Spenser’s Amoretti


Spenser invented a new form for the sonnet which has a sprightly and surprising rhythm, and also effectively adds two couplets in the interior, while keeping a third couplet as a closer. Like the terza rima it has interlocking rhymes, but holds more depth and comlexity in its pattern than the terza rima, though perhaps losing some of Dante’s clean simplicity.

The form is as follows,


There are three quatrains and a couplet. The second line rhyme of the first two quatrains becomes the first line rhyme of the following quatrain, which is what makes it interlock.

So the B rhyme and C rhyme each appear four times, which lays a new burden on the English sonneteer (and Spenser used full rhymes). The freshness of the 5th line and the 9th line is even followed with a different freshness in the 6th and 10th lines, which are words whose sound is totally new.

What is really interesting to me about this pattern is that the role of the end words is multiple in many lines. For instance the 4th line is the age-enduring typical quatrain rhyme. (Kind of a marching step.) But it also serves as the first rhyme in a couplet. It is part of a couplet, a quatrain, and has looser ties to the 8th line. It is connected to all four appearances on that rhyme. It is almost like complex jazz harmonics. In this way, there are shifts representing all kinds of rhyme, except near rhyme and interior rhyme, which Spenser largely avoided.

These three-sonnets-from-spensers-amoretti are some of his more triumphant efforts in my (novice) opinion. They appear in Amoretti and Epithalamion, a two-volume, or coupled book, published in 1595. The merit of this book has been much debated, (Faerie Queen is considered his masterpiece) but scholarship in the 20th century renewed a lot of interest here because of discoveries into some amazing patterns that Spenser worked into the book.

For instance, in Amoretti, a sequence of 89 courtship sonnets to a young woman written after his wife’s death, Spenser employs a lot of number patterning. The sonnets are almost daily devotionals; composed to follow the day’s liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer, the liturgical book of the Church of England. Scholars have argued that the first half of the volume (Amoretti) has a center (central group) between Ash Wednesday and Easter, 1594.

Alexander Dunlop, who wrote the introduction to this section of The Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, writes “the tone and imagery of [sonnets] XXII and LXVIII identify them as Ash Wednesday and Easter sonnets; the number of days between them equals the number of days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. This group is centered in Amoretti, with 21 sonnets preceding and following and a spring sonnet two before and two after the central group.” He writes that sonnet LXII, also works as an Easter sonnet indirectly dated to Easter, 1594. That poem’s reference to a new year, and new dawn, sprung is appropriate for a key turn in the religious calendar.

Dunlop also argues, “his use in Amoretti of a framework related to Ash Wednesday and Easter removes those events from the mere sequence of history and asserts this transcendence of the personal and particular events that seem to form the sequence of historical time.” In other words, Spenser seems to be grafting a cosmic meaning to the narrative of their courtship through reference to events in the (Christian) calender.

What does this really amount to? Notably, Spenser does not stop short of even deifying the young woman he pursues, so Spenser’s distraction from God (who is present but almost obscured by his romantic passion) is treated as a sub-plot of his absorption in the girl. He makes use of the religious means at his disposal to glorify, and essentially chronicle her worship.

Dunlop also points to a very interesting tension between the poet’s worship and elevation of the woman, and more subtle notes of a pursuit of his mastery of her. While Spenser keeps drumming on a theme of his weakness and inferiority to the young woman, he also introduces images of caging, binding, conquest, captivity, and imprisonment. In Epithalamion, which translates as “wedding song”, this undertone becomes more dominant, as the poet has secured his bride.

I haven’t read Epithalamion yet, because I’m really looking for sonnets, but I read that it also is intensively patterned after units of time. There are 24 stanzas, 365 long lines, and 68 short lines, (the sum of the weeks, months, and seasons).

While it fascinates me how Spenser built this structure, and wove so many quiet lines that doubled duty to his poem, I can’t see Amoretti as approaching the glorious Shakespeare’s Sonnets, or Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella. Amoretti is beautifully accomplished in syntax, almost effortless in rhyme, and has some really shining moments with metaphor and imagery. The primary downside for me was the degree of repetitiveness. Shakespeare has about 60 more sonnets in his sequence but never fails to turn things new and find original ways to display his love. And Sidney is just much more intense in feeling and sound and his narrative is more moving. If you read the three sonnets in the link, or have read Spenser before, feel free to tell me what you thought.

You can hear some of Spenser’s sonnets read at LibriVox .

Philip Sidney’s Sonnet 42


I’ve been reading Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella and had to post this favorite because it thrilled me so much. Sidney’s eloquence here is a natural overflow of real love. The music tends to be sinuous and has a sometimes surprising, leaping pulse.

While Shakespeare in his Sonnets makes imagination, perhaps not feeling, the workhorse of most of his rhetorical lines; Sidney finds the metaphors, even the thoughts, which make do, and fills them with his feeling.

Here is Sonnet 42 with my comments. And here is a quick analysis of Sonnet 42 by Jonathan Smith of Hanover College.

(Image is Ruth Bader Ginsburg)

John Donne’s Oh My Black Soule


This is one of John Donne’s 19 Holy Sonnets.  I consider it the best poem on repentance I’ve ever read outside the Bible.  Donne was famous in his time for his sermons, which are highly literary and still available.  Neither his religious nor erotic poetry was published during his life.  He contrived complex extended metaphors for much of his poetry, showing a brilliance and charm, but here there is a fear and earnestness expressed in a few plain, though perfect, similes.

Holy Sonnet 4.

Oh my black Soule, now thou art summoned
By sicknesse, deaths herald, and champion;
Thou’art like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done
Treason, and durst not turn to whence hee’s fled,
Or like a thiefe, which till deaths doome be read,
Wisheth himselfe delivered from prison;
But damn’d and hal’d to execution,
Wisheth that still he might be’imprisoned;
Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lacke;
But who shall give thee that grace to beginne?
Oh make thy selfe with holy mourning blacke,
And red with blushing, as thou art with sinne;
Or wash thee in Christs blood, which hath this might
That being red, it dyes red soules to white.

That last line is like a certain currency that can be converted into others.  “Dye” was another spelling for “die” and this unlocks a number of Christian paradoxes.  What is red with ruby love in Christ makes what is red with scarlet sin in us turn white.  He dyes us by His dying.

His death also slays us, making His death transitive to us.  For as Saint Paul said in one of his epistles, “the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.” That is, because God Himself died, we cannot but live to God now, or else we die to God.

There is also the suggestion that the black soul confronting the power behind the death of Christ, which is red blood shed, becomes white in terror or anxiety.  Such is the dread described in this poem because the speaker is like a prisoner facing execution.  Ah, but Christ also was in bonds and faced execution.  It is precisely this identification of God with man that is religious and also as deep a font of metaphor, (the making of one thing like another), as one could hope for.

Because Christ faced sin and death and mortal flesh and judgment, the poet in diving down into those waters, and seeing Christ, has a potential source of rescue.

This poem has given us three colors, red and white and black.  And it applies these colors without erring, but paints the nature of repentance very adeptly.  There are also a few characters who occupy this sonnet and make a cohesive scene.  There is sickness – the armed “champion” of death.  There is a religious pilgrim who turned fugitive and cannot go home.  And there is a prisoner longing to escape and avoid execution.  Then there is Christ, who the speaker does not know how to reach with useful blushing.  The speaker leaves us in his contemplation; he is at Christ’s door.

Donne has made a gesture from a few strokes.  Because these are all in harmony, putting the colors right, we do not need more concrete description but the sonnet feels very evocative and personal.  All the colors are in their right places, and grace is simply for the asking if the speaker would find life.