Spenser’s Use of Symbolism in The Visions of Petrarch

I saw a Phoenix in the wood alone...

By: Jay (c) Copyright, All Rights Reserved. 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.

Read as a sexual narrative, the chase is the sexual chase, wherein the female eventually succumbs, and the sexual drive is likened to that of a ravenous animalistic appetite for sustenance that is destined to be fulfilled, despite theological and moral conventions. The rock is often symbolic of Christ or the Church in the biblical narrative (1 Cor. 10:4-5, Matt. 16:18-19), so possibly the doe has sought solace from her suitors in the rock of the Church, only to be devoured there instead. Perhaps Spenser himself had an affinity for a certain damsel who gave in to other men, causing him to see it as a predestined fact, a “hard destinie.” Read in this way, Spenser seems to convey a subtle truth that for all the religiosity, those in the Church still have a natural sexual desire. Applied as an apologetic, it might also refer to the Catholic Church as the persecutor of the “true Church,” represented by the graceful doe.

Another reason to associate this moral tale with lust is that it seems to borrow imagery from Ovid’s legend of Diana and Actaeon. In that version, Actaeon looks upon Diana nude, presumably an example of lust, and is thereafter turned into a deer and eaten by his own hunting dogs.2 In Spenser’s time, and from the Middle Ages, Christian moralizing of Ovid had been popular through the well-known Ovid moralise.3 Elizabethan critic Clark Hulse comments: “The quintessential Ovidian poet of Elizabethan England is the great epic poet of the age, Edmund Spenser, for Spenser perhaps alone considers the nature of the whole metamorphoses in his own Ovidian verse….In virtually everything he wrote, Spenser borrowed episodes or glanced at figures from Ovid…”4 In Spenser’s version, the doe is attacked by the dogs of lust, whereas we are not given any image of transformation.

The second vision is that of a ship which sinks:

After at sea a tall ship dyd appeare,
Made all of Heben and white Iuorie,
The sailes of Golde, of Silke the tackle were,
Milde was the winde, calme seem’d the sea to bee,
The skie eche where did show full bright and faire;
With rich treasures this gay ship fraighted was:
But sodaine did so turmoyle the aire,
And tumbled vp the sea, that she, alas,
Strake on a rock, that vnder water lay,
And perished past all recouerie.
O great misfortune, O great griefe, I say,
Thus in a moment to see lost and drown’d,
So great riches, as like can not be found.5

 

In the previous tale Spenser showed the sin of lust to be like the indefatigable natural desire of the carnivore for prey. Here, however, we are quite clearly presented with the sin of greed and its miseries. Greed, or the greedy man, is likened to a glorious ship, full of wealth and treasures such that it is compared to heaven itself. For a time it appears as if there is perfect weather and ease of passage, yet in a sudden moment, all of the vast wealth and riches upon it are lost when a storm causes it to sink after striking a rock.

Spenser, being a Protestant, might also have envisioned the ship as an image of the Roman church, with its pomp and wealth, secure in its dominion. However, after the rise of the storm of the reformation, the Roman Church, in Spenser’s mind, struck against the “rock” of Christ or his true Church, the reformed English Church. Spenser, following this reading, sees the Roman Church as quickly collapsing. This is not unusual, as the theme of poetic attack on the Roman Church is prevalent in Spenser’s works, especially in Book I, Cantos 2-4 of The Faerie Queen.6

The third vision is that of a beautiful green wooded area:

Then heauenly branches did I see arise
Out of the fresh and lusty Lawrell tree,
Amidde the yong greene wood: of Paradise
Some noble plant I thought my selfe to see:
Such store of birds therein yshrowded were,
Chaunting in shade their sundrie melodie,
That with their sweetnes I was rauish’t nere.
While on the Lawrell fixed was mine eie,
The Skie gan euery where to ouercast,
And darkned was the welkin all aboute,
When sudden flash of heauens fire out brast,
And rent this royall tree quite by the roote,
Which makes me much and euer to complaine:
For no such shadow shal be had againe.7

 

Here, the imagery is clearly Edenic. Spenser sets up a laurel tree amongst a lush wooded forest, replete with a reference to the Paradise, the biblical idea of the original perfect environment of man following upon his creation (Genesis 1-3). Here, the birds rest and find solace to sing amongst the branches of the laurel. This brings to mind the imagery of the biblical book of Daniel which describes the opulent and prosperous reign of Nebuchadnezzar. In that story, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, has a vision in which his kingdom is likened to a tree wherein all the birds of the air nest in the branches, yet the tree is then cut down. Daniel explains to Nebuchadnezzar that the meaning of the dream is that all nations were under his dominion according to God’s providence, yet it will all be taken away due to his pride (Daniel 4).

Spenser borrows the biblical imagery, and places it in Eden. The reader is thus cued in to the identity of the tree as a king or virtuous ruler in his case. Spenser also titles it a “royall” tree. In this case, however, the good tree is cut down from a lightening bolt from heaven. The tree is uprooted, and it is never seen again. The admonition here could be to pride, inasmuch as this is a particular vice to which a ruler would be susceptible. Spenser laments that even a a good ruler can fall through pride, to the ruin and dismay of loyal subjects who basked in his overall benevolent rule. In Daniel’s version, Nebuchadnezzar is struck with insanity for seven years due to his pride, yet recovers and returns to a virtuous reign. In Spenser’s version, the pride envisioned here results in the total downfall or assassination of the monarch. Rending the tree by the root might also suggest an end to that monarch’s line as well, possibly to the end of a Catholic monarchy in England.

The fourth vision is a spring with three muses:

Within this wood, out of a rocke did rise
A spring of water, mildly romblyng downe,
Whereto approched not in any wise
The homely Shepheard, nor the ruder clowne;
But many Muses, and the Nymphes withall,
That sweetly in accord did tune their voice
To the soft sounding of the waters fall,
That my glad hart thereat did much reioyce.
But while herein I tooke herein my chiefe delight,
I sawe (alas) the gaping earth deuoure
The spring, the place, and all cleane out of sight.
Which yet agreeues my hart euen to this houre.8

 

Here there is more pastoral imagery like that of the first and third visions. In this scene, the muses frolic about a spring where no homely or vulgar person tastes. It is a secret, elite gathering where only those who are famous for their talents as musicians or poets may inhabit. The vice here intended seems to be that of vanity. While the song of the muses is beautiful and melodic, and the spring from which they drink uncommon, just as with the great wealth of the ship in vision two, so talents and abilities, even of the most famous, eventually fade with age and death. All men are destined to die, and thence comes the end to earthly glory, which, to the Calvinist is a sign of useless vanity. Such abilities are only relevant when done to the glory of God. When the talents are delighted in themselves, they only bring misery and pain with the loss thereof in old age and death.

Applied as the others to the Roman Church, we may see here a direct attack on the liturgical accretions and ceremonies employed by the Catholics. The Catholic Church had, of course, created beautiful choral and liturgical pieces that were undeniably attractive, even to the ears of the most staunch Puritan. However, Spenser warns, such love of beauty and pomp and ceremony, even if accompanied by a melodic masterpiece, is nothing but vanity if done to the glory of man, as represented by the Nymphs and muses who fall into hell. While Spenser might be glad that the Roman Church’s pomp came to an end, the wasting of such beauty on purported vanity would not necessarily be cause for glorying.

The fifth vision is that of a Phoenix in the woods alone:

I saw a Phoenix in the wood alone,
With purple wings, and crest of golden hew;
Strange bird he was, whereby I thought anone,
That of some heauenly wight I had the vew;
Vntill he came vnto the broken tree,
And to the spring, that late deuoured was.
What say I more? eche thing at last we see
Doth passe away: the Phoenix there alas
Spying the tree destroyde, the water dride,
Himself smote with his beake, as in disdaine,
And so foorthwith in great despite he dide:
For pitie and loue my heart yet burnes in paine.9

 

The Phoenix, of course, is the mythical bird of rebirth or resurrection. It also figures in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, particularly in the mysterious “Doctrines of Pythagoras” in Book XV. Pythagoras singles the “Phoenix of Assyria” out as he lists his explanation of the diverse animals of the natural world.10 This bird feeds on frankincense and myrrh, and lives to be five hundred years of age before renewing itself, being born from the father’s body. It then carries the nest to the Temple of the Sun. The Phoenix is then a classic image of immortality, or the search thereafter.

In the poem it appears the bird has come upon the same wooded area from the previous visions, and the tree is uprooted and the spring dried up. The bird seeks water and sustenance, yet finds nothing, and is driven to misery, smiting with his beak from starvation. As with the previous tropological levels, the vice under view here may be sloth. The phoenix, an other wise magnificent and immortal bird, has been lax in arriving at the spring, and it is now dried. Read as an allegorical meaning for the Christian, the sense is that though the believer may possess immortality as a gift of grace, if the believer is slothful in his duties in seeking God or truth, his spiritual life will wither and result in much misery.

Similarly, the imagery could also signify that royalty, given that Spenser mentions gold and purple, must hasten to the doctrines of the Reformation, lest they arrive too late and find the support of God wanting. In fact, the Reformation was largely successful in western Europe due to state support in various nations. Had it not convinced magistrates, it would have been suppressed as any previous medieval western heresy had. Spenser may be warning the aristocracy that the window of opportunity for overthrowing the perceived “papal tyranny” was at hand, and Spenser felt misery and pain so long as others did not aid in reforming the Church of England.

The final vision is that of the beautiful woman:

At last so faire a Ladie did I spie,
That thinking yet on her I burne and quake;
On hearbs and flowres she walked pensiuely,
Milde, but yet loue she proudly did forsake:
White seemed her robes, yet wouen so they were,
As snow and golde together had bene wrought.
Aboue the wast a darke clowde shrouded hir,
A stinging Serpent by the heele hir caught;
Wherewith she languisht as the gathered floure,
And well assur’d she mounted vp to ioy.
Alas, on earth so nothing doth endure,
But bitter griefe and sorrowfull anoy.11

Spenser is taken by her beauty, and she walks upon herbs and flowers. She is thus a regal, dainty woman, yet she forsook love in pride. This perhaps suggests the vice of hate, as the opposite of love, and the woman in question is clearly Eve, hearkening back to the Serpent and Eden, but the woman is still yet the Church, too, in both her corrupted “Roman Catholic” version (according to Spenser), and her “pure” reformed version. It is only through contemplating her in her purity with the reformation doctrines in tact, that Spenser thinks she is the persecuted true woman/Church, as mentioned in Revelation 12. The woman was bitten by the Serpent, and languished for a time, just as she is persecuted in Revelation 12, but she ends up victorious, and ascends, or “mounts up to joy.” Spenser’s lesson is that on earth, the Church, and the “true Christian” can have no real joy, inasmuch as this world is fallen. It is the lot of the believer, especially given the morbid doctrines of depravity as countenanced in Calvinism.

And so Spenser ends his visions:

My song thus now in thy Conclusions,

Say boldly these same six visions

Do yelde unto thy lorde a sweete request,

Ere it be long within the earth to rest.12

The purpose of his meditations has been the contemplation of the vanity, futility and fleeting nature of this life and it’s grandeur. As a consequence, it was crucial for Spenser to interact with the religious controversies of his time, elucidating his own Protestant presuppositions as a framework for one level of the visions, as well as picking out certain vices that the faithful reformed believer was to combat. As was common in Elizabethan Renaissance writing, polyvalent allegorical poetry and symbolic imagery served this purpose well, and Spenser’s Visions of Petrarch is a perfect example.

___________________________________________________________

Works Cited

Heale, Elizabeth. The Faerie Queen: A Reader’s Guide (Caimbridge, UK: Caimbridge University Press, 1999).

Hulse, Clark. Metaphoric Verse: The Elizabethan Minor Epic (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981).

Ovid. Metamorphoses, tr. A.D. Melville (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986).

Spenser, Edmund. The Shorter Poems ( New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1999).

1Spenser, Edmund. The Shorter Poems ( New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1999), 2.

2Ovid. Metamorphoses, tr. A.D. Melville (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986), 55-58.

3Hulse, Clark. Metaphoric Verse: The Elizabethan Minor Epic (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981), 244.

4Ibid., 243.

5Ibid., 3.

6See Heale, Elizabeth. The Faerie Queen: A Reader’s Guide (Caimbridge, UK: Caimbridge University Press, 1999), 33-44.

7Spenser, Shorter Poems, 5.

8Ibid., 5.

9Ibid., 6.

10Ovid., Metamorphoses, 363.

11Spenser, 7.

12Ibid., 8.

2 Comments on Spenser’s Use of Symbolism in The Visions of Petrarch

  1. This was AWESOME! Thanks!

  2. There are a couple of interesting ideas here. But to really understand what Spenser is getting at I think it is important to look as Petrarch’s Rime 323. Wyatt is also an interesting source. I also think that this set of poems interacts quite nicely with the rest of Spenser’s Complaints volume. The body of this series of poems is more of a translation than an original work. So it tells us a bit more about Petrarch’s thinking than Spanser’s. Also, the assumption that the poet and the narrator are the same person makes for a fairly narrow reading. Other than that, I like the close reading of the text itself. A lot of people get side tracked with secondary sources. The thing I like most about how these poems are presented in Van der Noot’s edition is the way the woodcuts are designed to interact with the text below them.This piece has some good potential.

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