Summary of Sonnets 58 through 85
Something changes in the tone of the Amoretti with this sonnet. Up to this point, the poems have been dominated by the poet’s anguished cries for reconciliation and a reciprocation of his love; he has bounced back and forth between amorous infatuation with his beloved and anger or pain at her perceived cruelty. Here he takes up the theme of her pride again, but in a very different voice than that of the earlier “pride” sonnets.
The sonnet begins with an unusual change: there is a subtitle or dedication before the sonnet proper. He writes “By her that is most assured to her selfe.” This suggests that the poet has moved from writing from his own heart and is now writing as if he were the beloved. It is her voice which states that “weake flesh” should not be so self-assured that it scorns the aid of others (lines 1-2). “all flesh is frayle” she notes, like “a vaine bubble blowen vp with ayre” (lines 5-6). There is none “so rich or wise, so strong or fayre,’but fayleth trusting on his owne assurance” (lines 9-10), and one who attempts such pride should be careful, for “he that standeth on the highest stayre/fals lowest” (lines 11-12). He/she concludes that she should question why she “to youre selfe ye most assured arre” (line 14).
This sonnet marks a break in the beloved’s pride. “Assurance” in the sense of self-confidence is mentioned directly five times, an unusually high frequency of repetition for one of Spenser’s sonnets. That it begins differently (with the subtitle) and seems to be in the voice of the beloved also makes it stand out as unusual in this sequence of poetry. The beloved is finally questioning her resolution against the poet’s love—there is hope that she will now requite his passion and agree to their marriage.
This sonnet takes up the theme of self-assurance begun in Sonnet 58, this time solidly in the poet’s voice. The beloved is “Thrise happie” in her self-assurance and settled heart (lines 1-2). No longer does the speaker bemoan her pride; instead he praises her constancy, comparing her to “a steddy ship” that “Keepes her course aright” (lines 5-6). Just as the ship remains constant despite either “tempest” or “fayrer weathers false delight”( lines 7-8), so the beloved will remain true to her heart. In her “stedfast might” (line 11) she need not “feare the spight,’of grudging foes” (lines 9-10), nor need she seek favor from friends. Here her self-assurance is seen as a wholly positive quality. When he reaches the final couplet the speaker explains his change of attitude: “Most happy she that most assured doth rest, but he most happy who such one loues best” (lines 13-14). It is implied that the beloved has at last chosen to commit herself to the speaker, the one she “loues best.” This is cause for rejoicing on the part of the poet, and turns all his former criticisms of her pride upside-down in praise for her constancy, which he presumes will cause her to be a faithful wife to him throughout their marriage.
The speaker returns to his feelings of anguish and impatience, but here it is not over the beloved’s rejection of his suit, but instead the time it will take to bring them to their wedding day. He meditates on the different times the various planets take to revolve around the sun, noting that “Mars in three score yeares doth run his spheare” while Earth takes only one such year (line 4). Similarly, it has been one (Earthly) year since “the winged God his planet…began in me to moue” (lines 5-6), yet this single year of wooing the beloved feels longer to the speaker than “al those fourty which my life outwent” (line 8). He infers from this that one revolution of Cupid’s “planet” takes forty of his own life’s years, and hopes that his “loues fayre Planet” will shorten her own orbit “this yeare ensuing,” (lines 13-14), or else shorten his own life.
It appears from this poem that a wedding date has been set, approximately a year hence, and the speaker is already growing impatient to wed this woman he has spent the past year wooing. That he gives us the biographical detail that he is forty years old at the time of the writing offers further justification for his haste: he is no longer a young man (especially by Elizabeth standards) and so would hasten to be married before he grows too old to enjoy it.
Here the speaker defends his beloved’s pride. He speaks to her detractors, tell thim not to exceed “the bounds of dewtie” in accusing her of pride (lines 3-4). He argues that she is “divuinely wrought” (line 5) and therefore “ought rather worshipt be” (line 14) than loved by mundane men. The tone remains consistent with the recent change—she has agreed to marry him, so the long “war” for her affections is over. Now he may unequivocally refer to her as his “souerayne saynt, the Idoll of my thought” (line 2). Where he once decried her vanity, he now defends it against the harsh words of others.
The second New Year’s poem of the Amoretti, this sonnet uses apostrophe in addressing the speaker’s love, encouraging it to “cheare you your heauy spright” (line 14). As the seasons are renewed from dark winter to bright spring, so too should the poet renew his energies toward the ardor he holds for his beloved. Again, the New Year here is referring to the Elizabethan reckoning of March 25th, not January 1st, since it is in March that spring takes the place of cold winter.
This sonnet begins “After long stormes and tempests” have been endured (line 1). The speaker is returning from his metaphorical sea journey and can now “descry the happy shore,/in which I hope ere long for to arryue” (lines 5-6). The languishing in unrequited love has ended, and now that she has agreed to marriage, the speaker can now look forward to the day when he begins his life with his beloved. The long year’s pain is not forgotten, but now they are seen from the perspective of one who has achieved his goal and won the heart of the woman he so adores: he declares “All sorrowes short that gain eternall blisse” (line 14).
Having for so long admired his beloved at a distance, the speaker now revels in his right to draw nearer to her. No longer content to focus only on her eyes or hair, he now finds that he may approach “to kisse her lyps” (line 1), an act he describes as a “grace.” As he kisses her, he notes her scent, and thus follows a catalogue of the various scents he perceives from her. In a series of similes, he describes her lips as smelling like Gillyflowers, her cheeks like roses, her brows as bellamoures, her eyes like “Pincks,” her bosom as “a Strawberry bed,” her neck as a bunch of Columbines, her breasts like lilies, and her nipples like young blossomed “Iessemynese” (or Jasmines; lines 5-12). His chaste, forlorn, and distant admiration in previous poems gives way to an almost carnal familiarity with his beloved’s body—all this prior to the wedding day. It is, however, the “scent” he admires, not the body parts themselves—aside from the kiss, not physical intimacy has occurred, leaving him free to express his passion without guilt.
Here we see a flicker of doubt on the part of the speaker’s fiancée. He assures her that her “feare to loose your liberty” (line 2) is baseless: “Sweete be the bands, the which true loue doth tye,/without constraint or dread of any ill” (lines 5-6). She is not losing her liberty, but gaining “two liberties” (line 3). He then draws a parallel with the bird, which he claims “feeles no captiuity/within her cage” (lines 7-8). Pride and disharmony have no place in such a union of souls “that loyal loue hath bound” (line 10). She need not fear losing her freedom, for she will be the more free (he believes) in the sanctity of marriage.
The opinions of others once again enter into the poet’s consideration, this time in concern over those who believe the speaker’s fiancée has debased herself to marry such as he. He admires her as one who “could not on earth haue found one fit for mate” (line 6), but instead should have turned here eyes toward heaven to find an equal. He reassures her, however, that “now your light doth more it selfe dilate,/and in my darkness greater doth appeare” (lines 11-12); her humility and grace in pouring out her love upon the speaker only serves to demonstrate the magnanimity of her spirit.
Here the speaker turns his earlier images of predator and prey around, describing himself as “a huntsman after weary chace” having given “long pursuit and vaine assay” (lilines 1 and 5). His beloved, now a “gentle deare” (line 7) seeks to “quench her thirst at the next brooke” (line 8) and, catching sight of the hunter, surrenders herself to him “till I in hand her yet halfe trmbling tooke,’and with her owne goodwill hir fiyrmely tyde” (lines 12-13). He stands amazed at her willing surrender to him, “to see a beast so wyld,/so goodly wonne with her owne will beguyld” (lines 13-14). He rejoices that she has surrendered to him, but is mystified (and perhaps further pleased) that she has done it not under duress, but of her own free will.
Another holiday sonnet, this one commemorates the day that the “Most glorious Lord of lyfe…Didst make thy triumph ouer death and sin” (lines 1-2): Easter Sunday. He asks his “deare Lord” to “Grant that we for whom thou didest dye” may live “foreuer in felicity” (lines 5-8). Even this day set aside for commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (signaling God’s triumph over sin and death) is commandeered by the poet to seek the blessing of a happy life for himself and his beloved. He then turns his words toward his beloved, urging her “let vs loue, deare loue, lyke as we ought,/loue is the lesson which the Lord vs taught” (lines 13-14).
Another motif is here reversed, this time the recurring image of warfare and conquest. The speaker compares “the famous warriors of the anticke world” (line 1) in their “great deeds and valorous emprize” (line 4) to his own conquest of “peerelesse beauties prise” (line 7). As these ancient warriors commemorated their victories with trophies erected in public, so he, too, would like to memorialize his victory in public. Rather than a statue or architectural monument, the speaker (predictably) turns to his poetry to be the “immortall moniment’/and tell her prayse to all posterity” (lines 10-11). Spenser’s belief in the permanence of the written word here comes forth, turning what he previously referred to as “mean verse” to immortal writings fit to speak forever of “The happy purchase of my glroius spile,/gotten at last with labour and long toyle” (lines 13-14).
The poet here displays his impatience to wed yet again. He urges spring, “the herald of loues mighty king” (line 1) to get his beloved where she sleeps still “in her winters bowre not well awake” (line 6). He wants spring to “Bid her terfefore her selfe soone ready make” (line 9) that they may hasten to be married. There is a touch of remorse in the final couplet, wherein the speaker—possibly mindful of his own age (nearly forty-one years old)—asks his beloved to “Make hast…whilest it is prime,/for none can call againe the passed time” (lines 13-14).
In this sonnet the poet keeps the reversed captor/captive imagery he used in Sonnets 68 and 69. This time he uses a drawing the beloved has made of herself and himself as his springboard. In the drawing, she has depicted herself as a bee and himself as a “Spyder that doth lurke,/in close awayt to catch her vnaware” (lines 2-4). He agrees with her suggestion that she was “Caught in cunning snare” (line 5) but reassures her that these “streight bands” (line 7) will be gentle. Just as she has adorned her drawing with “woodbynd flowers and fragrant Eglantine” (lines 9-10), so too will her prison prove to be “so sweet…in time” (line 11). In the end, their captor-captive relationship will become “eternall peace…betweene the Spyder and the gentle Bee” (lines 13-14).
In this much more metaphysical sonnet, the speaker considers how his spirit “is wieghd with thoght of earthly things” from day to day (line 3). As he mourns his mundane outlook, he sees “that souerayne beauty” and his spirit flies again “vnto heauen” (lines 5 and 8). In his beloved, the speaker sees an “other heuen” that keeps him in touch with the celestial heaven. Having this love as heaven on earth keeps him content not to need “other happinesse,/but here on earth to haue such heauens bliss” (lines 13-14).
The speaker here returns to comparing himself as the captive, comparing his heart to a bird in its cage. The mere sight of the “fayre tresses of [her] golden hayre” (line 3) send his heart bursting forth from its cage to “make his flight” (line 6) toward his beloved. He asks that she be kind to his impassioned heart, “gently encage” it that he might “learne with rare delight,/to sing your name and praises ouer all” (lines 9-12).
This sonnet concerns itself with the “Three Elizabeths” (line 13) in Spenser’s life. First is Elizabeth Spenser, his mother who “my being to me gaue by kind” (line 5); second is his “souereigne Queene” Elizabeth (line 7) who has given him honor and richess; third is his beloved, Elizabeth Boyle, “my liues lasat ornament,/by whom my spirit out of dust was raysed” (lines 9-10). He praises each one equally, but gives an entire stanza to his fiancée (these poems are, after all, intended for her first of all). The three Elizabeths he then compared to “three such graces,” (line 14) alluding to the mythical Greek graces who were the source of blessings and virtuous behavior in the ancient mind.
In an effort to immortalize the name of his beloved, the speaker writes her name “upon the strand” (on the beach) only to have the waves wash it away (lines 1-2). He tries again, and again the tide erases his beloved’s name. While his fiancée calls him “Vayne man” to try such an impossible task, he rejects her argument that her own “selue shall lyke to this decay” (line 7) by turning (as usual) to his poetry as a source of immortality. He proudly proclaims, “my verse your vertues rare shall eternize,/and in the heauens wryte your glorious name.” (lines 11-12). Even when death “shall all the world subdew” (line 13) his verse will live on (in print?) and “later life renew” (line 14).
Dwelling upon his upcoming nuptials, the speaker loses himself in a reverie of passionate desire to be physically close to his fiancée. He focuses on her “Fayre bosome” (line 1) which he descdribes as “The neast of loue, the lodging of delight:/the bowre of blisse, the paradice of pleasure,/ the sacred harbour of that heauenly spright” (lines 2-3). He fails in his attempts to keep his love purely spiritual, considering himself “rauisht” when his thoughts (and perhaps his eyes) strayed too long “twixt her paps like early fruit in May” (line 9). His thoughts “did theyr wanton winges display” (Line 11) and boldly rested upon her breast. He concludes in envy of his own thoughts, which can rest upon her bosom, while he himself “yet neuer was so blest” (line 14).
The speaker continues to meditate upon his fiancée’s bosom, starting the sonnet with a series of images designed to take the reader off guard. He wonders whether it were dream or reality when he beheld a table “of pure yvory” upon which was spread a setting “fit to entertayne,/the greatest Prince with pompous roialty” (lines 2-4). He describes in particular a silver dish upon which two golden apples “far passing those which Hercules came by,/or thos which Atalanta did entice” (lines 6-8). He dwells upon these apples, describing them as “Exceeding sweet, yet voyd of sinfull vice” (line 9, an allusion to the forbidden fruit of Genesis 3). Many have sought these apples, but none ever tasted them—then he reveals the secret meaning of his dream-table: “Her brest that table was so richly spredd,’my thoughts the guests, which would thereon have fedd” (lines 13-14).
The speaker feels a separation from his fiancée deeply, wandering “from place to place,’lyke a young fawne that late hath lost the hynd” (lines 1-2). The poet’s usual motif of the predator and prey is here transformed into that of a baby deer for its mother. He longs to be near to her, so seeks out those places she has recently frequented: “the fields” where she has recently walked and “her bowre with her late presence deckt” (lines 5-6). However, he can only find reminders of her, which in turn remind him of her absence and he finds himself “but fed with fancies vayne” (line 12). He resolves at last to stop looking to the outward world to remind him of her presence, and instead to turn his eyes inward, that he might “Behold her selfe in mee” (line 14). It is within himself that the most perfect picture of his beloved resides, so it is there he will turn in his loneliness.
Entering again into a more metaphysical tone, the poet here praises how his beloved’s inner virtues outshine her outer beauty. “Men call you fayre” he says (line 1), and she accepts it, but it is her “Gentle wit,/and virtuous mind” that he would praise more (lines 2-4). Lovely as she is, her beauty “shall turne to nought” and she will “loose that glorious hew” (line 6), whereas her true beauty—her mind “deriu’d from that fayre Spirit”—is the only aspect of her self that is “permanent and free/from frayle corruption” (lines 7-8).
Here Spenser seems to be returning to his sonnets after having worked long and hard on his masterpiece, The Faerie Queene. He asks “leaue to rest me…and gather to my selfe new breath awhile” (lines 3-4), having completed half the work (six books). He argues that “as a steed refreshed after toile,/out of my prison I will breake anew” to take up the epic work well-rested. Until he recuperates, he asks leave “to sport my muse and sing my loues sweet praise” (in other words, return to his sonnets of the Amoretti). He reassures his reader (perhaps himself or even Queen Elizabeth, to whom The Faerie Queene was dedicated) that he will keep his subjects in perspective: his praise for his fiancée will be “low and meane” (line 13) in keeping with her status as “the handmaid of the Faery Queene” (line 14). There is perhaps a deeper meaning here, as not only will he praise his own beloved less than he will his queen, but also his style of poetry will be “low and meane” in the sense that it takes the common sonnet form and addresses topics more suited to pastorals than does his lofty epic, dedicated to no less lofty a subject than the Queen of England herself.
Through repetition of the word “fayre” (beautiful) and its variants, the speaker explores the facets of his beloved’s beauty. She is fair when her hair is caught by the wind (lines 1-2), when she blushes or passion inflames her eyes (lines 3-4), when she adorns herself with “pretious merchandize” (lines 5-6), and even when her smiles are driven away by a “cloud of pryde” (lines 8-9). But she is most beautiful when she speaks “words so wise” (line 11) revealing her gentle spirit.
Having won the hand of his beloved, the poet now wonders what “mishap” (line 3) has occurred to lead such a one as she to love someone so far beneath her (in nature, not social status). It is only the lack of skill in writing poetry that could establish her name “in golden moniment” (line 8) that gives him a reason to be loved by her. He will spend all that he is “in setting your immortall prayses forth” (line 12). The argument (or purpose) of his poetry will lift him up, and in so doing “shall lift you vp vnto an high degree” (line 14).
Spenser here repeats Sonnet 35 with only superficial spelling changes. He may be reiterating the overwhelming beauty of his fiancee, a beauty which fills his eyes so full that he can see nothing else. The primary difference is that in this context, he is extolling the beauty of the woman he will be marrying, whereas the earlier sonnet expresses his love for a woman who had not yet accepted his proposal. His purpose may be to demonstrate that the fires of his passion have not died down since she has agreed to give herself to him in marriage.
This loving prayer for his beloved’s spiritual and mental purity contains a hint of concern over her possible unchaste thoughts. He asks that “not one sparke of filthy lustfull fyre” would her “Sacred peace molest” (lines 1-2). Instead he want “pure affections” and “modest thoughts” to visit her as she sleeps. He hints again at envy for his thoughts, since in this case they can behold “those most ioyous sights,’ the which my selfe could neuer yet attayne” (lines 9-10). At the same moment he seeks her sleeping mind to remain chaste, he expresses his own desire to be physically close to her as she sleeps.
The poet here takes on the opinions of the world at large, which claims when he praises her he does “but flatter” (line 2). He compares his detractors to the cuckoo that begins its noisy “witlesse note” when it hears the beautiful song of the Mavis (lines 3-4). He in turn criticizes others’ failure to understand “heauenly matter” and envy to which this failure drives them. By contrast, in his inner self "her worth is written with a golden quill" (line 10), again extolling his poetry as the only means of truly conveying her "sweet prayses" (line 12). He concludes that once his beloved's fame is published throughout the world, these detractors will have to choose "to enuy or to wonder" (line 14).
Analysis of Sonnets 58 through 85
This set of sonnets continues to express and explore the ongoing struggle of the speaker in dealing with an unresponsive beloved. He reiterates previous motifs, such as the battle and the contrast of fire and ice. He also introduces another motif of analogies: predator and prey. The beloved is the hunting beast, ferocious and bloody, while the suitor is her prey, helpless and--in one case--submissive to her attack. He knows he will be devoured; he wants only to stay the pain in favor of a quick kill.
The speaker also voices desperation at his beloved's enduring indifference to his love. He goes so far as to seek solace in the fact that she continues to torment him with rejection: if she continues to speak to him, even negatively, it is perhaps because she cannot resist interaction with him. On this increasingly precarious ground the speaker stands, desperate to squeeze some hope out of his miserable plight.
Despite the threat of sorrow, this section of the sonnet cycle does take a turn for the better. The speaker has won the hand of this beloved and is eager to set a wedding-date. His former criticism of her cruelty and pride are all but gone--even her pride becomes a source of admiration rather than frustration for the speaker, to the point that he defends her seeming haughtiness as a misperception based in the envy of her critics. He also reverses two major motifs: the predator-prey motif and the battle motif.
The predator and prey image changes to the speaker-as-hunter and the beloved-as-exhausted-deer, finally accepting her inevitable capture. The battle motif sees the suitor in the role of victor, with the beloved a vanquished and submissive captive. Both give higher place to the suitor than previous sonnets, but also insist that he will be a merciful winner (unlike the beloved) and there will be lasting peace between the two of them.