(1595) Edmund Spenser's Petrarchan sonnet sequence Amoretti was one of his later works, published in 1595, the year after his marriage to Elizabeth Boyle, the only partially imaginary inspiration for the piece. It consists of a dedication, introductory poem, 89 sonnets, and four shorter pieces detailing Cupid's intervention in the love experience. The sonnets follow a male lover's seemingly conventional pursuit of his female beloved, culminating in a disappointment and followed by a four-part poem labeled anacreontics (sexual love). The anacreontics present very conventional portraits of the relationship between Cupid and the lover, drawn from Marot, Tasso, Theocritus, Alciati, and two madrigals. However, Amoretti was published along with a very different epic poem, Epithalamion, following the triumph of the lover's wedding day with his beloved, from his predawn preparations through the evening and day and into the early hours of the next morning, so readers of the combined work need not feel their disappointment for long. In fact, Amoretti (Italian for Cupids) both incorporates and violates the conventions for the lover's sonnet sequence common in the 16th century and in Epithalamion (Greek term for a wedding song), which traditionally celebrated the wedding of kings or nobility, and is told from the perspective of an observer, not the lover himself.
Amoretti and Epithalamion were published in 1595, shortly before the expanded Faerie Queene, books 1-6
(1596). Spenser's own progress through this larger work is noted in Sonnet 80 (fit for the handmaid of the Faerie Queene), giving rise to one interpretation of the Amoretti as poems about being a poet. The earliest critics of this work, other poets, tended to focus on certain pieces as the core of their interpretation. Some went so far as to recommend that certain sonnets be discarded; in one case, 18 of the 89 sonnets were considered worthless imitations, and in another it was recommended that the anacreontics be ignored. Amoretti's measure is taken in relation to Italian precursors such as Dante's La Vita Nuova and English ones such as Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, and it has been found wanting. But more recent critics have looked for the logic of the entire piece and explicated it in terms of representations of human and supernatural time, the progress of proper Christian love in marriage, the demonstration of poetic virtuosity, and even the poet Spenser's means of achieving a distinction that would make up for his less-than-noble birth.
The sequence has received much attention, both on its own and in relation to Spenser's poetic ambitions, as well as in relation to the classical-poetic revival of England in the latter part of the 16th century. His exploration of Italianate poetic forms mirrored that of Sidney, Sir Walter Raleigh, and others of his age who sought to invest English literature with a loftier aesthetic. Thus, Amoretti compares with other sonnet sequences—most of which were originally circulated in manuscript, not published, form—in incorporating courtly love conventions of the lover pursuing and spurned by his beloved. He alternately praises and chases her, and he valorizes her beauty, chastity, virtue, and even, in several different sonnets, her "cruel paine" (vanity), a convention of this sonnet form. Earlier critics of Spenser's work virtually dismissed it for these conventionalities. It has also been variously interpreted as "merely autobiographical" in terms of the actually passage of time, from just before Lent up to the poet's wedding day of June 11, 1594, and also as a demonstration of Spenser's expertise with the sonnet form as well as his rising aesthetic and social status. Some critics see the collection as a lyric gesture toward the old aristocracy and a narrative one toward the emerging nascent capitalism, or an acknowledgement that Spenser's rising star in Ireland presented an alternative center to the Elizabethan court in England. Another recent interpretation sees the sequence as representative of the poet's own inability to reconcile his desire to belong to the nobility with his dependence on a new social and economic order for his education, his wealth, and ultimately his social position.
In order for these more recent economic and social analyses of Amoretti to take place, however, some basic interpretation of the work had to be in place; this includes such analysis as that of the conventions and their violations, the time progression, the derivation from Petrarchan forms, the allusions, and the illustrations of the Cupid emblem. For example, while it is clear there are autobiographical elements in the work—it is addressed to Elizabeth Boyle, Spenser's second wife, references in some sonnets a time sequence that corresponds to a period just before Spenser and Boyle were married, and contains references to his newly won Irish estate in Kilcolman, Munster—the poetic form is at least as significant.
Although Amoretti follows the conventions of the Elizabethan sonnet sequence—the fruitless pursuit of a cold, cruel, superior beloved, etc.—each of these conventions is undermined in some way. For example, in Sonnet 15, in describing her superiority to precious commodities such as rubies, pearls, and ivory, and the merchants who seek them Spenser also derides the merchants' useless efforts, thereby lowering both the value of his object of comparison and the goods to which he compares her. While he pays lip service to the "cruel fair" convention, Spenser also suggests a confidence in the ultimate success. For Spenser, the pride that causes his beloved to scorn his advances is also a mark of her distinction and individuality. Moreover, conventionally, and like William Shakespeare, Spenser uses his sonnets to suggest the use of poetry to counteract the mutability of life.
From conventional Elizabethan love lyric to representation of the poet's virtuosity to emblem of nascent capitalism, it is clear that Amoretti rivals The Faerie Queene as one of Spenser's lasting accomplishments, regardless of the obvious fact that Spenser himself used the piece to, in a sense, market himself and his larger work-in-progress.
See also Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet.
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