When it comes to discussing the discursive significance of the 16th century’s English poetry, it is important to understand that this poetry’s themes and motifs reflect the fact that, throughout this particular century, people’s perception of the surrounding reality and their place in it has undergone a qualitative transformation. Whereas, during the time of the Dark Ages, even the most intellectually advanced individuals never doubted the validity of a scholastic vision on the principles of the universe’s functioning, in general, and on what accounts for one’s purpose in life, in particular, the 16th century had brought this state of affairs to an end. The reason for this is quite apparent – throughout the course of this historical period, associated with the rise of the bourgeoisie in England, the religious dogma of Christianity had effectively ceased being perceived as such was capable of helping people to address their life challenges. Hence, the clearly humanistic sounding of how the 16th century’s English poets used to reflect upon what it means being human. In this paper, I will explore the validity of the above-stated at length, in regards to Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti (Sonnets 54, 75), Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (Sonnet 2), and Christopher Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to His Love. While reviewing these poems, I will also promote the idea that they provide readers with a clue as to what it means to be endowed with the ‘Faustian’ mentality (Greenwood 2009).
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One of the most memorable aspects of Amoretti (Sonnet 54) is that the poem in question endorses the idea that, contrary to the scholastic paradigm, there is nothing emotionally/intellectually static about one’s existence:
My love like the Spectator ydly sits
Beholding me that all the pageants play,
Disguising diversely, my troubled wits (1-4).
Apparently, while performing in front of his ‘lady of the heart,’ Spenser was, in fact, able to adopt the existential posture of those characters he played, which in turn implies the non-existence of a ‘soul,’ in the classical sense of this word. After all, by becoming one with his onstage-characters, the poet unintentionally exposed the fallaciousness of the Christian idea that people can be endowed with the ‘soul’ only once and that there can be no qualitative changes within the process of a particular individual striving to attain self-actualization. Thus, the earlier quoted lines can be well interpreted; as such, that extrapolated Spenser’s awareness of the fact that, as time goes on, people’s sense of self-identity (soul) never ceases to remain the subject of change. According to Spenser, to be human means to be an intellectually flexible individual, capable of assessing the surrounding reality from a variety of different perspectives – a clearly humanist idea, thoroughly consistent with the spirit of the Renaissance.
The way Spenser refers to the character of Spectator (the woman with whom he happened to be romantically involved) is also being consistent with the humanistic (scientifically valid) view on love, as being both: an inspiring and yet somewhat ‘sad’ emotional experience:
Yet she is beholding me with the constant eye,
Delights not in my merth nor rues my smart (9-10).
As Dasenbrock noted: “The Lady, of course, never changes at all, at least in the sense that she never allows the poet to satisfy his desires… Her inflexibility reinforces the protean and unstable character of Petrarchan love” (39). It is quite clear that by referring to the object of his passion as such that appears rather emotionally ‘static,’ Spenser wanted to expose love as something that allows men to subjectify themselves within the surrounding social environment, as ‘existential sovereigns’ who regard women in terms of highly desirable but essentially ‘soulless’ trophies. Despite being unable to evoke any emotional responses in his ‘lady of the heart,’ the poet nevertheless continues to apply an effort into trying to win the Spectator’s attention. This can be well interpreted as the indication of Spenser having been endowed with the so-called ‘Faustian’ (domination-seeking) mentality, which in turn explains why, as it appears from the poem, he used to think of the notion of love as being only indirectly related to the notion of happiness. For Spenser, the state of being happy meant being in the position to shape the surrounding reality (with women representing this reality’s integral components) in accordance with its will-powered wishes. It is needless to mention, of course, that being essentially Nietzschean, the poet’s stance, in this respect, did not correlate with the Christian paradigm of love and marriage.
The validity of the idea that in his poems, Spenser presented himself as a ‘Faustian’ individual, concerned with trying to attain a mastery of nature’s extrapolations, can also be illustrated in regards to the motif of pointlessness, contained in Sonnet 75:
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Agayne I wrote it with a second hand,
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But came the tide, and made my paynes his pray (1-4).
As it can be well seen, the fact that it did not take too long for the next wave to wash away the name of his ‘lady of heart,’ written on sand, did not dismay Spenser. Immediately, after this name ended up ‘gone with the wave,’ he wrote it again – as if the poet believed that this time it would stay. This once again suggests the ‘Faustian’ workings of the poet’s psyche – even though that he was well aware of the sheer futility of his second attempt to ‘immortalize’ the name of his beloved, he nevertheless could not help acting in the way he did. We can speculate that Spenser’s persistence, in this respect, extrapolated the poet’s deep-seated conviction that, in order for one to be considered fully human, he must never cease willing to oppose the blind works of nature – even if this does not make much of a rational sense. Given the fact that, as we are well aware of, it was named during the course of the Elizabethan era that the British started to impose their dominance upon the world, it can be well suggested that the motif of ‘willpower,’ clearly present in the discussed sonnets by Edmund Spenser, indeed represents a high discursive value. After all, it does help to explain why; when faced with the impossible odd of beating the Spanish, the Brits nevertheless prevailed.
Philip Sidney’s Sonnet 2 (in Astrophil and Stella) provide us with additional insights as to what the 16th century’s English poets thought of as the indications of one’s humanness, in the psychological sense of this word. As it appears from the poem, one of these indications can be considered the concerned person’s ability to keep its irrational urges under control. After all, as the poem implies, the poet was well aware that, once in love, an individual ceases to rely on its sense of rationale while addressing life-challenges – hence, being effectively reduced into a puppet of its own subliminal anxieties. As Sinfield pointed out: “Astrophil and Sidney… is Sidney’s dire warning of the dangers of the overthrow of reason and all Christian (rational) values by sexual passion —’Sidney’s mimesis of sensual love’s folly.’” (27). In its turn, this explains why the author appears to have tried resisting love with all of his might for quite some time before deciding to give in:
Not at first sight, nor with a dribbed shot,
Love gave the wound which while I breathe will bleed;
But known worth did in the mine of time proceed,
Till by degrees, it had full conquest got (1-4).
Apparently, he knew what, while consumed by love, he would not be himself anymore – in the sense of having compromised the integrity of its masculine (rationale-driven) virtues. As a result, his affiliation with humanity would be undermined because it is specifically the people’s ability to rise above their animalistic desires, which allowed them to attain the status of the representatives of the world’s dominant species in the first place. Thus, even though Sidney’s Sonnet 2 is formally concerned with the matters of love, it is, in fact, being nothing short of the hymn to the virtues of a rationale-mindedness, which in turn makes it possible for the affiliated individuals to enjoy freedom. Therefore, there is nothing accidental about the fact that, according to the poet, it was specifically his realization that, while in love, he could no longer be considered free, which he used to find especially disturbing:
Now even that footstep of lost liberty.
Is gone, and now like slave-born Muscovite
I call it to praise to suffer tyranny (9-11).
The above-quoted lines can be interpreted as such that reflect Sydney’s conviction that, in order for just about anyone to be considered fully human, the person in question cannot be exhibiting the psychological traits of a slave. Yet, it becomes only a matter of time for the person that happened to be in love to grow progressively ‘enslaved,’ in the allegorical sense of this word. This simply could not be otherwise because, as a result of growing ever more emotionally dependent on the subjects of their romantic fixation, men become progressively less capable of taking care of what accounts for their foremost calling in life – acting as the agents of progress.
Therefore, it is fully understandable why in his poem; the poet describes himself as someone who experiences a great deal of emotional distress:
And now employ the remnant of my wit.
To make myself believe that all is well,
While with a feeling skill, I paint my hell (12-14).
The sensation of being in a state of distress, on the part of Sydney, came as a logical consequence of his inability to resist the bittersweet charms of a woman that he fell for. Thus, Sydney’s Sonnet 2 promotes the implicit idea that it is only when men never cease exercising rational control over their irrational feelings that they may expect to achieve self-actualization. When evaluated in light of the modern discourse of political correctness, this idea appears rather inappropriate. This, however, does not make it less legitimate. After all, as the realities of contemporary living indicate, the ongoing decline of the West is partially ‘fueled’ by the fact that, as of today, the hawks of political correctness have largely succeeded in convincing people that the difference between men and women is purely ‘technical.’ The direct consequence of this is the skyrocketing divorce-rate in Western countries. This helps to explain why even today, the poetry of Philip Syndey continues to be appreciated by the contemporaries – besides being aesthetically refined, it also contains a number of insights into what accounts for the qualitative essence of the relationship between the representatives of both sexes. Therefore, while exposed to this poetry, people are being provided with the additional opportunity to learn what qualifies them to be referred to as a human in the first place.
However, it would be wrong to think that the 16th century’s English poets were committed misogynists. Rather, they tended to idealize love’s naturalness, which in turn presupposed the apparent briefness of the experience in question. The legitimacy of this suggestion can be explored in relation to the poem The Passionate Shepherd to His Love by Christopher Marlowe, in which the poet provides readers with the idealized account of the so-called ‘bucolic love.’ The poem’s initial lines suggest that for Marlowe, the notion of love was synonymous with the notion of vastness, which he naturally associated with the English countryside’s landscape:
Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield (1-4).
This, of course, suggests that, just as it was the case with the previously mentioned poets, Marlowe is essentially a ‘Faustian’ individual, who was predetermined to assess the significance of his life-experiences within the context of how they were helping him to maintain the posture of a ‘conqueror.’ On a subconscious level, Marlowe believed that one’s exposure to the elements of nature could only prove beneficial to the concerned person, for as long as he has what it takes to be able to impose its willpower upon them. In this respect, an individual’s experience of mastering the surrounding natural environment can be paralleled with his experience of trying to win favor with women. In both cases, the concerned person is faced with the challenge of addressing the sheer irrationality of nature’s emanations. After all, it does not represent any secret that, due to the physiological aspects of their bodily constitution, women are indeed much closer to nature, as compared to what is being the case with men.
Therefore, Marlowe’s romantic aspirations can be interpreted as an indication of his commitment to attain happiness in love – contrary to the actual odds for this to happen. In this respect, it will prove quite impossible to disagree with Leiter’s interpretation of the ‘bucolic’ motifs, contained in the poem: “He (Marlowe) has discovered the enormity of his subject, its inclusiveness and power to force nature to yield pleasures to lovers, while becoming a landscape in extension of their passions, and made passionate because they are passionate” (445). Nevertheless, Marlowe does not want to ‘conquer’ the subject of his love just for the sake of doing it. As the poem implies, the poet’s real agenda, in this respect, has been concerned with passing on his genes – even though that living in the 16th century’s Britain, he was not aware of what this term stood for. Hence, the symbolic significance of Marlowe’s referral to the gown made of wool:
A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull (13-14).
In the earlier quoted article, Leiter states: “Once dressed in wool, the beloved will personify the goddess of fertility” (447). This, of course, provides us with yet additional reason to think of The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, as such that radiates a strongly defined humanist spirit. The very fact that there are a number of sexual overtones to it, puts the discussed poem in the striking opposition to the essentially suicidal dogmatism of Christianity, as the religion that glorifies chastity and death. Thus, it will be fully appropriate, on our part, to assume that The Passionate Shepherd to His Love is a rather ‘wise’ poem, because the themes and motifs, contained in it, are fully consistent with the objective laws of nature, to which humans are being subjected as much, as plants and animals are. Hence, the foremost message conveyed by this particular poem – in order to be considered fully human, one must be ‘fit’, in the evolutionary sense of this word.
I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, as to what could be considered the Elizabethan definition of what it means being human, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. What increases this definition’s truth-value is that it was coined up at the time when the Western civilization was only beginning to break out of the Christianity’s intellectual captivity.
Dasenbrock, Reed. “The Petrachan Context of Spenser’s Amoretti.” PMLA 100.1 (1985): pp. 38-50. Print.
Greenwood, Susanne. Anthropology of Magic. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2009. Print.
Leiter, Louis. “Deification through Love: Marlowe’s ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’.” College English 27.6 (1966): pp. 444-449. Print.
Marlowe, Christopher. The Passionate Shepherd to His Love. 2013. Web.
Sidney, Philip. Astrophil and Stella. 2003. Web.
Sinfield, Alan. “Sidney and Astrophil.” Studies in English Literature 20.1 (1980): pp. 25-41. Print.
Spenser, Edmund. Amoretti. 2012. Web.