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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XII. The Elizabethan Sonnet

§ 7. Spenser’s Amoretti

Spenser bestowed on his sequence of eighty-eight sonnets the Italian name of Amoretti. His heroine, his “sweet warrior” (sonnet LVII), is the child of Petrarch’s “dolce guerriera.” His imagery is, at times, assimilated with little change from the sonnets of his contemporary Tasso, while Ronsard and Desportes give him numerous suggestions, although he rarely stoops to mere verbal translation of foreign verse. Spenser’s Amoretti were addressed to the lady who became his wife, and a strand of autobiography was woven into the borrowed threads. Yet it is very occasionally that he escaped altogether from the fetters of current convention, and gave free play in his sonnets to his poetic faculty.

Spenser’s sentiment professedly ranges itself with continental and classical idealism. In two sonnets he identifies his heroine with the Petrarchian (or Neo-Platonic) [char] of beauty, which had lately played a prominent part in numberless French sonnets by Du Bellay, Desportes, Pontus de Tyard, Claude de Pontoux and others. Many Elizabethan sonneteers marched under the same banner. Drayton, in conferring on his sonnets the title Idea, claimed to rank with the Italian and French Platonists. But Spenser sounds the idealistic note far more clearly than any contemporary. He writes in sonnet XLV:

  • Within my heart (though hardly it can shew
  • Thing so divine to view of earthly eye),
  • The fair Idea of your celestial hew,
  • And every part remains immortally.
  • This reflects the familiar French strain:
  • Sur le plus belle Idée au ciel vous fustes faite,
  • Voulant nature un jour monstrer tout son pouvoir;
  • Depuis vous luy servez de forme et de miroir,
  • Et toute autre beauté sur la vostre est portraite.(Desportes, Diane, II, lxvii.)
  • Like the French writers, Spenser ultimately (in sonnet LXXXVII) disclaims any mortal object of adoration in ecstatic recognition of the superior fascination of the [char]
  • Ne ought I see, though in the clearest day,
  • When others gaze upon their shadows vain,
  • But th’ onely image of that heavenly ray,
  • Whereof some glance doth in mine eye remain.
  • Of which beholding the Idaea plain,
  • Through contemplation of my purest part,
  • With light thereof I do myself sustain,
  • And thereon feed my love affamish’d heart.
  • Pontus de Tyard had already closed the last book of his Les Erreurs Amoureuses on the identical note:
  • Mon esprit a heureusement porté,
  • Au plus beau ciel sa force outrecuidée,
  • Pour s’ abbreuuer en la plus belle Idée
  • D’où le pourtrait i’ay pris de la beauté.(bk. III, xxxiii.)