THE souerayne beauty which I doo admyre,
witnesse the world how worthy to be prayzed:
the light wherof hath kindled heauenly fyre,
in my fraile spirit by her from basenesse raysed.
That being now with her huge brightnesse dazed,
base thing I can no more endure to view:
but looking still on her I stand amazed,
at wondrous sight of so celestiall hew.
So when my toung would speak her praises dew,
it stopped is with thoughts astonishment:
and when my pen would write her titles true,
it rauisht is with fancies wonderment:
Yet in my hart I then both speake and write,
the wonder that my wit cannot endite.
Paraphrased: Her beauty is so great that it dwarfs and dominates me. Her light is so bright that it sets me on fire, and makes me unable to look at anything unworthy. I should tell everybody about it, but when I try to, I can’t say anything out loud or write anything down. The words stay in my heart.
This third sonnet in Spenser’s Amoretti is the first really great one in the sequence of 89 sonnets. It stands by itself as a powerful and memorable poem. C. S. Lewis said that his beloved “Spenser was not one of the great sonneteers,” but a poem like “the sovereign beauty” threatens to overturn his summary judgment.
Spenser captures the elevating power of love flawlessly with this poem. In just a little over 100 words, he states the absolutely simple idea, and he states it with equal directness and complexity. Nearly every assertion or image is repeated, which clarifies the poet’s meaning and double-underlines it.
Beauty calls forth the response of love, and that love improves the lover by making him more like the beauty. She raises him from baseness, turning his eyes away from “base thing I can no more endure to view.” Any man who’s ever wished he could be the kind of husband his wife deserves will understand something of this. But the idea of being worthy of something beautiful is a small idea, only appropriate to the most mundane things. Spenser admires, and teaches us about admiring, a beauty of such “huge brightnesse” and “of so celestiall hew” that its light kindles fire that raises the beholder up.
Beauty like that doesn’t shop around looking for somebody who is worthy of it. It has to summon somebody to turn away from base things and become more like it.
Beauty like that is sovereign. And even though Spenser is using heavenly language, and sounds like some latter-day Saul on a romantic version of the Damascus road, this poet is not yet talking about God. He actually means to marry the woman who bears this immense beauty.
At this point, although the sonnet can be read and appreciated on its own, it’s good to remember that Spenser is the author of the very complex Fowre Hymns on love and beauty, and also of the Faerie Queene, the quintessential tale of knightly chivalry and derring-do for to win faire ladies affectionnes and all that jazz. He has in mind the big picture: God, the uncreated love beyond all our human love stories. And he also has in mind the little picture: his girlfriend. Spenser is the poet who knows his place, so when he talks about the sovereign and heavenly beauty of the woman he admires, he knows what he’s doing. Watching him weave together the story of how God gets at us through our human loves is what reading the Amoretti is all about.