Edmund Spenser, Amoretti and "Epithalamion" ed. prin. ca. 1593-5

Genre: The Amoretti, (Italian, "little loves") are a sonnet cycle or sequence composed of 89 sonnets. By Spenser's time, the collection of sonnets loosely organized around a poet's love for a lady was becoming a commonplace achievement. Sidney's example, Astrophel and Stella, was published in 1591, five years after the poet's death, and even before that time it had been circulating unofficially among the poet's friends and relatives in manuscript form. Other sonnet cycle poets were Samuel Daniel (Delia, 1592), Michael Drayton (Idea, 1594 and 1619), Fulke Greville (Caelica, 1633), and, possibly, William Shakespeare (Sonnets, 1609).  [We have no conclusive evidence WS ever issued the sonnets in the order in which they were published, which may have been determined by a printer who came into possession of many loose leaves of manuscript.]

The "Epithalamion" is a wedding song derived from Latin originals (e.g., Catullus #62) which, in the earliest days of the empire, actually were sung by choirs of young men and women who accompanied the bride and groom from the bride's parents' house to her future husband's family's house where they would spend the wedding night. The name, a Greek loan word incorporated into Latin, means "at the bridal chamber," from "thalamos" or bridal chamber).

Form: Spenser wrote in a sonnet which varied interestingly from Sidney's in its rhyme scheme. Sidney, striking away from Wyatt's and Surreys' closer adherence to the Petrarchan octave and sestet, usually produced sonnets in the three-quatrain-and-couplet pattern, though he delighted in deceiving his readers by occasionally delaying the stanza break. The rhyme scheme, which usually plays in harmony with the syntactic/rhetorical stanza structure of the poem's content, followed a wide variety of patterns other than the typical English scheme of abab cdcd efef gg or Wyatt's more traditional, concatenated Petrarchan octave and sestet scheme of abbaabba cdccdc. (The "aa" rhyme in the middle of the octave and the "cc" in the middle of the sestet form two internal links in a "chain" [Latin, catena] of rhyme.)

Spenser, looking back over these alternatives, decided that concatenation offered the best rhyme scheme, but also that the quatrain-couplet strategy gave him the most flexibility to tell a complex poetic "story" within each poem. So most of the Amoretti sonnets rhyme in this concatenated stanza form: ababbcbccdcd ee. The chained linkage of his quatrains allowed them either to evolve logically from one another, or to suddenly wheel logically against the previous quatrain while turning on the "axle" of the concatenated rhyme.

For an example of the cumulative logical development strategy, see the first sonnet in the sequence, especially its couplet's restatement of the three quatrains' keywords: "leaves, lines and rhymes." For an example of the opposition or reversal strategy, see number seventy-five, especially the couplet's opposition of "subdew" (with its outrageously spelled pun on the waters that submerged the poets beach combing words) and "renew" (with its implied linkage of the lovers' souls via the wedding sacrament to their resurrection at the last judgment).

The "Epithalamion" is composed in 24 immensely complex 18-line stanzas whose rhyme schemes vary but use Spenser's typical concatenation strategy to link each stage of the stanza together. A. Kent Hieatt's Short Time's Endless Monument (1960) demonstrated that each of the 24 stanzas corresponds to an hour of Midsummer's Day, very nearly the day on which Spenser married Elizabeth Boyle (6/11/1594). Thus, the wedding poem is a compressed version of the larger cyclic view of the love we see in Amoretti. Each stanza but the last ends with some form of the phrase "your/our/theyre Eccho ring," a repeated refrain that enacts the process of echoing which it describes, but as the echo changes from early morning through mid-day and into the night, the echoes fade into "not your/our/theyre Eccho ring" and "Ne...nor your/our/theyre Eccho ring." At the poem's "midnight," in stanza 24, the speaker apologizes for "ornaments" (presents?) that should have arrived.  He tells readers that this poem substitutes them, for making "for short time an endlesse moniment" (433).

Characters: The poet's persona (very closely linked to Edmund Spenser, himself) and the poet's beloved (very closely linked to Elizabeth Boyle, who married Spenser in 1594, the year before these poems were published).

Summary: He wooed her, she wooed back, and they were married. Hold on to your hat, Astrophil! Some innocent Spenser poems--probably don't mean anything.

Issues and Research Sources:

  1. The sonnets retrace many of the same themes familiar to us from Sidney's and Wyatt's description of the suitor's struggle with love and with the beloved. Notice the repetitions of familiar motifs of the lovers' debate (65, 75), the lover as a ship at sea (34), love as a hunt (67), the beloved as a jeweled trap (37) or an assemblage of all Nature's beauties (64). Note, too, that each time Spenser picks up the traditional device he is aware that his readers know what he is up to and inventively modifies the old devices to suit his own conception as a poet and lover. Most astonishing of all his changes, perhaps, is his gift of sensible voice to his beloved (though the Norton editors give you only one good example of direct speech in #75). He also, perhaps like Wyatt but differently, views the beloved as someone capable of her own motives and desires--see #67 and compare it with "They Flee from Me."
  2. Spenser's ability to write poetry at all, and his knowledge of the classics, can be explained only by his education at the Merchant Taylors' School, founded in 1561 for the children of tradesmen.   Who are these "tradesmen"?  You saw them riding far back in the line of Canterbury Pilgrims ("General Prologue" ll. 364-380) between the Franklin and the guildsmen's cook.  They probably supported with their donations the church funds that produced the morality, Everyman, with its leveling message that kinship and riches won't save you, but only your good deeds in this life and confession.  Their "trade," both within England and with Europe and the new American colonies were making them and their nation rich.  So the first thing they did is to give their children the education formerly available only to the children of aristocrats.  Those children are the ancestors of you and me.  The headmaster, Richard Mulcaster (1530-1611) believed in the education of women (though only to the age of 13 or 14), and the training of tradesmen's children in such non-businesslike subjects as music, English literature, and the making of poems.
    • What effects would you expect to arise from the entry of literate tradesmen's children into the world of English literature, formerly the province of knights and earls and kings?
    • How does it relate to Chaucer's social position, somewhat between the two worlds since he was sent to court when a young boy and rose through the courtier system almost all the way to nobility?  (His children married dukes and noble heiresses, through the de la Pole line came too close to the throne, and their children and relatives were executed by Henry VIII.)
  3. The final stanza of "Epithalamion"'s last line, which refers to the poem's being "for short time an endlesse moniment," sounds a theme that Spenser derived from the immensely popular French poet, Joachim du Bellay, whose Les Antiquitez de Rome (c. 1557) Spenser paraphrased in 1591. Scholars call this the "ruins of time" or "devouring time" motif, and it usually combines a rumination on the destruction of human monuments by time's relentless passage with assertions about the immortality offered in verse.   He also has referred to it in sonnet #75, which challenges the permanence of writing, itself, and answers that challenge with a boast that Shakespeare's sonnets will adopt and develop.
  4. Consider the Rome du Bellay, Sidney, or any other young poet of the late 1500s would have seen after it was sacked and pillaged by the imperial soldiers of Charles V in 1527. Wolves roamed the streets where the caesars had ruled, and the columns against which Virgil and Horace had leaned were lying in piles of rubble. Beside the old imperial capital, in the Vatican, papal wealth and the influence of the Medici family enabled artists like Michelangelo to create a new system of glorious structures which rose beside the ruins of the old. The contrast must have been devastating. The fashion for musing upon ruins and for melancholy thoughts on the brevity of life become commonplaces in the Renaissance literature of England. But beside this sad and destructive vision grew another, of poems in the English language rising to take their place beside the works of Homer, Virgil, Horace, and Ovid, in a literary pantheon that would outlive mere physical empires (even like the one England was building while the poets wrote).
    • How does Spenser represent time and the threats to poetic creation in the sonnets and the "Epithalamion"?
    • Can you find traces of this in Sidney's sonnets? (You will be well rewarded if you seek them in Shakespeare's sonnets, where these figures provide him with some of his most memorable images and observations.  Of course, as in so many things poetic, Chaucer had been there before them all in his Troilus and Criseyde, c. 1385--see the palinode of Book V and the proem of Book II.)
    • After the Elizabethan period, as you would expect, the "ruins of time" motif fell out of favor for centuries.  However, England, itself, had its own ruins from the medieval past, especially its monasteries which were broken into and nearly destroyed by Protestant mobs in the reign of Henry VIII.  One of them inspired a Romantic poet of the nineteenth century to rediscover this motif in a new way: Tintern Abbey.
  5. What is a wedding, and how may things be "married"? The metaphor is used in the soleras in which successive vintages of sherry are mixed and remixed until the wines of a hundred years ago mingle seamlessly with those of later generations. Blends of varietal grapes which combine to make "bourdeau" or "burgundy" also must be properly "married" before the resulting wine will be drinkable. Corporations which merge must solve this problem and so must kingdoms joined by marriage (e.g., Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine). The Wife of Bath had an answer to how it might be done. So did the Miller and the Franklin.
  6. In addition to the "Epithalamion," which Spenser wrote for his marriage to Elizabeth Boyle, he also wrote a "Prothalamion" on commission, that is for a promissed fee, to celebrate the 1596 marriage of the Earl of Worster's two daughters.   For some critics, this raises serious questions about the poet's freedom and originality, leading some to call Spenser something of a very talented "hack" or commercial writer.  For more discussion of this issue, click here.
  7. How did Renaissance poets learn their craft?  The composition of vernacular English love poems was not taught in the guild schools, which specialized in morally uplifting Latin and Greek classical texts, and some of the earliest textbooks in Latin that were custom-written to avoid the classical literature's messy "paganness."  Notice that the first poem in Sidney's Astrophel and Stella closely resembles Spenser's Amoretti #1.  This is because Spenser intended it to allude tacitly (silently) to Sidney's poem, as an homage to his noble friend and patron.  Spenser earlier had dedicated his first major published poetry collection, Shepherd's Calendar, a series of pastoral satires on English culture, to Sir Philip Sidney in a way that is useful to compare with Oxford scholar Stephen Gosson's un-asked-for dedication of Anatomy of Abuses to the same nobleman-courtier.  One dedication worked, and the other backfired rather spectacularly, though with excellent consequences for English literature.  With More's Utopia, we entered the first age of writing for mass-circulation print publication, but it was by no means adopted instantly and universally.  Just as in this Tweeting and texting and emailing culture, some (just me?) people continue to write hand-written epistles like "Mine Own John Poyns" ("Mine Own Laura Provan"?) which they put into folded paper envelopes, inscribe the envelopes with a geographical street address, and affix an official stamp to insure delivery.  Similarly, conservative authors in the earliest century and a half of print (roughly 1451-1600) continued to treat print as a somewhat radical, perhaps tawdry, shamefully public ("public-ation") medium for transmission of literature of any personal content.  Kings and bishops issued proclamations by paying printers to print them.  Parliament's acts began to circulate in printed documents.  Anonymous satires and political pamphlets began to appear, many printed at night and without the clearance of the "Stationer's Company," the guild given a monopoly over print by the crown in return for censoring all registered publications to eliminate treasonous, heretical, or merely embarrassing content.    Gradually, two parallel literary worlds developed, the legitimate and official print culture of publication, and the sometimes illegitimate, more personal culture of manuscript circulation.  This is how it comes to be that Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser lived in almost the same years, but their literature circulated in two different worlds.  Spenser clearly wanted his poetry to make a stir in the public world, and to make that stir under his own name.  (Image courtesy of Aniina Jokinen's Luminarium Web site.)  Not so, Sidney, or even those who dared to publish his works posthumously.

    Additional scholarly sources on patronage, authorship, and early modern printing:

    Rutter, Russell.  "William Caxton and Literary Patronage."  Studies in Philology 84:4 (Autumn 1987): 440-70.  Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4174282

    Voss, Paul J.  "Books for Sale: Advertising and Patronage in Late Elizabethan England."  The Sixteenth Century Journal, 29:3 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 733-756.  Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2543686.


To go to the Edmund Spenser Homepage at Cambridge, click here. As of 2011, most of its links to electronic versions of Spenser's major works are broken, but it does host discussion lists and other material to support Spenser studies.  To read the Renaissance Editions online edition of Amoretti and Epithalamion based on Ponsonby's 1595 editio princeps, click here.

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