Spenser’s Sonnets: The Amoretti
Spenser’s sonnet cycle, The Amoretti, shares in most of the sonnet cycles in its subject matter: a poet wooing in every possible way a Lady. Yet, Spenser’s is somewhat different in that the Lady of the poem is not taken–it is not the classic courtly love narrative. She does play hard to get, so Spenser can engage in some of the courtly love motifs. The difference is that the sonnet cycle ends with the poet and the lady marrying. The final poem is an epithalmion, which is a poem in celebration of marriage.
Spenser’s sonnets are, well, sweet, in the somewhat lovely and simple way in which he presents a “verbal picture.” Each sonnet has a very clear, central metaphor that he develops. Therefore, his sonnets can be nice for close reading and interpreting for a paper.
The metaphor, or “picture,” in this sonnet is the poet as a book that his lover holds in her hands. Spenser uses the common motif of “the Book of Nature” that I discussed earlier with Sidney. The poet tells his lover that she can read him like an open book. Hence, as the first sonnet in the cycle, he is inaugurating his project as a poet, telling his lover that he is going to lay his heart open. At the same time, the metaphor of his lover holding him like a book also suggests that she “holds his life in her hands.”
In this sonnet, Spenser uses another metaphorical “picture.” This time, the picture the poet presents is himeslf as a ship lost at sea without his lover’s love. Without his lover, he has no “star, that wont with her bright ray/ Me to direct,” in other words, without her he has no guiding star, or north star. He has no compass to help him through “a storme.” By line 11, he utters words of “hope,” which is the important Protestant word in prayer. Meanwhile, as he hopes for her return, he must continue on, lost in a storm. Note also how we saw the image / metaphor of an individual lost at sea as far back as Anglo-Saxon poetry.
In this sonnet, the “picture”/metaphor Spenser uses was a very popular one in the Renaissance, particularly with Shakespeare: the similarity of life to a play. The poet claims that he is like an actor on the stage, and his lover is like a spectator in the audience. The poet says that sometimes he plays a comic role, and sometimes he plays a tragic role. But his lover laughs when he plays the tragedian, and she mocks him when he plays the comedian. He ends wondering how on earth he could woo this woman if all of his performances fall flat. This sonnet obviously comes at a point in the sonnet cycle when the poet’s romancing of the Lady has reached a crisis, and there is the threat that the love affair will fail.
The central picture / metaphor is the Trinity. In Spenser’s Trinity, there are three women: his mother, Queen Elizabeth, and his Lover. Each corresponds to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Yet, notice the tribute that Spenser makes to the Queen. She is, essentially, like God in that all three elements of the trinity are separate “persons” that unite to form the one true God. Far be it from me to claim to understand the Trinity, one of the most complex theological concepts. But it would appear the Spenser subscribes to the notion that one element of the Trinity “indwells” other elements, so that there are aspects of his mother in his lover, aspects of his lover in the Queen, etc etc. Importantly, as a Protestant, Spenser pays allegiance to both his Queen and the Church of England in the poem. Elizabeth is his monarch, but she is also the leader and mother of the Church of England. Perhaps this sonnet was his token or credit of allegiance, just in case anyone suspected otherwise. (Don’t want to be burned at the stake!)
The central picture / metaphor here is the poet writing love letters in the sand. The poem explores a very common Renaissance metaphor of the transitory nature of life. As hard as the poet tries to immortalize his love in the sand, the tide comes and washes it away, so that his efforts are “Vayne.” Yet, in the last quadrant of the sonnet, Spenser claims that the poems (this sonnet) that he writes will outlast him, his lover or anything else in his short life. The poem concludes on one of the most popular Renaissance themes concerning the mortality of the poet, but the immortality of the poem.
Bottom line: Spenser’s sonnets are wonderful little places in which to practice close readings and interpretation. I have always recommeneded his sonnets for writing a paper, because the metaphorical “picture” he uses and develops through each sonnet is clear, and each opens up particular issues one can expand upon beyond the sonnet.
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