Edmund Spenser (1552?1599). The Complete Poetical Works. 1908.
Amoretti and Epithalamion
G. W. Senior, to the Author
AMORETTI AND EPITHALAMION WRITTEN NOT LONG SINCE BY EDMUNDE SPENSER PRINTED FOR WILLIAM PONSONBY, 1595
TO THE RIGHT WORSHIPFULL SIR ROBART NEEDHAM, KNIGHT
SIR, to gratulate your safe return from Ireland, I had nothing so readie, nor thought any thing so meete, as these sweete conceited sonets, the deede of that weldeserving gentleman, Maister Edmond Spenser: whose name sufficiently warranting the worthinesse of the work, I do more confidently presume to publish it in his absence, under your name, to whom (in my poore opinion) the patronage therof doth in some respectes properly appertaine. For, besides your judgement and delighte in learned poesie, this gentle Muse, for her former perfection long wished for in Englande, nowe at length crossing the seas in your happy companye, (though to your selfe unknowne) seemeth to make choyse of you, as meetest to give her deserved countenaunce, after her retourne: entertaine her, then, (right worshipfull) in sorte best beseeming your gentle minde, and her merite, and take in worth my good will herein, who seeke no more, but to shew my selfe yours in all dutifull affection.
[The Amoretti and Epithalamion were entered upon the Stationers Register, November 19, 1594, and published in 1595, perhaps somewhat earlier than Colin Clouts Come Home Again and Astrophel. The date of their composition is fixed, almost beyond dispute, by the inscription on the title page, written not long since; for, according to line 267 of the Epithalamion, Spensers wedding day was June 11, which the not long since marks for 1594, and there being no reason to suppose any considerable gap between the Epithalamion and the Amoretti, sonnet lxvii of the latter must refer to the previous New Years, sonnet iv to New Years, 1593. All minor indications of time confirm this hypothetical chronology. The record of the courtship, indeed, is singularly convincing, altogether different from the unrealities of most of the sonneteering of that day. In Delia, in Idea, in Diana, one may read for pages at a stretch with the sensation of being on a treeless plain: the ladies celebrated are as vague as pantheism; there is not a hint at real human relations in a life of every-day affairs. In the Amoretti, on the other hand, we are constantly within sight of fact, however trivial. The poet, accustomed, it seems, to easy conquests, makes definite advances too soon, and is ignominiously beaten back; he is chidden by a friend for not pushing on more vigorously with his Faery Queen, and pleads the distractions of his suit; at the close of a visit, when he should be departing, there comes up a violent storm of rain, and he knows not whether to stay or go, or he walks with his mistress upon the beach and writes her name in the sand, whereupon the waves wash it out. Behind the graceful banalities of fancy, the imitations of previous imitators of Petrarch, almost inevitable in an Elizabethan sonnet sequence, one may read the history of a genuine courtship as clearly as in a set of old letters. The suitor is a man of forty years; in the eyes of the world, apparently, not a briliant match, for when the lady finally accepts him, friends accuse her of a mésalliance: she is slow to be won (the courtship is of more than a year), yields finally with some misgivings, retains her maidenly aloofness after betrothal. His heroine, writes the most recent of the critics, is the wayward mistress, the sweet warrior of every sixteenth century sonneteer. But difference of view is inevitable as to whether she owe most to Petrarchs dolce guerrera, or to De Baifs belle ennemie, or to Desportes douce adversaire. Such difference of view is surely needless. Whatever fancies the poet may have borrowed, he has not borrowed the temperament of his mistress: it may please him to mention little except her pride; but her pride is clearly her own. We read it in a dozen characteristic touches,in her fear to lose her maidenly independence (lxv), in the too constant stiffenesse which denies him the perquisites of an accepted lover (lxxxiii), in her flare of anger at the tale of a busybody (lxxxv). It is, moreover, matter of general note, excites resentment (v). She goes about with her head proudly erect and her eyes as proudly (though the poet chooses to call that humblesse) fixed upon the ground (xiii). In all these traits as the poet sets them down, there may indeed be fanciful exaggeration, and in the great marriage song it may please him to ignore them, but to deny their essential truth is surely to read the sonnets too sceptically. Even a Petrarchist may draw from the life, and Spenser, to an unpreoccupied eye, would seem to have done just that. One can hardly leave the Amoretti without mention of the rhyme-scheme. In this the disconnected quatrains of the common Elizabethan, or Shakespearean, type of sonnet are linked after the manner of Marot, like the quatrains of April and November. Attempt has been made to prove that Spenser took this sonnet-form direct from a contemporary Scottish poet, Alexander Montgomery, who made use of it some years the earlier; but the argument is hardly convincing. For, given the common Elizabethan type, any two poets familiar with the linked quatrains of Marot, as both Montgomery and Spenser unquestionably were, might evolve the same variant form quite independently. Their invention has not survived in the practice of later poets; perhaps because, though nearly as exacting as the regular Italian type, it is less finely proportioned, less stately. Concerning the Epithalamion and its exquisite emotional tone, full and serene, a critic may best be silent. As to the four small poems, commonly entitled epigrams, which divide it from the Amoretti, they are casual experiments in a vein then very much worked in France, imitations of that late and minor Greek poetry which clusters in and about the Anthology. The second and third have parallels in Marot (Epigrammes lxiv and ciii); the fourth is one of the most popular fancies of the time, derived from a poem of the pseudo-Anacreon group, and translated or imitated by no less than eight contemporary Frenchmen, Ronsard (Odes, IV, 14) at their head. To an epigram of Philodemus (Anthologia Palatina, V, 123) we owe the twenty-first strophe of the Epithalamion itself.]