively simple writing task of composing a sonnet sequence is so troublesome, how could I possibly be expected to reassume the burden of epic composition?" "Fit" (11) also carries multiple meanings, suggesting both a disturbed mood and the difficulty of poetic creation, as well as presenting a common term for a section of a poem. The sonnet of course lay well below the epic on the Renaissance poetic scale; by here and elsewhere inviting his audience to consider the difficulty of writing sonnets Spenser also makes a case for the exponential difficulty of writing an epic like The Faerie Queene. Ideas about writing are never far from the surface of the Amoretti, and here those ideas are given depth by reflection through the prism of the poet's epic masterwork.
Sonnet 80 furthers this reflection. The speaker starts by asking for breathing space after his epic exertions: "After so long a race as I have run / Through Faery land, which those six books compile, / Give leave to rest me being halfe fordonne, / And gather to my selfe new breath awhile" (1-4). The speaker then follows this plea with a promise:</p>
<pre> Then as a steed refreshed after toyle, Out of my prison I will breake anew, And stoutly will that second worke assoyle,
With strong endevour and attention dew. Till then give leave to me in pleasant mew To sport my muse, and sing my loves sweet praise: The contemplation of whose heavenly hew, My spirit to an higher pitch will rayse. But let her prayses yet be low and meane,
Fit for the handmayd of the Faery Queene. (5-14) </pre> <p>In this poem we once again hear of the difficulty of writing epic poetry, but this time sonnets and their singing of "love's sweet praise" represent a refreshing and replenishing literary alternative rather than a collateral obstacle as in Sonnet 33. (23) Writing love poetry is presented as a step not just in a Virgilian literary ascent to epic but also in a neo-Platonic rise to insight, as contemplation of the lady's "heavenly hew" "rase[s]" the speaker's "spirit to an higher pitch" (11-12). Generic conventions require that the lady's praises "be low and meane," befitting lyrical poetry, but they are low and mean only in relation to the poet's greater work. The rich word "fit" appears again at the outset of the final line, this time meaning both "appropriate" and "created especially for." The sonnet's closing phrase, "handmayd of the Faery Queene," reminds us that both the lady and lyric poetry are linked to higher things; as Elizabeth Boyle is the figurative handmaid to Elizabeth Regina, Spenser's sonnet sequence is the lyric handmaid to his epic tale of "fierce warres and faithfull loves." Even as the poem exalts epic it celebrates lyric verse in its own right, however, and Spenser once again expertly employs the medium of the sonnet to make his audience think about what it means to write and read poetry.
The poet's (and poet-narrator's) exploration of the nature and act of writing poetry is a defining characteristic of Edmund Spenser's Amoretti. This metapoetical subtext influences the overall direction of the sequence and draws the reader's attention to the empirical Spenser and his fictive counterpart throughout. The Amoretti sonnets are clearly in part about Spenser's life and love, but they are even more clearly about his poetic art.
Murray State University
(1) For two examples of the many largely autobiographical readings, see Maurice Evans, English Poetry in the Sixteenth Century (London: Hutchinson, 1955) and William Nelson, The Poetry of Edmund Spenser: A Study (Columbia U. Press, 1963). For some thoughtful recent readings emphasizing gender and marriage issues, see William C. Johnson, "Gender Fashioning and the Dynamics of Mutuality in Spenser's Amoretti," English Studies 74 (1993): 503-19, and Spencer's "Amoretti": Analogies of Love (Bucknell U. Press, 1990): A. Leigh DeNeef, Spenser and the Motives of Metaphor (Duke U. Press, 1982); Donna Gibbs, Spenser's "Amoretti": A Critical Study (Brookfield, VT: Gower/Scolar, 1990) ; and Lisa M. Klein, "'Let us love, deare love, lyke as we ought': Protestant Marriage and the Revision of Petrarchan Loving in Spenser's Amoretti," Spenser Studies 10 (1992): 109-37. Kenneth J. Larsen has argued that the sequence is a "liturgico-poetic artifact" modeled after the liturgy and designed to illustrate the glories of the covenant of Protestant marriage ("Amoretti and Epithalamion": A Critical Edition [Tempe, AZ: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1997]). For discussion of numerological/calendar theories, see, e.g., Shohachi Fukuda, "The Numerological Patterning of Amoretti and Epithalamion," Spenser Studies 9 (1988): 33-48; Alistair Fowler, Triumphal Forms: Structural Patterns in Elizabethan Poetry (Cambridge U. Press, 1970); A. Kent Hieatt, Short Time's Endless Monument (Columbia U. Press, 1960); and Alexander Dunlop, "The Unity of Spenser's Amoretti," in Silent Poetry: Essays in Numerological Analysis, ed. Alistair Fowler (NY: Barnes & Noble, 1970), 153-69.
(2) Evans, 101. The essential partnership between Renaissance sonnet-writer and reader is outlined by Nelson: "The ingenious poet, indeed, attempted rare and remarkable combinations, and the poet of power transcended the convention, but their election of the form showed that they willingly imposed upon themselves those limitations that they wished to challenge. The Renaissance reader was no doubt expert enough to detect and enjoy subtle differences of technique, approach, mood, and idea among the innumerable sonnets of his time, differences which are now blurred." (85)
See also Michael Spiller, who likens the sonnet exchange to "a sophisticated dinner-party conversation" (The Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction [New York: Routledge, 1992], 148). S. K. Heninger, who argues that the Amoretti is an inside joke between lover and lady: "Spenser loves his bride, to be sure, but not in the jejune terms and the stereotypical ways that his persona sets forth in the sonnets. Rather, Spenser the poet, as distinct from the persona of Amoretti, makes known his love for the woman who will read his poem by the very act of writing it, not by the dog-eared sentiments it expresses. Spenser wrote to please his lady, like a sonneteer should, and he was careful to run the gamut of emotions that a sonneteer should know. But the exercise is ironical.... Rightly read, then, Amoretti is a sportive action in a serious cause, the pleasing of a bride. It is ultimately a play of wit...." ("Sequences, Symbols, Models: Sidney and the Secularization of Sonnets," in Poems in Their Place: The Intertextuality and Order of Poetic Collections, ed. Nell Fraistat [U. North Carolina Press, 1986], 85-86.)
(3) Motives, 14. As one of the most insightful Spenserian critics, Harry Bergen Jr., puts it, "One reason Spenser is the poet's poet is that his poems are discourses of discourses, which is to say that they are discourses about the discourses they represent" (Revisionary Play: Studies in the Spenserian Dynamics [U. California Press, 1988], 462).
(4) For in-depth discussion of this matter, see, e.g., Richard Helgerson, "The New Poet Presents Himself: Spenser and the Idea of a Literary Career," PMLA 93 (1978): 89.3-911; Patrick Cheney, Spenser's Famous Flight: A Renaissance Idea of a Literary Career (U. Toronto Press, 1993); Louis A. Montrose, "The Elizabethan Subject and the Spenserian Text," in Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts, ed. Patricia Parker and David Quint (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1986), 303-40; Garry Waller, Edmund Spenser: A Literary Life (New York: St. Martin's, 1994); and Arthur Marotti, "Love is Not Love: Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order," ELH 49 (1982): 396-428.
(5) Cheney, 166; Marotti, 413-14.
(6) "Impressions of Poetry: The Publication of Elizabethan Lyric Verse," in Approaches to Teaching Shorter Elizabethan Poetry, ed. Anne Lake Prescott and Patrick Cheney (New York: MLA, 2000), 156.
(7) All Amoretti quotations are taken from Edmund Spenser's Poetry, 3rd ed., ed. Hugh Maclean and Anne Lake Prescott (New York: Norton, 1993).
(8) Larsen, 123.
(9) Cheney, 148.
(10) The phrase has been taken to mean, e.g., "the restlessness and internal quality of the love experience" (Peter M. Cummings, "Spenser's Amoretti as an Allegory of Love," TSLL 12 : 165): "a deep-rooted and repressed psychological urge" (Robert Kellogg, "Thought's Astonishment and the Dark Conceits of Spenser's Amoretti," in The Prince of Poets: Essay's on Edmund Spenser; ed. John R. Elliott, Jr., [New York U. Press, 1968], 147); "the lust located in the poet's 'Love-pined hart'" (Elizabeth Bieman, Plato Baptized: Toward the Interpretation of Spenser's Mimetic Fictions [U. of Toronto Press, 1993], 168); "the poisonous thoughts and words which oppose themselves to spiritual sustenance" (Myron Turner, "The Imagery of Spenser's Amoretti," Nephilologus 72 : 285); and a point at which "desire and conflict are bred in the lover," which later "in turn, breed poetry" (Carol Thomas Neely, "The Structure of English Renaissance Sonnet Sequences," ELH 45 : 365).
(11) For discussion of the strains and dangers writing posed for the Protestant Spenser, see, e.g., the works of DeNeef, Cheney. and Waller; and Peter Herman, Squirter-wits and Muse-haters: Sidney, Spenser, Milton and Renaissance Antipoetic Sentiment (Wayne State U. Press, 1996).
(12) Spiller states, "it can be seriously argued that Spenser produced the most coherent and highly developed sonnet sequence of all his contemporaries, and that the [constructed] /I/ presented in it has a degree of sophistication which one would have to go back to Dante or Petrarch--or forward to Shakespeare--to parallel" (144-145). Judith Kalil notes that "the persona is a fiction who is part of the illusion of the Amoretti, and that is his only existence: as a created character within a creation of art" ("'Mask in Myrth Lyke to a Comedy': Spenser's Persona in the Amoretti," Thoth 13.2 : 20), while Gibbs observes that "Many critical approaches to the Amoretti, including quite recent ones, fail to recognize the presence of irony and playfulness in Spenser's treatment of the persona of the lover. The speaking voice of the poems is often simply identified with that of Spenser himself, with the result that many of the complex effects which he achieves in the poems are overlooked" (61).
(13) As Spiller notes, "The theatrical metaphor emphasizes that what is transacted between them is the performance of feeling; the expressions of that feeling are masks, the tragic corresponding to the rhetoric of passion, and the comic to the playful mode associated with Anacreontic rhetoric" (146). Gibbs too observes the centrality of the performative aspect here: "The metaphor of the theatre, applied to the relationship between love, and mistress, indicates that the lover is courting his mistress as an actor courts his audience. The 'pageants' he acts out may, or may not, have a basis in how he is feeling.... His determination to provide a winning performance for his mistress is, however, of paramount importance" (101).
(14) Cheney, 185.
(15) See Larsen, 202, 152.
(16) Cummings, 175; Johnson, "Gender Fashioning," 518.
(17) Spiller notes that "The idea that paper, which is one of the most fragile of things, can make speech, one of the most transitory of things, outlast bronze or stone is woven into a great deal of verse which talks about making verse: it is a metatextual conceit, since it inevitably draws attention to the textual quality of the text in which it occurs" (206).
(18) Johnson, Spenser's "Amoretti," 118-119. Gibbs notes that "Spenser's
deployment of analogy in the lover's speech in this sonnet produces complex poetic effects" as the reader is led to recognize "the witty creator of the poem, who shares with the reader an awareness of other more straightforward and logical possible applications of the Penelope/Ulysses story and whose inventiveness in creating the lover's variations on the story is recognizable as an essential part of what distinguishes him from his creation" (82-83).
(19) Larsen, 155.
(20) See, e.g., Reed Way Dasenbrock, "The Petrarchan Context of Spenser's Amoretti," PMLA 100 (1985): 38-50; Johnson's works; Larsen; Klein; and Alexander Dunlop, "The Drama of Amoretti," Spenser Studies 1 (1980): 107-20.
(21) In addition to Dasenbrock, see Anne Lake Prescott, "The Thirsty Deer and the Lord of Life: Some Contexts for Amoretti 67-70," Spenser Studies 6 (1985): 33-76.
(22) See, e.g., Laura J. Getty, "Circumventing Petrarch: Subreading Ovid's Tristia in Spenser's Amoretti," PQ 79 (2000): 293-314; Arthur Sells, The Italian Influence in English Poetry (Indiana U. Press, 1955); G. K. Hunter, "Spenser's Amoretti and the English Sonnet Tradition," in A Theatre for Spenserians, ed. Judith M. Kennedy and James A. Reither (U of Toronto Press, 1973) Heninger, Sidney and Spenser: The Poet as Maker (Penn. State U. Press, 1989); Spiller; Cheney; Kennedy; and Larsen.
(23) Cheney notes that "Rather than an intrusion to the 'greater flyght' of the New Poet ... the love lyric constructs a providentially ordained space--a 'pleasant mew'--in which he may renew that flight" (152).
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2003|
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