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.
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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 […]