RVDELY thou wrongest my deare harts desire,
In finding fault with her too portly pride:
the thing which I doo most in her admire,
is of the world vnworthy most enuide.
For in those lofty lookes is close implide,
scorn of base things, & sdeigne of foule dishonor:
thretning rash eies which gaze on her so wide,
that loosely they ne dare to looke vpon her.
Such pride is praise, such portlinesse is honor,
that boldned innocence beares in her eies:
and her faire countenance like a goodly banner,
spreds in defiaunce of all enemies.
Was neuer in this world ought worthy tride,
without some spark of such self-pleasing pride.
This sonnet begins as a response to words we didn’t hear, but have to imagine. Somebody has just rudely wronged the woman Spenser loves, and he is rebuking that somebody.
The charge against Spenser’s beloved? She’s haughty, stuck-up, and thinks she’s too good for some things. “Portly” didn’t mean “fat” back then, but “having noble comportment,” from its etymological root in porter = carriage. Why does she carry herself at such a remove from common things?
Spenser’s response? Not simply that she’s allowed to have that attitude because she really is too good for some things. It would be easy enough to justify her “scorn of base things” by exalting her above them. But Spenser takes an even higher path, and argues that the thing the implied insulter is offended by is precisely the thing Spenser loves most: Her “lofty lookes” and “portly pride” constitute “the thing which I doo most in her admire.”
If Spenser’s beloved (the Elizabeth he would soon marry) carries herself with pride, he knows better than to think that she should descend to the level of his friends who scorn her aloofness. He needs her to maintain that self-possession, because he needs to be drawn upward to it rather than dragging it down to his level. Even if she seems unattainably far above him, and he is tempted to draw her downward, he resists the temptation so energetically that he finds material for praise in her “too portly pride.” It is proud like a banner that flies over military triumph “in defiaunce of all enemies,” enumerated as “base things,” “foule dishonor,” and “rash eies.” She marches on in a victory of modesty, chastity, and “boldened innocence.”
In Spenser’s time, it had long been a poetic convention that you would throw your heart and your best poems at a woman whose station was higher than your own, unattainably higher. Romantic love in the courtly mode got most of its power from straining against social limits of some kind, either of class or moral convention. Spenser is not interested in those games.
And his woman is not playing hard to get: she really is hard to get.