VNQUIET thought, whom at the first I bred,
Of th’ inward bale of my loue pined hart:
and sithens haue with sighes and sorrowes fed,
till greater then my wombe thou woxen art.
Breake forth at length out of the inner part,
in which thou lurkest lyke to vipers brood:
and seeke some succour both to ease my smart
and also to sustayne thy selfe with food.
But if in presence of that fayrest proud
thou chance to come, fall lowly at her feet:
and with meeke humblesse and afflicted mood,
pardon for thee, and grace for me intreat.
Which if she graunt, then liue and my loue cherish,
if not, die soone, and I with thee will perish.
Edmund Spenser’s sonnet sequence, the Amoretti (see my intro here), follows the tradition of the author carefully editing together, for publication, a set of individual poems composed at various times under various circumstances. The resulting composition is both a grab-bag of poems and a coherent total work. In some sonnet sequences, the poet spends fifty poems trying to woo his mistress, fifty poems lamenting how cold-hearted (but beautiful!) she is, and then a poem or two about throwing himself off a cliff. Sometimes the two types of poems occur in blocks together, and other times they are shuffled. For some poets, the whole point is never to resolve the desperate longing for the beloved, and success is measured by how long you can keep alive the unhappy, unrequited, inexpressible yearning. “I can never have her… but I must! But I can’t! But I must! But I can’t!” etc.
Spenser’s Amoretti are up to something different. This wooing is a successful wooing, and Spenser wins the heart of his Elizabeth, marries her, and nestles in to married life with his beloved. What Petrarch probably didn’t want, and Dante would not imagine, Spenser focuses on and celebrates. You can’t marry Laura, and Beatrice won’t have you, but Spenser gets his Elizabeth. No, not Queen Elizabeth, don’t be crazy: Elizabeth Boyle, who became Mrs. Spenser and lived happily ever after.
It’s hard to believe this was revolutionary, but it was. It was generally assumed that if you were going to be so love-struck that you would compose dozens of sonnets, you must be smitten by somebody you were eternally forbidden to have: a woman above your rank, or married, or dead, or imaginary. Thoroughly steeped in this poetic tradition, Spenser nevertheless took his stand on a self-confidently Protestant theology of marriage and conducted his emotional life accordingly. He thought he knew how earthly love and heavenly love related to each other, and he thought he could send the whole courtly love tradition to school in his sonnet sequence.
Which brings us to his reflections, in the second of the Amoretti, on restlessness. The poet addresses his “unquiet thought,” telling it to grow up. Actually, he sketches out for it its entire life history: It was conceived in the poet’s lovesickness, has been nourished during its gestational period on “sighes and sorrowes,” and now it has grown so large in utero that it is bigger than his womb. Ouch!
When you’re that pregnant, with unrequited love or anything else, what else can you tell the offspring but that it’s time to spring off? “Break forth,” Spenser tells the unquiet thought. Staying too long in the womb, it has come to resemble not a human baby but a brood of baby vipers. There was an ancient tradition that viper babies were so mean that they tore their way out of their mother’s womb, killing their mother in the very act of coming into the world. The tradition, by the way, seems unfounded. Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) in his Pseudodoxia Vulgara, a kind of 17th-century Snopes.com, argued that this is not really a good account of viper birth. But it’s an arresting image, and Spenser uses it to underline the poisonous and destructive character of restless, unrequited love. Get born, he urges the unquiet thought, and go get some real food.
“But if in presence of that fayrest proud thou chance to come,” he says, bow down humbly before her and beg for mercy. Beg mercy for your restlessness, and beg her favor on me. At that point, it’s yes or no: If Elizabeth grants me grace, the restless thought will live, be nourished, and cherish love. But if she says no, the unquiet thought should die soon, and the poet with it.
Wait — isn’t that backwards? If he is restless with unexpressed and perhaps unrequited love, and then he proposes, wouldn’t the unquiet thought perish if Elizabeth accepted him, and grow greater if she rejected him? If he is accepted by his beloved, wouldn’t that be the death of his restless longing? But that’s not how Spenser has it: he says that if she grants grace, the thought lives, and if not, the thought dies and takes him with it.
There is a lot going on in this poem, and it’s hard to say for certain what Spenser is up to this early in the Amoretti. But here are two interpretive options: 1. Spenser is asserting that the satisfaction of romantic desire in marriage does not quench romantic desire, but enlivens it. 2. Spenser is asserting that romantic desire is a restless thought when in embryonic form, but is supposed to grow up into something else when it reaches full term. It always hurts, but the pain is that of pregnancy, reaching its logical end in the pain of labor. If the unquiet thought of romantic longing stays in the womb too long, it becomes deadly. It has a shelf life, because it has a purpose, a chief end for which it is ordained. Spenser knew that chief end of romantic love to be marriage.