Circumventing Petrarch: Subreading Ovid's Tristia in Spenser's Amoretti

Article excerpt

By writing the Amoretti as a Petrarchan sonnet sequence that leads to the marriage celebrated in the Epithalamion, Spenser faced a structural problem: not only does Petrarch's Rime sparse not contain imagery of the kind of mutual love that Spenser wanted to portray, but also the Rime was not formulated to end in a marriage. Yet a model for Spenser's revision does exist in one of Petrarch's own precursors: Ovid. Although the name "Ovid" may call to mind the amorous poet of the Amores and Ars amatoria, Ovid presented himself as an older, devoted husband in the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto. It is this Ovid whom I shall argue most informs Spenser's Amoretti.

Brooks Otis identifies a marital Ovid emerging in the Metamorphoses, when the Roman poet takes his place "as the West's first champion of true, normal, even conjugal love." (1) In the exile poetry, Ovid defends his past life, reminding those who know him that his moral character has no connection to his art in the Ars amatoria (Tristia 1.9, especially lines 59-62) and specifically rejecting any identification with the scandalous lover in his amorous poetry (Tristia 2.349-56). As L. P. Wilkinson points out, "when in the later poems he emerges in his own person, we find him a loved and loving husband and father. We are often warned, and as often forget, that Roman erotic poets did not expect their characters to be judged from their poetry." (2) Spenser, we shall see, did not fail to recognize that Ovid's Tristia contains a model of mutuality in marriage (and, as well, of the tension between an "exile" poet and his ruler) that the New Poet could adapt to his purposes in the Amoretti. A preliminary comparison of these two works with Petrarch's Rime sparse, which critics generally regard as the mediating work between Spenser and the Ovid of the Metamorphoses, will demonstrate that Spenser, in effect, circumvents the Rime by drawing on the Tristia directly for certain marital and political examples.

The first piece of evidence that we have for Spenser's knowledge and conscious use of the Tristia is sonnet 18 of the Amoretti. Spenser editors generally neglect the Tristia in the Spenser canon as a whole; in this particular instance, editors either downplay the importance of the Tristia in this sonnet or ignore it completely. (3) An examination of the relevant passages, however, reveals a closer link than has previously been seen. In his edition of Spenser's shorter poetry, Douglas Brooks-Davies notes only one textual parallel between the Amoretti and the Tristia (the aforementioned sonnet 18) in a list that includes three other possible parallels for the sonnet in question. That Tristia "parallel," however, clearly demonstrates a link between the sorrows of exile and the sorrows of love, since the hardness of the lady's heart in Spenser comes very close to Ovid's description of the hardness of exile. Spenser's sonnet 18 reads:

   The rolling wheel that runneth often round,
   The hardest steel in tract of time doth teare:
   and drizzling drops that often doe redound,
   the firmest flint doth in continuance weare.

   Yet cannot I with many a dropping teare,
   and long intreaty soften her hard hart:
   that she will once vouchsafe my plaint to heare,
   or looke with pitty on my payneful smart.

   But when I pleade, she bids me play my part,
   and when I weep, she sayes teares are but water:
   and when I sigh, she sayes I know the art,
   and when I wail she turnes hir selfe to laughter.
   So doe I weepe, and wayle, and pleade in vaine,
   whiles she as steele and flint doth still remayne. (4)

The similar Tristia passage comes in Book 4, as Ovid laments the loss of his homeland:

   hoc dentem tenuat terram renouantis aratri,
   hoc rigidos silices, hoc adamanta terit;
   hoc etiam saeuas paulatim mitigat iras,
   hoc minuit luctus maestaque corda leuat.
   cuncta potest igitur tacito pede lapsa uetustas
   praeterquam curas attenuare meas. …