Spenser's Amoretti and Epithalamion

Liturgical sources

The eighty-nine sonnets of the Amoretti were written to correspond with the scriptural readings prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer for specific dates in 1594. “Their conceits, themes, ideas, imagery, words, and sometimes their rhetorical structure consistently and successively match like particulars in these daily readings”.[1] Of the scriptural selections from a particular day, Spenser generally made use of the daily psalms or New Testament readings, often drawing upon the Gospel or Epistle for Sundays or feast days.[1]

The sonnets begin on January 23 and end on May 17, and appear to be written for the period leading up to Spenser’s wedding to Elizabeth Boyle on June 11. Sonnet 22 corresponds to Ash Wednesday. Sonnet 68 corresponds to Easter Sunday, and the 46 intervening sonnets generally match up with the scripture readings prescribed for the 46 days of the feast of Lent in 1594.[1] The Pre-Lenten and Lenten sonnets, while somewhat conventional on the surface, contain multi-layers of “humor, salaciousness, irony, parody, and ultimately travesty”.[1] beneath the surface. The Easter sonnets take on a more serious, devotional tone, climaxing with a celebration of marriage as a covenant of grace in which the betrothed overcome the difficulties of lust and passion and are united in grace and mutual love.[1]

The sequence of correspondences to daily scripture readings is not perfectly consecutive or uninterrupted, though. Sonnets 28-33 are an exception in that they bear no resemblance to the scripture readings from the days to which they could correspond. Larsen suggests that perhaps Spenser was not at home during the days 19-24 of February and had no access to scriptural resources because most bibles published at this time were not very portable. These sonnets tend to make more blatant and unoriginal use of Petrarchan conceits, and are more conventional and flat than the other poems.[1]

Sonnets 52-53 are not related to a scriptural source either. Larsen points out that Sonnet 53 suggests travel through its explicit descriptions of absence from the beloved: “from presence of my dearest deare exylde” and “So I her absens will my penaunce make”. This seems to support his claim that lack of correspondence might be explained by Spenser’s travels.[1]

With these exceptions, the correspondences run through Sonnet 75, which falls on April 7, the Sunday after Easter. Sonnets 76-89 correspond to the period from May 3 – May 17, the beginning of a new cycle of second lessons at morning prayer through the day before the Vigil of the feast of Pentecost, which fell on May 19. These sonnets tend to draw even more heavily on daily scriptural readings than the preceding 75. For example, Sonnet 82, which was written for the feast of the Ascension is full of allusions to the Ascension, especially in its final couplet: “Whose loft argument vplifting me, / shall lift you vp vnto an high degree.” [1] The sonnets from the period before Pentecost are characterized by a painful and anxious sense of expectation. With the happiness of marriage in view, the speaker still suffers from the current state of separation. This feeling is appropriate to the liturgical season, in which Christians eagerly await unification with God’s spirit, which he sends down to them on Pentecost. Sonnet 87 contains the line, “Thus I the time with expectation spend”.

When the sonnets of Amoretti are viewed in this liturgical context, one sees that Spenser’s Petrarchan allusions and use of Petrarchan precedents cannot be reduced run-of-the-mill imitation. He adapts Petrarchan models and uses them to create connections to the day’s scripture themes and imagery. In addition, he treats them with a smooth cadence and flow that tends to blur the distinctions within Petrarchan paradox rather than sharply separating the contraries.[1] This correlates well with Spenser’s goal of moving beyond the paradoxes and conflicts of love to the reconciliation and harmony embodied in marriage. “Spenser’s working together of allusions and attitudes from both Petrarchist sources and scriptural loci intimates a poetic and a personal harmony, which in Amoretti becomes his ultimate preoccupation and goal”.[1] This provides a sharp contrast to the focus of other Renaissance sonneteers, who tend to dwell on the indeterminacy and conflict of the lover’s plight. Examining the underlying structure of the sequence and its religious parallels provides one key to appreciating the richness and complexity of Amoretti and establishing Spenser as one of the most important Sixteenth century sonneteers.

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