Believing that the Amoretti is very carefully constructed, Spenser scholars argue that the repetition recontextualizes Sonnet 35 such that what was merely lust in that sonnet is transformed to divine love in Sonnet 83. But if you ask me, it's probably just a printing mistake.
Edmund Spenser published his sonnet sequence Amoretti in 1595. The printer was William Ponsonby. The volume also contained nine brief poems that have come to be called Anacreontics and the much longer marriage poem "Epithalamion." Right from that first printing, Sonnet 83 in the sequence has repeated Sonnet 35 with only one notable difference, a single changed word in Line 6:
For lacking it they cannot life sustain,
and having it they gaze on it the more: (35.5–6)
For lacking it they cannot life sustain,
and seeing it they gaze on it the more: (83.5–6)
Aside from this one change, the variations between the two sonnets are minor.
The simplest explanation is that the sonnet was inadvertently repeated, either because Spenser mistakenly included it twice in the manuscript sent to the printer, or because of a printing error. J. W. Lever argues:
Whatever Spenser's intentions were, there are unmistakable signs of haste and botching in the little 1595 volume containing Amoretti and Epithalamion. Spenser was in Ireland at the time, and Ponsonby was given far too much of a free hand. The edition abounded in printer's errors, both of spelling and punctuation. ... Most striking of all was the printing of two versions of the same sonnet, differing in only one word, as nos. XXXV and LXXXIII. Perhaps the "hasty accidents" mentioned at the end of Epithalamion had something to do with this muddle; perhaps the manuscripts were disarranged in transit. Certainly we are not obliged to treat the printed edition as definitive or immutable. (p. 100–101)
The assumption that the repetition was unintentional has led some editors to leave out Sonnet 83 from the sequence, renumbering the original sonnets 84–89 accordingly. However, this view is not widely shared. Many scholars hold that Amoretti is a carefully patterned sequence that models the liturgy. For example, Kenneth J. Larsen claims:
The eighty-nine sonnets of the Amoretti, as numbered in the 1595 octavo edition, were written to correspond with consecutive days, beginning on Wednesday, 23 January 1594 and running, with one interval, through to Friday 17 May 1594: they correspond with the daily and sequential order of scriptural readings that are prescribed for those dates by the liturgical calendar of the Church of England. (p. 3)
On the basis of such numerological sequencing of the sonnets in Amoretti, critics have argued that the repetition of Sonnet 35 as Sonnet 83 cannot be accidental, and that Spenser must have intended readers to reinterpret the sonnet in a new context.
The conventions of Petrarchan sonnets furnish this context. Over the Rime Sparse, the 14th C. collection that served as the pattern for sonnet sequences in the English Renaissance, Petrarch's love for Laura moves from the physical to the spiritual plane. His desire for Laura becomes a desire for union with the divine. Laura's unattainability after her death becomes both the spur for the turn to the divine, and an emblem of the difficulty of achieving this union. Petrarchan conventions become a way to ascend what is called the Neoplatonic ladder. As Alexander Dunlop explains:
Neoplatonists held that as all beauty emanates from the One, with Whom the soul longs to reunite, earthly love may lead us upward to a contemplative or angelic love. (p. 588)
Scholars therefore claim that Sonnet 35 deals with earthly love, while Sonnet 83 lifts that love up into the realm of the divine. Reed Way Dasenbrock says that in Amoretti, the bridge between these two realms is holy matrimony:
Spenser in the way he ends the Amoretti is recovering ... Petrarch's ideal of a transcendent rest at the end of love and at the end of a cycle of love poems. Both locate that ideal in the Lady and Heaven, and they seek to fuse the two. The only way Petrarch can fuse them is in death, whereas Spenser fuses them in marriage. (p. 46)
Spenser's sequence is typically interpreted as marking the poet's courtship of Elizabeth Boyle, with their marriage celebrated in "Epithalamion." The sacrament of marriage transforms sexual desire from mere lust to the emblem and fulfillment of a sacred bond. Sonnet 35 represents the poet's desire when he is unenlightened and his lady unattainable. Over the course of the sequence, though, the lady educates the poet in the ways of holy love, and the two are betrothed. Carol Kaske states that the repeated sonnet 83 captures the unique nature of the state of betrothal, where courtship has been successful, but desire not yet fulfilled. She points out that the phrase "plenty makes me poor" (line 8) is a direct translation of Narcissus's words in Ovid's Metamorphoses: "Inopem me copia fecit":
Thus the proverb "Inopem me copia fecit" is wittily apt for the frustrations of the betrothed who sees but cannot see, possesses yet cannot possess his intended. The promise exacerbates the desire; to dramatize how anticlimactic this is, he actually repeats a pre-betrothal sonnet. (p. 276)
By contrast, William Clarence Johnson maintains that Sonnet 83 represents the poet's reëvaluation of the purely physical desire of Sonnet 35 as it is transformed the more disciplined desire for a union in marriage:
The lover's assessment of the real value of his experiences surfaces through the substance of reverie or memory, and in 83 the poet provides a virtual microcosm of the entire sequence. The poem maintains the Petrarchan idiom (now transformed), the autobiographical elements, the vanity theme, shadowy Neo-Platonism, and the contrasts between sterile and nourishing love. But in 83 the lover is no longer the voyeur but the voyant; what he sees is the experience of the past through new eyes, allowing him to see the present face to face. (p. 235–236).
These various intentional repetition arguments do have their strengths. One could also claim that Sonnet 83's reflection of Sonnet 35 is apt because of the Narcissus metaphor central to the pair—an argument I have not seen made, and which could probably be elaborated. But Johnson, Kaske, Larsen, and others notwithstanding, I do not find the claim that Sonnet 83 deliberately repeats and recontextualizes Sonnet 35 entirely convincing.
There is no gainsaying that calendars and numerological patterns play an important role in Spenser's structuring of his works; after all, his major early work is The Shepheardes Calendar. And certainly there are links between some of the Amoretti sonnets and specific liturgical dates. But the idea that the entire sequence covers a specific three-month period where the poet goes from various stages of wooing to eventual betrothal seems rather far-fetched. G. K. Hunter has identified some of the weaknesses of this viewpoint:
Two sonnets refer to spring. One (70) falls on 2 April, which has a general appropriateness, but no numerical exactitude; the other (19) falls on 10 February, which no normal English year allows to be spring-like. ... Moreover, Sonnet 89 (21 April) suggests winter as clearly as the others suggest spring. Why should we say that this winter is only metaphorical, when other dates are "real"? (p. 40 and passim)
Another weakness of the intentional repetition arguments is the way in which critics account for the shift in line 6 between "having" in Sonnet 35 and "seeing" in Sonnet 83. If the sequence is meant to represent the progression of a courtship, with Sonnet 83 being part of the set of poems representing betrothal, then "having" seems more apt for this sonnet, and "seeing" for Sonnet 35. Yet the actual sequence has the opposite. Johnson argues that "the change from 'having' to 'seeing' also denotes the movement from Petrarchan unenlightenment to spiritual enlightenment" (p. 235). It seems strained to claim that "having" one's object in view is unenlightened but "seeing" it is enlightened, particularly when in both cases the effect is to "gaze on it the more."
The conditions under which poetry circulated in the 16th C. offer a more plausible explanation for the "having/seeing" variation. L. Cummings's detailed examination of Sonnet 8 demonstrates that versions of Spenser's sonnets circulated in manuscript before their inclusion in Amoretti. The variations among the manuscripts of Sonnet 8 are similar to those between Sonnets 35 and 83, including altered words as well as differences in punctuation and spelling. The replacement of "seeing" for "having" might indeed be a Spenserian revision, but an earlier draft of the sonnet might simply have been mistakenly included in the manuscript sent over to Ponsonby. I hesitate to attribute the inclusion of essentially the same poem twice to authorial deliberation rather than simply to the vagaries of scribal and manuscript transmission.
It is also likely that Ponsonby did not receive Spenser's imprimatur over the final form in which Amoretti and Epithalamion was printed. In a footnote, Cumming points to a couple of reasons for doubting that the sequence was published with Spenser's entire approval:
I say "seemingly" approved because there is no dedicatory letter by Spenser, an aberration from his practice, and because Ponsonby in his letter to Sir Robert Needham writes that "I do more confidently presume to publish it in his absence" because of Needham's patronage. (p. 129 n. 5)
I find Cummings' suggestion that Ponsonby perhaps did not have Spenser's imprimatur for his printing of Amoretti reasonably persuasive, so I incline more toward Lever's view that the repetition is an error. The arguments that the repetition is deliberate seem apophenic to me.
References (except for Wikipedia)
- Cummings, L. "Spenser's Amoretti VIII: New Manuscript Versions." Studies in English Literature 1500–1900 Vol. 4, No. 1, The English Renaissance (Winter 1964), pp. 125–135. JSTOR. Accessed 24 May 2021.
- Dasenbrock, Reed Way. "The Petrarchan Context of Spenser's Amoretti." PMLA Vol. 100, No. 1 (January 1985), pp. 38–50. JSTOR. Accessed 24 May 2021.
- Dunlop, Alexander. "Introduction to Amoretti and Epithalamion." In The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, ed. William A. Oram et al. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989. Pp. 585–597.
- Hunter, G. K. "'Unity' and Numbers in Spenser's Amoretti." The Yearbook of English Studies Vol. 5 (1975), pp. 39–45. JSTOR. Accessed 24 May 2021.
- Johnson, William C. Spenser's Amoretti: Analogies of Love. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1990. Archive.org. Accessed 24 May 2021.
- Kaske, Carol V. "Spenser's Amoretti and Epithalamion of 1595: Structure, Genre, and Numerology." English Literary Renaissance Vol. 8 No. 3 (Autumn 1978), pp. 271–295. JSTOR. Accessed 24 May 2021.
- Larsen, Kenneth, ed. Edmund Spenser's Amoretti and Epithalamion: A Critical Edition. Tempe: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1997.
- Lever, J. W. The Elizabethan Love Sonnet. 1956. University Paperbacks. London: Methuen, 1966. Archive.org. Accessed 24 May 2021.
- Spenser, Edmund. "Amoretti: Sonnet 83." FullBookOnline. Accessed 24 May 2021.
- ———. Amoretti and Epithalamion. Written not long ſince by Edmund Spenſer. Printed for William Ponſonby, 1595. Hathi Trust. Accessed 24 May 2021.
- ———. Amoretti and Epithalamion. 1595. Luminariam.org Renascence Editions. Accessed 24 May 2021.