HAPPY ye leaues when as those lilly hands,
which hold my life in their dead doing might
shall handle you and hold in loues soft bands,
lyke captiues trembling at the victors sight.
And happy lines, on which with starry light,
those lamping eyes will deigne sometimes to look
and reade the sorrowes of my dying spright,
written with teares in harts close bleeding book.
And happy rymes bath’d in the sacred brooke,
of Helicon whence she deriued is,
when ye behold that Angels blessed looke,
my soules long lacked foode, my heauens blis.
Leaues, lines, and rymes, seeke her to please alone,
whom if ye please, I care for other none.
Edmund Spenser (1552-1599), immortal in English literature for writing the sprawling, unfinished epic The Faerie Queene, also wrote a set of sonnets he called Amoretti. There are 89 sonnets in the collection, and each of them is a little gem of careful composition, worth a close reading. They also, apparently, go together as part of a complete poetic project.
C. S. Lewis never tired of recommending Spenser, and not just as a nice fellow to read for diversion. Lewis made several strong statements about how Spenser’s works had the power to heal souls and re-order the reader’s affections in a deep way. In Lewis’ own words, “This kind of poetry, if receptively read, has psychotherapeutic powers.” (“Edmund Spenser 1552-99” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, p. 140). One critic has defined a poem as “a health-giving adjustment of impulses,” and Lewis said that this was surely a good description of Spenser’s poems. “The ‘great golden chain of Concord’ has united the whole of his world. What he feels on one level, he feels on all. … There is a place for everything and everything is in its place. Nothing is repressed; nothing is insubordinate. To read him is to grow in mental health.” Lewis says these things in The Allegory of Love, where he credits Spenser with reorienting the Western ideal of love away from the perverseness of a Petrarchan courtly love obsession, toward a kind of romance appropriate for real people. Married, Christian, Protestant people, in fact.
If all of this is enough to motivate you to read the admittedly difficult Spenser, then dig in. The serious book for serious people is The Faerie Queene, of which every educated person should eventually make time for reading Book I on the Redcrosse Knight of Holinesse.
But since it’s still summertime and the living is still easy, I thought I’d devote a little attention to Spenser’s Amoretti.
The first sonnet in the Amoretti, “Happy ye leaues,” is self-referential, a poem about poems. The speaking voice is the poet talking to his poem: “You lucky pages, you will be held by her.” She, the beloved, has lilly hands that are love’s soft bands. They’re lethal, with the power to put him to death: this is their “dead doing might.” These are the hands that hold the poet’s life, just as they hold the pages of his poems. The leaves of the pages tremble in her hands, as well they ought to: they are at her disposal, in her power, and in captivity to her. All of this may seem a bit abject and desperate, and it’s worth bearing in mind that Spenser has a thousand love songs echoing in his head, songs by desperate troubadors prancing around and moping out loud, “Alas! My lady slayeth my poor weak heart, alas alas, she is so cruel, what a beautiful meany!” and so on.
Spenser is handling this rather emo tradition very carefully, and later in the course of the Amoretti he will sort the whole thing out quite manfully. He knows it’s sick. If C. S. Lewis is to believed, Spenser is the love doctor and can be counted on to administer a health-producing adjustment of impulses.. But part of putting that “don’t kill me, cruel beauty” mentality in its place is doing complete justice to everything that’s true in it, and what’s true is that when you express your love for somebody, you are at their mercy. The poor love poet has put his heart (or as he says, h is life) in “lilly hands” that hold it captive. She loves me, she loves me not. The helplessness of the one who speaks his heart and offers his love is a central element of romance. It’s not the whole story, and it can be overstated. But a love poem that ignored the radical vulnerability of the lover would be a delusion.
The central structuring element of the poem is the progression from the pages on which the poetry is written, to the lines in which it is composed, to the rhymes which are its immaterial form. From leaves to lines to rhymes, Spenser talks to his poem at three levels of increasing inwardness or immateriality. The pages should be happy that they are to be held, the lines should rejoice that they are to be seen, and the rhymes are blessed because they are –this is a bit odd– because they are to behold the look of the beloved. They don’t just receive the look, but in some measure look back. Pages can be held, lines can be scanned, but what exactly becomes of rhymes? For one thing, Spenser says, they already share in the nature of the beloved: she is derived from Mount Helicon, a mountain of muses according to Hesiod, and his rhymes are bathed in the brook of that same mountain. She, an Angel, looks with blessing on the rhymes –not with the “lamping eyes” that deigned to look at the lines, but with a more spiritual look. That “blessed looke” is the food of the lover’s soul, his “heauens blis.”
“Leaues, lines, and rymes,” Spenser exhorts the three layers of his poem, “seeke her to please alone, whom if ye please, I care for other none.” Spenser climbs from the merely physical pages through the more refined lines to the immaterial rhymes which make possible some kind of communion already. But Spenser’s kind of climbing does not leave the lower levels behind. All three levels coexist as the rhymes work their ways in the mind of his beloved whose lamping eyes read the lines on the page she holds in her hands.
In a sense, not much is happening here. A poet tells his poem how great it will be when his loved one reads it. What matters is that the entire poem will be there: three levels simultaneously present. That matters because of the three levels of his beloved’s reception of the poem, with her hands and eyes and blessed look, three levels simultaneously present. And because of her, the poet speaks here in the first of the Amoretti as a complete man, fully present through the medium of his art to the only one he is really speaking to.
It’s the opening note of Edmund Spenser’s rehabilitation of romance for monogamous, Christian, Protestant lovers.