The Sonnet-Series (Cont.)


Next to Shakspere's and Sidney's, the sonnet-sequence that would attract most attention by the name of its author is Spenser's, published in 1595, under the title Amoretti.1 From a poet of his rank we should expect all that the form was capable of; and from Spenser, in particular, the scholarly poet, we should look for a combination of the good points of preceding sequences. To make a general criticism in advance, we should say that the individual sonnets have not the merit of the series as a whole. None of them stand out boldly, as do many of Sidney's and Shakspere's. A partial explanation may lie in the rime-scheme, which is attributed elsewhere to the example of Clement Marot.2 This has neither the rise and fall of the Petrarchan strophe, nor the graduated climax of the English quatrains; the ear becomes dull with mere smoothness.

But taking the sonnets as a whole, the critic must find in them the truest sequence of this decade. There is a progression in the story and in the poet's moods, from the beginning to the end, and each sonnet has its inevitable place. The series is really but one poem in which each sonnet

1Works, R. Morris, p.572 sq. 2 .

2See below, Chap. ix. p. 294.

is a stanza, and each stanza, as in the Epithalamium, a lyric unit. The form was in accord with Spenser's idyllic genius.

The series or single poem, if it be considered such, is divided with apparent forethought into two parts, of sixty-one and twenty-two sonnets respectively. The first section deals with the unsuccessful wooing of the poet; in the second the lady accepts him, and the days of their betrothal are described. The poet skilfully indicates the length of time which is supposed to elapse. The series begins in the early spring, as is seen from the fourth sonnet:--

"New Yeare, forth looking out of Janus gate,

Doth seeme to promise hope of new delight."1

In the sixty-second sonnet, the turning-point in the love story, another new year is announced, so that the period of the poet's unrequited love is one year. As the Epithalamium, which is supposed to end the series, pictures midsummer as the time of the wedding, the time of the second part of the sonnets would appear to be about six months. As a matter of fact, it was one year, for Spenser was married June 11, 1594, a year after the lady accepted him.2

The first part of the sequence, then, would naturally deal with more sombre, more troubled moods than the second. In the first year the poet notices the Lenten season as it comes round:--

"This holy season, fit to fast and pray,

Men to devotion ought to be inclynd:

Therefore, I lykewise, on so holy day,

For my sweet Saynt some service fit will find."3

1Spenser's Works, p. 573.

2 Cf. Introduction, ibid., p. xi.

3Ibid., p. 576.

In the second year, however, it is Easter-day that accords with his happier mood:--

"Most glorious Lord of lyfe! that, on this day,

Didst make thy triumph over death and sin."1

The same difference in mood, exquisitely matched with the change in the lover's fortunes, appears in the two sonnets on spring. In the first part, the nineteenth sonnet2 warns all lovers to "wayt upon their king"--the old motive of spring in love-poetry. In the second part the seventieth sonnet,3 bidding the betrothed to hasten the wedding-day, uses the Renascence argument of the shortness of life and the brief springtime of beauty:--

"Make hast, therefore, sweet love, whilest it is prime;

For none can call againe the passed time."

The most unexpected opposition between the two parts of the series is in the description of the lady's beauty. Spenser selects one detail as significant of each phase of his love-experience. During his period of doubt, his mistress' eyes are constantly described in various aspects; sometimes as almost baleful beauty, as in the seventh sonnet,4 or as beneficent, as in the eighth,5 or as indices of her changing moods, as in the twelfth.6

1Ibid., p. 583.

2Ibid., p. 575.

3Ibid., p. 583.

4Ibid., p. 573.

5Ibid., p. 574.

6Ibid., p. 574.

In the second part of the sequence, the poet dwells upon his lady's smile, which is indeed mentioned in the earlier section, but which receives its most notable expression in the eighty-first sonnet.1

"Fayre is my love, when her fayre golden heares

With the loose wynd ye waving chance to marke;

Fayre, when the rose in her red cheekes appears;

Or in her eyes the fyre of love does sparke.

Fayre, when her brest, lyke a rich laden barke,

With pretious merchandize she forth doth lay;

Fayre, when that cloud of pryde, which oft doth dark

Her goodly light, with smiles she drives away.

But fayrest she, when so she doth display

The gate with pearles and rubies richly dight;

Throgh which her words so wise do make their way

To beare the message of her gentle spright.

The rest be works of natures wonderment:

But this the worke of harts astonishment."

In the general description of beauty, Spenser's Platonic bent naturally marks off his sequence from the others. Though as a child of the Renascence, he is keenly sensible of physical charm, yet he places the emphasis on beauty of soul. The two worlds, spiritual and physical, derived in a literary sense from Plato on the one hand and from Italy on the other, are to him not antithetical but complementary. The illustrative sonnet is the fifteenth,2 in which the lady's eyes, lips, hands, and hair are described in superlative terms, with the final lines:--

"But that which fayrest is, but few behold,

Her mind adornd with vertues manifold."

1Spenser's Works, p. 585.

2Ibid., p. 575.

It is typical also of Spenser that instead of likening his mistress to a goddess, as had been the honored custom of sonneteers, he refers to her always as his saint; the very term indicates the spiritual rather than physical excellence that he admires.

It is in keeping with this point of view that he describes his meeting with his mistress in terms of almost mystical devotion. When he sees her, according to the third sonnet,1 instead of feeling at once the barbed dart of Cupid,--the fate of the other sonneteers,--he is first struck dumb and blind by her beauty. It is not the immediate power of love that overcomes him, as it would be in Dante's case, but the unexpected vision of incarnate virtue. This humility the poet retains throughout. It takes final expression toward the end of the series in the more conventional sixty-sixth sonnet:2--

"To all those happy blessings, which ye have

With plenteous hand by heaven upon you thrown;

This one disparagement they to you gave,

That ye your love lent to so meane a one."

The Platonic and Italian strains in Spenser's nature find interesting expression in the seventy-second sonnet, on the conflict of spiritual and sensual desires. This theme enters into all sonnet-series more or less; perhaps it has a natural place in any philosophy of human love. Only Sidney, Spenser, and Shakspere, however, have presented the conflict in their sonnets with distinction.

1Ibid., p. 573.

2Ibid., p. 582.

With Sidney the problem was a specific one, and entered unavoidably into his story; the dramatic element in his sonnets comes, as has been seen, from the conflict of his sinful love with Stella, the embodiment of his nobler ideals. With Shakspere throughout and notably in the strong hundred and twenty-ninth sonnet, the poet's nature seems in revolt against the ugliness of sinful desires. Spenser, however, is unconscious of sin in the problem; he expresses simply the conflict between desires of the heart and of the soul, both pure in themselves--Hellenism and Hebraism, in Arnold's phrase. Whatever advantage the other two poets may have in the strength of their treatment of the problem, Spenser certainly has expressed it for the normal reader:--

Oft, when my spirit doth spred her bolder winges,

In mind to mount up to the purest sky;

It down is weighd with thoght of earthly things,

And clogd with burden of mortality;

Where, when that soverayne beauty it doth spy,

Resembling heavens glory in her light,

Drawne with sweet pleasures bayt, it back doth fly

And unto heaven forgets her former flight."1

1Spenser's Works, p. 583.