Spenser's Amoretti and Epithalamion

Spenser's Amoretti and Epithalamion Summary

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Amoretti is a sonnet-cycle tracing the suitor's long courtship and eventual wooing of his beloved. The work begins with two sonnets in which the speaker addresses his own poetry, attempting to invest his words with the power to achieve his goal (the wooing of Elizabeth Boyle). From the third sonnet through the sixty-second sonnet, the speaker is in an slmost constant state of emotional turmoil and frustrated hopes. His beloved refuses to look favorably upon his suit, so his reaction ranges from desparing self-deprecation to angry tirade against her stubbornness. Most often the speaker dwells upon his beloved's beauty, both inner and outer, and the overpowering effects this beauty has upon him. He uses a variety of motifs to explicate his feelings and thoughts toward the subject of his ardor: predator and prey, wartime victor and captive, fire and ice, and hard substances that eventually soften over long periods of time. Each of these is intended to convey some aspect of his beloved's character or his own fears and apprehensions.

In Sonnet 63, the Amoretti undergoes a drastic change in tone. The long-sought beloved has acceded to the speaker's request, making her his fiancee. Several sonnets of rejoicing occur, followed by several expressing the speaker's impatience at the lengthy engagement prior to the wedding day. Here, too, the speaker turns his attention from his earlier aspects of the beloved's physical beauty--her eyes and her hair in particular--and begins to be more familiar with her, to the point of describing in detail the scent of her breasts. From Sonnet 63 through Sonnet 85, the speaker revisits many of his earlier motifs, changing them to suit the new relationship between himself and his beloved. Now he is the hunter and she is the game; he is the victor, and she the vanquished. His earlier criticisms of her pride and stubbornness also change to become admiration for her constancy and strength of mind.

From Sonnet 86 to the end of the sonnet-cycle proper (Sonnet 89), division enters into the relationship. Sonnet 86 marks a moment of wrath on the part of the fiancee, a result of some lie told to her by an individual whom the speaker curses in no uncertain terms. Sonnets 87 through 89 dwell upon the speaker's misery at being separated from his beloved, but there is an implied expectation that they will, eventually, be reunited.

The sonnet-cycle ends with a set of stanzas returning to the poem's title character, Cupid. The first set of stanzas describe how Cupid led the speaker into harm when he was young by drawing his attention to a hive full of honey; when the speaker reached for the honey, he was stung by the resident bees and Cupid flew away. Later, Cupid wounds the speaker with an arrow plaed there by Diane, goddess of the hunt. Instead of instilling passionate love into the speaker, it instead causes pain.

The next set of stanzas turn Cupid's attention from the speaker and toward the beloved. They describe an incident in which Cupid comes across the speaker's beloved, but mistakes her for his own mother, Venus, goddess of love and beauty. The speaker tells Cupid that the mistake is understandable, as he has not been the first to confuse the two.

The final set of stanzas focus almost entirely on an incident involving Cupid and Venus. As a child, Cupid is annoyed by a bee buzzing around him as he tries to rest. His mother warns him to leave the bee alone, but Cupid instead impetuously grabs the bee in his hand. He is, of course, stung and releases the bee; his mother attempts to soothe him while teaching him a lesson: he has had no pity on many mortals whom his arrows have "stung," so perhaps he should show the same kindness to them that she is now showing to him. Cupid, however, misses the lesson entirely and goes on arbitrarily firing his arrows at mortals without thought for the consequences of unrequited love. The speaker returns to himself as the target of Cupid's indifferent attentions, resigning himself to languish in unconsummated love until Cupid sees fit to end his suffering.


Epithalamion is an ode written to commemorate the nuptials of the speaker and his bride. The song begins before dawn and progresses through the wedding ceremony and into the consummation night of the newlywed couple. Throughout Epithalamion, the speaker marks time by referencing the physical movements of the wedding party, the positions of the sun and other celestial bodies, and the light and darkness that fill the day.

Although firmly within the classical tradition, Epithalamion takes its setting and several of its images from Ireland, where Edmund Spenser's wedding to Elizabeth Boyle actually took place. Some critics have seen in this Irish connection a commentary within the poem of the proper relationship between ruling England (the groom) and subject Ireland (the bride). Spenser's love for the Irish countryside is clear through his vivid descriptions of the natural world surrounding the couple, while his political views regarding English supremacy is hinted at in the relationship between the bride and groom themselves.

Other critics have seen Spenser's gift to his bride not simply as a celebration of their wedding day, but a poetic argument for the kind of husband-wife relationship he expects the two of them to have.