Amoretti I: Happy ye leaves when as those lilly hands
BY EDMUND SPENSER
Happy ye leaves when as those lilly hands,
Which hold my life in their dead doing might
Shall handle you and hold in loves soft bands,
Lyke captives trembling at the victors sight.
And happy lines, on which with starry light,
Those lamping eyes will deigne sometimes to look
And reade the sorrowes of my dying spright,
Written with teares in harts close bleeding book.
And happy rymes bath’d in the sacred brooke,
Of Helicon whence she derived is,
When ye behold that Angels blessed looke,
My soules long lacked foode, my heavens blis.
Leaves, lines, and rymes, seeke her to please alone,
Whom if ye please, I care for other none.
As the first SONNET in EDMUND SPENSER’s SONNET SEQUENCE, this opening sally addresses the work holistically and introduces the audience to the Lady who is the inspiration. The “happy leaves” (leaves, e.g., pages) addressed in the first line are successively identified with the poetic work, which will hopefully be read by the Lady in question. The hands and eyes of the beloved are first addressed—hands to hold the pages and eyes to read its contents. Thus, recurrent themes are established at the outset, in addition to what is generally considered to be the overall thematic concern, the mutability of life and, by extension, a woman’s physical beauty. There is also a bid for immortality in the written work. Likewise established is the reversal of the usual patriarchal relationship between the lordly man and otherwise submissive woman, a reversal that characterizes the love-sonnet form.
The early lines establish the Lady’s control over the fate of the written work, culminating in the assertion that it is written for her: “seeke her to please alone” (l. 13). The poet’s words demonstrate a guise of humility, that the Lady will “deigne to sometimes to look” (l. 6). However, some critics make the equation between the Lady who is conventionally invoked and any reader of the text who can satisfy the poet’s stated desire to please the reader as his loftiest goal. Thus, each ENCOMIUM to the Lady is one to the reader, and each gesture of humility by the author is a valorization of his work.
Each of the three QUATRAINs also juxtaposes two lines detailing the Lady’s lofty act of noticing the poetic lines with responses characterizing their author’s humble efforts to create these “captive lines” written with “sorrows” and “teares” and, in the third quatrain, a soul that “long lacked foode.” Yet the many references to the value of the written work are reinforced with the two lines of the sonnet calling attention to the aforementioned book with the physical “leaves” on which it is printed, lines in which the sentiments are encoded and rhymes which make up the craft of the poem (l. 13).
Most explications of the Amoretti refer to a conventional love-sonnet progression through the stages of a lover’s courtship, focusing either on a calendar of days before the actual wedding on June 11, 1594, which is immortalized in Spenser’s EPITHALAMION, or on the constancy of the Lady’s pride and the volatility of the speaker’s reaction; however, this first sonnet also foregrounds its contrivance. The object of the sequence is clearly the creation of a written work, as well as a demonstration of the poet’s ability to do so. As several critics have pointed out, Amoretti’s sonnet sequence is about writing poetry and Sonnet 1, along with Sonnets 33 and 80, which allude to the poet’s completion of Book 6 of The FAERIE QUEENE, firmly established that desire.