Summary of Sonnets 17 through 43
This hyperbolic sonnet attempts to express just how inexpressible the beloved’s beauty is. He uses the metaphor of an artist attempting to draw a picture of the woman, but asks “what pen, what pencil can express her fill?” (line 4). Too many things “cannot expressed be by any art” (line 12): here sweet glances, charming smiles, lovely pleasance, and even “lofty pride” cannot be captured in a single drawing (lines 9-11). He finally states that a “greater craftesman's hand” is needed to express her virtues—perhaps a subtle hint that his own poetic voice is better suited to express her beauty than any visual artist’s hand.
Here the speaker bemoans how hard his beloved’s heart is. He notes that time eventually wears down the toughest surface in nature: the rolling wheel eventually tears steel, and rain can eventually wear down “firmest flint” (lines 1-4); however, his continued efforts to soften the beloved’s heart toward himself have failed. She even goes so far as to take delight in his miserable efforts: when he pleads with her, she bids him “play [his] part,” when he cries, she calls his tears mere water; when he sighs, she claims he knows “the art” (he is pretending at love); and when he wails she begins to laugh (lines 9-12). He concludes that while he cries and pleads, she “as steele and flint doth still remayne” (lines 13-14). The eroding process of time will not help him break through to her.
This springtime sonnet sees the “merry Cuckow” singing as if the bird were a trumpeter sounding his horn to bring loyal subjects into the presence of their king. (line 3). Since it is spring, these “loyal subjects” are lovers (line 3), but one person refuses to obey the summons: the speaker’s beloved. Instead she “proudly disobayes” (line 11); the speaker declares her a “rebell” (line 14). Here, the poet sets up springtime love as the natural and expected order of things, while the woman’s refusal to return his love is seen as unnatural, a rebellion against the way the world is meant to work.
In this sonnet the speaker decries the woman’s vicious cruelty. First he compares himself to an enemy or victim surrendering to her, but upon whos neck she puts her foot—thus humiliating and harming him in his moment of vulnerability (lines 1-4). Then offers the image of the lion, “Lord of power,” (line 5) that even in its bestial nature refuses to devour a lamb that yields to his might (lines 7-8). The beloved, however, is more cruel and “more sauage wylde” (line 9) than either lion or lioness—she sees no shame in taking innocent blood (lines 11-12). He ends by pleading directly to her that she should not be said to be “blooded in a yeelded pray” (line 14): he has surrendered to her and recognizes her power, she has no need to injure him further.
Here the speaker considers contrasting origins to his beloved’s beauty. Was it nature or “Art” (either cosmetic, external adornment or her learned behaviors” which balanced her face between pride and meekness (lines 1-3)? He notes that her eyes contain “mild pleasance” which can easily be displaced by pride (line 5). The effect of her gaze is also mixed, as with “one looke she doth my life dismay” but with another “doth it straight recure” (lines 10-11). He finds the parallel, yet contradictory, aspects of her beauty difficult to reconcile, resigning himself to admit that she can “teach me with her lookes, such art of eyes I neuer read in bookes” (lines 13-14). His learning and study cannot help him in understanding her mixed beauty.
Taking place during a “holy season,” this sonnet compares the speaker’s love for the woman to that of a believer for his deity. First he calls her his “sweet Saynt” (line 4) then claims she has a temple built within his mind (line 5). In this temple stands her “glorious ymage,” as an idol might in a pagan temple or the statue of a saint might in a Roman Catholic church. His thoughts attend on her “lyke sacred priests” (lines 7-8). When she is angry with him, he builds an altar to appease her, placing upon it his heart as a sacrifice (lines 10-11). In contrast to the pagan imagery, the fire which burns the sacrifice is described as the speaker’s “pure and chast desyre” (line 12). He hopes that his beloved “goddesse” (line 13) will accept his sacrifice and keep it among her “deeres relicks,” another reference to the Roman Catholicism of his day.
Of special note in this sonnet is Spenser’s use of pagan imagery (and possibly a critique of Roman Catholic religious practices); Spenser was a staunchly Protestant subject of Queen Elizabeth, and therefore part of a community of faith which had done much to reject and even destroy the works of pagan faiths throughout England. His strong use of pagan religious ideas to describe his love for Elizabeth Boyle may be a tacit confession of “impure” desires, despite his insistence that his heart is sacrificed in pure and chaste fires.
Following up on the pagan imagery of the previous sonnet, the speaker here begins with the classical image of Penelope, wife of Odysseus (here Ulysses), who attempted to deceive her many suitors by promising to make a final decision as to whom she would marry upon the completion of a burial shroud she was weaving for her father. Each night, after hours of work on the shroud, Penelope would pull the threads loose, undoing the work of the day. The speaker compares his beloved’s actions to this “subtile craft” (line 5), but sees himself as doing the weaving for “many days” while she unravels his efforts “in one short houre” (lines 6-7). He resigns himself to never finishing this endeavor he has undertaken, since his hard work is so fragile and can be rent by “one word” from her (line 12). He ends comparing his efforts to another sort of weaver, a spider, “whose fruitlesse worke is broken with least wynd” (line 14). This sonnet’s melancholy end acts as a lead-in to the next few tortured, bitter sonnets.
The speaker considers the origin of his beloved—who made her so beautiful? He wants to “honor and admire the makers art” (line 4), but finds that her beauty also brings him pain (line 5). Here eyes bring “death” to him (line 8), so he considers that she might in fact be a new version of Pandora, the first woman of Greek myth. The version of the Pandora myth cited here involves the Greek gods in council deciding upon a suitable punishment for man: to this end, they created the first woman, Pandora, “to wicked men a scourge” (line 11). The speaker sees himself as special target of this new Pandora, begging her to only “gently beat” him for his sins (line 14).
The scourging of Sonnet 24 continues here in “torment…with cruelty” his beloved inflicts upon him (line 7). He calls his life “lyke dying” (line 1) and wonders how long he must endure the torture of hanging between “feare and hope” (line 4). He consoles himself with the slim chance that the beloved continues tormenting him by refusing his love because she has a hidden “intent at last to shew me grace” (line 10). If all the “woes and wrecks” (line 11) he survives will lead to bliss, he will gladly accept them. In fact, he goes so far as to “wish that more and greater they might be” (line 13) if the resulting joy will be proportionally increased.
The poet seizes upon this notion of pain leading to pleasure by making a brief catalogue of beautiful flowers which bloom on unpleasant plants. The rose grows upon a briar, the juniper has sharp boughs, the eglantine has thorns, the “firbloome” has rough branches, the cypress has a tough “rynd” (lines 1-5). The nut is sweet, but “bitter is his pill” (line 6), the broome-flower also sweet, but “sowre enough” (line 7). Moly is sweet, but the root is “ill” (line 8). From nature the speaker learns that “euery sweet with soure is tempered still” (line 9), but this sourness only makes the sweet object the more desirable (line 10). He rationalizes, then, that he can endure a “little paine” to gain “endless pleasure” in the arms of his beloved (lines 13-14).
In this sonnet the poet again moves away from the self-pity dominating many of the sonnets and instead chides his beloved for her pride. He points out that she has no reason to be haughty in her beauty, since “all words glorie is but drosse vncleane” (line 2). Even a beautiful idol, “now so gay beseene” (line 5) will eventually be forgot “as it had neuer beene” (line 7). What, then, can preserve the beauty of the beloved? “this verse, that neuer shall expyre” (line 11) is the answer. Statues, artwork, and physical beauty may fade, be destroyed, or be forgotten, but his poetry—which will endure as long as the printed word—“shal make you immortall” (line 14). The speaker returns to his confidence that the words he writes have the power to properly capture her beauty, and that her physical beauty, great as it may be, cannot outlast his verse. If she is proud in her beauty, she should submit to his affection, for only his words will make her beauty immortal.
Continuing his upswing in confidence seen in Sonnet 27, the poet here alludes to the myth of Phoebus (Apollo) and Daphne. Daphne was a mortal woman who attracted the desires of the god Phoebus. She fled his advances, however, so the god turned her into a laurel tree. The speaker sees his beloved wearing a laurel leaf (line 1) and this gives him hope that she may relent in her refusal of his affections (line 2). Inferring that her laurel leaf is connected to Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree, the speaker hopes that this adornment bespeaks a change of heart on the beloved’s part. As Daphne lost her humanity by spurning love, so too might the beloved regret her rejection of the speaker’s attentions. He finishes with the plea to “fly no more fayre loue from Phebus chace,/but in your brest his leafe and loue embrace” (lines 13-14).
Following up on the laurel imagery in Sonnet 28, the poet here focuses on the imagery of the bay leaf, which in this case he gave to his beloved (line 3). She takes the bay leaf to mean that the speaker has made himself “her captiue quite forlorne” (line 4). She cites the associated meaning of the bay leaf, that it is “of the victours borne,/yielded them by the vanquist” (lines 5-6) and therefore worn by poets who “sing the glory of their famous deedes” (line 8). At this point the speaker, consistently identified as a poet, pushes aside his initial frustration at her reaction in favor of acceptance of him “as her faithfull thrall” (line 10). If she is the victor, he will be the poet who will “in trump of fame blaze ouer all” her glorious deeds. To that end, he would “decke her head with glorious bayes,’ and fill the world with her victorious prayse” (lines 13-14). The shift in tone, from resentment to willing submission, echoes and foreshadows the speaker’s attitude throught the Amoretti. Usually the tone shifts from one poem to the next, but here it changes from the first stanza to the second, perhaps to demonstrate how unstable his emotional state has become.
Another sonnet of contrasts, this poem compares the beloved to ice and himself to fire (line 1). He wonders, though why her cold cannot be melted through his “so hot desire” (line 3) but instead grows harder over time. The speaker decides that this situation is some “miraculous thing” in that his fire hardens her ice (line 10), but her frigidity only serves to kindle his flame into greater strength (line 12). This miracle is explained as “the powre of loue in gentle mind” (line 13) to alter the very course of nature.
In this sonnet the poet asks why nature has given such beauty to one so cruel as this beloved. He offers the argument that all of the most vicious creatures have been given a “dreadfull countenaunce” (line 6) to warn other creatures “to shun the daunger of thyr wrath” (line 8); but his beloved works a greater harm because her “sweet allurement” draws “Thralls” to her “that she the better may in bloody bath” (line 11). Nonetheless, he defends her in the final couplet by asserting that “did she know how ill these two accord” (line 13) she would abhor her own cruelty.
Another sonnet contrasting hot and cold, here the speaker focuses on the image of a smithy. The “Feruent heat” of the blacksmith can fashion “hardest yron” into whatever shape he likes; however, the speaker’s flames and the entreaties he beats on the anvil of “her stubberne wit” (line 8) do not seem to be having the same effect on his beloved. When she sees his fervor, “the more she frieseth in her wilfull pryde” (line 10). The speaker despairs that when he is finally burnt to ashes, she will only turn to frozen stones (lines 13-14).
Sonnet 33 is the first of the Amoretti to mention Spenser’s other work-in-progress, The Faerie Queene. This reference, along with others throughout the sonnets, allow the reader to identify the speaker not just as a forlorn suitor, but as Spenser himself. Here Spenser regrets the “Great wrong” he does by spending his time and energy on the Amoretti rather than The Faerie Queene; while he is moved to ply his suit with his beloved Elizabeth Boyle, he has already begun the longer work, which is dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. He complains that to finish both (or even to finish The Faerie Queene alone as it is intended) may be more than “sufficient worke for one mans simple head” (line 7). This complaint he turns into yet another argument in favor of his suit—how can he concentrate on the longer work “without another wit” (line 9)? Unless his beloved grants him “rest” (line 13) or he is given “another liuing brest” (line 14). He essentially claims that he cannot complete The Faerie Queene for Elizabeth until he has succeeded in wooing Elizabeth Boyle. Implied here is the notion that Elizabeth Boyle should consent to marry Spenser not only to return his love, but because it is her duty as a subject to the Queen of England.
The speaker compares himself to a ship lost at sea, looking for guidance from the stars. Unfortunately, “a storme hath dimd her trusty guyde” (line 3), making the stars invisible to the navigator. The second stanza identifies the storm-hidden stars as his beloved turning herself from the speaker, thus leaving him to “wander now, in darnesse and dismay” (line 7). He hopes the storm will pass and he will be able to see his guiding star (his beloved, showing favor to him yet again), but until then he plans to “wander darefull comfortlesse,/in secret sorrow and sad pensiuenesse” (lines 13-14).
The speaker again dwells upon his eye motif, but this time focuses on his own “hungry eyes” (line 1) that, though greedy for looking upon his beloved, are “so filled with the store/of that faire sight” (lines 9-10) they cannot hold anything else. He is voracious in his desire to gaze upon her beauty, to the point that all else barely exists, “all their showes but shadowes sauing she” (line 14).
This sonnet is repeated verbatim, with a few spelling changes, as Sonnet 83.
Here the poet asks the object of his desire if it is really worth her time and trouble to torment him. He first wonders when his pain will cease—or if it ever will (lines 1-4). He asks if there is no way for him to “purchase peace” with his cruel beloved (line 5). Finally he addresses her directly, begging her to consider “how little glory” she gains by “slaying” him (lines 10-11), concluding with the warning that his death, “which some perhaps will mone” will result in her own condemnation “of many a one” (lines 13-14).
The speaker chooses a different physical attribute of his beloved to fixate upon—this time her hair. Her “golden tresses” he says are a “net of gold” (lines 1-2). By this guile, she entangles men “in that golden snare,” enfolding their “weaker harts” (lines 6 and 8). He warns his own eyes not to look too long, for “out of her bands ye by no meanes shall get” (line 12). He concludes that only love (“Fondnesse,” line 13) drives a free man to “couet fetters” (line 14), even golden ones.
The poet returns to classical allusion in this Sonnet, here paralleling his own plight to that of Arion, legendary Greek lyre-performer and poet. Arion was kidnapped by pirates, thrown overboard in a storm, and rescued by a dolphin which he drew to him through his beautiful music (some stories have Arion playing one last song before being forced to throw himself into the sea; the song draws several dolphins, and Arion jumps into the seat at its conclusion). The speaker, however, sees his own verse as “rude musick” (line 5) shich cannot charm “the Dolphin from her stubborne will” (line 8), nor calm the “dreadfull tempest of her wrath” (line 7). If the speaker is like Arion, his beloved is both the dolphin and the storm that threatened to drown him. She can “with one word” save or endanger his life (line 11). He entreats her to choose to be praised for saving his life rather than blamed for “spilling guiltless blood” (line 14).
The speaker praises his beloved’s smile, “The daughter of the Queene of loue” which expresses its mother’s power. This “Queene of loue” is suggested to be Juno (Hera), for he says she uses the smile to “temper angry Ioue,/ when all the gods he threats with tundring dart” (lines 3-4). There may be some word-play here, as Spenser’s spelling of “love” (loue) and Jove (Ioue) are almost identical; this suggests that Juno is not just queen of love as her sphere of influence, but that Jove himself is under her power in this regard. The speaker then moves on to parallel Juno’s sweet virtues with those of his beloved, and their effects upon Jove with her virtues’ influence over himself. He feels his “soule was rauisht quite as in a traunce” (line 10) and a desire to dine on her “chearefull glaunce” (line 12) that is sweeter than “Nectar or Ambrosiall meat” (line 13), referring to the Olympian gods’ celestial fare.
Continuing his praise of the beloved’s smile from Sonnet 39, the speaker states that “an hundred Graces” (line 4) appear when her smile reaches her eyes. Then he compares the smile to “fayre sunshine in somers day” (line 6) that drives away the storm that has forced all of nature into shelter. Once the storm is gone, the creatures “lift vp theyr drouping hed” to the sunshine of her smile (line 12). He then draws the parallel back to his own emotional state, sighing that his “storme beaten hart likewise is cheared” when her “cloudy looks” are gone and she smiles once again (lines 13-14).
Here the poet asks whether his beloved’s torment of him is due to her nature or her own choice. He hopes that if it is part of her nature “she may it mend with skill” (line 3) but if it is her will, then she “at will may will forgoe” line 4). Either way, he seems convinced that she could change this course of action if she so chose: “If her nature and her wil be so,/that she will plague the man that loues her most” (lines 5- 6). If this is the case, then her beauty is but a trap to lure “such wretches” as himself (line 10) into “her loues tempest” (line 11) that they may become “her piteous spoyle” (line 12). He ends by urging her not to let such a reputation shame her “so fayre beauty” (line 14) by such cruel behavior.
The theme of torment continues from Sonnet XLI. Here, the poet admits to feeling the pain, but confesses that the more it increases his sorrow, “the more I loue and doe embrace my bane” (line 4). He does not want to be free from this “continuall smart” (line 6) but to remain her “thrall” forever. He sees her toment as an “adamant chayne” (line 10) which links him to her; he will take the pain if it is the only thing that keeps the two of them connected. Nevertheless, he makes a plea in the final couplet that she would “abstaine from cruelty” lest he die an untimely death (lines 13-14). He seems to accept the pain as necessary to having some relationship with her, but fears she may take her torture too far and destroy him.
The speaker is afraid to speak of the pain his beloved’s rejection is causing him, for he fears it will “her wrath renew” against him (line 2). He cannot remain silent, for then his heart will break “or choked be with ouerflowing gall” (lines 3-4). He chooses to express his pain through his eyes “with meeke humility” (line 11) so that her eyes may read these “loue learned letters” and have compassion upon him (lines 12-14).
Analysis of Sonnets 17 through 43
Spenser allows bits of the previous battle motif to make their way into Sonnets 17 through 26, but of primary concern to the speaker here is his beloved's beauty, its causes, and its effects. He praises her in terms of a Platonic ideal, making her into an object of beauty indescribable by mortal man (save in his poetry). But her perfect beauty comes at a price to the suitor: just as her beauty is untouched by earthly weakness, so her constancy in denying his love remains more immutable than stone or steel. The very traits that make her so desirable also make her untouchable.
The poet spends several sonnets describing his beloved in pagan terms, from her origin at the hands of the Greek gods to her rightful place as an idol in a temple dedicated to her beauty. As with many Elizabethan poets, Spenser seeks to entrench himself firmly in the neo-classical tradition by harking back to Greek and Roman mythology and religious practices.
Sonnets 27 through 32 include a strain of hope, sometimes even self-confidence, on the suitor's part. He admonishes his beloved for her pride, warning her in the next sonnet that history (or in this case, mythology) holds a warning for the woman who avoids returning a suitor's affections for too long. The myth of Daphne being turned into a laurel tree for rejecting Phoebus' overtures is yet another classical allusion, used here as an argument that the beloved not take too long in deciding in the suitor's favor. Of note is the suitor's shift in tone from one bereft of companionship and frustrated at his beloved's indifference to a man confident that, given time, the woman he loves will return his affections.
Here, too, the suitor reverses an earlier comparison of his beloved's beauty to fire; now he is the fire, and she is ice, but ice of a sort that defies natural law. While his passion burns itself to ashes, her coldness only gets more resilient and refuses to melt. While he considers this a miracle, the beloved's steadfast denial of his amorous overtures marks a shift back toward despair on the part of the suitor.
The speaker begins Sonnet 33 by once again referring to his own poetry. In this case, it is the real-world Spenser's work on The Faerie Queene that is alluded to. He expresses some guilt over spending more of his time and energy wooing his beloved than he has spent continuing the epic he has dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. He argues that the epic he has in mind is beyond the power of one man--he needs "another wit" to help him--either another poet, a second self, or (more likely) a union with his beloved to return his focus to honoring the Queen. He may be, in essence, asking the Queen to advocate for him with his beloved, making her acceptance of his marraige proposal a matter of patriotism and loyalty to the crown.
The suitor then falls into despair, spending several sonnets describing the torment he undergoes at the hands of the beloved. He wants to know why she torments him; and in hurting him, why she must take such pleasure in it. He paints the picture of sadistic beauty, but a beauty which he cannot resist. Moving to her hair, he sees her goldent tresses and the net which keeps them in place as a trap for him, entangling him hopelessly in love for her. He even goes so far as to accept her sadism, so long as she will be gentle in her scourging. It is as though he prefers her harsh treatment to her indifference, since if she is harming him on purpose, at least she is demonstrating some emotions toward him.