Spensers Amoretti and Epithalamion
A Writer and His Creation: Double Meanings in Spenser’s Amoretti
Though he is by no means a single-minded man, Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti focus largely on the beauty and physical form of the woman he addresses these poems to. In seven of these sonnets, he calls this woman’s beauty her “hew”, or in the modern spelling, “hue”; each time ‘hew’ is used, it is paired with a defining adjective. Examining alternative definitions of ‘hue’ within the Amoretti sheds light on Spenser’s meaning within these stanzas, and explores further the complicated philosophical relationship Spenser has with the act of creation and writing: a relationship central to the narration of his Faerie Queene.
In Sonnet III, the line reads: “but looking still on her I stand amazed, / at wondrous sight of so celestiall hew” (389). Sonnet seven lists it as a “louely hew”, and sonnet seventy-four as a “glorious hew”, with these three defining words repeated among the remaining four instances. Though in the poem it quickly becomes clear that Spenser is referring to his lady’s “hue”, because it is spelled like “hew” the reader may be momentarily confused. Our definition of “hew” is to “cut or hack”; indeed, it has borne this meaning as early as 993 CE according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which first lists it as “To strike, or deal blows, with a cutting weapon” (“Hew,” OED). The word ‘hue’, as we are meant to read ‘hew’ in the Amoretti, has meant “form” or alternatively “colour”, both since 971 CE (“Hue”, OED).
In six out the seven places Spenser uses ‘hew’, it is meant to flatter. Her hue is lovely, celestial and glorious, and the implication is obvious. But as ever with Spenser, his words are carefully chosen; the use of the word ‘hew’ represents an important intention. The OED’s full first definition of hue is “Form, shape, figure; appearance, aspect; species.” The last definition, ‘species’, is particularly interesting in this instance. An animal’s species is an inherent quality. It isn’t what an animal attains or works towards; it is a quality they are born with, and they cannot help but being said species. Spenser, in his praise of his love, is essentially claiming that she is inherently glorious and lovely, and that she couldn’t help but be so. When paired with the word “celestial”, she is elevated, and becomes inherently of the heavens and inherently godly.
The first definition of ‘hew’ is, as stated above, “To strike, or deal blows, with a cutting weapon.” (“Hew,” OED). Farther down in the entry, however, the seventh definition of hew is listed as “To make, form, or produce by hewing (with obj. expressing the product)”. To think of ‘hewing’ something as producing it, forming it into a certain shape, makes Spenser’s use of ‘hew’ much more complicated. In effect, it is the polar opposite of ‘hue’. Though the part of speech is somewhat twisted as a result, to affirm an object’s ‘hew’ as its form, its crafted shape, implies that this shape is not an inherent quality. For Spenser to, six times, say that his love has a wonderful ‘hew’, and to take it to mean ‘man-made form’, raises another question; who has hewn her? Spenser isn’t implying that she procured some sort of sixteenth century plastic surgery, or that she herself has made for her this shape; Spenser is who has hewn her. And he has done it with the craft he knows best: his words. He wrote almost one hundred sonnets about this woman. Read as a whole, these sonnets shape her in the reader’s mind. Spenser has created her ‘hew’.
Of course, this is not to say that Spenser’s subject or her beauty is a fiction. It is logical to take the primary meaning of ‘hew’ to be ‘hue’, and for this to be rightly flattering to the woman. But by shaping and forming her from his words, Spenser has indeed created her ‘hue’; the only hue the reader of the poem knows. Spenser often flirts with the idea of the poet forming true and living figures through his writing. In The Faerie Queene, he often questions the path his his characters are taking and claims that he must take a break from writing about them, as their plot line is much too distressing. And yet simultaneously he acknowledges that he is the one who has put them in these situations.
This idea of Spenser himself as creator of information as well as simple narrator seems to be echoed in these sonnets. He can’t help but wax poetic about her “hew”: it is his job both as a lover and a narrator. And yet, he has created it in describing it. Spenser seems to acknowledge that his love’s inherent hue, her celestial aspect, is the one he has hewn for her. He has created his love. Spenser projects a sense that he has agency in this story, and yet acts as if he has no control whatsoever. This, as well as the realization that Spenser often intentionally uses words with double meanings, are important acknowledgments to make: both expand and complicate Spenser’s role as writer in the Amoretti and The Faerie Queene.
Spencer’s Sonnet 75
During the Elizabethan age, love sonnets traditionally told the story of men in love with unattainable women. However, Spenser’s sonnets from his sonnet sequence “Amoretti” defy the general pessimism and give an optimistic look at love. In fact, his “Sonnet 75” shows such optimism that his persona, after a realization in the poem, claims that his love will be immortal through verse. “Sonnet 75” stands as a successful sonnet because it presents an optimistic view on love through graphic imagery and a realistic story. Spencer takes the success of the work a step further because he uses form, rhyme, personification, and alliteration to mirror the imagery and story of his Elizabethan sonnet.Spencer’s sonnet contains three quatrains and a couplet. The form of each part plays an important role in creating the story of the poem. The first quatrain contains a physical description of the strand. In this description, Spencer includes the image of the tide washing away the persona’s lover’s name. This image propels the rest of the poem. The second quatrain contains the dialogue of the lover as she responds to the distress of the persona. She declares that he seems foolish for trying to make a “mortall thing so to immortalize” (6). The third quatrain contains his returning dialogue where he makes the claim that he wants to immortalize their love through verse. The final couplet magnifies his claim, as the persona concludes optimistically and drastically that death will kill all things but their love. By using each piece of the form of the sonnet to play a role in the story of the sonnet, Spencer fully utilizes the form of the Spenserian sonnet. Spencer’s skillful use of form mirrors the steps that would take place if a man were to contemplate spiritual and physical love due to waves washing away a lover’s name.The complex rhyme scheme of this sonnet is a unique pattern frequently used by Spencer. The rhyme scheme is ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. By having the rhyme of the final line of each quatrain also be the rhyme of the leading line in the next quatrain, Spencer links all the quatrains of the sonnet. This skillful linking also mirrors the imagery he creates. Like the rhythmic pattern of the tide washing up on the ocean and then pulling away with some of the wave, Spencer’s new rhyme schemes “wash” in while retaining some of the old rhyme scheme. Spencer’s rhyme scheme imaginatively ties in with the imagery of the poem.In the final line of the first quatrain, Spencer personifies the tide as a predator. He says, “But came the tyde, and made my paynes his pray” (4) which shows that the persona feels the tide preys on his pain by forcefully attacking his love’s name. By creating this metaphor, Spenser shows the desperation of his persona as he watches the representation of his love disappear by the vicious hands of nature. The personification is also the first time in the sonnet where the persona’s opinion is included. Up until the final line of the quatrain, it only contains a physical description of the strand, but after the personification, the sonnet includes the feelings of the persona as he searches for a way to eternalize his love. This use of personification is important because it shows that Spencer could utilize multiple literary techniques within the restrictive iambic pentameter of the sonnet form.Throughout the poem, Spencer uses alliteration to create sounds representative of the imagery in his poem. In the second line of his poem, Spencer creates alliteration when he says “waves and washed in away”. The repetition of the “w” sound creates a sound similar to the actual washing of waves. Later in the poem, Spencer writes, “my paynes his pray” (4) where the repetition of the “p” sound, which is a cacophonous sound, mirrors the difficulty the persona feels. Spencer uses alliteration to tie in the words and phrases he uses to further connect the poem with the imagery.”Sonnet 75″ represents a successful Elizabethan sonnet with an optimistic view of love, but Spencer takes the success a step further by employing various literary techniques that accentuate the story and imagery of his sonnet. His skillful use of form, rhyme, personification, and alliteration all contribute to the tight construction of this sonnet. By creating “Sonnet 75″, Spenser immortalized love though verse, while showing his readers the skillful workings of his hand.Sonnet 75″One day I wrote her name upon the stand,But came the waves and washed it away: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 wiped out lykewize.””Not so,” quod I, “let baser things devizeTo dy in dust, but you shall live in fame:My verses your virtues rare shall eternize,And in heavens wryte your glorious name.Where whenas death shall all the world subdew,Our love shall live, and later life renew.”
Conforming to, and Deviating from, Genre Conventions in Spenser’s “Sonnet 15”
English sonnets often explore the theme of love and the lady’s eternal beauty. Edmund Spenser was one of the best known Elizabethan sonneteers during the 16th century. In 1595, he composed a total of eighty-nine sonnets in his sonnet cycle “Amoretti”, following his courtship of Elizabeth Boyle, the woman he later married. (Librivox). However, Sonnet 15 from “Amoretti” is a little different to typical sonnets because it breaks with the stereotypical appraisal of the woman’s physical beauty. This can be seen in the final couplet where Spenser creates a dramatic reversal stating that his lady’s mind and virtue are the fairest of her traits. On the other hand, although Spenser’s sonnet breaks some gender stereotypes, it actually reinforces the male poet’s perspective and stereotypes the lady. This can be seen through the first sestet focusing on the stereotypes of the merchants, the second sestet Spenser uses the form of blazon to praise his lady’s beauty, and the ending couplet creating a dramatic reversal acclaiming her mind and virtue.
In “Sonnet 15” the speaker claims to appreciate the lady’s virtuous mind virtue above all her physical traits, unlike conventional sonnets, however his focus on the lady’s outward appearance suggests otherwise. This can be seen through Spenser’s description of the merchants who trade for profit. The speaker begins the quatrain by mocking the merchants’ “weary toil” (Spenser) as they search for treasures, when he claims that all the “world’s riches” (Spenser) can be found within his lady. This metaphor objectifies his muse comparing her qualities to money and wealth. Furthermore, in the third line he states that the treasures in both “Indias” (Spenser) cannot compare to the beauty of his love. Here Spenser uses hyperbole and not only stereotypes the merchants, but also focuses on the lady’s physical appearance exclusively, in a similar way to conventional sonnets. For example, in line 4 he states “What needeth you to seek so far in vain?” (Spenser). These four lines suggest the Merchants’ tireless search for wealth, but the word “vain” diminishes their hard work by saying that their efforts are futile. Thus Spencer objectifies his muse when he compares her to the merchants’ monetary gains, or the material treasures that they seek. He states that she contains within her, “All this world’s riches” yet these “riches” are firmly connected to the outward trappings of material wealth. In the blazon, Spencer lists all the treasures the merchants seek in order to praise Elizabeth Boyle’s outer appearance. Therefore, even though Spencer mocks the merchants about their “treasures”, he effectively objectifies his love by describing her in terms of these treasures. Thus, Sonnet 15 reinforces stereotypes by describing the lady in terms of material wealth.
Spenser’s “Sonnet 15” challenges some of the stereotypical conventions of sonnets of the 16th century, however, through his use of the popular blazon, it can be clearly seen that the poet does objectify the lady in the conventional manner. Although, the couplet at the end creates a dramatic reversal emphasizing his lady’s mind and virtue, Spenser spends five lines exclusively describing her physical appearance in terms of objects of material wealth. One example is the metaphor, “her teeth be pearls both pure and round” (Spenser). The word “round” indicates perfection, and suggests her teeth are flawless, white pearls. Further developing the material wealth metaphor, he describes her appearance in terms of cold, lifeless stones or metals such as “rubies”, “sapphires” and gold. In line 11, he says “if Gold, her locks are finest gold on ground” (Spenser). In this part, Spenser alliterates the last three words “gold on ground”. This phrase emphasizes her beauty, and the assonance of the vowel “o” suggests the amount and quality of the metal. Gold is a symbol of wealth; thus Spenser is suggesting that her locks are priceless. However, this metaphor also objectifies the lady comparing her warm hair to a lifeless, cold metal associated with wealth. Therefore, it can be seen that Spenser objectifies his lady, using expensive material items that don’t reflect the natural world or any kind of human beauty.
Lastly, male and female stereotypes can be seen during in the couplet of “Sonnet 15”. After Spenser’s blazon praising Elizabeth Boyle’s beauty, he states that above all of her traits, the fairest is her mind and virtue. This greatly contrasts with the blazon providing a turning point in the sonnet. Here Spenser puts emphasis on the most important feature of all which is her intellect and purity or her chastity. However, his claims about the perfection of her mind are questionable as it isn’t possible to read his lady’s mind or analyze her thoughts, thus this statement can be viewed as invasive as he claims that he can read her mind. Furthermore, although the word “virtues’ denotes strong morals and good ethics it can also be interpreted to mean sexual virtue or chastity. Hence, the interpretation is altered if Edmund Spenser believes that her chastity is Elizabeth Boyle’s finest trait. Traditionally a woman must keep her virginity intact for her husband and so the speaker’s celebration of the lady’s virtue reinforces the stereotypical male perspective of the 1500’s. In this way the woman addressed in the poem is a stereotype too, a male construction.
“Sonnet 15” from Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti is written in a way that both challenges stereotypes but it also conforms to the sonnet conventions. The couplet does place emphasis on the spiritual traits that Spenser believes to be much superior to his lady’s physical appearance, however by discussing her “virtue”, the speaker imposes male values upon her and reinforces traditional stereotypes. Furthermore, as Edmund Spenser includes twelve lines discussing her outer appearance, and only two focusing on the importance of her mind and virtue, his lady’s beauty appears to be of greater importance. Thus, even though “Sonnet 15” seems to break the mold and transcend sonnet stereotypes, it actually reinforces many of the conventions.