In Sonnet 15 from Edmund Spenser's Amoretti, the speaker praises his Lady's beauty extravagantly, asking merchants why they look all over the world to buy precious beautiful things when all the world's riches may be found right here in the person of his beloved. Twelve lines of Sonnet 15 are a conventional catalogue of the lady's beauty, a blazon, but the couplet establishes the lady's mind to be "that which fairest is," for it is "adornd with vertues manifold" (ll. 13-14).
Unlike most English sonnet sequences, the poems in Amoretti are not addressed to an unobtainable mistress, but to Elizabeth Boyle, the woman Spenser hoped to—and eventually did—marry. While some of the sonnets were probably written before the two became involved, the couplet of Sonnet 15 indicates the speaker has a more comprehensive experience of the woman's mental qualities beyond her superficial appearance. This knowledge raises Amoretti 15 above the level of a conventional blazon, and the lady above the level of a simple love object. This sonnet is largely indebted to Sonnet 32 of Philippe Desportes' Les Amours des Diana (The Loves of Diana); however, Desportes' sonnet is entirely a blazon, with no references to the lady's mind or personality. He creates the occasion for his blazon by asking merchants why they search the world for treasure when here they will find all that Africa could offer. Spenser has taken over the scenario and the strategy, but he has carried the result beyond the physical.
Spenser's characteristic stanza form—abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee—permits him to evade the usual restrictions of the sonnet, and, logically, it reads most clearly as sestet, sestet, couplet; syntactically, as quatrain, couplet, sestet, couplet. The first quatrain sets the scene by asking why the "tradefull Merchants" (l. 1) work so hard to obtain rare and beautiful treasures from all around the world. "[B]oth the Indias" (l. 3) encompasses the entire commercial world, since the East Indias refer to the Malay Archipelago and the West Indias to the lands in the Caribbean. Beginning in line 5, the speaker claims his beloved is more beautiful than anything to be found in the entire world; within the genre of sonnets, such hyperbole is conventional. His inventory fol lows a strict pattern. Each valued item is presented in a clause that omits the verb phrase you seek; thus: "If [you seek] Saphyres, loe her eies be Saphyres plaine" (l. 7). These are not similes; in fact, they are barely comparisons. Her eyes are not as blue as sapphires; they are sapphires. only in line 10 does the poet substitute "weene" (think) for "be"; this is the single place where he acknowledges the metaphoric character of his beloved's treasures. otherwise, the speaker's beloved "doth in her selfe containe / All this worlds riches" (ll. 5-6) very literally; six precious materials— sapphires, rubies, pearls, ivory, gold, and silver—compose this woman's head and hands, the only features the poet describes.
The couplet indicates that what makes this woman special and most beautiful to the poet—her mind— remains private and exclusive. This is signaled in the sonnet by the doubled use of "but" in two distinctive senses: "But that which fairest is, but few behold" (l. 13). The first "but" is a conjunction, the second a modifying intensifier, synonymous with "only." Although everyone can see the woman's eyes, hair, lips, hands, etc., only a few can know her well enough to be acquainted with her mind "adornd with vertues manifold" (l. 14). Another feature of this intimate detail is the way the poet expresses it: While the speaker details six features, not one virtue is named. The woman's face and hands are public territory; anyone privileged to see her can observe her beauty. Only someone further honored by her acquaintance, however, can appreciate the quality of her mind.
See also Amoretti (overview).
Marjory E. Lange
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