Here is Sonnet XXX from the sonnet cycle Amoretti by Edmund Spenser:

My Love is like to ice, and I to fire:
How comes it then that this her cold so great
Is not dissolved through my so hot desire,
But harder grows the more I her entreat?
Or how comes it that my exceeding heat
Is not allayed by her heart-frozen cold,
But that I burn much more in boiling sweat,
And feel my flames augmented manifold?
What more miraculous thing may be told,
That fire, which all things melts, should harden ice,
And ice, which is congeal’d with senseless cold,
Should kindle fire by wonderful device?
Such is the power of love in gentle mind,
That it can alter all the course of kind.

Now I have two questions about this poem:

  1. I've been reading a book called The Art of Poetry: How to Read a Poem by Shira Wolosky. It talks about this poem in a chapter called "Verse Forms: The Sonnet". I understand and agree with most of the author says about the poem, but the following portion confounds me:

    Although the third quatrain here seems merely to reflect and repeat what has gone before, its emphasis and evaluation has shifted. This is done mainly through the quatrain’s adjectives, which begin to emphasize the power of fire and to associate it with wonder. The behavior of fire is called a “miraculous thing”; and although the miracle here is to “harden ice,” we are also reminded that fire “all things melt.” Ice, on the other hand, is described negatively: as “congealed,” and as “senseless cold.” And the quatrain’s conclusion in effect subordinates cold to fire. If cold is “wonderful” here, it is so because it acts to produce more fire. The quatrain’s final image is of increased kindling, giving fire the last word.

    I would say that what Spenser calls a "miraculous thing" is the behaviour of both fire and ice. I do not understand at all how the quatrain's conclusion privileges fire over ice.

  2. I also do not fully get the concluding couplet. Why does Spenser call the love previously embodied in the extreme images of fire and ice a "love in gentle mind"? Nothing in the preceding lines evokes gentleness. What does this change signify? The book I mention above also says that the couplet attempts to subtly persuade the lady to be "gentle" and "kind". I don't get that at all from it! Could someone please explain this to me?

2 Answers 2

  1. I think that Wolosky is basically right about the third quatrain, but could have put her claim a bit more clearly.

    You are right that the “miraculous thing” is that both fire hardens ice and ice kindles fire, so that Wolosky is a bit misleading when she appears to assign the “miraculous thing” to fire. But she doesn’t say that only fire is the “miraculous thing”, so I think it’s just an unlucky slip of phrasing.

    When you look at what exactly the speaker is condemning and commending in this quatrain, you’ll see that he condemns ice as “senseless” when it “congeals” (freezes) but praises ice as using a “wonderful device” when it “kindles”. This is far from a neutral point of view! The speaker is saying that ice should stop congealing and start kindling, or, dispensing with the metaphor, that his love should sexually yield to him. I think Wolosky’s wording that “the quatrain’s conclusion in effect subordinates cold to fire” is a reasonable summary of this.

    Note that “senseless” has at least four meanings here: ice is “senseless” (incapable of sensation) because it is numbed with cold; it is “senseless” (insensitive or unfeeling) because it does not respond to the speaker’s fire, it is “senseless” (deprived of sensation or feeling) because it does not know the pleasures of love, and for these reasons the speaker scorns it as “senseless” (foolish).

  2. The word “kind” is the final rhyme-word, and it has a lot of meanings, so that we should expect a pun or two. The speaker says that love can “alter all the course of kind”: what is the “kind” whose course is altered? Among the meanings of the word are these plausible candidates:

    kind, n. 6. Action or behaviour that is natural, habitual, or customary to a person or animal … sexual intercourse, procreation.

    15.a. The genitals.

    16.a. The state or fact of belonging to a particular sex; the quality of being either male or female; gender, sex.

    Oxford English Dictionary.

    For sense 16.a. the OED gives a citation from the Faerie Queene, showing that Spenser was familiar with it:

    She traveiling with Guyon by the way,
    Of sondry thinges faire purpose gan to find,
    T’abridg their journey long, and lingring day;
    Mongst which it fell into that Fairies mind,
    To aske this Briton Maid, what uncouth wind,
    Brought her into those partes, and what inquest
    Made her dissemble her disguised kind:
    Faire Lady she him seemd, like Lady drest,
    But fairest knight alive, when armed was her brest.

    Edmund Spenser (1590). The Faerie Queene, p. 411. London: William Ponsonbie.

    If we take 16.a. as the primary sense of “kind” in the last line of the sonnet, then the speaker says that love alters the behaviour of the sexes with respect to each other. But we can also imagine the ruder senses of “kind” lurking as puns, since the speaker’s object seems to be to persuade his love to be “kind” (meaning affectionate or intimate), that is, to have sex with him.

  • Thank you for your excellent answer, Gareth Rees! Do you have any thoughts on the word “gentle” in the couplet?
    – user392289
    Commented Nov 10, 2021 at 20:41
  • 1
    I read "gentle" in the sense "noble, refined, gracious, courteous, polite". Commented Nov 10, 2021 at 21:27

The first question:

It doesn’t. It’s a weak reading of the poem. The author claims the adjectives shift and imply fire as positive and ice as negative. I don’t see there being any additional meaning behind that beyond ice generally being a harsh, rough, unaccommodating substance. “Wondrous” doesn’t refer to fire itself, but to the repeated idea of amorous desire increased when met with steely uninterest being inexplicable, like ice fueling the eruption of fire.

In the subjective and creative act of trying to interpret the pieces of a poem, to draw them together into a coherent whole, it is easy to miss a detail or stretch the meaning of a word, to frame the poem in a way that isn’t convincing. You have to decide for yourself if a reading is compelling.

The second question:

The longer a poem has aged, the more danger there is of not detecting significant shifts of the meaning of key words. “Gentle” and “kind” both have archaic uses differing from the modern ones. Gentle could mean “civilised” here, and “kind” could mean “manner”.

  • Spenser was writing in the 16th century. According to the OED (1.c), a common meaning for "kind" until the early 17th century was "The natural disposition, character, or temperament of a person or animal; innate character; nature". That would seem to fit very well. Commented Nov 10, 2021 at 14:47

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