In this lesson, we will explore Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti sonnets. These sonnets, or ‘little love poems,’ were written in a modified Petrarchan format and, unlike other sonnets of the 1500s, were all written to one woman.
Who Was Edmund Spenser?
Edmund Spenser was born in 1552 and died in 1599.
He was an English poet who grew up in London. He is probably best known for his work The Faerie Queen. This poem is an allegory of the Tudor monarchy, and it glorifies Queen Elizabeth I. Spenser received his formal education at Merchant Taylor School.He was a prolific writer who published his first volume of poems in 1579. He wrote the Amoretti sonnets to woo his future wife, Elizabeth, and there is some question as to exactly how many Amoretti sonnets he wrote.
It is safe to say, however, that he wrote between 89 and 100.
The Story Behind the Sonnets
The word ‘Amoretti’ means ‘little love poems.’ The Amoretti sonnets were written to Elizabeth Boyle, Spenser’s second wife, during their courtship. Because the sonnets were all written to one woman, this was unusual. Also, many Petrarchan sonnets of the day were written to unattainable women, some of who were married to other men. The poets didn’t exactly expect to win the hearts of these women, but rather worshiped them from afar.Spenser, however, clearly adored Elizabeth and focused every poem upon her.
In addition, other sonnets of the time displayed moods of despair over ever winning the woman’s heart, but Spenser’s honest feelings for just one attainable woman sets these sonnets apart.
The Petrarchan Sonnet
It would be good to take a look at the structure of the Petrarchan sonnet. Petrarchan sonnets have 14 lines and two parts. The first part is called the octave, and its rhyme scheme is: abbaabba. The second section has six lines and is called a sestet. The rhyme scheme in the sestet is flexible to a point. Two or three rhyme patterns may be arranged in different ways.
But the last two lines may never be a couplet. This differs from the Shakespearean sonnet which always ends in a couplet and has 12 lines.In spite of the strict Petrarchan form, however, Spenser seems to have created his own blend between the two types of sonnets.
The Amoretti Sonnets
Because there are so many Amoretti sonnets, we will just examine a few. Sonnet 1 reads:Happy ye leaves when as those lily hands,Which hold my life in their dead-doing might,Shall handle you and hold in love’s soft bands,Like captives trembling at the victor’s sight.And happy lines, on which with starry light,Those lamping eyes will deign sometimes to lookAnd read the sorrows of my dying sprite,Written with tears in heart’s close-bleeding book.And happy rhymes bath’d in the sacred brook,Of Helicon whence she derived is,When ye behold that Angel’s blessed look,My soul’s long-lacked food, my heaven’s bliss.
Leaves, lines, and rhymes, seek her to please alone,Whom if ye please, I care for other none.Spencer is creating a metaphor in the sonnet. In fact, he uses metaphor throughout the entire set of Amoretti sonnets. The metaphor in Sonnet 1 is that of a book. In the first four lines, the author compares himself to a book that is read by his love, Elizabeth. His hope is that she will hold his poems in her ‘lily white hands.’ He views Elizabeth’s acceptance of his letters as her acceptance of his love.
The second four lines speak of his wish to see his lover’s eyes light up when she reads the poem or perhaps when she sees Spenser. He longs for Elizabeth to see his sadness because she has not yet loved him.The final six lines, or sestet, of Sonnet 1 allude to a spring of water in Greek mythology from which the muse of poetry flows called Hippocrene in the Helicon mountains. Spencer calls Elizabeth an ‘angel’ in this poem and when she reads his sonnets, Spenser is satisfied as with food.
There is no woman on earth he longs to please as much as Elizabeth.
Amoretti Sonnet 26
We will examine one more Amoretti sonnet. It reads:Sweet is the Rose, but growes upon a brere;Sweet is the Junipere, but sharpe his bough;sweet is the Eglantine, but pricketh nere;sweet is the firbloome, but his braunches rough.Sweet is the Cypresse, but his rynd is tough,sweet is the nut, but bitter is his pill;sweet is the broome-flowre, but yet sowre enough;and sweet is Moly, but his root is ill.So every sweet with soure is tempred still,that maketh it be coveted the more:for easie things that may be got at will,most sorts of men doe set but little store.Why then should I accoumpt of little paine,that endlesse pleasure shall unto me gaine.
In this sonnet, Spenser points out the beautiful and fragrant parts of plants but also shows that those same plants have negative qualities. For instance, a rose smells lovely, but has thorns. He points out that with the beauty comes the challenge of attaining it. To pick a rose, one must contend with the thorns. Then he comes to the point: something that is too easily attained isn’t valued. So, Spenser concludes that he can’t complain of a ‘little pain,’ compared to the ‘endless pleasure’ he will have when he wins his love, Elizabeth.
After Spenser wrote his Amoretti sonnets to Elizabeth, he, having won her heart, married her.
Then he wrote the poem Epithalamion about their wedding. It is sweet to see such devotion from Spenser towards Elizabeth, and refreshing, since most sonnets of the day were written to unattainable women from generally indifferent suitors. The Amoretti sonnets, however, reveal a lasting courtship resulting in marriage.
Edmund Spenser wrote his famous Amoretti sonnets to woo his future wife, Elizabeth Boyle. Though we can’t be certain, he wrote somewhere between 89 and 100 of them. They all share the same structure, blending Shakespearean sonnets and Petrarchan sonnets; the first part called the octave and the second part called the sestet, each with their own different rules.
The sonnets utilize many allusions and metaphors including images from Greek myth and the prickly beauty of a rose bush. These sonnets ultimately did their job because Spenser did, indeed, marry Elizabeth Boyle.
- Edmund Spenser: English poet of the 16th century best known for The Faerie Queen
- Amoretti sonnets: 89 – 100 sonnets written to woo his future wife, Elizabeth
- Elizabeth Boyle: Spenser’s second wife
- Petrarchan sonnets: contain 14 lines and two parts: the octave with the ‘abbaabba’ rhyme scheme and the sestet with six lines and a flexible rhyme scheme
After finishing the lesson in its entirety, you may find it easier to:
- Explain who Edmund Spenser was
- Recount the backstory of the Amoretti sonnets
- Characterize Petrarchan sonnets
- Cite examples of and recite lines from Spenser’s Amoretti sonnets