Spenserian Sonnet: Definition, Theme & Examples

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Spenserian Sonnet

      Although, the term ‘sonnet’ and the ligure ‘Shakespeare’ have an obvious connection to he referred in literature, it is not merely he who has popularized the genre for the one and only time in the Elizabethan period. In fact, it is also Edmund Spenser, a contemporary of Shakespeare, who has innovated the form even further and the resulting poetry has been called the Spenserian sonnet ever since. For centuries, sonnets of the Petrarchan and Shakespearean varieties have been associated with cliches of love poetry. They are full of flowery descriptions of the poet’s beloved and bold declarations of their undying Hdelity. Quite frequently, however, these poems express a passionate devotion to a woman whom the author was not actually interested in at all. Spenser, on the other hand, meant every amorous word he penned. We know this because he wrote his collection of 89 sonnets, or Amoretti, in 1594 to celebrate his coming marriage to his beloved, Elizabeth Boyle. Building on the affectionate framework that already existed, Spenser immortalized his true love by giving the sonnet a fresh purpose and form.

      Like other sonnets, Spenser’s contain fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. However, his rhyme scheme and the manner in which he decided to divide these lines distinguish his form from the others. The scheme Spenser chose was adapted from the rhyme model he used in. his famous epic poem The Faerie Queene and follows the pattern ABAB.BCBC.CDCD.EE. Here we have the sonnet divided into three quatrains, or segments of four lines, followed by a rhyming couplet. Spenser’s form is also commonly referred to as a linking sonnet because the ‘B’ and ‘C’, rhyme elements weave the quatrains together. This is Sonnet No. 41, from Spenser’s Amoretti. The first line is broken into the 5 iambs and the second syllable of each is stressed and in this way all the remaining lines divisible.

      Spenser links the idea of each quatrain into a continuous thought, which he reflects in the rhyme scheme. The final couplet, once again distinguished by elements of rhyme, characteristically presents a different idea from the rest of the sonnet or comments on it in some way. Spenser has to be the most doggedly iambic of any poet. Only his dogged metrical iambs are his rhyming. Rhyming in English requires greater skill and finesse, testing a poet’s resourcefulness and imagination. Spenser’s sonnets reflect that capacity - differing from Shakespeare’s mainly in their rhyme scheme. Here is a favorite Sonnet his Sonnet 75 from Amoretti:

Sonnet 75

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay
A mortal thing so to immortalize,
..for I myself shall like to this decay,
And eek my name he wiped out likewise.
Not so (quoth I), let haser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live hy fame:
My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name.
Where when as Death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.

Theme of Spenserian Sonnets

      Spenser was a great nationalist and his poems were generally celebrating imperial power of the British part by justifying modern politics, ecclesiastical, political and military matters. Spenser had to make his poem relevant, in the sense, to the glories, real and imaginary, moral and spiritual, politics and history in an excellent way of allegorical interpretation. But he could not ignore the dark side of the picture also. As the major themes, Spenser includes in his poem — conflicting love, the blazon convention, pride and humanity, dangerous beauty, passage of time, pagan love, and legacy. For example, in Amoretti love is often depicted as a conflict. In some sonnets it is a battle waged between the beloved and the suitor: “she cruell warriour doth her sefe address, / to battell, and the weary war renew’th”; in others it is the natural conflict between predator and prey. The speaker never loses his desire for the beloved, but often sees the pain involved as almost too great for the reward he hopes to find at the end. The mostly common blazon convention of Spenser’s time was another major thematic aspect of his sonnets. It is a poetic form in which a beautiful woman’s features are described using metaphors for each specific body part. In some sonnets and in Epithalamion, he makes such a list of his beloved’s physical features; in others he inverts the blazon by taking one feature of the beloved and comparing it to several different items, as when he compares her beauty to that of a rose, eglantine, and juniper — all flowers whose beauty is protected by sharp thorns or briars.

      In Amoretti Spenser sometimes criticizes the pride of his beloved for her proud stance, and sometimes defends her pride as an outward manifestation of her inner perfection. She is not arrogant - she merely is who and what she was created to be. Her humility, on the other hand, is also asserted. She humbles herself to accept his proposal, and questions why one so celestial in nature would join her to one so clearly mundane. Others seem incapable of appreciating her humility, however; they see her pride and are moved to either envy or awe at her overpowering self-confidence and the innate virtue of her being. Along with her pride and humanity, Spenser also refers to her dangerous beauty: “cruel warrior” “a panther”. She is compared to a rose, her beauty is accessible only through thorns. Her glance brings life or death, while her refusal to accede to the suitor’s request threatens to kill him. Even in Epithalamion, Spenser cannot resist describing her inner beauty as something so awe-inspiring that those few who ever apprehend it would be struck motionless as one having seen mythical Medusa’s face and turned to stone. Spenser’s concern on the time and its flow is noticed in his sonnets, as his sonnets in Amoretti encompass New Year’s Day celebrations. It is an occasion for Spenser to reflect on both the past year and his past forty-one years of life. The reference to roaming the fields of nymphs and drink deeply in the bowers of Bacchus speaks actually of Spenser’s interest in pagan love. Spenser uses the lustiest of pagan traditions to emphasize his full-bodied passion for his bride and for life itself. In Spenser’s poetic world, there is no division between spirit and flesh; to exalt one is to exalt the other.

      Moreover, religion and spirituality are also the major concerns in Spenser’s sonnets. Through many imagination and personification, Spencer’s sonnets are specially moral as well as spiritual. Upon the conception of a distant ethical purpose, Spenser builds the plan of his poem. The ethics is the end and essential of his poem, as is also the case in The. Faerie Queene. In many of his sonnets he wrote for Elizabeth corresponding to certain dates in the church calendar. In Sonnet No. 68, Spenser uses the occasion of Easter to discuss God’s love, while tying it to the love he and his future wife share in the final lines:

Most glorious Lord of life, that on this day,
Didst make thy triumph over death and sin:
And having harrowed hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive us to win:
This joyous day, dear Lord, with joy begin,
And grant that we for whom thou didst die
Being with thy dear blood clean washed from sin,
May live forever in felicity.
And that thy love we weighing worthily,
May likewise love thee for the same again:
And for thy sake that all like dear didst buy,
With love may one another entertain.

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