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SOCIAL SCIENCES & HUMANITIES Puritanism in Edmund Spenser's Amoretti and Epithalamion: Refashioning the Petrarchan Sonnet



This paper analyses Edmund Spenser's sonnet sequence Amoretti and its concluding sequel Epithalamion within the context of Puritanism. By highlighting the Puritanical concepts in Spenser's two poetic works, the two researchers demonstrate the aspects in which Spenser parts ways with the Petrarchan sonnet tradition. Spenser offers a pure, Christian love that ends in holy matrimony as an alternative to the unsanctified, unrequited love in Petrarchan sonnets. Moreover, this research identifies the segments of Spenser's poems wherein Platonism is exceedingly manifested. Through the textual examination of the two aforementioned works, it becomes evident that nuances of the Puritan faith come to light in Spenser's depiction of a holy, Christian courtship and marriage, in his portrayal of the lady as an embodiment of heavenly light in contrast to the inferiority of earthly existence and in his parallel presentation of the lover's suffering for his angelic lady as an allegorical reflection of the agony endured by the Puritan to gain Heavenly Grace.
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 27 (2): 1189 - 1206 (2019)
ISSN: 0128-7702
e-ISSN 2231-8534
Journal homepage:
Article history:
Received: 04 April 2017
Accepted: 13 February 2019
Published: 28 June 2019
E-mail addresses: (Muna Mohamad Abd-Rabbo) (Layla Farouq Abdeen)
* Corresponding author
© Universiti Putra Malaysia Press
Puritanism in Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion:
Refashioning the Petrarchan Sonnet
Muna Mohamad Abd-Rabbo1* and Layla Farouq Abdeen2
1Dept. of English Language, Literature and Translation, Faculty of Arts, Al-Zaytoonah University of Jordan,
11733 Amman, Jordan
2The World Islamic Science and Education University, 11947 Amman, Jordan
This paper analyses Edmund Spenser’s sonnet sequence Amoretti and its concluding sequel
Epithalamion within the context of Puritanism. By highlighting the Puritanical concepts
in Spenser’s two poetic works, the two researchers demonstrate the aspects in which
Spenser parts ways with the Petrarchan sonnet tradition. Spenser offers a pure, Christian
love that ends in holy matrimony as an alternative to the unsanctied, unrequited love in
Petrarchan sonnets. Moreover, this research identies the segments of Spenser’s poems
wherein Platonism is exceedingly manifested. Through the textual examination of the two
aforementioned works, it becomes evident that nuances of the Puritan faith come to light
in Spenser’s depiction of a holy, Christian courtship and marriage, in his portrayal of the
lady as an embodiment of heavenly light in contrast to the inferiority of earthly existence
and in his parallel presentation of the lover’s suffering for his angelic lady as an allegorical
reection of the agony endured by the Puritan to gain Heavenly Grace.
Keywords: Amoretti, Edmund Spenser, Epithalamion, holy marriage, platonism, puritanism
The Amoretti sonnet sequence by Edmund
Spenser (1595) embodies numerous
Petrarchan conventions. The lady’s
physical charms as well as her chastity both
inspire and torture the speaker. However,
Spenser (1595) departed from Petrarch
by describing a pure, Christian love that
led to marriage in Epithalamion. The
Petrarchan sonnet is not only a poetic
tradition, but also a structure of feeling
Muna Mohamad Abd-Rabbo and Layla Farouq Abdeen
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 27 (2): 1189 - 1206 (2019)
in which love ourishes in the absence of
mutuality. What distinguishes the Amoretti
sequence is that aggressive masculine
activity is met with female passivity
albeit by diverse structures of the lady’s
interactive response. According to Sanchez
(2012) in ““Modesty or Comeliness”:
The Predicament of Reform Theology in
Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion”,
Spenser’s two poetic creations concur with
various Christian ideals in their portrayal
of a Protestant alternative to the Petrarchan
convention. Therefore, these poems reveal
a distinct discrepancy between a Catholic
idealization of celibacy and a Protestant
celebration of marriage. Spenser was an
Anglican and more specically a Protestant;
furthermore, during his early years, he was
deeply inuenced by Puritanism. As Hume
(1984) stated, “The religion to which he
[Spenser] adhered throughout his life was
fervent Protestantism which requires the
label ‘Puritan’ during a specic period”.
According to Abrams (2000), “In his
[Spenser’s] early days, he was strongly
inuenced by Puritanism [and] remained a
thoroughgoing Protestant all his life”.
Critics have extensively explored aspects of
the Puritan faith as it appears in Spenser’s
works, focusing on the manifestation
of certain Puritan beliefs in his poetic
achievements on one hand, and the integration
of Spenser’s religious convictions with an
espousal of the Renaissance spirit on the
other. (e.g. Crawforth, 2013; Lethbridge,
2006; Oser, 2014; Padelford, 1916; Tolman,
1918; Van Gelder, 1961). This paper follows
a critical /analytical approach to highlight
the Puritan concepts apparent in Amoretti
and Epithalamion, specically the Puritan’s
notion of marriage, the contrast between
earth and heaven, the Puritans’ interpretation
of grace, and their attitude towards suffering.
The Petrarchan Sonnet
The Petrarchan sonnet was rst created by
Francesco Petrarch (1304-74) in Italy in the
14th century. Petrarch’s sonnets depict the
plights and perils of the tortured lover whose
deep, desperate love for Laura, the lady of
all his sonnets, remains unrequited. The poet
/ lover uses hyperboles and sensual imagery
in order to dramatize the excruciating agony
inicted upon him by the unattainable lady.
The poems do not portray a mutual love
that leads to a blissful marriage, but rather
a deeply passionate one-sided love which
leaves the speaker lamenting the misery of
unfullled desire.
Petrarch’s sonnet sequence comprises
366 poems, and it is considered to be
“the first collection of poetry that was
completely and seriously devoted to a
single subject or person” (Johnson, 2009).
Although Petrarch’s poems were rooted
in the medieval tradition of courtly love,
Petrarch departed from the practices of
courtly love in his omission of “the nal
consummation: his is a love that is endlessly
frustrated” (Johnson, 2009). Spenser, on the
other hand, deviates from the Petrarchan
depiction of an unrequited, exasperated love
and instead illustrates a pure Christian love
that is eventually sanctied through holy
Puritanism in Spenser
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 27 (2): 1189 - 1206 (2019)
The Platonic Tradition
The Renaissance in Europe was marked
by the rebirth of Classical scholarship and
philosophy. Amongst the works revived
was Plato’s Symposium which explicates his
concept of love as the means for the lover
to transcend the material, physical world
through the meditation upon the idealized
beauty and virtue of the lady who is the
object of this platonic love. Therefore,
“the purpose of love was to draw the lover
toward a higher, heavenly idea of beauty
and virtue, eventually leading him to a
better understanding of God” (Johnson,
2009). Love in the Platonic sense serves as
a ladder that carries the lover high above
earthly desires to the elevated realms of
celestial eternity.
The concept of the Platonic ladder of
love refers to the process in which the poet
/lover may surpass the material world in
pursuit of spiritual delights. In Spenser’s
sonnets, the speaker contemplates his
beloved lady’s divine beauty and ascends
heavenwards away from all that is earthly
and ephemeral. It is the lady’s celestial spirit
and beauty that enable the poet to transcend
earthly materialism. Consequently, the
principle of the Platonic ladder may be
linked to the Puritan preference of the
Hereafter as opposed to the physical world.
The Philosophy of Marriage in
The Puritans hold a very high opinion of
marriage. In his article “Puritan Christianity:
The Puritan at Home”, Pronk (1997) quoted
Thomas Gataker as saying “there is no society
more near, more entire, more comfortable,
more constant, than the society of man
and wife”. Furthermore, Pronk (1997)
explained that unlike the Catholics and the
Protestants who thought that the purpose
of marriage was procreation, the Puritans
shifted the emphasis from procreation to
companionability. Furthermore, the Puritans
placed emphasis on physical love as part
of the “joys experienced within the bonds
of matrimony.” The husband was the head
of the household, but his rule should be “as
easy and gentle as possible, and strive to be
loved than feared” (Pronk, 1997).
For William Gouge, the influential
Puritan writer, the mutual love between a
husband and wife originates in the heavenly
spheres. Johnson (2005) discussed the
theological framework surrounding Gouge’s
portrayal of marriage stating that “love is the
source of duty in Christian marriage, and the
source of love is divine grace” (Johnson,
2005).The Puritans’ celestial visualization
of marital love is reflected in Spenser’s
platonic depiction of the speaker’s passion
towards his beloved in his Amoretti and
Another prominent Puritan thinker
who was instrumental in shaping the
Puritans’ concept of marriage was Robert
Cleaver. According to Johnson (2005),
Cleaver modies the priorities in the sacred
Christian marriage by giving precedence
to companionship over the conventional
aim of procreation. In that regard, Cleaver
“reversed the traditional order of the ends of
marriage: mutual society, not procreation,
is the most fundamental” (Johnson, 2005).
Muna Mohamad Abd-Rabbo and Layla Farouq Abdeen
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 27 (2): 1189 - 1206 (2019)
The Puritan notion of companionability
in the marriage comes to light extensively
in Spenser’s sonnets and in his marriage
poem as will be argued within the upcoming
sections that present an analysis of Amoretti
and Epithalamion.
Lane (2000) stated in his article “Two
Schools of Desire: Nature and Marriage
in Seventeenth-Century Puritanism” that
Puritanism understood the institution
of marriage as a training ground in the
learning of affection, which eventually led to
Christ’s captivating beauty. Similarly, John
Robinson argued that a man’s love for his
wife must be “like Christ’s to His Church:
holy for quality and, and great for quantity”
(cited in Pronk). Pronk (1997) elaborated
further by pointing out that the Puritans
developed John Calvin’s ‘companionate
marriage.’ “They conceived of marriage
as a deep spiritual union of spirit and mind
as well as body...on the spiritual and often
intellectual level, the Puritan wife thought
of herself as his [her husband’s] equal…The
core of their union is the communion with
Christ.” (Pronk, 1997). Neuman (2016) in
“Puritanism and Modernist Novels: From
Moral Character to the Ethical Self” argues
that the inuence of Puritanism is evident
in literature through religious allegories.
Therefore, from a Puritan perspective, man
and wife in holy matrimony solidify their
bond in their constant journey towards the
love of Christ.
According to Verma (2001) in Amoretti
(A Detailed Consideration of the Poem
with Text), Spenser’s innovation in the
Petrarchan sonnet springs from the fact
that the poet dedicates his sonnets to his
future wife Elizabeth. However, Johnson
(1993) in “Gender Fashion and Dynamics
of Mutuality in Spenser’s Amoretti”
pointed out that Spenser identified the
sonnet lady in Amoretti within a complex
of terms that depicted her in a series of
metaphors identifying her as merely ‘she’.
Nonetheless, Spenser parted ways with
previous sonneteers, who pursued an
unattainable married woman. Thus, as Paul
Cavill (2007) argued, Spenser did not revel
in profane love; instead, his aim was towards
“an Orthodox Christian ….marriage”. On
the other hand, Renwick (1933) in Edmund
Spenser: An Essay on Renaissance Poetry
suggested that the love described in Amoretti
was really a “nameless and undefined
aesthetic experience recognized as love”.
This undefined experience need not be
aesthetic; it could be deeply religious.
In line with this religious angle, the
whole Christian marriage between the
poet and the lady can be viewed at a more
allegorical level as being parallel to the
relationship between a Puritan and Christ.
The poet enjoys suffering for the sake of his
lady in the hope of reaching an elevated love
in the same manner that a Puritan suffers
in his quest for Christ’s grace. The lady is
of divine origin and in numerous instances
she is depicted as possessing the power of
life and death regarding the poet. Johnson
(1993) cited Spenser’s extensive allusions
to the church calendar in Amoretti as proof
that the poet here described “a metaphoric
presentation of the Christian’s love for
Christ” (cited in Wirth, 2007).
Puritanism in Spenser
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 27 (2): 1189 - 1206 (2019)
Amoretti as an Expression of Puritan
In Amoretti, Spenser depicts the courtship
between himself and his future wife
Elizabeth. This sonnet sequence displays
a variety of Puritanical concepts, namely
the sanctity of marriage as a mirror of
mankind’s sacred love of Christ, the contrast
between Heaven and Earth, and the Puritan’s
quest for God’s grace as attained through
physical and spiritual anguish.
In sonnet I, the lady’s life and death
giving powers are depicted in the rst two
lines: “Happy ye leaves when as those lily
hands, / which hold my life in their dead
doing might” (1-2) She has an “Angels
blessed look” (11) as testimony to her
celestial essence. On the other hand, the
Puritan idea of earthly companionability
surfaces in this sonnet; for the speaker, the
lady’s presence is akin to food for his soul.
Moreover, she embodies his “heaven’s
bliss” (12), a phrase that reinforces the
Puritan notion that the union in a marriage
brings the couple closer to God in his
heaven. According to Johnson (1993), the
description of the lady in this sonnet shifts
from a fragmented one to a whole “voiced
gure who relates mutually with the poet-
lover”. He says that:
Only as the lady emerges from
marginality to a voiced, named, part
of the sequence, do we realize it is
very much she, not the poet-lover, who
shapes the sequence’s plots, themes,
conflicts and emotive fluctuations.
Ultimately, it is she as female creator-
nurturer who regures both gender and
genre, the poet and the poetry, the lover
and his love. In the process, materiality
is incorporated into spirituality, chastity
is redened, and the female presence
becomes a force benecial rather than
inimical to men. In the complex ludic
interplay of a poet fashioning poetry,
and thus fashioning a self, the poet also
fashions a lady; and she in turn, as the
poet’s projection of female other who
is, nonetheless, more than an imagined
‘muse’, refashions the poet. (pp. 505-
The lady in this sequence steps out
of the passive shadows confined to the
traditional Petrarchan lady. She possesses
an independent spirit which is angelic in its
life-giving, celestial qualities. At the same
time, she retains the pious morality and
earthly companionability as the speaker’s
future wife. The lady here guides, nurtures
and reshapes the essence of the speaker.
Moreover, she instils within him a sense of
peace and wholeness that aids him in his
own quest for piety and inspiration.
By that same token, the lady’s control of
the poet’s life comes to light anew in sonnet
VII. One gentle glance from the “fayre eyes”
(1) and the speaker’s soul fills with life
and love. In contrast if the lady eyes him
“askew” (7) then the poet will die as though
struck by lightning. In sonnet XI, the poet
compares the lady to a “cruell warriour”
(3) who constantly wages war on him. She
torments him and makes his miserable life
her “vnpittied spoil” [unpitied] (8). Holding
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his life in her hands, she forces him to
continue living, unable to die in peace. He
concludes that although all pain and wars
have an end, no amount of prayer can make
his pain cease.
In sonnet IX Spenser explicitly draws
a comparison between his beloved and the
Maker. He is at a loss to nd something
on earth with which he can compare the
“goodly light” (4) of her “powerful eies”
(2). Her rays are superior to the sun, moon,
stars, re, lightning, crystal and glass. He
concludes that she resembles the Maker
“whose light doth lighten all that here we
see” (14).
In sonnet LXXIX, the poet describes the
lady’s spiritual beauty which far surpasses
the esh. He declares that her true beauty
lies in her “gentle wit” (3) and “vertuous
mind” (4) which are not transitory like
physical beauty. Here the lady is such a
sublime being that she is given Christ-like
dimensions. She is of “heavenly seed: /
deriv’d from that fayre Spirit” (10-11). Her
everlasting beauty is from God because
“true beauty derives from God” (Yale; cited
in Wirth, 2007). The sensitivity to feelings
of ecstasy, anguish and profound longing
came to characterize Puritan conversion
narratives as a natural expression of such
an impulse. Moreover, the capacity to
comprehend the depths and heights of loss
and joy became increasingly a measure of
one’s own nature before God.
In sonnet VIII the lady is said to be
born of the life-giving re that is kindled in
heaven by the Maker. The brightness of her
eyes compels Cupid to strike arrows that
may conjure up base emotions. However,
because she is of celestial origin the angels
stop such baseness and guide “fraile
mindes” (7) towards heaven’s beauty. In
the third quatrain the speaker addresses his
sweetheart directly and informs her of her
positive influence on him. “The Puritan
wife is her husband’s helper, counselor
and comforter” (Pronk, 1997). In this
sonnet she helps the speaker formulate his
thoughts and his inner being. He tells her
“you stop my toung, and teach my hart to
speake” (10). By contemplating her beauty,
he goes into a meditative silence and delves
into his heart’s deepest sensibilities and
sentiments. The world is brighter because
of her companionship; without her, darkness
The Contrast between Heaven and
The contrast between heaven and earth
is explored by the poet in sonnet III.
Puritans forsake the earth with all its worldly
temptations and corruptions and instead
incessantly strive for God’s heaven. The lady
here with her “souerayne beauty” (1) and
“heavenly fyre” (3) renes the poet’s soul
and raises it from the baseness of the earth,
so that he looks upward towards God in his
heaven. The beloved’s divine rays motivate
the poet in his voyage towards heaven; he
views earth as inferior to celestial light and
therefore unworthy of any attachment by
the poet: “That being now with her huge
brightness dazed / base thing I can no more
endure to view” (5-6).
Puritanism in Spenser
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 27 (2): 1189 - 1206 (2019)
This earth /heaven dichotomy is
reiterated in sonnet V. The poet admires the
lady’s “portly pride” (2) even though others
criticize her for it. She deserves to be full of
pride as testimony of her heavenly origin.
She has nothing but contempt and “scorn
of base things” (6) in the world of mortals.
Her warranted pride is also the theme of
sonnet LXI wherein she exemplies “the
glorious image of the makers beautie” (1),
“divinely wrought” (5) and “Angels hevenly
borne”(6). The speaker concludes that a
person of such heavenly magnitude should
be worshipped rather than loved.
In sonnet XIII, the poet contrasts the
lady’s mortality with her constant climb to
heaven. She looks down upon this world
of which she was born as being “lothsome
and forlorne”(11). Not only is the poet on a
voyage heavenwards, but rather the lady as
well is on a journey of “self-transcendence”
(Turner cited in Wirth, 2007), heaven bound.
In this sonnet Puritanism meets Platonism. A
Puritan always looks up to heaven in order
to embrace God’s grace; in the same fashion,
anyone who subscribes to the Platonic
ladder of love surpasses this world in pursuit
of celestial delights. In addition, Puritanism
differs from previous doctrines in its view of
women. According to Pavlick (1993) in her
thesis The Puritans and Women: Equality
under God, “Christian women were spoken
of favourably, and were thought to be just as
spiritual -- and just as capable of spirituality
-- as men were. This image of the capable
woman was very removed from the pre-
Reformation idea of women as the ruin of
humanity, and the religious image, far from
being misogynist, praised the role of women
in the community”. The lady here is just as
capable of ascending the Platonic ladder
as the male speaker is. She becomes more
than a lovely face or an objectied ideal as
she expresses her emotions, experiences,
and interpretations apart from the stylizing
poet-lover’s attributes to her. She constructs
a discourse of language and action in which
she views herself equal, if not superior, to
the lover.
Mortality versus immortality in the
Afterlife is the topic of sonnet LXXV. The
poet writes the lady’s name on the sand near
the sea, but the waves keep erasing it. His
beloved tells him what he is doing is in vain
because she herself will be “wyped out” (8)
just like her name. The poet refuses to give
up and declares that despite inevitable death,
his sweetheart shall be immortalized in his
lines. He will continue writing poetry in
heaven and their love shall continue living
in the Afterlife: “Where whenas death shall
all the world subdew, / our love shall live,
and later life renew” (13-14).
In sonnet LV the poet wonders what
mould his lady is made of and how she can
combine beauty with cruelty. Spenser’s
lady refuses to remain a literary projection
of the lover’s desire and by such a refusal,
she is liberated from the patriarchal order,
which would restrict to a passive observer.
Consequently, he gives proof that she cannot
be composed of the four elements: Earth,
water, air and re. He concludes in the end
that she is made of a mould from up above
because “to the heaven her haughty lookes
aspire” (11). Just like in sonnet XIII the lady
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Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 27 (2): 1189 - 1206 (2019)
is seen as someone ascending the Platonic
ladder to transcendence. However, it is also
evident that she is capable of hesitation,
anger, and pain. At one point she laughs and
at another she deconstructs the poet-lover’s
language and actions.
Interestingly enough, the contrast
between spirituality and physicality is
explored once again in sonnet XXXV
through the myth of Narcissus. Rogers
(1976) explored this mythological angle in
his article “Narcissus in Amoretti XXXV.”
Rogers (1976) explained that in this sonnet
the poet compared the lady to Narcissus’
image in the lake; however, there was
reversal in the outcome of the poet’s
contemplation of his lady. Unlike Narcissus
who loses his life because of his vanity and
pursuit of worldly possessions, the poet
here feels his adoration of the lady has
some “genuine value”. Rogers elaborates
further by bringing forth the idea of the
Platonic ladder of love as it appears in
this sonnet. By meditating upon the lady’s
heavenly beauty, the poet is drawn away
from any “preoccupation with transitory
physical things” (Rogers, 1976). The poet
declares that all things in this world are
vain and worthless “shadowes saving she”
(14). The lady’s essence rises above earthly
materialism, and therefore serves as a
worthy quest. Once more, the whole notion
of the Platonic ladder of love bears a clear
connection to the Puritan disdain of the
worldly in favour of the heavenly.
Puritanical Suffering and Gaining
Grace in Amoretti
Another Puritan concept in this poem is the
agony that the seeker suffers in his pursuit
of this elevated beauty. He cannot remove
his eyes from the lady, “the object of their
paine” (2); in the same fashion, a Puritan
does not remove his eyes from looking up
to God despite any suffering at His hands
in this world.
Platonism comes to light once again
in sonnet LXXII. Verma (2001) explicates
how the poet is xated on Plato’s ight of
the spirit (p. 74). As the speaker aspires
to reach the pure sky, he feels weighed
down by earthly things and his mortality.
The lady’s lofty beauty lls his soul with
“heaven’s glory” (6) and sets it on the right
course upwards. He also feels that their
grand love for one another is just like heaven
on earth: “Hart need not with none other
happinesse, / but here on earth to have such
hevens bliss” (13-14).
The spirituality of their love is
emphasized once again in sonnet LXVI. The
lady is given such an elevated status that she
cannot nd a match in heaven or on earth.
Nevertheless, she bestows her love upon this
low-ranking poet. The speaker then declares
that the love they share endows her with
“greater glory gate, / then had ye sorted with
a princes pere” (9-10). Their bond surpasses
all earthly riches and social rankings. The
light she shines on him will increase because
of its reection in his adoration of her: “Yet
since your light hath once enlumind me, /
with my reex yours shall increase” (13-14).
As Okerlund (1982) pointed out, the poet’s
Puritanism in Spenser
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 27 (2): 1189 - 1206 (2019)
admiration of the lady “elevates their love
into a spiritual phenomenon that transcends
mere earthly matters” (39). In sonnet XVII
he once again contrasts her “Angels face”
(1) with “the world’s worthlesse glory” (3).
Yet these rhetorical gures, argued Johnson
(1993), were hardly agreed upon terms
between the poet-lover and the lady as they
depicted a male fantasy that illustrated the
structures of dominance and submission.
The idea of pure love versus lust evinces
itself most prominently in sonnet VI in
Amoretti. Here the lady remains too proud
to submit to the speaker’s love, but this
dejection does not discourage him. He feels
his love is “not lyke to lusts of baser kynd”
(3) and will mature slowly as it is directed
towards heaven. He compares his deep
desire to an oak that takes a long time to
ignite but when it does “it doth divide great
heat, and makes ames to heaven aspire” (7-
8). In this sonnet the Puritan idea of directing
the lovers’ union towards Christ (heaven)
becomes clear. In actuality, Puritanism
focuses on the nature of love as well as
the respective duties of both husbands
and wives within a patriarchal society. To
Puritans, desire becomes a signicant path
toward the acknowledgement of God since
the desire of the heart is the most pleasing
to Him. Therefore, when a husband and
wife enter into matrimony, Puritans expect
a greater manifestation of love to emerge
from that bond. The speaker’s love for the
lady grows and becomes more intense the
more the ame of his desire burns towards
heaven. The Puritans also embrace suffering
as an integral component in their journey for
a higher purpose. In the nal two lines, the
speaker states that he can endure “taking
little paine / to knit the knot, that shall ever
remaine” (13-14). He feels that this pain he
suffers at the hands of his lady strengthens
and puries his love and makes their union
in marriage all the more worthy. In addition,
the blazing desire in this sonnet hints at the
physical aspect of love which the Puritans
accept as an essential part of the marital
bliss to come.
The Puritan’s positive attitude towards
pain is even clearer in sonnet XLII. He
speaks of “The love which me so cruelly
tormenteth, / So pleasing is my extreamest
paine.” He continues to say that the more
he suffers the more he wants to embrace
his bane. In sonnet XVII, he describes
the arrows that glide from her “sweet eye
glaunces” (9), and, in sonnet XVI the poet
expresses his fear at almost being slain by
the one of the deadly arrows that y from
the “immortall light” (2) of her eyes. At
the last minute her eye twinkles and the
arrow does not sink into his heart. Even
so he declares that he “hardly scap’t with
pain” (14). Transcending towards heavenly
altitudes does not come easily. He has to
suffer whenever he peers into the heavenly
rays that rise from her eyes. The poet’s
agony at any glance of the lady’s physical
charms is of course a Petrarchan convention.
However here, the fact that the arrow does
not actually strike his heart shows that this
love is not utterly devastating to the poet-
lover. It is not love that inicts him with
pain but rather the transcending experience
that accompanies it. In addition, the lady
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he seeks is attainable unlike the ever out of
reach Petrarchan lady, and it is the twinkle
in her eye that ultimately saves the poet. In
other words, and in the course of the entire
sequence, the Amoretti lady is available to
the poet-lover and she may even be eager for
his love but only on her own terms.
The poet’s suffering in his pursuit of
the sonnet lady’s “grace” (1) appears in
sonnet XX. In a series of comparisons, the
poet reveals how the lady here is crueller
than lions and lionesses alike. Even though
he yields before her and begs for mercy,
she places her foot on his neck and stomps
down his life. He addresses her saying that
even a lion has mercy upon a lamb that
yields before him; therefore, don’t let your
unmatchable beauty be tainted with the
blood of a prey supplicating before you:
“Fayrer then fayrest let none other say, /
that ye were blooded in a yeelded pray”
(13-14). The poet’s “humbled hart” (2)
here can allude to the humbling experience
of a Puritan as he overcomes the harshness
of this world in his pursuit of heaven’s
salvation. The idea of suffering for a lofty
cause reappears in sonnet LXIII. Here the
poet feels he can endure all types of pain
in order to “gaine eternall blisse” (14).
Apparently, she at one point ignores his
attention remaining aloof during even the
rituals of courtship in a probable attempt to
keep the lover’s desire going.
The concept of grace resurfaces in
sonnet XL but from a positive angle:
Mark when she smiles with amiable
And tell me whereto can ye liken it:
When on each eyelid sweetly doe
An hundred Graces as in shade to sit
From the poet’s point of view, the lady’s
sweet smile cannot be justly compared to
any earthly object. The word “Graces” is
capitalized, an indication that the speaker
intends a meaning beyond that of human
grace. It could have holy implications, a
grace that brings peace to the mind and spirit
of the poet. Just like the title of the sonnet
sequence, which is pluralised meaning little
loves, here grace is also in the plural form as
it is granted gradually in little bits. Later on,
in the sonnet the lady’s smile, with its balm-
like quality is compared to mild sunshine
after a violent storm: “…the fayre sunshine
in somers day: / that when a dreadfull storme
away is it” (6-7). She brings delight to his
“storme beaten hart”(13); as he meditates
upon her “Graces” his spirit is uplifted and
he forgets his troubles.
In sonnet LXXXIIII the poet pushes
away every “spark of lthy lustful fyre”
(1) that may disturb the lady’s repose.
Instead the poet brings forth only the purest
emotions when he visits her in her “bowre
of rest” (7). According to Okerlund (1982)
this sonnet represents “an argument between
two aspects of the poet’s soul – his spiritual
being and his baser physicality. The speaker
may be attempting to control passions
which threaten the sacred purity of his love
in a dialogue with self.” (Okerlund, 1982,
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p. 41) The poet does not acquiesce to his
physical desire which would taint the purity
of his love. Although the Puritans celebrate
physical pleasure in marriage, they look
down upon pre-marital relations.
In sonnet LXIIII the poet combines
religion with sensuality. His images echo
those of the Song of Solomon in which
the language of love “was considered in
Spenser’s day to be an allegory of the union
between Christ and his church” (Cavill,
2007). As Cavill (2007) pointed out, Spenser
did not conne himself to secular sources
to find images that alluded to physical
intimacy. The Song of Solomon begins
with “Let him kiss me with the kisses of
his mouth” (cited in Cavill, 2007), while in
the sonnet the poet begins by stating that
he found “grace” (1) in the lady’s kiss. It is
arguable that this grace the poet nds in his
beloved’s lips could echo God’s grace. Even
this physical act of kissing is associated with
his quest to be at one with Jesus Christ. His
love for this lady transcends this world and
transports the poet to a realm of spirituality.
Cavill (2007) argued that the image of
the deer in sonnet LXVII was also taken
from a holy source. Psalm 42 reads as
follows: “As the hart brayeth for rivers of
water, so panteth after thee O God” (cited in
Cavill, 2007). He hunts after the lady just
as a believer strives for God’s salvation.
Johnson (1993) discussed another angle of
this sonnet. Here the poet is no longer the
hunter because after he has almost given up
the hunt, the deer approaches him willingly:
There she beholding me with milder
Sougth not to y, but fearlesse still did
Till I in hand her yet half trembling
And with her owne goodwill hir fyrmely
tyde (9-12)
According to Johnson (1993), “the
male surrenders his will to mastery, and the
female surrenders her freedom”. From a
Puritan perspective this situation between
the two lovers is ideal in the making of
a successful marriage. The man’s rule is
not so forceful; he relinquishes the role
of the hunter. There also has to be willing
submission on the part of the woman, “as
part of her obedience to Christ” (Pronk,
1997). In the preceding sonnet or the
“betrothal sonnet”, the love between the
poet and the lady “is synchronized with the
divine love of Christ in the nal outcome of
reconciliation of opposites” (Wirth, 2007).
In sonnet XXII the poet speaks of the
“holy season” (1) for fasting and praying.
Here the poet wants to build a temple for
his “sweet Saynt” in his mind and his
thoughts will perform sacred ceremonies
like priests. He will sacrice his heart on
the temple’s altar where it will burn with
the paradoxically “pure and chaste desire”
(12). Their love is associated to a number of
religious references in this sonnet to further
reinforce the sacred quality of their Puritan
love for one another.
Another overtly religious sonnet is
LXVIII or “Easter”. From Cavill’s (2007)
viewpoint this sonnet alludes to Jesus’
love and suffering for humanity. The
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poet describes “the sacred love of God
for those he created” (Cavill, 2007). He
sancties their love once again by creating
a link between it and Christ, as love is the
lesson to learn from Christ’s sacrice for
mankind. A Puritan couple should always
direct their love for each other towards their
love for Christ. Johnson (1993) stated that
suffering for both lady and lover becomes
an opportunity rather than a sacrifice.
Through acceptance of deprivation, both of
them achieved a reward that proved to be of
greater value than individual triumph.
As the wedding approaches, the lady
begins to harbour some doubts in sonnet
LXV. The two lovers have reached a
degree of mutuality wherein the lady “is
liberated enough to express her very human
doubts about marriage” (Johnson, 1993).
The speaker assures her that her fears are
unnecessary because she is not really losing
her freedom as much as she is gaining two
liberties. The poem here expresses some
Puritan ideals in marriage such as “loyal
loue” (10), “simple truth” (11), and “good
will” (11). The lady’s willing acquiescence
to her future husband is necessary for the
marriage to work; matrimony for the lady is
likened to a pleasant bird cage: “the gentle
birde feels no captivity / within her cage,
but singes and feeds her fill” (7-8). The
“spotless pleasure” (14) echoes the Puritan
celebration of physical enjoyment made
pure in marriage.
In the nal sonnet in Amoretti the two
lovers experience a period of separation
that is unbearable to the poet. He compares
himself to a Culuer, or “dove” (Verma,
2001) that sits on a branch singing her
songs and awaiting her absent mate. The
speaker mourns the parting of his beloved,
for his world is sad and dismal without her.
He uses the word “mourn” to allude to his
dead life in the absence of her glorious light.
Nothing can bring surcease to his sorrows
except “her owne ioyous sight, whose sweet
aspect both God and man can move” (10).
Once again, the lady is attributed with larger
than life dimensions; she not only brings
joy to people on earth, but she also moves
God in his heaven with her divine beauty.
The Puritan idea of companionability makes
a strong presence in this sonnet. The lady
“appears again as the absence presence;
her voice is not heard but recognized as the
‘sweet aspect’ that alone can ‘move’ the
lover” (Johnson, 1993). Even in her absence
the speaker always carries her essence in his
heart for solace.
Spenser continues the theme of cruel
love in the attached Anacreontics, a series
of epigrams with which the poet concludes
the Amoretti sequence. These poems
which feature Cupid and the goddess of
love perpetuate the lover’s suffering in
Amoretti and foresee the holy union in
Epithalamion. As Silvia (1989) pointed
out, the Anacreontics should be viewed
“as the nale of the Amoretti, rather than
the Epithalamion (which is treated more as
the fullment of the courtship process)”.
Seen in such a manner the Anacreontics
revealed “the ambivalent and inconclusive
nature of love” (Silvia, 1989); consequently,
these epigrams “recapitulate the conicts
in the sonnet sequence and anticipate the
epithalamial resolution” (Silvia, 1989).
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Although these epigrams convey the
painful woes of love as an experience, they
also portray “love as a gift of grace” and a
“benevolent, healing experience” (Silvia,
1989). The episodic narrative that unfolds
in the epigrammatic sequence reinforces the
never-ending paradoxical cycle of cruel /
joyous love. The poet-lover draws parallels
between himself and Cupid as both the
victim and victimizer in the experience of
love. In the rst epigram it is Cupid who
entices the lover to chase after the bee,
grab it forcefully and get stung; in a similar
fashion when the speaker tries to impose his
passion on his beloved, he receives a sharp
dose of suffering from his lady. Ironically, in
epigram four Cupid is the victim of his own
playful ways when he hastily grabs a bee in
order to ‘subdue’ it and ends up inicted with
the bee’s sting. Cupid’s mother, Venus, the
goddess of love takes pity on her wounded
son and heals him only after she gently
advises him to have mercy on the lovers
whom he has inicted with anguish in the
past for his own merriment. Cupid heeds his
mother’s words albeit temporarily only to
resume his mischievous ways after healing
from his wounds. The speaker concludes the
nal stanza in the fourth epigram wondering
about the inconclusive nature of love until he
remembers the lesson to be learned from the
story of Cupid and the bee. Love is both an
all-consuming and a healing experience; the
poet-lover must not insist upon reciprocity
from his beloved. Only when he can wholly
submit to the encounter with Cupid’s arrow
can he gain the mutuality of affection that
he so desperately seeks.
In this epigrammatic narrative, Spenser’s
combines religious and mythological
imagery revealing his espousal of Christian
and Renaissance values. Such a combination
of Christian and Classical images come to
light most prominently in the portrayal of
Venus and Cupid. Miola (1980) remarked
it is Venus’ divinity, her
compatibility with the notion
of a loving Christian God, that
sparks the comparison between
her meeting with Cupid and the
sinner’ s reconciliation with God.
The striking similarity between this
simile and the epigram’s reunion of
cupid and Venus points to the latter’s
allegorical significance. In both
passages Venus acts as a symbol
of divine power whose primary
function is the healing of spiritual
wounds and the reinstauration of
sinners to a life of grace. (p. 63)
The image of Venus holding Cupid in
her lap brings to mind “the iconography
of the Madonna and child” (Silvia, 1984).
Interestingly enough, the poet’s beloved
is associated with Venus in epigram three
when Cupid mistakes the speaker’s lady
for the goddess of love. In the nal line of
this epigram, the poet lover is not surprised
that Cupid has made such a mistake, stating
that “many haue err’d in this beauty”
(8). Once again, the lady’s divine beauty
is emphasized; by meditating upon his
lady’s unsurmountable beauty, the poet is
both aficted and healed by her powers.
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Platonism comes to the fore here anew;
love appears as the means for the lover
to transcend the material, physical world
through the meditation upon the idealized
beauty and virtue of the lady who is the
object of this platonic love. Likewise, the
Puritan strives for God’s grace through the
contemplation of the beauty of divine ideals.
Spenser’s use of sensual imagery and
Classical allusions alongside his portrayal
of Puritan suffering for heavenly light in
the Amoretti and the Anacreontics reect
the poet’s amalgamation of his Puritan
faith with the essence of the Renaissance
in his works. Spenser’s Puritanism is one
which is qualied by the Elizabethan spirit
of humanism and the rebirth of Classicism.
Padelford (1916) summed up the two
disparate dimensions of Spenser’s character
best in the following statement: “Spenser
was in the main an admirable exponent of
the Renaissance, however contradictory
to its spirit his theological professions
may have been”. Thus, Spenser embraces
the Renaissance revival of Classical
scholarship and philosophy in addition to
the Elizabethan emphasis on humanistic
values, but all within the spiritual milieu of
his Christian faith.
Holy Puritanical Union in Epithalamion
After this period of separation, the two
lovers are united in holy matrimony in the
poem Epithalamion. This poem celebrates
the “marriage of mind, body and spirit”
(Johnson, 1993), a phrase that resonates with
Puritan ideals in marriage. This exemplies
Spenser’s model of the sacred relationship
between man and woman and the appropriate
kind of love relationship between them. The
images in this marriage ceremony display
various Episcopalian components; Spenser’s
employment of such imagery illustrates his
position, even during his strongest espousal
of Puritan beliefs in his early days, as a
“moderate Episcopalian Puritan” (Hume,
1984). In fact, in her analysis of Spenser’s
The Shepeardes Calender, Hume (1984)
noted that “ Spenser supported episcopacy
as did many Puritans; but his management
of the argument in the Calender …indicates
that he participated during those years [the
1570s] in the zealous Puritan search for
reform of ecclesiastical abuses”. Although
it is hard for critics to ascertain whether
Spenser retained his Puritan faith during the
1590s when he wrote the Amoretti sequence
and the marriage song, most agree that he
remained a devout Protestant throughout
his life.
Cavill (2007) marked that Spenser
utilized the Classical form in Epithalamion
to suit his Protestant beliefs. Even though
the poem contains numerous mythological
references, it still focuses in the end on “a
Christian marriage service before an altar
attended by a ‘holy priest’ (224) and choirs
of angels singing alleluia (240)”. The poet
rejoices in describing the marriage bed, but
as a means to produce children: ‘that may
raise a large posterity’ (417).
The Protestant notions of marriage as
pointed out by Cavill concur with the Puritan
sacredness in marriage; nevertheless, the
poet’s emphasis on the joys of the marital
chamber express the Puritans’ emphasis on
the physical pleasures of matrimony.
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Procreation is of course the Catholic
and the Protestant purpose in marriage
while physical pleasure is regarded with
disapproval. The Puritans on the other hand
have a healthier attitude to the joy that comes
with this holy union. This positive attitude
manifests itself in Epithalamion in the
marital chamber scene. The poet welcomes
the night after the marriage ceremony and
says he does not want anything to disturb
“The safety of our joy” (325). Lane (2000)
stated that:
[T]he Puritans revealed themselves
as intensely a people of desire. In fact,
this evocation of passion was what
made necessary the severe cautions
against the danger of misdirected
longing that we have come to
regard as characteristically Puritan.
The excesses of natural theology
(the pantheistic identification of
God with nature) and the peril of
disordered affections were perennial
concerns in the preaching of Puritan
pulpits. In a spirituality where
temporal beauty was recognized
as an unpolished mirror of eternal
Beauty, there was always the danger
of lingering at the enjoyment of the
one without pressing on to ecstatic
union with the other…This theme
of “desiring God” had appeared
so often in Puritan sermons that
desire itself had become a dominant
way of articulating the knowledge
of God, the surest test of human
character, the authenticity of
spiritual experience generally, and
the very nature of prayer. (pp. 374-
The repetition of the word “woods” in
the refrain “That all the woods may answer
and your Eccho ring” can also have some
Puritan relevance. For Puritans all forms
of worship don’t necessarily have to be
performed in the church. In this poem,
the marriage ceremony takes place in the
church, but its joy resonates in the birdsong
of the surrounding woods. Lay (2016)
explained that Spenser dedicated a major
part of his marriage poem, namely twelve
stanzas, “to the anticipation, preparation
and procession” of the wedding but only
one stanza for the ceremony itself” thereby
revealing a certain “hesitation surrounding
the marriage service”. Due to the fact
that marriage was no longer considered a
sacrament in the Anglican Church, “chastity
within the marriage had…surpassed the
virtues of perpetual virginity”. The wedding
goes beyond the connes of the church; it
is no longer a religious ritual performed in
church but rather a spiritual and physical
union between two individuals whose love
harmonises the couple both with natural
beauty and God’s grace.
Many of the Amoretti lady’s divine
attributes are praised here once again, but
her pride has been converted to humility.
Even the heavenly light in her eyes has been
toned down to modesty; she is too humble
to lift her eyes up: “Her modest eyes to
behold…Ne dare to lift her countenance too
bold, / But blush to heare her prayes sung
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Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 27 (2): 1189 - 1206 (2019)
so loud” (159, 162-3). According to Klein
(1992) in her article “Protestant Marriage
and the Revision of Petrarchan Loving in
Spenser’s Amoretti”, this poem traces the
poet’s success in the “fashioning of the
lady from a proud mistress into a humble
bride who exhibits the richly suggestive
“proud humility” [306] that characterises a
virtuous Christian wife”. In addition to this
traditional image of the humble protestant
bride is her celestial independence. The
lady here retains the Puritan wife’s spiritual
equality with her husband that the Puritans
emphasize (Pavlick, 1993; Pronk, 1997).
She joins the poet in their mutual flight
towards heavenly light through their holy
union and pure love. Spenser celebrates the
beauty of her spirit and “The inward beauty
of her lively spright” (186) just as he did in
the preceding sonnet sequence as well as
her chastity. Her love is pure and free of
any “base affections” (196). Throughout
the poem, in the events preceding the
ceremony, within the ceremony itself and
in the privacy of the “brydall bourse” (299),
the poet sings the praise of his lady’s angel-
like physical and spiritual beauty. Selincourt
(1961) in The Poetical Works of Edmund
Spenser summed up this nuptial song as
a celebration of the “magic union of the
lover’s passion with deep religious feeling,
of a free and ardent joy with a deep and
tender reverence”. This combination of the
religious and the sensual is characteristic
of the whole sonnet sequence as well
as the marriage poem. The merging of
elements that are at once of Classical,
mythological, Anglican, Protestant and
Puritan significance in varying degrees
illustrates furthermore the hybridized spirit
of Spenser as a man and a poet; he truly
embodies the values of Christian theology
and Renaissance humanism.
In these two works Spenser succeeds in the
intermingling of his religious beliefs with
Petrarchan conventions on one hand, and
the Platonic ladder of love on the other. By
placing the lady high above upon a pedestal
as is the norm in Petrarchan poetry, Spenser
parallels her lofty status to the sought-after
heavenly light in Platonism and the striven
for salvation in God’s Grace. During the
sequence of Amoretti, Spenser gradually
transforms the lady in the sonnets from a
fragmented form to an angelic gure to a
voiced being with an identity. Spenser, by
that, shifts in his sonnets from the portrayal
of the transcendent ideal to the phenomenal
everyday life. All throughout the Amoretti
sequence as well as in Epithalamion, the
poet exhibits numerous Puritan tendencies,
especially with regard to marriage, suffering,
spirituality and Grace.
The two authors express their gratitude to the
English departments at their two respective
universities (Al-Zaytoonah University of
Jordan and The World Islamic Science and
Education University) for all their support
and encouragement.
Puritanism in Spenser
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 27 (2): 1189 - 1206 (2019)
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How did authors such as Jonson, Spenser, Donne and Milton think about the past lives of the words they used? Hannah Crawforth shows how early modern writers were acutely attuned to the religious and political implications of the etymology of English words. She argues that these lexically astute writers actively engaged with the lexicographers, Anglo-Saxonists and etymologists who were carrying out a national project to recover, or invent, the origins of English, at a time when the question of a national vernacular was inseparable from that of national identity. English words are deployed to particular effect – as a polemical weapon, allegorical device, coded form of communication, type of historical allusion or political tool. Drawing together early modern literature and linguistics, Crawforth argues that the history of English as it was studied in the period radically underpins the writing of its greatest poets.
I have chosen to focus on several poets of the "long 1590's," since I would argue that together they represent, for the first time, a confluence of literary love traditions that have previously existed independently across multiple centuries, nations and languages. First, I consider Ovid and the influence of the witty, Ovidian elegy love tradition as practiced by Christopher Marlowe and John Donne. Then I will discuss Petrarch and the serious sonnet sequence tradition, the influence of which is evident in the sonnet sequences of Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser. Next, since both the afore-mentioned love traditions are based outside of marriage, I will discuss how the reality of the place for marriage in society in the 1590's and the literary representations of love and marriage create a gap, one that Edmund Spenser bridges with his joint publication of his sonnet sequence, Amoretti, with his marriage poem, Epithalamion. I aim to show how these traditions developed in England in the same, brief, period of time (the long 1590's) and that they simultaneously flourished, even though they seem to be so different. Finally, I argue that William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet exemplifies the convergence of these traditions.
The rhetorics of Elizabethan sonnets and metaphysical lyrics reflect differing perceptions of the phenomenon of love. The sonneteer's voice separates lover from loved one with formal syntax, bifurcated pronouns, and images of pursuit and entrapment. The metaphysical voice unites the lovers with direct address, shared dialectics, and images of physical and intellectual equality.