Spenser’s Use of Symbolism in The Visions of Petrarch

I saw a Phoenix in the wood alone...

By: Jay

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The Visions of Petrarch, published in 1569 by J. Van der Noordt with woodcuts and titled The Theatre of the Worldlings, is one of the lesser known early works of Elizabethan epic poet, Edmund Spenser (1552-99). Prior to the publication of his masterpiece, The Faerie Queen, Spenser wrote this smaller work titled the Visions of Petrarch wherein he combines elements of Calvinistic and Protestant theology and morality, with classical mythological imagery. The purpose of this paper will be to analyze the seven poems of the Visions, analyzing the allegorical and tropological lessons intended to be gained thereby, as meditations in preparation for death.

The first of the visions concerns a doe attacked by two wild dogs. The poem is as follows:

Being one day at my window all alone,
So many strange things happened me to see,
As much it grieueth me to thinke thereon.
At my right hand a Hynde appear’d to me,
So faire as mote the greatest God delite;
Two eager dogs did her pursue in chace,
Of which the one was black, the other white:
With deadly force so in their cruell race
They pincht the haunches of that gentle beast,
That at the last, and in short time I spide,
Vnder a Rocke where she alas opprest,
Fell to the ground, and there vntimely dide.
Cruell death vanquishing so noble beautie,
Oft makes me waile so hard a destinie.1

 

The first vision shows the poet alone, solitary in contemplation looking out upon the world as if disconnected. The young poetic Spenser appears to view himself as separated from nature, viewing through a window as an allegorical scene drawn from the natural world unfolds before him. While the natural world goes about its usual concourse, fulfilling its laws, the writer or poet is in his own world, acting as a narrator. The event that unfolds is unpleasant; grievous for him to behold: a beautiful young doe is torn to pieces as it seeks shelter from two ravenous dogs.

One of the dogs is black, the other white, which suggests that appearances can be deceptive, inasmuch as white is often associated with purity and black with insidiousness. In the case of the natural world’s rapacity and carnality, such symbolic meanings do not always obtain. Indeed, just as in the natural realm a white dog may be as ravenous as a black, so in the world of men, of which this is a tropological and allegorical image, men may appear to be good, yet have the potentiality to be as ravenous as an openly evil man. If the seven (technically six) visions are loosely affiliated with the tradition of the “seven deadly sins,” we have here a representation of either lust or greed. The power of lust or greed is such that it rules those subject to baser passions. Spenser catalogs those so ruled as a “cruell race.” The delicate hind “dies,” but the death could signal the loss of virginity before due time, as a result of violent sexual encounters, or it might also suggest actual murder on a literal level. Continue reading