This post analyzes two sonnets about beauty by Edmund Spenser.
Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-1599) was the author of The Faerie Queene and the sonnet sequence Amoretti, which contains 89 sonnets about his courtship of Elizabeth Boyle. For more information about Spenser, see Sonnet 75.
The following two sonnets are from the Amoretti and they share a common theme of beauty. The original poems are on the left, and my modern English paraphrases are on the right. Below the poems is my analysis.
|Sonnet 15||Modern English|
|1||Ye tradefull merchants, that with weary toyle||You trade merchants who, with tiring work,|
|2||Do seeke most pretious things to make your gain,||Seek out the most precious things for your profit,|
|3||And both the Indias of their treasures spoile,||And who plunder the treasures of both the East and the West Indies,|
|4||What needeth you to seeke so farre in vaine?||Why do you vainly look for those treasures so far away?|
|5||For loe! my love doth in her selfe containe||For, look! my love contains in herself|
|6||All this worlds riches that may farre be found:||All the riches of the world that may be found far and wide:|
|7||If saphyres, loe! her eies be saphyres plaine;||If sapphires, look! her eyes are perfect sapphires;|
|8||If rubies, loe! hir lips be rubies sound;||If rubies, look! her lips are flawless rubies;|
|9||If pearles, hir teeth be pearles both pure and round;||If pearls, her teeth are pure round pearls;|
|10||If yvorie, her forhead yvory weene;||If ivory, her forehead is smooth ivory;|
|11||If gold, her locks are finest gold on ground;||If gold, her hair is the finest gold on the earth;|
|12||If silver, her faire hands are silver sheene:||If silver, her fair hands are bright silver;|
|13||But that which fairest is but few behold,||But the most beautiful thing about her, only few can see:|
|14||Her mind, adornd with vertues manifold.||Her mind, the home of many virtues.|
|Sonnet 79||Modern English|
|1||Men call you fayre, and you doe credit it,||You believe it when men call you beautiful,|
|2||For that your selfe ye dayly such doe see:||For you see yourself every day;|
|3||But the trew fayre, that is the gentle wit||But the true beauty is your gentle wit,|
|4||And vertuous mind, is much more praysd of me.||And virtuous mind, which I praise more.|
|5||For all the rest, how ever fayre it be,||For all the rest, however beautiful it may be,|
|6||Shall turne to nought and loose that glorious hew:||Shall become nothing, and loose that glorious form;|
|7||But onely that is permanent, and free||But only that is permanent and free|
|8||From frayle corruption, that doth flesh ensew.||From that frail corruption that overtakes all flesh.|
|9||That is true beautie: that doth argue you||That is true beauty: it contends that you|
|10||To be divine, and borne of heavenly seed,||Are divine and born from heavenly seed;|
|11||Deriv’d from that fayre Spirit from whom al true||Derived from that beautiful Spirit, from which all true|
|12||And perfect beauty did at first proceed.||And perfect beauty originally proceeded.|
|13||He onely fayre, and what he fayre hath made;||Only He and his creations are beautiful;|
|14||All other fayre, lyke flowres, untymely fade.||All other beauty soon fades like flowers.|
In Sonnet 15, Spenser tells the tradesmen (L1-L6) that they can stop searching far and wide for treasures because his love has them all. He compares the parts of his love’s body to sapphires (L7), rubies (L8), pearls (L9), ivory (L10), gold (L11), and silver (L12). However, Spenser concludes (L13-L14) that the most beautiful thing about his love is her mind, which has many virtues.
In Sonnet 79, Spenser says that men call his love beautiful, and she knows this because she sees herself every day (L1-L2). However, Spenser claims (L3-L7) that her true beauty lies in her “gentle wit” and “virtuous mind.” All other beauty will turn to nothing (L5-L6). The only beautiful thing that is free from corruption is that which the Divine has made. Since his love is beautiful, one can maintain that she is the offspring of the beautiful Spirit (L7-L12). Only the Spirit can make lasting beauty. All other beauty fades like flowers (L13-L14).
From these two sonnets, we can get an idea of Spenser’s idea of beauty. In Sonnet 15, he lists the beautiful parts of his love’s body, but says that the most beautiful thing about her is her mind. In Sonnet 79, he says that only what the beautiful Spirit creates is beautiful. We can assume that Spenser means that only his love’s immortal spirit will remain beautiful after her body undergoes decay. Therefore, Spenser values his love’s mind and spirit more than her body, for her beautiful mind and spirit are eternal and were created by the eternal.
In relationships, one can be attracted to another person’s body, but what is the real attraction? Can one body be attracted to another without the presence of a mind to feel that attraction? Obviously not. So why is the mind attracted to the beauty of a body? There are many reasons, but one of them is that the ego sees a trophy to possess, and the ego feels important when it wins that trophy.
If your ego feels insecure, and tells you that you are worthless by yourself, then the need is greater to find another self to make up for that inferiority complex. Thus, people search for a special partner to prove that they are not worthless. But then they feel guilty when they realize that they have taken the other person as a possession and have given nothing of value in return.
The only way to get out of this situation is to realize that one is not worthless and that one does not need another special body nearby to prove one’s worth. If one has true self esteem, then one can watch bodies come and go and not feel attached to their presence. The mind and spirit, which were created by the Great Spirit, or God, are never absent. The mind and spirit, in their original state, are unlimited and free, and the body only seems to temporarily limit them. Perhaps this is why Spenser prefers the mind and spirit over the body. The body, though attractive, is made of dust, while the mind and spirit are eternal and can partake of true beauty.