The themes of love, lust, and immortality are common motifs evident in the work of many sixteenth and early seventeenth century poets. Reading these poets, the audience can recognize their position they take from the way they express the themes. Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare address ideas of love and lust with different positions and style, yet share the same views of immortality. Examining the sonnets written by Spenser and Shakespeare, the reader notices Spenser’s thoughts of a successful love versus Shakespeare’s ideas of a realistic and bitter love. Spenser describes these themes in a more victorious and decorative manner in contrast, to Shakespeare’s pessimistic attitude and direct approach taken when applying the same motifs.
Edmund Spenser begins to express these feelings about love in “Sonnet 64” of the “Amoretti.” Using a very ornamental style, he expresses a successful love shared with the woman in which he loves. The first line of this poem opens with: “Coming to kisse her lyps (such grace I found).” This idea of a prosperous love is apparent through the pleasure he finds in her kiss. In the second and third quatrain he creates a vivid image of her beauty. In this, each of his beloved’s body parts are illustrated as different flowers. This portrayal of beauty is evident once more in the eighth line when he writes, “Her lovely eyes like Pincks but newly spred,”. The audience receives a decorated image of how Spenser views her eyes as he compares them to “Pincks.” These “Pincks” are portrayed as “newly spred,” to emphasize to the reader the intense wide-eyed brightness of her glance. “Her lips did smell lyke unto Gillyflowers, / Her ruddy cheeks lyke unto Roses red; / Her snowy browes lyke budded Bellamoures,”, Spenser’s reoccurring citation of flowers in this sonnet portrays his love of nature with his love for this woman. The images of an array of flowers are illustrated to show the beauty he sees in her, and slowly transforms her into a glorious bed of flowers. The closing couplet states: “Such fragrant flowers doe give most odorous smell, / But her sweet odour did them all excell.”. In these last two lines he explains that all of these flowers, pleasing as they may be, could not describe the satisfaction he receives from her natural womanly fragrance. Spenser’s idea of love being sweet, lovely and appealing to the senses is well illustrated in this sonnet. The feelings he expresses toward this woman he loves is clear and evident. Through the same decorative style he describes lust, but with a much different attitude in the “The Faerie Queen.”
Spenser addresses the theme of lust in Canto 4 of the “Faerie Queen” in a detailed and grandiose manner. His idea of lust is by no means positive, and once again uses comparisons to represent his concept of sin. Spenser never uses direct or realistic images of lust; instead, he infers to being unchaste to a goat and uses language describing lust as ugly. Spenser’s writings on lust has it’s roots in the New Testament, “But I say unto you, / That whoever looketh on a woman to lust after hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Matt.5.28). His morals are clearly shown by his impression of lust being “rough, and blacke, and filthy” (FQ 126.96.36.199). Continuing in the next line, the character Lechery is presented as an “unseemly man” that still pleases the eyes of “faire Ladies” (FQ 188.8.131.52). Spenser wittily portrays Lechery as a morally unattractive character who uses his looks to quench his lecherous desires. Lust is a vile and evil emotion, however it is a temptation that will always be in the world. Spenser allows the reader to get an in-depth view of what he feels about lust and describes it as a “fickleness” (FQ 184.108.40.206) and “reproachful paine” (FQ 220.127.116.11). When a person acts out in lust, it may prove to become deceiving and hurtful for all involved. Spenser concludes his description by telling the audience that it “Rots the marrow, and consumes the braine:” (FQ 18.104.22.168). In this, it is implied that the consequences of this sin may bring about a diseased spirit and body. Spenser saves reference to Syphilis until the sonnet’s closing. This creates a morose image, and further helps describe the unkindness and evil involved in lust.
The theme of immortality continues in “Sonnet 75” in the “Amoretti.” Throughout the poem Spenser expresses his love for one woman, and grants her immortality by writing her a poem. “Poets believe that they can create immortality for the ones they love throughout their art” (Dr. MacDonald. 3430). He begins the poem by saying, “One day I wrote her name upon the strand, / But came the waves and washed it away:”. The first two lines set the stage for the rest of the poem, telling the reader that Spenser will attempt to immortalize his love. He compares composing a sonnet about his beloved to writing her name in the sand. He goes on to say that the waves may wash it away, meaning death could take her, but he will write her name again. Spenser continues to tell his beloved when she “dies in dust”, she will live by “fame” through verse. The audience must feel that the woman for whom he will grant immortality is very endearing and true to his heart. In line eleven, “My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,”, informs the reader he is boasting about his ability to create immortality for those he loves. The love he shows for this woman is demonstrated with the gift of a poem. Spenser’s writings illustrate his ideas of successful love; in contrast, Shakespeare presents his concept of love in a pessimistic and more realistic attitude. His description of lust comes direct and in a less decorative manner. Spenser and Shakespeare, however address the idea of immortality in a similar fashion.
When Shakespeare expresses the theme of love in “Sonnet 130” he gives a practical image of love. In the first two lines he writes, “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun; / Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;”. He compares her to brightly colored images and explains they are not realistic comparisons. He further shows the same idea of love in line six, “but no such roses in her cheeks;”. He expresses his feelings for her realistically by comparing her to something that she is not capable of resembling. This idea continues to prove evident when he says, “no her lips are not as red as coral,” meaning that whose lips are truely that red. This makes it difficult to understand his intentions, leaving the reader unsure of bitterness towards this individual or if his position is direct and honest. Shakespeare also appears to have a pessimistic attitude towards love. This is clearly stated in, “Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.” He does not glorify this love; instead one cannot infer whether his love is a blessing or misfortune.
Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 129” speaks of lust directly and harsh, saying: “Th’ expense of a spirit is a waste of shame.” Shakespeare firmly explains in the opening line, to act out in lust is a waste of shame for the individual. Shakespeare continues in line three and four to describe lust with violent and negative phrases, this is clearly evident when he writes, “Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;”. When he describes lust in this fashion the audience is shown lust in it’s truest light. Shakespeare also makes known that lust is about the power people may gain when it is acted upon. This is boldly recognized in line nine when he claims, “Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;”. The audience is given the idea lust can cause a person to go mad and will continue to consume the individual. In the closing couplet Shakespeare expresses his extreme position on lust by writing, “All this the world well knows; yet none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.”. He shows lust as being everywhere and it is easily recognized; however, until experienced no one really understands the evil it possesses. It is also implied that lust ignores the heavens and works in conjunction with hell. Even though Shakespeare tends to take a realistic approach to lust’s true nature, he speaks in a more optimistic tone of immortality.
Shakespeare addresses the idea of immortality in a way similar to Spenser. In Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” he compares an eternal summer to an eternal life of a friend. Shakespeare, like many poets, claim their sonnets immortalize others when they write about them in verse. He starts the poem with, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”. He beautifies a friend by immediately comparing him to a “summer’s day.” Throughout the first quatrain he builds the image of his friend as being perfect. He elaborates in the second line saying, “Thou art more lovely and more temperate:”. Shakespeare suggests his friend far exceeds the beauty summer has to offer and his demeanor as being more fair than a summer‘s day. The high stature used to reference this individual is illustrated by comparing their friendship to the pleasures they enjoy on a summer‘s day.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed;
Shakespeare illustrates in this quatrain, beauty will fade but it is only natural. He explains the obvious nature of life, describing the physical appearance of growing old, however there is no way of changing what is to come. The third quatrain follows the second with a more positive response. Shakespeare writes: “But thy eternal summer shall not fade.” Eternal life shall not grow old and beauty will be instilled with it forever. The human body is gone, but the eternal being will live on through memory and verse. Shakespeare concludes in the couplet, “So long as men can breath or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”. The last two lines give an in-depth view of Shakespeare’s positive approach to life and creates, for his love, immortality.
After studying these two poets, it is apparent Spenser is more idealistic in his writings, always referring to the purest sense of the meaning of love and lust. All people lust. It is how man contains this emotion that men and women become moral creatures and find true love. Both poets find this end using different routes. Shakespeare, the more practical of the two, speaks of realistic love and lust. Spenser and Shakespeare have succeeded in creating immortality for themselves and those they love.
Precious Moments Bible. Thomas Nelson, gen. Ed. New York, 1982.