In the period of Early Modern English, romantic love was a major subject in literature. From Hoby’s translation of The Courtier to the various sonnets written during this time, everyone seemed to have something to add regarding their opinions on what exactly love is and the role that love plays in society. Many of the texts during this time period have offer a distinct perspective on love, some believing love might be the key to virtue, or love might transcend death, or even that love is present just for the sake of love. The conversation held between Early Modern English texts reveals to us the ideology behind love during this time period.
Beginning with Sir Thomas Hoby’s translation of Castiglione’s The Courtier, the stage is set for a rather specific view of romantic love. Specifically in the fourth book, titled “The Ladder of Love,” love is described as a method of attaining virtue, though recognizing one’s true beauty, or goodness. If a woman is able to “openeth the eyes that all men have and few occupy, and seeth in herself a shining beam of that light which is the true image of the angel-like beauty partened with her,” a pair of lovers will experience a “love greater and happier than others, as the cause that stirreth it is more excellent” (716-717). What is meant by this “angel-like beauty,” is a woman’s goodness or virtue, a type of beauty that transcends and earthly body, and is therefore angel-like. This idea that if a man is able to rise above the passion of earthly beauty and may recognize and fall in love with a woman’s good virtue, then that love is worthwhile for the gentlemanly courtier, a title associated with an esteemed greatness.
On the other hand, there is a warning, when a man falls in love, “then must the Courtier determine, when he perceiveth he is taken, to shun throughly all filthiness of common love, and so enter into the holy way of love with the guide of reason” (713). The man must not be consumed by his love for a woman’s beauty and must find her virtue. This push and pull of “entering into the holy way of love” as described in the Courtier is put into the form of a sonnet through Sidney’s sonnets called Astrophil and Stella.
In these sonnets, which are written by Sidney from the perspective of Astrophil, whose love for Stella isn’t returned, the subject matter in “The Ladder of Love” is dramatized. In the first sonnet, Astrophil reasons that if he writes sonnets to Stella, she may eventually return his love. The actual debate doesn’t begin until the fifth sonnet. Sidney uses imagery of the heart being a temple, and even says “true, that true beauty virtue is indeed,” but wraps up the poem by rejecting this idea that love should be a means to better oneself. The final thee lines of the poem read “True, that on earth we are but pilgrims made, / And should in soul up to our country move, / True, and yet true that I must Stella love,” which reveal a complex meaning of the poem. Yes, Astrophil realizes that love is a venture that requires the pursuit of some sort of otherworldly, holy virtue, but Stella is the one that wins his affections, even with that in mind. This rejection of this idea begins the conversation of romantic love during this era.
Love is also characterized in Spenser’s Amoretti, which follows the path in which Spenser’s love for his future wife, Elizabeth Boyle, blossoms into one that is virtuous, as described by The Courtier. Near the beginning of the sonnet cycle, imagery surrounding Elizabeth’s physical beauty is very prevalent. Sonnet 37 is dedicated to her “golden tresses,” and how “mens frayle eyes, which gaze too bold, / she may entangle in that golden snare” (986). These lines, of course, note how her physical beauty is what attracts men, including Spenser to her in the first place. However, by the end of the sonnet cycle we see a shift in subject matter. Sonnet 79 speaks that “Men call you fayre, and you doe credit it,” continuing to add, “But the trew fayre, that is the gentle wit, / and vertuous mind, is much more praysed of me” (989). What Spenser is saying is that Elizabeth is beautiful and everyone sees it, but he values the true beauty of her virtuous mind and strong wit. Spenser has unlocked Elizabeth’s true beauty, and eventually marries her—essentially becoming a model of what The Courtier wishes to create, and what Astrophil has not been able to achieve.
However, in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, the subject of marriage is simplified and can be viewed as a rather different example to the love seen in The Courtier or Amoretti. Marriage is almost made into a transaction of sorts, where both the man and the woman are able to view one another naked, so as to look one another over for anything undesirable, before finally committing to the marriage. This practice is compared to when a man buys a horse, “they won’t close the deal until the saddle and blanket have been taken off, lest there be a hidden sore underneath” (625). The descriptions of marriage and divorce in Utopia fail to even mention love, and therefore throw all of these concepts that everyone else has been talking about in the first place. This ideal world does have rules about premarital sex, in which case a person isn’t allowed to get married, but is this because they haven’t “shun[ned] throughly all filthiness of common love,” like The Courtier instructs them to do so, or is that for some other reason?
This complete absence of the subject of love isn’t seen in any of the other texts in question, however some ideas might be translated into Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, in which love and sex are briefly mentioned in the first canto of the first book. Una, the Red Cross Knight’s lady, is imitated by a sprite, and the sprite offers to kiss the Red Cross Knight. Then, afterward, the sprites engage in “lustfull play,” and the Red Cross Knight was “much grieved to thinke that his gentle Dame so light” (793-795). In other words, The Red Cross Knight, although his relationship with Una seems to be quite platonic, was distraught to see “Una” engage in sex with someone, and then offer to kiss him. The examples of harsh punishment for premarital sex in Utopia and the shunning of Una in The Faerie Queene for perceived loose morals shows that love and relationships weren’t taken lightly during this time period, perhaps taking some sort of influence from The Courtier or Astrophil and Stella’s views on using love to achieve some sort of otherworldly goodness.
As a contrast to all of the texts previously mentioned, Williams Shakespeare’s sonnets take quite a different spin. Specifically in Sonnet 130, Shakespeare describes all of his mistress’s faults, but in the couplet remarks “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare, / As any she belied with false compare” (1184). Shakespeare is reiterating the points that The Courtier makes, yet in a humorous way. He is affirming the position that a man must find a woman’s true virtue and by doing so, he will find her true beauty. It doesn’t matter that Shakespeare’s mistress’ “eyes are nothing like the sun,” or that “if hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head”—he loves her, and his love is true and virtuous. On the opposite side of this conversation, it should also be noted that Shakespeare’s sonnets usually take a lighter attitude, as exampled in Sonnet 130. This entire concept of love and finding true beauty doesn’t seem so harrowing or serious as the other texts make it out to be.
His ideas of love also speak of an everlasting true love, one that transcends time. Especially noted in Sonnet 116, which states “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks / Within his bending sickle’s compass come; Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, / But bears it out even on the edge of doom” (1182). This idea of love as an everlasting, steadfast concept adds depth to the idea of what exactly romantic love meant during this time period. When added to the ideas that come from The Courtier, Amoretti, or even Astrophil and Stella, we might perceive that romantic love not only lasts for an eternity, but will lead to a truer understanding of virtue. Especially when taking the religious connotations of eternity into mind, we might infer that from a religious perspective, finding true love could elevate a person spiritually, especially if you take the attitude as Sidney describes in sonnet 5 of Astrophil and Stella, and agree “that on earth we are but pilgrims made” by love.
Love in the time period of Middle English was a concept that was constantly being examined by its writers. They all seem to conclude that love has something more to it than just beauty. Love’s relationship to virtue is quite prevalent, and it seems as though those who have found true love have been able to unlock the key to their lover’s “trew fayre…and vertuous mind” (989).
Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. B. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. Print.