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What Happens in the Amoretti
by William A. Oram


What happens in the Amoretti is the serious play of an ongoing courtship between an Edmund Spenser in his early forties and an Elizabeth Boyle in her late teens. [1] It’s a surprisingly intimate sequence, concerned, as few others are, with the relationship between wooer and wooed. Like much of Spenser’s work it’s what one might call potentially comic in form, moving toward marriage, while avoiding secure resolution. In this paper I assume that the course of the sequence describes a version of an actual courtship, in part because Spenser identifies himself with the speaker when he mentions by name his mother, his queen, his friend Lodowick Bryskett and of course his bride, as well as The Faerie Queene.[2] But it is a fictionalised version, in which the poet takes his biography and gives it meaningful shape.[3] The poet is intensely self-conscious, staging himself in various guises, both to appeal to the lady and to examine himself.[4] In what follows I’ll use ‘the speaker’, ‘the poet’ and ‘Spenser’ interchangeably, to mean those aspects of himself that the poet dramatises in the poems.


I. Opening

I want to use the first sonnet to isolate three characteristics of the sequence.

HAAppy ye leaves when as those lilly hands,
    which hold my life in their dead doing might
    shall handle you and hold in loves soft bands,
    lyke captives trembling at the victors sight.
And happy lines, on which with starry light,
    those lamping eyes will deigne sometimes to look
    and reade the sorrowes of my dying spright,
    written with teares in harts close bleeding book.
And happy rymes bath’d in the sacred brooke,
    of Helicon whence she derived is,
    when ye behold that Angels blessed looke,
    my soules long lacked foode, my heavens blis.[5]

First, this is a poem whose structure is obvious and important: three quatrains, each controlled by the word happy, syntactically independent, but interlocking in rhyme, with a clear movement upward and inward. We move from leaves touched by hands (which are material) to lines gazed on by eyes (the windows of the soul) to rhymes beholding the Lady’s ‘look’. The rhymes continue the progression because rhymes are sound, not just visual marks on a page. In Renaissance debates about whether sight or hearing was the higher sense, the case made for hearing is that it was more inward: you hear sounds, so to speak, within the mind.[6] Similarly, the Lady’s look passes through the eyes: it’s an inner action, not a physical movement. Describing Adam and Eve, Milton uses the word in the same way: ‘in their looks divine/ The image of their glorious maker shone/ Truth, wisdom, sanctitude severe and pure’.[7] ‘Looks’ as ‘appearance’ was available in the period, but the ascription of ‘truth, wisdom, sanctitude’ to those looks suggests that Milton refers not to appearances but to an activity of the mind. The sonnet thus moves upward and inward, yet the parallel stanzas, beginning with the same word, suggest an equality of happiness: the quatrains bind together body and spirit, as the sequence will try to do.

The stress on spirit recurs in the description of the lady’s look as ‘my souls long lacked food’. The line recalls and contrasts with the familiar ending of the seventy-first sonnet of Astrophil and Stella, ‘“But Ah”, desire still cries, “give me some food”’.[8] Sidney stresses the persistence of physical desire, but Spenser calls what he desires souls food—food for more than the body. Later in the sequence there will be moments in which food becomes a metaphor for sex, but here (as often) he stresses the need for spiritual and emotional sustenance.

Second, Spenser makes use of the familiar clichés of sonnet-discourse—the sorrows of my dying spright; harts close bleeding book; that Angels blessed look—which suggest a Petrarchan vision of himself as Love’s suffering victim and the idealised lady as distant and cruel. But he undermines these phrases with their contexts. In ‘harts close bleeding book’, close-bleeding suggests bleeding secretly, enduring unspoken pain. The phrase is, however, contradicted by its context, because this poem—and those that follow—are not secret about suffering. They go on and on and on about it. This is the first of many jokes in the sequence at the expense of Petrarchan convention. It recalls Chaucer’s Franklins Tale, where Aurelius, hopelessly in love with Dorigen, goes into a frenzy of composition about his sorrow.

He seyde he lovede, and was biloved no thyng. 
Of swich matere made he manye layes, 
Songes, compleintes, roundels, virelayes, 
How that he dorste nat his sorwe telle….  (946-9)[9]

Obeying convention, Aurelius describes at length how silent he is. In this sonnet, Chaucer’s joke becomes Spenser’s—shared, I’ll argue later, with the Lady herself. Similarly, ‘the sorrows of my dying sprite’ is contradicted by the ‘Happy… happy… happy’ that begins each quatrain, and his certainty that the Lady will read the book. And finally, the Lady as angel is derived, Spenser says, from Helicon, the wellspring of poetry: he again gestures toward the discourse he deploys.

Here I should register my disagreement with a reading of the sequence put forward by many critics—that it charts the growth of the speaker under the influence of love. While they disagree on other matters, Alex Dunlop, Joseph Loewenstein, Ilona Bell and, to a degree, Theresa Krier all argue that while the speaker starts off loving egocentrically, the process of wooing educates him, making him a better lover and a better human being.[10] (Both Loewenstein and Krier allow for some regression in the last poems.) This interpretation depends on one’s taking straight the language of Petrarchan complaint in first two-thirds of the sequence, where the lover describes the Lady as beautiful but proud and sadistic, a characterisation largely absent from the last thirty sonnets. It argues that the speaker gradually divests himself of a sonnet language that can only conceive of a woman as a cool and distant Petrarchan mistress.

This view of the sequence takes Spenser’s rhetoric too solemnly. To begin with, he recognises who Elizabeth is from the start: sonnets 5, 6 and 13 insist that the Lady’s seeming pride is in fact integrity. Nor is he simply at the mercy of Petrarchan discourse: he uses it for his own purposes, a point Louis Martz made long ago.[11] The ‘Petrarchan’ sonnets, Martz argued ‘are frequently touched with an element that we might call humor, parody or comedy; it is a light touch, but I think it is sovereign’ (158). In particular, the poet’s more than forty years unfits him for the role of Petrarchan lover. Love poetry is a young man’s game in England, where love poems published by mature writers were billed as the work of their feckless youth.[12] Even in France, Ronsard sees the need to justify himself for writing sonnets to Helène when he is in his fifties.[13] But instead of mentioning his age, Spenser dons Petrarchan costume, acting in a way so obviously indecorous as to be a shared joke. The references to the ‘huge massacres’ that the Lady’s eyes make and lovers’ blood coating her hands form part a playfully comic courtship.

This playing with love-languages is a characteristic action of the sequence. We often discuss the poetic discourses deployed in The Faerie Queene, and Spenser here plays similarly with the discourses of love—Petrarchan, of course, but also Neoplatonic, Ovidian, Anacreontic and Biblical. He experiments with the visions of love that these languages afford, shifting obviously from one to another. Some are used seriously, others to comic effect.

My third point is that we need notice the couplet:

Leaves, lines, and rymes, seeke her to please alone,
  whom if ye please, I care for other none.

I’ll assume that, unlike many other sequences, the sonnets were indeed used in wooing Elizabeth Boyle, although not necessarily in the order that we have them (the first sonnet is clearly added later). We do find occasional suggestions of how they were received, the most dramatic of which occurs when the Lady burns sonnet 47. The sonnets’ appeal to her amused intelligence helps to distinguish the Amoretti from other English sequences, and enables its intimacy.


II. Including the Lady

Renaissance sonnet sequences are dogged by the problem of solipsism.[14] The speaker typically gives a guided tour of his interior, displaying his wit, his frustrations, his fantasies, his hopes and despairs. But the nature of the first-person lyric genre leaves the beloved object a source of frustration and fantasy, a consciousness inaccessible to the poet. Sidney’s Eighth Song seems to avoid this solipsism by beginning with a third-person account of Stella’s thoughts, but when its final line returns to the first person, the shift implicitly acknowledges that the view of Stella’s mind has been fantasy. This solipsism is not a matter of male narcissism, although such narcissism is often on display: it’s inherent in a lyric genre that provides one first-person monologue after another, allowing the speaker to dive deep into himself while the beloved remains an inaccessible mystery. Lady Mary Wroth’s brilliant sequence is as thoroughly locked into her mind as her uncle Philip’s. Wroth, indeed, is given to personifying her moods, so that she all the more clearly dramatises herself talking to herself. The work of Ilona Bell and Mary Ellen Lamb on the poems that Wroth exchanged with William Herbert only emphasises the fact that Amphialus’ voice is absent from the sequence as finally compiled and printed.[15]

Spenser’s sequence differs from others in trying to include the Lady in a dialogue. He cannot entirely succeed: these are still poems written by a lover as he talks to and about a Lady, not those of the Lady herself. But within the limitations of a lyric genre, Spenser tries to create a sequence with her.[16] A third of the poems address her, and many particularise the relationship, recalling small domestic incidents (a rainstorm, another storm that interrupts his leave-taking, a walk on the beach) describing her image in a mirror, her embroidery, her golden hair-net, reporting exchanges about a laurel wreath or exclaiming when the Lady burns his letter. She was literate: both Spenser’s biographers remark on her careful italic hand, preserved in three letters to her kinsman Richard Boyle[17] and I think that she must have had some literary sophistication. The jokey Petrarchism of the earlier sonnets is directed toward her, and she differs from the norm in her capacity for humour. Sonnet ladies are not given to laughter: their eyes give off light, they smile, they speak harmoniously, but they rarely laugh. Elizabeth, on the contrary, laughs often. The most programmatic of these laughing poems is #54, where the poet describes himself overdramatising his wooing while she watches but refuses to take his theatrics seriously.

As the lovers join in play, and the lady emerges as an unusually free-standing figure. Let me clarify by comparison. Astrophil and Stella was, I think, often in Spenser’s mind as he wrote, and his departures from Sidney are intentional. In both sequences the ladies occasionally speak, so that we notice not just the music of their voices but the meaning of their words. But the five times that Stella speaks, she always says the same thing. Astrophil has said: ‘Love me’ and Stella says ‘no, no’ or ‘No no no no, my dear, let be’ or she has replied at greater length to the same purpose. By way of contrast, here is a rare direct quotation of the lady in the Amoretti.

ONe day I wrote her name upon the strand,
    but came the waves and washed it a way:
    agayne I wrote it with a second hand,
    but came the tyde, and made my paynes his pray.
Vayne man, sayd she, that doest in vaine assay,
    a mortall thing so to immortalize.
    for I my selve shall lyke to this decay,
    and eek my name bee wyped out lykewize.  (Amoretti 75)

When the poet writes her name in the sand, only to see it washed away, the Lady comments, stressing the fact of transience. She involves herself in a conversation about something other than her lover’s importunities.

But her speech responds to the poet’s actions, and one must consider his seeming foolishness in writing the Lady’s name—not once but twice—on the sand, each time to have it washed away. Is he really so dim? Not at all, I think: his actions are teasing, meant to provoke the lady into moralising at him—which she does. She seems to take this as a teaching moment and points out that she, like her name and all mortal things, will pass away. But how serious in turn is she? Should we really imagine a nineteen-year old Elizabeth Boyle telling her husband-to-be, a man twenty-three years older than herself, and the author of a long poem dwelling obsessively on transience, to remember that the flesh passes? I think not. Most of what we hear about the Lady of the sonnets stresses not only her stubbornness and her integrity but her humor: when he gives a Petrarchan sigh, she says ‘I know the art’ and when he complains about his frustrations, she laughs (18). The Lady’s words here are true but they also form part of a game: the poet has set himself up to be lectured to and she responds, playfully, as he wishes.

Her lead enables him to return the ball.

Not so, (quod I) let baser things deuize,
      to dy in dust, but you shall live by fame:
      my verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
      and in the hevens wryte your glorious name.

He gets the last word: the exuberance of his response comes not only from the faith he seems to repose in his art, but from his joy in this wit-partnership. Where before he has written her name on the sand, he will now write it ‘in the heavens’: at once he praises her and caps her moralising. The point of the sonnet is less what the couple discuss—which, after all, amounts to a series of commonplaces—than the easy pleasure of their interplay.

This mutual play is central these poems. The Lady is quoted again, indirectly this time, in the paired sonnets 28 and 29, when the poet finds her wearing laurel leaves, and the sonnets stage a dispute about the meaning of the laurel and the authority it bestows. The poet argues that it means that she has begun to favour him, but she counters this with ‘disdainfull scorne’, (28) arguing that that the bay leaves signify victory, yielded by the vanquished to the conqueror. In a poetic judo-move, the poet turns her claim against her, requiring, as the vanquished, to be accepted ‘as her faithful thrall’. The point of the sonnet is its playful battle of wits.

The battle is heightened by Spenser’s mock-sophistic use of a mythological analogy. 

Proud Daphne scorning Phæbus lovely fyre,
    on the Thessalian shore from him did flie:
    for which the gods in theyr revengefull yre
    did her transforme into a laurell tree.
Then fly no more fayre love from Phebus chace,
    but in our brest his leafe and love embrace. 

Neither Ovid nor any Renaissance mythographer that I know makes Daphne’s transformation the gods’ punishment. As Spenser’s audience (including the lady) knew, she asks her father to save her from Apollo, and he protects her by turning her into a laurel. Here, as elsewhere, the poet puts forward an obviously sophistical argument, for the lady to enjoy its absurdity.[18]

Spenser can parody Neoplatonic love-discourse as well as Petrarchism. In the forty-fifth sonnet, he describes the Lady’s idealised image in his heart, which Neoplatonic love theory argues is truer than her external reflection in a mirror. But, he says, your cruelty has now so dimmed and distorted that picture that you won’t be able to see it until you’re nicer to me. Yet the poet has already admitted that the Idea of the lady is invisible to ‘mortal eye’. At times in the sequence he treats Platonism seriously, but here it’s rhetoric for Elizabeth to mock.


III. January and May

The Amoretti is serious play in two senses: it dramatises a lightly agonistic relationship and it stages an interplay that both admits and disguises serious feeling, including moments of unease on both sides. Martz saw Spenser as having an almost avuncular feeling for the Lady: he is a sort of Mr. Knightly to Elizabeth Boyle’s Emma, pleased and amused by her intelligence and spirit and—Martz’ word—her wilfulness (154). But though the humor of these sonnets creates that impression, the speaker is not Mr. Knightly. He is much less avuncular and more deeply involved than the Emma-model of the sequence might suggest, and the difference in their ages determines the complex relation between them. If we must have a Jane Austen novel, this is more like Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon.

To begin with—here I am obviously hypothesising—from the point of view of Elizabeth Boyle, Spenser’s wooing may have seemed both attractive and intimidating. He was a good prospect: an ‘undertaker’ with more than three thousand acres, and an established figure among the New English inhabitants of Munster, whom the Privy Council would eventually recommend for Sheriff of Cork. He was also a well-known poet who had probably read his poem to the Queen and received an annual pension of fifty pounds. While Elizabeth Boyle herself had inherited £250 from her father, which made her a good match, she was young, unknown and living in a strange land. The power differential between suitor and lady was thus obvious, and the one card the Lady had to play is her right to say ‘aye’ or ‘nay’. We believe that her kinsman, Richard Boyle, who eventually became the first Earl of Cork, played a part in Elizabeth’s second and third marriages, and so it might seem likely that he figured in this one. While his protection would be beneficial, it may also have been problematic since, from the evidence of the sequence, the Lady seems not to have wanted to be rushed.[19] The poet dwells not only on her humor and integrity, but five times on what he calls her ‘stubbornness’. Thus the wooing begins with a good probability of success, but also with the Lady wary about committing herself. One rhetorical advantage of the humor of the sonnets is that it enables Spenser to protest what he calls her ‘stiffness’ (84) without obviously whining. It distances his address, making it less importunate, more a matter of mutual play.

 He had already written about a January/May marriage in The Faerie Queene, where an old miser named Malbecco attempts unsuccessfully to protect his lady from wandering knights. Malbecco seems older than Spenser was, but the poet was pretty likely more than twice the age of his bride, and he could hardly have been unaware of the fact. For the bride’s youth is part of what he loves in her. I don’t mean to suggest that he was a Malbecco: January/May marriages were common in the period, when the death of spouses brought about multiple remarriages, in part to help care for the surviving children. Spenser took Elizabeth as a second wife as she in turn would take second and third husbands. But Elizabeth’s youth was particularly meaningful to a somewhat melancholy poet of forty-two. There’s a trace of this in the fourth poem in the sequence—the first spring poem—which begins:

NEw yeare forth looking out of Janus gate,
     Doth seeme to promise hope of new delight:
     and bidding th’old Adieu, his passed date
     bids all old thoughts to die in dumpish spright.
And calling forth out of sad Winters night,
     fresh love, that long hath slept in cheerlesse bower:
     wils him awake, and soone about him dight
     his wanton wings and darts of deadly power.

This spring poem looks toward the later spring poem, #70 and, like it, recalls the Song of Songs. But most striking is spring’s bidding ‘all old thoughts to die in dumpish spright’. ‘Dumpish sprite’ is a Spenserism that would be at home The Shepheardes Calender—no other competent Renaissance sonneteer would use so clodhopping a phrase—but it raises the question of whose dumpish spright Spenser references. I think that it’s his own. In Daphnaida, published three years earlier, the narrator is profoundly melancholy perhaps, if we associate him with the biographical Spenser, from the death of his first wife, Machabyas Childe.[20] In this biographical context the ‘fresh love’ he calls forth suggests a personal reawakening: as he says elsewhere, ‘dead my life that wants such lively bliss’ (89; italics mine). The phrase ‘fresh love’ is echoed in the final couplet, addressed to the lady: ‘Then you faire flower, in whom fresh youth doth raine,/ prepare your selfe new love to entertaine’. One thing that the Lady means for the poet is ‘fresh youth’. We need to remember that forty-two felt older in the sixteenth century than it does now, and that five years after his marriage, Spenser would be dead.[21] The youthful possibility that the Lady embodies leaves him needing all the more to control the feelings that she stirs in him, and for that a guise of affectionate comedy is also useful.

Yet that intensity of feeling does register. Several poems stand out from the easy Petrarchan comedy of their surroundings, like #34, which reworks Petrarch’s sonnet #189.

Lyke as a ship that through the Ocean wyde
    by conduct of some star doth make her way,
  whenas a storme has dimd her trusty guyde,
    out of her course doth wander far astray:
So I whose star, that wont with her bright ray
    me to direct, with cloudes is overcast,
    doe wander now in darknesse and dismay,
    through hidden perils round about me plast.

Petrarch’s famous sonnet is a small, brilliant allegory of the suffering self in love as a ship lost in a storm: Love steers and will land him on the rocks. Petrarch’s metaphor focuses entirely on himself: his only reference to the Lady is the brief mention of her absent eyes: ‘my two usual stars are hidden’.[22] By contrast, Spenser adapts the ship/star metaphor to describe his need for Elizabeth. His ship lacks not the two stars of Laura’s eyes but a guiding star, whose absence turns the world sinister. The storm is probably the Lady’s anger, but what’s most important in my view is the sense of helpless disorientation that her absence provokes: surrounded by ‘hidden perils’ the ship wanders ‘in darkness and dismay’. The guiding star is, of course, a leitmotif of order and stability in Spenserian verse, and its absence provokes a certain terror. Here the poet’s comic mask slips, suggesting an unsettling degree of dependence.


IV. After Courtship

  Amoretti & Epithalamion recalls the Faerie Queene, in being potentially comic in structure. It moves toward a harmonious ending (marriage in this case)—but an ending that is never reached. Reed Way Dasenbrock has argued that Spenser is the true English heir of Petrarch, in that both poets attempt to move beyond the stalemate of frustrated desire to what Spenser calls the ‘joyous safety of so sweet a rest’ (63). In Petrarch’s case, that rest is death—rest with God—while in Spenser’s it’s Christian marriage.[23] But in neither poem does the speaker actually reach the end toward which they move.

The narrative structure of the sequence is rough but clear. (I’m skipping here the complex matter of the calendrical organisation of the sequence. [24]) For the first sixty Amoretti, as often happens in relationships, nothing much changes or seems to change. But when the lady begins to accept the lover around sonnet 62, there then follows a group of largely joyful poems forming the climax of the series. And then the sequence changes. The last twenty-five sonnets differ from both the earlier Amoretti, and those in other sequences. Since the lady has agreed to marry the suitor, the courtship is over and so, as both Carol Kaske and Joe Loewenstein have pointed out, the narrative enters a time-period beyond the normal purview of the sonnet sequence.[25]  It’s as if a Shakespeare comedy or a Jane Austen novel were go beyond the wedding and focus on the difficulties of married life. This sense of uncharted territory gives these sonnets a peculiarly ragged, uncertain and intimate quality. As a group they include some of Spenser’s best and most unsettling poems. Poet and lady are committed to one another and prepared to marry: they move toward sexual intimacy, which forces them to confront issues more easily finessed during the courtship. A number of these sonnets are joyful and a few, like the invocation of spring in sonnet 70, are both beautiful and serene, but they are often, given the circumstances, surprisingly unhappy. The Petrarchan comedy of the earlier sonnets vanishes and while these poems are still sporadically funny, the norm is serious and, indeed, rather tense. While the sequence as a whole dramatises a dialogue between speaker and Lady, that dialogue quality diminishes in these late poems. The speaker addresses the Lady less—only twice in the last fifteen poems, four of which lament her absence—and during the last eight sonnets he speaks very largely to himself.[26] These poems prepare for the Epithalamion, in which a solitary speaker imagines his forthcoming marriage.[27]

A central concern of these sonnets is sex, especially in its relation to the love of God. In some sonnets it appears sanctified. The sequence ends in Christian marriage, and Anne Prescott has shown convincingly how the deer sonnet, #67, evokes scriptural echoes associating the Lady with Christ.[28] As Theresa Krier has shown brilliantly, the sequence echoes the Song of Songs in emphasising the mutuality of the participants and the goodness of the flesh.[29] The Easter sonnet insists in its couplet that the love between the poet and the lady is an extension of love between man and God: ‘So let us love, deare love, lyke as we ought,/ love is the lesson which the Lord us taught’. I think that the poet means these lines to be taken straight. Eros and Agape, sexual love rightly understood and Christian love are compatible and, indeed, parallel one another because sexual love is, finally, sacred. Loewenstein comments that the Easter sonnet ‘readjusts…the poetics of gallantry to the poetics of devotion that two centuries of Petrarchist sonneteering had all but permanently distorted.’[30] This emphasis fits with that of the opening sonnet, which parallels the three quatrains, as they move from touch to look.

The Easter sonnet, however, represents only one mood in these late poems. Krier also reads other late sonnets as the poet’s reversion to the attitudes of an angry, needy child.  Melissa Sanchez has argued that the Spenser of the Amoretti is dominated by an anxiety about sexuality, suffering from an Augustinian sense that desire is inevitably narcissistic and sinful.[31] There are indeed moments in which desire is treated as negatively as she suggests, notably in the 84th sonnet in which the poet addresses himself:

LEt not one sparke of filthy lustfull fyre
    breake out, that may her sacred peace molest:
    ne one light glance of sensuall desyre 
    Attempt to work her gentle mindes unrest.
Here we have the poet forbidding himself to show the desire he feels. This is, I think, the first sonnet in which the poet seems to seclude himself from the lady, exaggerating her purity and his own sinfulness. Toward the end of the sonnet he tells himself to:    speake no word to her of those sad plights,
    which her too constant stiffenesse doth constrayn.
Onely behold her rare perfection,
    and blesse your fortunes fayre election.

Unlike his earlier references to the Lady’s stand-offishness, this one sounds genuinely tormented, and the last two lines looks like a somewhat desperate lecture to the self on abstinence.[32]

What we have in these final sonnets, I think, is an experimental account of the tensions before the marriage finally takes place. The physical limits that the lady sets, even after marriage has been contracted, makes the poet intensely aware of his own desire. These are particularly hard sonnets to think about because it’s easy to disagree about the degree of self-consciousness with which they are written. Nonetheless I take the word ‘experimental’ seriously: the poet watches himself as he thinks about the lady, and his treatment of his own reactions is both unsparing and, often, funny.

His self-awareness appears most clearly in sonnet 76, which appears immediately after the high-spirited dialogue about Spenser’s writing the Lady’s name in the sand.

Fayre bosome fraught with vertues richest treasure,
    The neast of love, the lodging of delight:
    The bowre of blisse, the paradice of pleasure,
    The sacred harbor of that hevenly spright.

The address of the opening quatrain is chiastic in form. Lines 2 and 3 are unabashedly tactile and sensual in their emphasis, and ‘the bowre of blisse’ can’t help but reference the ‘paradice of pleasure’ at the end of Faerie Queene 2—the poet’s imagination is yielding to an inner Acrasia. But this impulse is valiantly hedged round by the high-minded language in lines 1 and 4 of a bosom weighted with ‘vertues richest treasure’ and serving as ‘the sacred harbor’ of a heavenly spirit. The outer lines struggle with the inner lines, initiating the poem’s opposing impulses.

The next quatrain introduces the poem’s hapless opponents:

How was I ravisht with your lovely sight,
    And my frayle thoughts too rashly led astray?
    Whiles diving deepe through amorous insight
    On the sweet spoyle of beautie they did pray.

The exclamation introduces the libidinous ‘thoughts’ that dwell on the Lady’s body. From the first the speaker attempts to divorce himself from those thoughts: they, not he, are frail and ‘rashly led astray’. ‘Rashly’ suggests that the thoughts are transgressing, but ‘led astray’ suggests that it isn’t their fault, although it remains unclear whose fault it is, since the Lady in this fantasy remains passive. While ‘diving deep’ gives a sense of unchecked physical impulse, there’s a considerable uneasiness about the thoughts ‘preying’ on the ‘sweet spoyle of beautie’.

The sestet intensifies both the speaker’s fantasy and his awkwardness.

And twixt her paps like early fruit in May,
Whose harvest seemd to hasten now apace:
They loosely did theyr wanton winges display,
And there to rest themselves did boldly place.
Sweet thoughts I envy your so happy rest,
Which oft I wisht, yet never was so blest.

The ‘and’ beginning the sestet cancels the full stop of the eighth line, and suggests the mind’s impetuous fastening on the memory,[33] an effect reemphasised by the sensuous particularity of ‘her paps, like early fruit in May’, and the reference to the hastening harvest. These thoughts with their wanton wings, placing themselves among the Lady’s breasts, recall the sparrows and other pets nesting in the bosoms of countless ladies from Catullus onward. The couplet, addressed to the thoughts, suggests once again the speaker’s comic attempt to separate himself from his impulses, avoiding blame. The effect of a poem like this seems to me largely comic, dramatising as it does the situation of the speaker, caught between desire and self-censorship.

The late sonnets vary constantly in their treatment of the speaker, and the four absence sonnets reemphasise a sense of needy desolation. Sonnet #72, an imitation of Tasso, will serve as a final instance of Spenser’s unresolved attempt to adjudicate the claims of heaven and earth.

OFt when my spirit doth spred her bolder winges,

    In mind to mount up to the purest sky:
    it down is weighed with thought of earthly things
    and clogd with burden of mortality,
Where when that soverayne beauty it doth spy,
    resembling heavens glory in her light:
    drawne with sweet pleasures bayt, it back doth fly,
    and unto heaven forgets her former flight.

The fundamental metaphor of the sonnet is the soul as a falcon that might rise up to ‘the purest sky’ but which is is lured back to the world by the Lady’s ‘soverayne beauty’ which resembles (although it is not) heaven’s glory. This beauty is associated with ‘sweet pleasures bayt’ a phrase that might appear in the Bower of Bliss.

But the poem doesn’t stop here. Instead the sestet makes a curious, uncertain half-turn, diverging from Tasso’s Neoplatonising original:

There my fraile fancy fed with full delight,
    doth bath in blisse and mantleth most at ease:
    ne thinks of other heaven, but how it might
    her harts desire with most contentment please.

The poet’s fancy, or imagination may be ‘frail’ but it’s ‘fed with full delight’. The language of feeding recalls the opening sonnet in which the Lady’s look become ‘my souls long lacked food, my heavens blisse’. Where in some late sonnets the stress on food is physical, here it’s ‘full delight’, not vain delight: ‘full’ is a positive word in the sequence.[34] The falcon-soul ‘mantleth most at ease’ a technical term for the hawk’s fluffing out its wings as it rouses itself from sleep.  

I don’t want to understate the ambivalence of the language: when the soul ‘baths in blisse’ it recalls the liquid image of desire that appears negatively through much of the Faerie Queene. But here the soul thinks about ‘how it might/ her harts desire with most contentment please’. This is one of the first poems in English to describe the pleasure of giving pleasure to the person that you love. It is certainly earth-oriented, but narcissistic only in purely Augustinian sense that the love embraces one of God’s creatures, rather than God. It’s the lady’s ‘harts desire’ not his own, that concerns the lover. And so we reach the final couplet:

Hart need not wish none other happinesse,
    But here on earth to have such hevens blisse.

As I read them, the tone of these lines is wondering. For a moment the worry with which the sonnet begins is shelved, and the experience of happiness here, on earth, is sufficient. This is only the experience of a single moment, but in its wonder it is neither anxious nor presumptuous.


V. Coda: Epithalamion

Important continuities exist between the sonnets and the Epithalamion that finishes the sequence. In the marriage-poem Spenser develops the vision of Christian love informing the Easter sonnet, and throughout the book he attempts to control the uncertainties of short time with temporal and numerical patterning.[35] But the differences are striking. The most basic is that we move from the Amoretti, in which there are two figures, into a larger world. One of the things that makes the Epithalamion, as Germaine Warkentin says, arguably Spenser’s greatest poem, [36] is the ease with which he gives the marriage a world of contexts, geographical, social, political, mythological and cosmological. In the celebration, nature, human society and the high heavens come into relationship. The centre of the poem with its marriage service is Christian, but Spenser surrounds it with a gathering of pagan deities native to the classical form, although Spenser’s pantheon far exceeds that of Catullus: the twenty-four stanzas mention the muses, local nymphs, Hours, Graces, Jove, Juno, Apollo, Cynthia, Bacchus, Hebe and the Genius presiding over generation. This syncretic gathering locates the marriage in a total cosmos, suggested at the beginning of the poem by the dawn that opens the second stanza and at the end by the ‘temple of the gods’ addressed in the twenty-third.

But in one respect the vision of the poem shrinks. Because it is sung ‘unto my selfe alone’, imagining the marriage in advance, it returns to the solipsistic predicament so central to lyric utterance. The poet can make a cosmos, but he cannot stage a dialogue. One reason for the melancholy underlying much of the Epithalamion is the absence of the solidly resistant partner of the wooing. Instead stanzas 9-11 create an idealised vision of the lady, raised on a pedestal of praise, and those on the bedding imagine a female figure part sexual fantasy and part awe-inspiring goddess. While the speaker invokes the world and its inhabitants almost constantly, he speaks to the bride only three times, and just once, when he imagines her hesitating to offer her hand for the ring, is there a faint echo of her earlier stubbornness. Thus the culmination of the sequence represents, if not a retreat from Spenser’s earlier attempt to include the lady in the wooing, an experimentation of a different kind. It alters the public, ritual form of the classical epithalamion, in which the poet acts as the voice of a community, to stress his lyric isolation.[37] By contrast, in the sonnet sequence Spenser modifies Petrarchan solipsism to imply a community of two.

William A. Oram  




[1] The exact ages of Edmund Spenser and Elizabeth Boyle aren’t known. The most accepted date for Spenser’s birth is 1552, which would make him 42 at the time of the marriage. Elizabeth’s age has been computed from the fact that she had four children with her third husband, Robert Tynte, after they married in 1612. If the last were born in 1616 and she were 41 at the time, she would have been about 19 the year of the marriage. Alexander Judson believed (The Life of Edmund Spenser [Baltimore: the Johns Hopkins Press, 1945]) p.168 that she was ‘younger than Spenser by perhaps fifteen or twenty years’) while Andrew Hadfield (Edmund Spenser: A Life [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012]) comments that ‘Elizabeth was clearly a lot younger than Edmund, probably in her early to mid-twenties, perhaps even younger given the number of children she had with Robert Tynte after they were married in 1612.’ The biographical discoveries on which the dating depends were made by W.H. Wepley, ‘Edmund Spenser: Some New Discovery and the Correction of Some Old Errors’ Notes and Queries 146 (1924) 445-7; 147 (1924), 35.

[2] In this identification my essay follows Ilona Bell’s Elizabethan Women and the Poetry of Courtship (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp.179-80: ‘the Amoretti is constructed—and should be read—as poetry of courtship, written by the real historical figure, Edmund Spenser to a particular Elizabethan woman named Elizabeth’, and I agree as well when she argues that Elizabeth Boyle ‘is his primary lyric audience’ (168). My account of how that courtship proceeds, however, differs greatly from hers.

[3] One evidence of the fictionality is Spenser’s incorporation of sonnet 8, which was written long before the wooing of Elizabeth Boyle. See L. Cummings, ‘Spenser’s Amoretti VIII: New Manuscript Versions’, SEL 4, 125-35.

[4] I discuss the relation between the speaker of Spenser’s lyrics and the poet in ‘Lyric Address and Spenser’s Reinvention of the Proem,’ Studies in Philology 116 (2016), 253-79, esp. 259-61.

[5] Quotations from Amoretti and Epithalamion follow William A. Oram et al. eds., The Yale Edition of Edmund Spenser’s Shorter Poems (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

[6] See for instance, William G. Madsen, From Shadowy Types to Truth New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), 155-80 and D.P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella, (Studies of the Warburg Institute, 22, 1958; rpt. Nendeln, Lichtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1969), pp.6-11.

[7] Paradise Lost IV. 291-3. Quotation from The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Milton ed. William Kerrigan, John Rumrich and Stephen M. Fallon (New York: Random House [Modern Library], 2007).

[8] Quotation from The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney ed. William A Ringler Jr. (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1962), p.201.

[9] The Franklin’s Tale, ll. 949-9 in Larry D. Benson et al., ed, The Riverside Chaucer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), p.181.

[10]Alexander Dunlop, ‘The Unity of Spenser’s Amoretti,’ in Alastair Fowler, ed. Silent Poetry (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970), pp.153-69; Joseph Loewenstein, ‘A Note on the Structure of Spenser’s Amoretti: Viper Thoughts,’ Spenser Studies 8, 311-23; Ilona Bell, Elizabethan Women; Theresa Krier, ‘Generations of Blazons: Psychoanalysis and the Song of Songs in the Amoretti,’ Texas Studies in Literature and Language 40 (1998), 293-327.  William C. Johnson in Spenser’s Amoretti: Analogies of Love (Lewisberg: Bucknell University Press, 1990) does argue that Spenser’s ‘Petrarchan stance’ needs to be ‘purg[ed]’ but his alertness to the playfulness of the Petrarchan imagery tends to play down the lover’s evolution.


[11] Louis Martz, ‘The Amoretti: Most Goodly Temperature’ in William Nelson, ed. Form and Convention in the Poetry of Edmund Spenser: Selected Papers from the English Institute (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), pp.146-68.

[12] Richard Helgerson, The Elizabethan Prodigals (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), pp.16-43.

[13] Pierre de Ronsard, Les Amours ed. H and C. Weber, (Paris: Garnier, 1963) p.419 ‘Soit qu’un sage amoureux, or soit qu’un sot me lise,/ Il ne doit s’esbahir, voyant mon chef grison,/ Si je chante d’amour: volontiers le tison/ Cache un germe de feu sous un cendre grise.’ (Sonnets to Helène Part II, #1, 1-4.)

[14] Loewenstein ‘A Note,’ pp.311-16 identifies solipsism as ‘a major sign of erotic debasement,’ and argues that the sequence attempts to create ‘a redeemed use for that discourse,’ essentially substituting a Christian account of love for the solitary Petrarchan mode. Loewenstein takes the Petrarchan convention as a more serious threat than I do, but his essay brilliantly illuminates the sequence as a whole, and his inventive extension of Dunlop’s numerological pattern goes a long way toward justifying it.

[15] Mary Ellen Lamb, ‘“Can you suspect a change in me?”: Poems by Mary Wroth and William Herbert, Third Earl of Pembroke.’ Re-Reading Mary Wroth ed. Naomi Miller, Katherine Larson with Andrew Strycharski (New York: Palgrave, 2015) pp. 53-68; Ilona Bell and Stephen W. May, eds., Lady Mary Wroth: Pamphilia to Amphialanthus in Manuscript and Print, The Other Voices in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series, 59 (Arizona Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies: 2017), pp.26-44.

[16] G.K. Hunter comments, ‘Spenser’s sequence is far more concerned with the relationship and far less with the individual. The lovers “I” or ego is completely ignored and even when mentioned is usually absorbed into a pattern which aborts self-definition.’ (‘Spenser’s Amoretti and the English Tradition’ in A Theatre for Spenserians, ed. Judith M. Kennedy and James A. Reither, p.128).

[17] In The Life of Edmund Spenser (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1945) p. 169, Alexander Judson remarks that ‘one of her letters…is in a trained, rapid, flexible hand (the ‘Italian’), suggestive of one possessing neatness and system, and indicative—especially in that time in the case of women—of education.’ While the ability to read easily is not always linked to the ability to write in the period, I’d stress Judson’s adjective ‘trained’: this is a person for whom writing is not a foreign task. See also Hadfield, Edmund Spenser pp.299-300.

[18] Ilona Bell, Elizabethan Women p.164-50 points to Spenser’s change of the traditional story, but sees it as a means of seduction. My own view is that his version is meant to seem sophistical, to the readers and the lady both. I think that the idea of his ‘seducing’ Elizabeth Boyle, as if he were a young blade out for a conquest, tends to forget the context of the sequence, in which Spenser is looking for a wife. Kenneth J. Larsen (Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion: A Critical Edition [Tempe, AZ: Medieval and Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1997]) p.159 comments that ‘from Petrarch onward a tradition developed in which Daphne is transformed because she refuses to submit’ but cites no evidence for this generalisation. I have been unable to find evidence of this tradition.


[19] Andrew Hadfield comments (Edmund Spenser p. 296) ‘The fact that Elizabeth married three widowers in rapid succession…suggests that Boyle may have planned her life…perhaps rather more than she would have liked.’ In this context see Kaske’s remarks on the lady’s ‘pride,’ ‘Amoretti and Epithalamion,’ 280-85.

[20] See William A. Oram, ‘Spenser’s Daphnaida and Spenser’s Later Poetry,’ Spenser Studies 2 (1981), p.154 and note 21. Donald Cheney, who originally suggested this possibility to me, has stressed that pastoral convention tends to obscure the biographical reference (‘Spenser’s Fortieth Birthday and Related Fictions,’ Spenser Studies 4 ]1983] p.10 n.13). I’d stress how Spenser makes use of his biography to create his fiction.

[21] Larsen, Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion , p.128 comments: ‘Given the difference in age between Spenser and Elizabeth Boyle, the appellation faire flower is particularly apposite and intimate. It was, of course, Spenser who was the elderly one and past the flower of his age (flos aetatis = youth).’

[22] Petrarch’s Lyric Poems ed. and trans. Robert M. Durling (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), p.334.

[23] Reed Way Dasenbrock, Imitating the Italians: Wyatt, Spenser, Synge, Pound, Joyce (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991) pp. 47-51.

[24] There is no time in this paper to deal with the complex topic of the calendrical structures of the sequence, whether those of Dunlop, Kaske, Johnson or Larsen. While in my view these critics sometimes go overboard in claiming calendrical correspondences with particular days, I’ve been convinced that some version of the calendrical structure was intended by the poet—with two reservations. 1) It seems altogether likely that the wooing took more than a year, and that sonnets 4 and 70 mark two distinct springs. Thus the calendrical organisation came after the writing of most of the sonnets: it’s a symbolic time period that doesn’t correspond to the actual time of wooing. 2) There is a striking disjunct, as there often is in numerological organisation, between the harmonious neatness of the ideal pattern and the confused uncertainties of the experience portrayed. To God’s eye, things are clearer than they are to our own.

[25] Carol V. Kaske, ‘Spenser’s “Amoretti and Epithalamion” of 1595: Structure, Genre and Numerology,’ English Literary Renaissance 8 (1978), 271-95, ep. 273-6; Loewenstein, ‘Echo’s Ring: Orpheus and Spenser’s Career,’ English Literary Renaissance 16 (1986), 287-302.

[26] The one exception is the poet’s furious attack on the ‘venomous tongue’ of someone who seems to have slandered him to the Lady who is now angry at him. While this does refer outside the poet, it makes him seem all the more isolated.

[27] Enid Welsford was the first critic to read the poem as the speaker’s unfolding imagination of a future wedding: see her Spenser: Fowre Hymnes and Epithalamion: A Study of Edmund Spenser’s Doctrine of Love (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967 p.71. See also William A. Oram, Edmund Spenser (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997) pp. 202-3.

[28] ‘The Thirsty Dear and the Lord of Life: Some Contexts for Amoretti 67-70,’ Spenser Studies 6 (1985), pp.33-75.

[29] Theresa Krier, ‘Generations of Blazons: Psychoanalysis and the Song of Songs in the Amoretti,’ Texas Studies in Literature and Language 40 (1996), 293-327.

[30] Loewenstein, ‘A Note,’ 319

[31] Krier, Birth Passages: Maternity and Nostalgia, Antiquity to Shakespeare (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), pp. 92-105, esp. 95-101; Melissa E. Sanchez, ‘“Modesty or Comeliness”: The Predicament of Reform Theology in Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion’ Renaissance 65 (2012), 5-24.

[32] On the different attitudes toward sex after betrothal and before marriage, see David Cressy, Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp.277-83. Attitudes might change according to class and location, and any certainty about numbers is illusory. Cressy comments, ‘A reasonable guess might be that half the couples who contracted to be married engaged in sexual congress; no more were half were still virgins before their wedding night.’ (977-8)

[33] A comparable moment occurs in Wyatt’s ‘They Flee From Me’: ‘…In thin array, after a pleasant guise,/ When her loose gown did from her shoulders fall/ And she caught me in her arms, long and small,/ Therewithal sweetly did me kiss….’ (italics mine). (Sir Thomas Wyatt, The Complete Poems ed. R.A. Rebholz [London: Penguin Books, 1978] #LXXX, p.117).

[34] The typical collocation of ‘full’ with the idea of eating focuses on the Lady’s eyes: ‘Fed on the fulnesse of that chearefull glaunce’ (39) or ‘…my hart, that wont on your faire eye/ to feed his fill, flyes back unto your sight’ (73). By contrast, the idea of emptiness stresses more naked desire, physical or emotional, as in the two Narcissus sonnets in which the speaker’s hungry eyes ‘having pine and having not complaine’ (35, 83).

[35] A. Kent Hieatt, Short Time’s Endless Monument: The Symbolism of the Numbers in Spenser’s ‘Epithalamion,’ New York: Columbia University Press, 1960; Alisdair Fowler, Triumphal Forms: Structural Patterns in Elizabethan Poetry (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1970). Kaske, ‘Spenser’s “Amoretti” and “Epithalamion”.’

[36] The Spenser Encyclopedia ed. A.C. Hamilton et al. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), p.38:2.

[37] On the Epithalamion and ritual see Thomas Greene, ‘Spenser and the Epithalamic Tradition’ Comparative Literature 9 (1957), 215-28 and Richard Neuse ‘The Triumph over Hasty Accidents: A Note on the Symbolic Mode of the Epithalamion’, Modern Language Review 61 (1966), 163-74.


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William A. Oram , "What Happens in the Amoretti," Spenser Review 50.2.3 (Spring-Summer 2020). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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