Advances in Literary Study
2014. Vol.2, No.1, 27-30
Published Online January 2014 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/als) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/als.2014.21006
Love in Spenser’s Amoretti
Jiancheng Wang1, Zhengshuan Li2
1Foreign Langua ge Department, Baoding Unive rsity, Baoding, China
2School of Foreign Languages, Hebei Normal University, Shijiazhuang, China
Received November 20th, 2013; revised December 22nd, 2013; accepted January 7th, 2014
Copyright © 2014 Jiancheng Wang, Zhengshuan Li. This is an open access article distribute d un der the Creative
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Being a sonnet cycle of love with a detailed description of the lady’s physical beauty and the lover’s
happy feelings, Amoretti is a story of love between earthlings which is aimed at marriage. Meanwhile,
Spenser sanctifies the love by Platonizing and Christianizing the lady. Thus it is clear that t he love in the
mind of Spenser is not just an earthly one or a heavenly one separately, but both, and, a combination of
both earthly love and sacred love.
Keywords: Love; Earthly Love; Sacred Love; Amoretti; Edmund Spenser
Sonnet sequences were a great vogue during the English
Renaissance. Amoretti, a sonnet sequence published in 1595
together with Epithalamion, “part private and autobiographical,
part mythological” (Hollander & Kermode, 1973: p. 320), is
usually understood as a record of the poet’s courtship to his
second wife Elizabethan Boyle whom he married in June 1594,
and it is the first sonnet sequence “to have been written by a
poet to his bride” (Lerner, 1990: p. 455).
Spenser names his sonnet sequence Amoretti, which means
“little loves” (Maclean & Prescott, 1993: p. 587), or “little
loves poem” (Magill, 1992: p. 3158) or “little cupids” (Hol-
lander & Kermode, 1973: p. 320), or in detail, “intimate little
tokens of love made out of ancient materials deriving, primarily,
from Italy” (Martz, 1991: p. 107). No matter what words are
used to interpret the title, one thing seems clear: what Spenser
probes into in Amoretti is love.
But Spenser’s love is quite different from his contemporary
sonneteers. He stands alone as a poet of marriage. Through
seeking a real love of the flesh and the spirit, Spenser interprets
the nature of true love.
An Earthly Love
Amoretti is not about passion but about love between earth-
lings. To celebrate his love, Spenser employs the traditional
image of love, Cupid:
I mote perceiue how in her glauncing sight,
legions of loues with little wings did fly:
darting their deadly arrowes fyry bright,
at euery rash beholder passing by; (XVI, 5-8)
In this sonnet “legions of loues with little wings” brings forth
an image of Cupid, the representation of god of love: the lady’s
eyebeams contain “amoretti”—Cupid, who shoots the deadly
arrows at rash beholders.
The winged god of love, Cupid, appears many times in
Amoretti: “him” in Sonnet IV, the “blinded guest” in Sonnet
VIII, “vnrighteous Lord of love” in Sonnet X, “king” in Sonnet
XIX and “the winged God” and “Cupid” in Sonnet LX.
The image of Cupid is a symbol of corporeal love (Hu, 2001:
p. 132). It is obvious that the love Spenser pursues is quite dif-
ferent from the mediaeval one which is too spiritualized, and
also different from Petrarchan one which “is rather a theatre of
the lover’s desire alone” (Waller, 1994: p. 76). On the one hand,
Spenser’s love is an earthly love of real human beings with
erotic desire waiting to be fulfilled in the way of marriage, and
on the other hand, it is a mutual love without which no true
love exists at all.
Spenser puts the lady on the earth, the secular and sublunary
world. One can see an ordinary woman who wears a net of gold
(Sonnet XXXVII), dresses and makes up before her mirror
(Sonnet XLV) and does “drawen work” (Sonnet LXXI). She
lives in her bower, and she has a fear of losing liberty when
falling in love with a man (Sonnet LXV).
To praise the earthy lady Spenser uses more ink on her
physical beauty. She is the sovereign beauty (Sonnet III) whom
he admires with “rare perfection of each good part” (Sonnet
XXIIII); she is a fair flower in whom fresh youth contains
(Sonnet IIII); she has attractive eyes (Sonnet VII) which are
hart-thrilling (Sonnet XII).
And the most powerful and attractive part of her body is her
eyes: her eyes are so charming and powerful that even her glan-
ces will become arrows or lighting. When being looked at mild-
ly “with louely hew”, the lover’s soul is “with life and loue ins-
pired” (Sonnet VII). So the speaker tries his best to describe her
eyes but finally he realizes that he can’t find anything on the
earth which glitters to compare to the brightness of her eyes:
Not to the Sun: for they doo shine by night;
nor to the Moone: for they are changed neuer;
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J. C. WANG, Z. S. LI
nor to the Starres: for they haue purer sight;
nor to the fire: for they consume not euer;
Nor to the lightning: for they still perseuer;
nor to the Diamond: for they are more tender;
nor vnto Christall: for nought may them seuer;
nor vnto glasse: such basenesse mought offend her; (IX,
The smile on the lady’s graceful face is also attractive and
sweet. “Indeed, throughout the sequence she is certainly one of
the most smiling and ‘chearefull’ ladies to appear in any Eng-
lish sequences” (Martz, 1991: p. 106). The sweet smile is “the
daughter of the “Queene of loue”, expressing “all thy mothers
powrefull art” to make the lover’s soul “rauished in a trance”
(Sonnet XXXIX). For this smile with “amiable cheare”,
Spenser compares it to the sunlight in the summer which is
pleasant and lovely (Sonnet XL).
But for the lover, love is not always so sweet and so pleasant.
In opposition to the lover’s enjoyment of the physical beauty is
his suffering from the lady. For Spenser, love is a war and bat-
tle, for which the lover must be brave, bright and patient to
fight again and again with his “sweet” and “cruell” warrior
(Sonnets XI, XII, XIIII, and LVII).
All these sufferings seem to be a kind of test. In Sonnet
LXIII, after unendurable trial and testing, the lover does see the
happy shore in front of hi m. And Sonnet LXIIII celebrates their
joyful kiss, in which he tastes the odour of his lady that smells
more fragrant than any flower. And in Sonnet LXVII, unlike
other sonneteers such as Rime 190 of Petrarch and “whoso list”
of Wyatt, the lover finally catches his “deer” after a long pur-
suit and attempt:
There she beholding me with mylder looke,
sought not to fly, but fearelesse still did bide:
till I in hand her yet halfe trembling tooke,
and with her owne goodwill hir fyrmely tyde; (LXVII,
The tying of a half-trembling deer suggests the betrothal to
the lady who is still nervous about her new life (Maclean &
Prescott, 1993: p. 614). And the lady’s “paradoxical submission
must be attributed not to the successful suit of the amorous
male, but to her own change of heart and willing participation
in a delicate act of self-conquest” (King, 1990: p. 168). Al-
though sonnet LXVII seems an announcement of the lover ’s
fulfilment of desire, actually t he lov e is a mutu al one indeed for
both the young man and the lady.
Such is the love story that Amoretti tells in the secular world.
In the story Spenser interprets his idea of love between real
human beings. It expresses the un-expectable fate and the long
painful process of the lover’s wooing, and also the pleasant
feelings of true love between a couple of earthlings who can
marry each other finally.
A Sacred Love
Spenser’s love does not only belong to the secular world
between earthlings, but it identifies itself with sacred nature
with characters of Platonism and Christian ideas as well.
Spenser’s attitude toward love in Amoretti agrees with that of
Platonism. According to Plato, man in motion drives, desires
and struggles to achieve the culminating objects of his desire,
and man’s desiring always implies a desire to what is good. For
this supreme object of man’s desiring, Plato calls it the good or
absolute beauty. All man’s driving is motivated by a search for
beauty and goodness (Singer, 1984: pp. 53-54).
Rivers (1979: p. 35) explains that the central theory of Plato
and his followers is that of the two worlds—the Ideas or Forms
theory. The first is the world of Ideas or Forms, which is the
world of Being, stable, eternal, immutable and perfect. The
second world is that of a copy of the first one, which is the
world of Becoming and change. The human being belongs to
the second world, and his soul which comes from the first has a
longing for a return or ascent to the first.
In Symposium, love is a staircase between the two worlds,
and man can get the absolute beauty or the ideal love in the
other world by passing five steps: from love of physical beauty
to love of God (Plato, 1993: pp. 47-48).
The bearing of Platonism can be seen easily in Amoretti.
Sonnet VIII is, first of all, a praise of “absolute beauty” and
virtuous love in Platonic idea. Spenser says that the lady is
more beautiful than any pretty girl and her “living fire” shines
and burns up and up to “the maker”—the God, so that the
blinded Cupid cannot shoot the darts while the “Angels” lead
the frail minds to rest on her “heavenly beauty bound” with
Lewis (1998: p. 144) sums up that the essential attitude of
Platonism is aspiration or longing: the human soul, imprisoned
in the shadowy, unreal world of Nature, stretches out its hands
and struggles towards the beauty and reality of that which lies
(as Plato says) “on the other sides of existence”. Thus the lady
in sonnet VIII, with an image of ascending up to the real world,
is the avatar of Platonic world of Idea, a world of the original,
real and clear:
More then most faire, full of the liuing fire,
Kindled aboue vnto the maker neere; (VIII, 1-2)
The holy conceptions of Platonic love is implied rather than
stated also in many other sonnets, such as Sonnets III, VII, IX,
XLV, LXI, LXXII, LXXIX and sonnet LXXXVIII. In Sonnet
III, the lady is “the soverayne beauty”, with her heavenly fire
kindled in the frail spirit of the lover raising him from baseness
to pureness. The lover is at loss for her “celestial hew” and he
can only speak and write the ideal love in his heart that his wit
cannot dictate. In Sonnet XLV, Spenser regards the lady a s the
image of “Idea”. Because the world of “forms” is only visible
to intellect, no ear thly eyes c an enjoy the immortal beauty:
Within my hart, though hardly it can shew
thing so diuine to vew of earthly eye,
the fayre Idea of your celestiall hew,
and euery part remai n es immortally; (XLV, 5-8)
In Sonnet LXI, the lady is a saint of the first world and “the
Idoll” of the lover’s thought. She is divinely worked, born of
the brood of heavenly Angels and is brought up “with the crew
of blessed Saynts”. Sonnet LXXIX presents the real nature of
the Platonic ideal beauty:
That is true beautie: that doth argue you
to be diuine and borne of heauenly seed:
deriu’d from that fayre Spirit, from whom all true
and perfect beauty did at first proceed; (LXXIX, 9-12)
Spenser also endows the love between the couple with Chris-
tian idea. Amoretti compares the lover’s wooing for love to the
J. C. WANG, Z. S. LI
worship for God with the desire for salvation from the fallen
world to the heavenly. A case in point is Sonnet XXII. On the
first day of the holy Lent, a holiday for fasting and penitence
with devotion, the lover is willing to do some service for the
lady, his “sweet Saynt”. The lover wants to build a fair temple
for the lady in his mind, in which he puts her bright and noble
image. He, like a sacred priest who is devotional and pious
enough for God, will sit before the godly image, praying, con-
templating and expecting day and night without any distracting
There I to her as th’ author of my blisse,
will builde an altar to appease her yre:
and on the same my hart will sacrifise,
burning in flames of pure and chast desyre:
The which vouchsafe O goddesse to accept,
amongst thy deerest relicks to be kept; (XXII, 9-14)
It is clear that the lady in this sonnet is the lover’s goddess,
the source of his bliss. Therefore the lover, being a sinful man
originated from the first Adam, is re ady to sacrific e his heart as
a dearest reli c to he r on t he alta r to cal m her i re, and at th e sa me
time, the lover himself can get election from the fleshly to the
holy world. Such comparison of the lover’s wooing to the wor-
ship for God’s grace emphasizes Spenser’s praise for spiritual-
ized love which is saintly because of God’s love of mankind.
A Combined Love
Spenser is an exceptional genius with a diversified idea about
love. But actually earthly love and sacred love accord with and
interact with each other. Amoretti distinguishes Spenser from
the Renaissance sonneteers of his age by combining earthly
love and sacred love together with marriage as the holy aim, as
Nelson (1965) puts it:
Spenser neither declares the earthly incompatible with
the heavenly, as Sidney does, nor does he envision an un-
broken ascent which spurs earth in its aspiration for
heaven. He would have both loves, the one infinitely good,
the other good too because, though finite, it imitates the
infinite (p. 114).
To explore such mixed qualities of the love in Amoretti,
Spenser demonstrates his artful skill at using the token of carnal
love—the image of Cupid. Traditionally there are two Cupids
in mythological history. Hyde (1990: p. 201) states that the
false Cupid is blindfolded, plays cruel spots with his bow and
arrow, and kindles lustful fires in the hearts of random victims,
while the true Cupid, who is an unarmed one, benevolent and
gentle, goes in places apart from the world of man. It is not
unusual for the winged god bearing darts to appear so many a
time in Amoretti. What makes Spenser specific is his use of this
old-traditional token of love: he gets Cupid under the control of
reason so that the blinded god cannot shoot his arrows freely to
arouse lustful desire to make the random victims die of burning
with filthy “lo ve”.
In Amoretti, there is a happy king of lovers with “girland
crouned” (Sonnet XIX), a winged God whom the lover asks to
shorten his journey so that the lover and the beloved can be
conjoined (Sonnet LX). In contrast, there is also a cruel and
torturing Cupid darting arrows. The unique art to handle the
image of the gods of love, especially the cruel one, makes the
earthy love and the sacred love united.
Amoretti gives a figurative description of Cupid darting
through the lady’s eyes which are pretty and powerful enough
like the fatal arrows, and even a glance from these eyes can
make a frail heart burn flame of desire. The lover says to his lady:
Thrugh your bright beams doth not the blinded guest,
shoot out his darts to base affections wound:
but Angels come to lead fraile mindes to rest
in chast desires on heauenly beauty bound; (VIII, 5-8)
Since the inspiring beams of the beloved derives from the
heavenly light, Spenser does not let Cupid’s darts to harm the
base affections of the lover, but on the contrary, Angels come
to guide the lover to rise up and up until to the chaste desire
(not erotic burning fire) in the saintly world. This is a suitable
experiment of Spenser trying to combine sublunary love with
And in Sonnet XVI, Spenser exemplifies his skilful ability to
master Cupid. One day the lover’s heart is in amazement for the
“immortal light” of those lovely eyes, in whose glancing “le-
gions of loues” shoot their “fyry bright” darts at those who is so
rash to gaze at the beauty. Then
One of those archers closely I did spy,
ayming hi s a rrow at my very hart :
when suddenly with twincle of her eye,
the Damzell broke his misintended dart; (XVI, 9-12)
This time the lover avoids Cupid’s destructive arrows not by
angels’ help but by the twinkle of the lady’s eyes. This “twinkle”
of the beauty who is “diuine and borne of heauenly seed”
(Sonnet LXXIX) stops the “misintended dart” but it does not
stop love: it makes the earthy love more sweet and holy in a
deliberately playful and smiling way. The “twincle”, therefore,
embodies the lady’s reason to control fleshly desire, and at the
same time, i t serves the function of directing the earthly love to
a unification with heavenly love.
Earthly love and sacred love is tied to each other inextricably
in Amoretti: they are interactional and interdependent. The lady,
who symbolizes the divine beauty, “deriu’d from that fayre
Spirit” and made of “the skye”, another “Element” besides the
four elements earth, water, fire and air (Sonnet LV), works as
the lifting agent to the lover because the lover recognizes that
the love is “my soules long lacked foode, my heauens blis”
(Sonnet I), and in return, the lover, a wooer among “men of
meane degree” (Sonnet LXI), will also help the lady to be more
virtuous and more holy.
So when the lady looks at him mildly with lovely appearance,
the lover’s “soule” is inspired with life and love (Sonnet VII),
and this love is his “liues last ornament” by whom his “spirit
out of dust was raysed” (Sonnet LXXIIII) “to an higher pitch”
when thinking of “whose heauenly hew” (Sonnet LXXX).
It is also true that the lover, although being lowly, produces a
stimulating effect on his beloved. Even the lady herself takes on
contradictory aspects: she is an absolute beauty of divine virtue
with saintly nature and she is also an earthly woman in the
temporal world with her feet being on the earth. So for the lady
there exists a problem of salvation, for which the lover plays an
active role in the matter of the lady’s leaving earth for heaven.
…thinke how she to heauen may clime:
treading downe earth as lothsome and forlorne,
that hinders heauenly thoughts with drossy slime; (XIII,
OPEN ACCESS 29
J. C. WANG, Z. S. LI
In such a case, the lover’s courtship becomes essential.
Therefore the lover asks the lady’s grace “to vouchsafe to look
on me” because “such lowlinesse shall make you lofty be”
(Sonnet XIII). He promises to praise her “up to a high degree”
(Sonnet LXXXII) “since your light hath once enlumind me,
with my reflex yours shall encreased be” (Sonnet LXVI).
This interdependent nature of the union of earthly and sacred
love agrees with Plato’s idea of love. Quitslund (1990: p. 547)
points out, quoted from Phaedrus 255D, that when love is ex-
changed mutually the lover and the beloved are mirrors to each
other. And Rivers (1979: p. 38) gives a further explanation that
in Ficino’s system each order in the universal hierarchy—body,
soul, angelic mind and god—aspires to that above, and man
always struggle to reach god. But because of the intermediate
position of human’s soul, man can both look upwards or
downwards which shows that he has free choice whether to
reach the truth or not. Spenser applies his mirror metaphor in
Sonnet XLV. In this sonnet the lover persuades the lady not to
look at herself in the crystal mirror because her goodly image
and beautiful face appears clearer in his mind than in the mir-
Leaue lady in your glasse of christall clene,
Your goodly selfe for euermore to vew:
and in my selfe, my inward selfe I meane,
most liuely lyke behold your semblant trew; (XLV, 1-4)
That the saintly image of the lady is contained in the heart of
the lover clearly illustrates that the saintly nature of the beloved
helps the lover to be holy and at the same time the lover works
as a stimulus to make the beloved more lofty.
Such is the love Spenser strives for in Amoretti, love both
being earthly and sacred, for the character of which Nelson
(1965) sums up:
Spenser’s system of love, as even so cursory a study
shows, reaches upward from this world but keeps foothold
within it… He saw a likeness between the love that draws
the sexes together, producing noble deeds and perpetuat-
ing the race, and the love that draws man to God and fills
the world with beauty (p. 115).
And therefore the thematic meaning of Spenser’s Amoretti is
justified itself. Firstly, quite different from lust or simple erotic
desire which Spenser calls “base things”, what Spenser needs is
pure and true love which is full of true emotions with pleasant
feelings between real human beings on the sublunary world.
Secondly, Spenser’s love in Amoretti is a complexity being
both earthly and sacred, aiming at marriage, which possesses a
holy nature of longing for the soul and virtue to ascend to the
heavenly world of God.
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