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:
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.
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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
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