Amoretti is an Elizabethan sonnet-cycle, a series of interconnected poems which conventionally trace a man's attempt to woo his beloved, the moment she capitulates to him and returns his love, and his sorrow at somehow losing her again. Spenser's sonnet-cycle divides readily into these three sections: his pursuit of the beloved extends from Sonnet 1 to Sonnet 57. Sonnets 58 through 77 mostly dwell upon the speaker's humility at having won his beloved's heart and his own impatience to consummate the relationship. Sonnets 78 through 89 focus primarily on the speaker's longing for his beloved, who is absent for some reason, while comforting himself with his poetry's ability to immortalize her. The poem ends with three sets of stanzas relating stories about Cupid, son of Venus, after whom the sonnet-cycle is named ("Amoretti" means "little Cupids.")
The first and longest section relates the suitor's emotional turmoil at being so madly in love with a woman who will not accept his proposal of marriage. He moves from worshipful adoration of her beauty to vindictive anger at her rejection, depicting her at times as the Platonic ideal of virtue and at others as a cruel, sadistic tease. Throughout the first section, the speaker never questions his love for the woman, only whether he can survive loving someone so dangerous to his soul.
Once the beloved agrees to marry him, the suitor shifts his tone to unmitigated admiration of the beloved. At times he is almost condescending, changing his previous images of the woman as hostile predator to himself as a hunter and she as his willing prey. He also finds himself amazed that so celestial a being as his beloved should lower herself to accept someone so mundane as himself. Nonetheless, he comforts himself by renewing his confidence in his art--poetry--and the power of his words to properly depict the beauty no other method can hope to portray.
In the final sonnets, something has cause the beloved to leave the presence of the speaker. No specific reason is given, although one sonnet suggests that someone lied to the woman, possibly turning her anger toward the suitor. The poems of longing are not fearful, however, but simply mournful that the lover and beloved should be separated. There seems to be a hint that this separation, unendurable as it is for the speaker, is temporary.
Summary of Sonnets 1 through 16
The poet addresses his poetry, entreating them to please his beloved alone, for “I care for other none” (line 14)
“Unquiet Thought” is addressed in the first line, referring either to his poetry (as he did in Sonnet 1) or to his restless and strong emotions for his beloved. Either way, he wants this inner emotion to “Breake forth…out of the inner part” (line 5) to reach his beloved. There, “unquiet thought” should bow before her seeking her acknowledgement. With her reaction to his poetry, he will live or die.
The poet admires his “souerayne beauty” (his beloved), comparing her to a light of heavenly fire that he cannot endure to look upon for long. Speech fails him, so he turns to writing (poetry) to express “the wonder that my wit cannot endite.” (line 14)
Set on the day of the New Year (March 25th by Elizabethan practice), this sonnet draws a comparison between old and new, winter and spring, and death and life. While focusing on the whole world’s change from old to new, in context the poet could easily be setting the stage to kindle his beloved’s passion for him to life.
The speaker defends his beloved’s pride, stating that her “lofty looks” demonstrate a mind set upon higher matters than the “base things” of this world. He finishes by arguing that her pride is a natural element of anything in this world that is worth pursuing.
The speaker explicates the meaning of the final couplet in Sonnet 5, explaining how the hardest-won prizes are the most valuable. He uses the example of an oak tree, the wood of which is difficult to chop for firewood, but which burns long and bright once it is obtained. Just as it takes perseverance and strength to obtain oak firewood, so will the precious and abiding love of his beloved be obtained only through toil and patience.
This sonnet focuses on the beloved’s eyes, an image that will reoccur throughout the Amoretti. Her eyes send forth both life and death, because her gaze can inspire him to love when it is favorable, and emotionally destroy him “as one with lightning fyred” (line 8) when it is harsh. He concludes that the life-giving aspect of her gaze is the “honor of [her] light” (line 13), while the deadly looks are a “sad ensample of [her] might” (line 14).
The light of his beloved’s fire, mentioned in the previous sonnet, is used to show how the speaker cherishes his beloved. Addressing her directly, he tells her how her beauty stops his tongue but teaches his “hart to speake” (line 10); she is the inspiration for these poems, which are the only way he can express his love for her. He holds her beauty to be universal, for “Dark is the world, where your light shined neuer;/well is he borne that may behold you euer” (lines 13-14).
The speaker returns to describing his beloved’s eyes, the light of which illuminates his spirit (line 2). He then lists all the bright and beautiful things that cannot compare to her eyes: the Sun, the Moon, the stars, fire, lightning, diamond, crystal, and glass. He concludes that only to “the Maker selfe” (God) is a fit comparison for her eyes, because his “light doth ligten all that here we see” (line 14).
This is the first sonnet in which the speaker openly criticizes his beloved. Calling her a “Tyrannesse,” (line 5), the speaker laments the joy she takes in bringing pain to those (particularly himself) who love her. He calls upon the “Lord of loue” to shake her “proud hart” (lines 1 and 9), although it is unclear whether he is addressing God or a personification of love, such as Cupid. He prays for a reckoning which will allow him to laugh at her as much as she “doth laugh at me & makes my pain her sport” (line 14).
The speaker describes his love and his beloved’s rejection in terms of a battle metaphor. He claims to daily “sew for peace” (sue for peace, line 1) and offer her hostages (line 2), but she continues the fighting. He describes her as a warrior (line 3) and his own life as her spoil (line 8). He wants peace with her—which entails her confessing love for him—but she refuses to acknowledge any feelings for him, thus keeping the “weary war” (line 4) going. The poet uses irony in describing her giving in to feelings for him as his own surrender, while her constant resistance to his repeated words of love as an act of aggression.
The speaker continues the war metaphor from Sonnet 11, this time describing himself as having already been captured by an “ambush” (line 6) when he lay down his weapons and sought a truce with “her hart-thrilling eies” (line 1). He complains to her that her eyes have committed treachery in capturing him and holding him “in cruell bands” (line 12) when he was at his most vulnerable. He seeks justice from her (line 14)—that justice being her own confession of love for him.
Returning to the theme of his beloved’s pride, the speaker again seeks to justify her “lofty countenance” (line 9) by explaining that her upturned face deigns to look down at earth as a reminder of her “Myld humblenesse mixt with awfull maiesty” (line 5). She is remembering the place from which she came, even as she returns her gaze to heaven, the place where she belongs. That she turns her gaze toward heaven is a sign of her focus on more important matters than the “lothsome and forlorne” earth (line 11) can offer. The final couplet changes the audience to the beloved herself, asking her to look kupon him because “such lowliness shall make you lofty be” (line 14); i.e., if her majesty is proven by her humility in remember the earthly source of her life, so too will a humble look upon this earthly lover exalt her all the more.
The speaker once again uses the metaphor of battle to describe his wooing of the beloved, this time focusing on the image of a castle under siege. In this case, the beloved is the castle, and his love is the attacker. Like a general in the field, the speaker addresses his “forces” (lines 1 and 9) with an encouraging speech to keep up their strength. He then identifies his forces as complaints, prayers, vows, “ruth” (frustration), sorrow, and dismay (line 10). These are his best warriors, but if they fail he has one last attack in reserve: “fall down and dy before her,/ so dying liue, and liuing do adore her” (line 14). This is the second time the poet has described her final rejection of him as death, but here it is unclear whether he means emotional death or physical death (probably the former, as he expects to live through dying).
This sonnet compares the beloved’s virtues to worldly riches, particularly those treasures in which merchants trade. Rather than describe her beauty as superior to earthly riches, he makes each aspect of her charm a direct comparison to a particular item of value. Here eyes are sapphires, her lips are rubies, her teeth are pearls, her forehead is ivory, her hair is finest gold, and her hands are silver. He ends, however, with the greatest beauty (and greatest treasure” which “but few behold” (line 13): her mind, which is “adorned with vertues manifold” (line 14). Although praising her physical beauty for most of the poem, he considers her mind to be the “fairest” treasure she possesses (line 13).
The speaker returns to a meditation on the dangers of his beloved’s gaze. This time he sees how her eyes fire forth “legions of loues with little wings” (line 6) which aim their arrows (an image of cupid) at every “rash beholder passing by” (line 8). He, too, is struck, but with a twinkle of her eye, the beloved “broke his misintended dart” (lines 11-12). Again, the unrequited nature of his love is brought forth, which he emphasizes by stating that, had she not broken the dart, “sure I had bene slayne,/ yet as it was, I hardly scap’t with paine” (lines 13-14). Again the image of pain and possible death is used to describe his ardent devotion to her and his anguish at her failure to reciprocate his feelings.
Analysis of Sonnets 1 through 16
In typical Elizabethan fashion, Spenser begins his sonnet-cycle with self-referential comments regarding his role as poet. He first hopes that his poetry will be the means of winning his beloved's heart, then in the second sonnet admits that, should it fail, he may die. This extreme statement is conventional for a sonnet-cycle, emphasizing as it does the intense passion the speaker feels for the beloved, but it is also a reference to the poet's own success in his vocation: just as his poetry is intended to win the heart of his beloved, so too is it intended to make him a living (either by selling well to the public or by garnering the favor and patronage of the Queen). He may die emotionally if his words fail to convince the beloved to return his affections; he will die physically if he fails to support himself through his writing.
The poet then turns his attention to the beloved by first noting the change in seasons brought on by the new year. As his world is moving from death (winter) to life (spring), so too he hopes his beloved's heart will turn from coldness toward him to warmth. The next sonnet delves into the beloved's inner qualities: in this case, her pride. By establishing early on that his beloved is given to "lofty looks," the speaker gains the reader's sympathy for further descriptions of the beloved as cold-hearted or cruel. Her pride also implies a superior social position to the speaker, something which was not completely true in real life, but which would certainly have been in the mind of Edmund Spenser, a man seeking favor from the Queen despite his family's lack of noble heritage.
From her pride, the speaker turns to his beloved's eyes, a favorite feature for description in Amoretti. While Elizabeth Boyle's eyes may indeed have been striking, the choice of facial feature is not wholly dependent upon the beloved's real-life features. The eyes work as a two-way interface with the beloved--they give the speaker glimpses of her inner self, while at the same time allow her to "strike out" at him with disapproving glances. Also, the eyes would be a more safe feature to dwell upon than, for example, her lips (which he had not yet kissed, and which would imply a more carnal love) or other body parts with which--in the interests of chastity--the speaker should not be thinking on too extensively.
That the speaker chooses fire as a metaphor to describe his beloved is an interesting paradox throughout Amoretti. She is usually described as cold, but in a few stanzas it is her sun-like glory and heat that enflames the suitor. The frequency with which the speaker describes her in terms of heat and light will diminish as the sonnet-cycle progresses, presumably because the beloved's cold heart has doused the suitor's heated ardor.
Sonnets 10 through 16 heavily feature a battle motif. The suitor and his beloved are described as being locked in a battle, with the beloved the eventual victor. Here the speaker reverses the real-world roles of actor and passive receiver; it is the beloved who is described as laying seige to the suitor's fortress, though in fact it is the suitor who barrages his beloved with these very sonnets in an effort to break down her own defenses against him. The beloved is described as a tyrant, a cruel victor, and a commander who refuses to make peace when the enemy asks for a truce. The beloved's constancy, often a trait admired by the suitor, is a barrier to their living together in harmony. The suitor, on the other hand, is already a captive to his beloved, and merely asks that she show him some mercy in her conquest.
Spenser combines the martial image with his previous meditation on the beloved's eyes in Sonnet 16, wherein he describes her gaze as firing arrows at any who had the misfortune to meet it. Ironically, the suitor has not been hit by one of these arrows, as they are darts of love and the beloved broke the one aimed at him before it could reach his heart. There is here a hint of jealousy, as the suitor sees other men receiving loving looks, but not himself.