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 .

Book Review: Astrophil and Stella


Astrophil and Stella is the first sonnet sequence in English. Even Shakespeare drew inspiration from him. Shakespeare’s Sonnets have a number of references to Sidney according to the notes supplied by Katherine Duncan-Jones. But while Shakespeare raises the game in rational poetry, (where imagination builds castles of praise for his beloved through rhetoric), Sidney is really the pure poet of the lyric. Sir Philip Sidney was a courtier, and for a time the cup-bearer of Queen Elizabeth, and also a war-minded man who felt duty to his country, but if the sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella can be taken as a fair record of his heart, at bottom his only concern was his love affair.

It was a storybook love which hardly knew touch. Sidney claims Stella too virtuous to give away the love that dwells inside her, but in real life, in the end, she marries another man. At one point Sidney thought he had her, or thought he was on the verge, and even stole a kiss while she was asleep, and the throes of ecstasy and doubt about that kiss register as credible to me. The first two thirds or so of the book swoon with his lover’s praise of Stella. When she ultimately rejects him, Astrophil falls very hard, (in the Fifth Song) in a poem resembling a Miltonic Satanic rebellion against the divine. He recovers and preserves his pure love. But he has lodged the word of his death knell.

In the Fifth Song he says,

The name of ‘murderer’ now on thy forehead sitteth;
And even while I do speak, my death wounds bleeding be,
Which, I protest, proceed from only cruel thee.

And as early as the second poem Sidney also writes,

Not at first sight, nor with dribbed shot,
Love gave the wound which while I breathe will bleed.

[There “dribbed” means ineffectual or random.]

These lines are prophetic because not long later Sir Philip Sidney, fighting in his second encounter, was shot in the thigh and died of the wound.

This sonnet sequence is full of steady bursts of pure passion aimed always straight at Stella. In Shakespeare’s Sonnets though the first 120 or so sonnets are focused on the youth explicitly, because they contain very little detail relating to the boy other than his physical appearance, I believe they are more an occasion for versification and establishing a new style of praise. The last 30 or so of Shakespeare’s sonnets veer in a different direction in which he suffers the horrifying consequences of his failed relationship with the youth. At that point Shakespeare really opens up terrain through drama and plotting of emotions closer to his soliloquies and closer to religious drama I suspect.

In a somewhat similar way, the early part of Astrophil and Stella is essentially lover’s praise, but when she rejects him and he is so thoroughly shaken the entire course of the sonnet project begins really what is a desperate search for mercy and pity. And in this dark final section (22 sonnets and 6 songs) Sidney also calls on much ingenuity in the plotting of the sequence. This run of poems brings out in the author wrath at her alleged betrayal (though she had made no promises); deepest grief; a restoration of her fond image in his heart; the rejection of all other potential lovers (this is a love which buried Sidney); and a final meeting when the two exchange very touching oaths but she rejects him again.

We also see Sidney alone and not always with his sweet blissful thoughts. So for instance he writes letters to the river Thames (fortunate to carry Stella), to a “dead glass” which did not afford a sight of Stella, we see him with insomnia, and avoiding the company of other women. Also shortly before this section, he addresses a poem to the highway where she travels. All these different approaches allow Sidney variety of experience but again, aside from Stella, for him, there is darkness.

Here is one sonnet shortly before the dark final section, the pivotal fifth song, and two more amazing sonnets after From Astrophil and Stella. Here you can read a post on Philip Sidney’s Sonnet 42   .

Book Review: Browning’s Sonnets


Lately I’ve been wondering how difficult it is to find sincere Christian poets of high caliber. Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was a priest in Victorian England, who is acknowledged today as a bold and brilliant poet is one. But in a three part series of posts called Books Unfit To Read, (see Books Unfit to Read (part 1)) I address the domination of culture by anti-Christian elements. In my opinion this leads the world to heresy in both subtle and overt ways, despite the fact that the world is admittedly furnished thereby with culture, (say what you will).

Elizabeth Barrett Browning appears to be part of the answer to my prayers. She was a Christian poet with intensely ethical concerns. Because of physical illness, (a lung disease since 14, a spinal injury since 15), Elizabeth was a chronic invalid during much of her formative years. In her youth she learned, largely on her own, Hebrew, Greek, classical literature, Shakespeare, and much else; she was very well read in literature. Almost confined to bedrest, she became heavy with grief, especially after her favorite brother died in a drowning accident. Her aspirations and work were literary, and she didn’t really hope for happiness in this world.

Despite the fact that Elizabeth was a slow blooming poet, her writing projects were exciting from an early age. At ten she wrote an epic poem about war. At twenty she wrote “An Essay On Mind” a poem which according to The Poetry Foundation was “a pretentious and frigid effort to survey in some eighty-eight pages the history of science, philosophy, and poetry, from ancient Greece to the present.” About the age of 27 she made a translation of Prometheus Bound, which she considered on hindsight a failure. However she later revised it greatly and apparently honed it into something outstanding.

It was in her thirties Browning first became famous for two volumes of poems. Popular with critics and the public, she was considered one of England’s leading poets. And she thereby came to the attention of Robert Browning, an American poet whom she had praised in a poem. This literary contact sparked a real life romance which in turn became immortalized in these poems, “Sonnets From The Portuguese” written before their marriage, but published after the couple had eloped to Italy.

These “Sonnets From The Portuguese” are the extremely candid and tender-hearted revelation of a woman profoundly grateful to find love when she had written it out of possibility. They also express her care to secure this love. She almost worships Robert in these poems, which is in the sonnet tradition, true, but elicited my own protective instincts because of the extremes of her gratitude. Robert Browning was six years her junior, but certain in his love, and had wooed her, despite her physical disability, and despite the fact that her father tried to prevent his children from marrying. These poems concern the rehabilitation of a heart, moving from grief and isolation slowly, bit by bit, to a love contained by security and hope.

Here are Two Poems from Sonnets From The Portuguese.

The volume is very strong, and conveys so much feeling that it seemed to flow directly off the page. The Sonnets are ahead of their time in their liveliness of meter and enjambment. Though Browning fought in her writing against the domination of women, (as she fought against slavery and the abuse of children,) she believes in patriarchy. Her marriage makes a kind of case for righteous patriarchy, in which love and respect are both reciprocal and Biblical. “Sonnets From The Portuguese” I suspect is a breakthrough in its candor and real intimacy. Other Romantic poets (Browning was considered a Romantic) wrote with candor and vitality, but I don’t remember finding such vulnerability in them, things so important and unguarded in the heart.

I very much enjoyed this volume and hope you will too. A few weeks ago I did a close read of Browning’s most famous poem, Sonnet 43, which you can read here.

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)

Elizabeth Browning: Sonnetto Amore


“Sonnetto Amore” is my rough Italian for “love sonnet”. Italy was Elizabeth’s adopted country upon her clandestine marriage to poet Robert Browning. There she revealed to him this, her most famous poem. Read an Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet in the link.

Sidney’s The Seven Wonders of England


Sir Philip Sidney, pure poet, soldier, and cup bearer to Queen Elizabeth, wrote the Seven Wonders of England during his mid-twenties. It is a trance-like meditation on an almost supernatural, and unrequited, love spell. A multi-talented prodigy of the English Renaissance, Sidney did not place a high priority on his literary effort for a man so gifted with the lyric touch. A few of the notes included in the PDF link are from the Oxford World’s Classics’, Sir Philip Sidney’s The Major Works.

Blake’s Let Them Hold You


Let Them Hold You
by Asher Blake

Suddenly the warbler stops his singing;
taken like a message under a seal,
her milky thigh inked with a bird,
silent upon the white cliff faces
of her alabster thigh; off somewhere,
like a bird she is gone.
From some perch in the brambles
of the jealous gut
our songbird has flown.
In a swarm of parting,
my hand is nested in barbed wire.

The california highways wind
against the hills which themselves
sift through the sieve of fortune.
They are an armada of gauze
advancing without noise;
that bear silver horns to sound out victory.
They are a world that birds trash in death
but levitate in morning’s glory,
those blue hill bathers
cloaked in shadows, moving
like oars in a shallow sea.
Fullness of knowledge in a seed
so they may sing the entirety
as a cosmos in a seraph wing.

With fury I stamp my bed,
its bull backed hours,
and cast her bra for shelter
over the clockface.
And I tear the package of slavish
heraldry with my teeth,
open my root,
bite at my young manhood
and spill myself like fish eggs on a hook.
In three years I will go homeless
like deer through the city.

Come now you horned night,
black coffee sitting
like a delirious bull in the heat,
full highways will pass back this way
and the melons will be sold again;
and women worn down by sweet desire
make their rugged men drown,
stroking the sea,
freeform in passage;
and my sister
migrating in the West
will appear on the vine,
her grapes wrapped in bitter thorns.

The hills hold her in their lap
a world so flighty and blue
like another sinking navy.
I take my brush of turpentine
and revise the roads that lead away,
erase until my shepherd dog
begins to twitch in sleep,
and I, like Mars on a war field,
throne appeased,
reddened with the wealth of the country,
turn and color everything back in.

Kizer’s Summer Near the River


Here Carolyn Kizer has appropriated themes from the Midnight Songs, (both a genre and anthology, “Tzu Yeh”) and also the Book of Songs anthology, both from the Classical Chinese tradition.  However her work is as fresh as the best direct translations of Classical Chinese poetry I have read.  (The Chinese and Japanese translations of Kenneth Rexroth I recommend wholeheartedly.)  Best to just read her poem instead of my prattling.