What does a mirror do?
What benefit can we earn by looking at something from a different perspective?
What did the German say to the Englishman when they walked into the bar together?
Ok, ok, I can’t answer all three questions. Maybe two – but then two outta three ain’t bad. (Unless it’s this. Then it’s bad.)
Right then, enough of the stand-up. Ahead: Spenser, mirrors, vision, and how art fashions authority fashioning art. Or something like that.
Let’s start with a painting. More specifically, let’s start with Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533), one of the more recognized and celebrated Renaissance portraits. We see two men dressed in the finest clothes, looking
shot sprightly shot with their arms resting on an elegant table. And what a table it is: bedecked with an “Oriental” spread and fancy sixteenth-century navigational equipment on the table top, and emblems of humanist society – musical instruments, a math text, and a globe – on the bottom shelf.
But then there’s something peculiar stretched out before these men. Looking head-on it seems like an aberration, a bizarre streak of white, gray, and brown covering that beautiful
70s bathroom wallpaper floor design. Yet take a look at the painting from the right (it’s easier to do this if you have a printed copy, even easier if you’re standing next to the painting itself) and you find something pretty distinct: a human skull. There’s a clear expectation of death, though only when the painting is viewed from this angle, perhaps suggesting that all our achievements in the human world attain their fullest worth from one perspective – and none at all from another. Or perhaps the presence of multiple perspectives (or at least the need to account for more than one) requires us as viewers to concede our authority to gaze at the painting, when necessary, to the image’s own inherent distortions and ‘hidden’ figures.
That’s amusing and all, but what does any of this have to do with an English poet with (dare I say it) a stunning frill around his neck? Well, the point I’d like to consider is that of perspective – namely, what happens when we start reading a poem (or any text, really) from an internal, text-confined point of view. And as far as such exercises go, reading Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti can say a lot about the power to see something, and something else.
Spenser is probably more well-known in our time for The Faerie Queene (Book I here), but Amoretti also holds its own as a fine achievement. The “poem” is actually a sonnet cycle which broadly presents the speaker’s attempts to win the love of an unnamed woman, and at ‘first glance’ it would appear that he can do little more than submit to her beauty in the hope that she, in turn, may accept his love. But through careful manipulation of vision, mirrors, reflections, and other imagery in the selected trio of sonnets, Spenser constructs a speaker whose character and agency, like the “Death’s head” in Holbein’s portrait, transforms with the perspective from which he is viewed. This constant dislocation ultimately allows the speaker – as a lover, but also as a poet – to negotiate at least some control over his lover, by which his constructive gaze, and not her deconstructive one, fashions the authority of self (the speaker) over other (the lover).
Sonnet 45 of the Amoretti establishes a framework for understanding the complexities of the speaker and his lover’s positions – and viewing perspectives – in terms of reflection. Here are the first four lines:
Leave, Lady! in your glasse of cristall clene
Your goodly selfe for evermore to vew,
And in my selfe, (my inward selfe I meane,)
Most lively lyke behold your semblant trew.
Interestingly, this “semblant trew” image does not necessarily equate with the “goodly selfe” that the lady would see – or that she believes she would see – in her “glasse of christall clene”, suggesting a discrepancy of ‘truth’ between the speaker’s perception of her real self and the woman’s own perception. The speaker proceeds to complicate this projection in the next four lines:
Within my hart, though hardly it can shew
Thing so divine to vew of earthly eye,
The fayre idea of your celestiall hew
And every part remaines immortally:
The impossibility of seeing the lover’s reflection by “earthly eye” introduces a new perspective: that this “fayre Idea” may only be seen in the mind or intellect. What takes shape, then, is an image of the lover that is shaped not by the lover’s own physicality or sight – the ‘other’ – but by the speaker’s idealization (i.e. the “fayre Idea”), in his mind – the ‘self’ – of what she should see in his heart. It is an idea, in other words, that the speaker – as romantic and as figurative poet – crafts such that he can establish terms and images that his lover should abide by.
Yet even the speaker cannot control the image he creates. As the last six lines state:
And were it not that through your cruelty
With sorrow dimmed and deform’d it were,
The goodly ymage of your visnomy*,
Clearer than cristall, would therein appere.
But if your selfe in me ye playne will see,
Remove the cause by which your fayre beames darkned be.
[* Visnomy, countenance.]
This unexplained cruelty checks the speaker’s conceit of mirrors and reflected images; he avows that its presence distorts what would be a perfect image – “[c]learer than christall” – in his mind and his heart. The final couplet suggests that the lover is aware of this distortion herself, as he urges her to “[r]emove the cause by which [her] fayre beames darkned be” if she is to see “[her] selfe in [him].” What the speaker constructs by the sonnet’s end, then, is a complex exchange of power in the construction of images, both of self and of other. For all of the elaborate conceit that he can establish with the deliberate manipulation of light, image, and reflection, so too must the speaker contend with his lady’s own distortion of his vision and plea for her to remove the “cause” of what he perceives as a darkening of her “fayre beames.”
The exchange of ‘authority’ and perspectives between speaker and lover finds its eventual, conclusive framework in Sonnet 21. We’ll take it four lines at a time, again:
Was it the worke of Nature or of Art,
Which tempred so the feature of her face,
That pride and meeknesse, mist by equall part,
Doe both appeare t’adorne her beauties grace?
“Art” can be read not only as aesthetic quality and value, but also as skill, and possibly even deceit; at the very least, “Art” as a practice requires distortion and construction to some extent, in contrast to the pre-existent state that “nature” conveys. That the speaker passes a distinctly visual judgment on the lover’s face (with its equal parts “pride and meeknesse” granting “her beauties grace”) also involves the construction of image and of other; in other words, he can make nature, Art, pride, and “meaknesse” all appear in her countenance, such that she appears to be beautiful and graceful in his eyes. Of course, as with Sonnet 45, this construction – like vision itself – does not remain one-directional for long, as in lines 5-8 the lady exerts her own agency over others by means of “lookes:”
For with mild pleasance, which doth pride displace,
She to her love doth lookers eyes allure;
And with stern countenance back again doth chace
Their looser lookes that stir up lustes impure.
Though the beloved may not possess the qualities of the ‘artist’ that one finds in the speaker, she nevertheless maintains the power to “allure” and “chace” away the gazes of her observers. In exercising such control over others’ desires, she (at least, based on how she is represented here) becomes a moralizing mirror, revealing the inner desires of her admirers – be they out of pure love or “lustes impure.” And as one might expect at this point, the speaker is no stranger to such powers:
With such strange termes her eyes she doth inure,
That with one looke she doth my life dismay,
And with another doth it streight recure:
Her smile me drawes; her frowne me drives away.
Thus doth she traine and teach me with her lookes;
Such art of eyes I never read in bookes!
The turning point, however, arrives with the final couplet – “Thus doth she traine and teach me with her lookes, / Such art of eyes I never read in bookes” – and it is here that one comes to see (or conceive of) the speaker across these two sonnets from varying perspectives of power. In particular, his allusions to discipline (“traine”), education (“teach”), and most significantly, text (“bookes”) collectively establish a framework that codifies the lover’s power – and its associated discourse of vision, mirrors, images, reflections, and eyes – and thus controls it. By literally rendering such lessons and observations into written, structured forms (that is, as sonnets), the speaker confines the woman he loves into a controlling, but nevertheless controllable figure, and as such he restores his authority as artist and as poet.
So what does it mean? I suppose Spenser’s triumph in these two particular sonnets is that he draws out a complex yet striking metaphor – also known as a “conceit” – for creative potential and (when read a certain way) political/linguistic power. We have a poet who’s skilled at setting up situations where his hero must bear the brunt of someone’s scorn (or worse yet, ignorance), but never such that the hero does not lose his authority to see – and write – at the end of the day. As far as shelf reflections go, it might not be the oldest trick in the book. But it still works.
And as for the bar conversation? I’d like to think it went something like this: