Thursday, July 31, 2008
a comparative analysis of edmund spenser’s sonnet # 15 and ben jonson’s song: to celia using thematological approach
The Literatures of the English Renaissance and the Seventeenth-Century Period of the Sons of Ben
The world during the fifteenth century was a witness to a numerous burst of new discoveries and colonization in what was known as the New World. Columbus of Genoa made his maiden voyage of his discovery for Spain in 1492. After four years, the English citizen Cabot reached the North American shoreline. Later still, Amerigo Vespucci got in touch with South America. Open enterprise with Asian Empires like China, India and Persia took roots. The men and women of Europe were throwing away antique rules and experimenting on new things, discrediting long-standing beliefs and concepts in science, philosophy, politics and religion. Around 1530, Copernicus proclaimed his belief of a heliocentric cosmos, whereas Earth is only one of the planets orbiting the sun. Galileo awed the general populace with his discoveries like the telescope. Gunpowder seized its place as a replacement of bow and arrow, and sword and shield. The invention of printing by Germany’s Johann Gutenberg broke fresh grounds for a faster spread of new learning. Ignited by political discontent, the Protestant Reformation swept through Europe at-large, spawning recurrent battles between and religious persecution on European countries whose leaders carried contrasting convictions.
From 1485 to 1625, English life underwent dramatic changes. The feudal systems vanished and overseas commerce transfigured England into a rich, power-wielding nation. The English navy became ranked among the planet’s most formidable military forces and, via exploration and colonization, especially after it vanquished the Spanish Armada, Britain progressed into an enormous, swiftly expanding empire. Also during this period, English religiosity suffered a major facelift. Reluctant to concede to the Pope’s verdict not to permit him to divorce his wife, King Henry VIII sheared the country’s binding tie with the Roman Catholic Church and founded the Church of England, declaring himself the forerunner of the church.
The period that followed (1625-1660) still saw the world in an earnest unrest, foretelling changes that were being borne out of rubble. The victory of the modern scientific atmosphere in the seventeenth century is symbolized by the founding of Royal Society during the period. Various colonies and schools including Harvard University in 1636 were founded. In Japan, all Europeans were expelled in an effort to shut itself from the west. China’s Ming Dynasty culminated in 1644 and in France, many in writing was published, from Corneile’s Le Cid to Descartes’ Principia Philosophicae to Moliere’s The Flying Doctor.
The Seventeenth-Century England, much like the period preceding it, experienced terrible political and religious upheaval. Shortly after assuming the throne in 1625, Charles I struggled for power against the Parliament, whose members fiercely resisted his efforts to weaken Parliament authority. Charles initiated invariable suppression of Puritans. This controversy gave birth to a civil war that commenced in 1642 and suffered temporary monarchial meltdown in 1649. A Puritan Parliament member, Oliver Cromwell, ruled England for nine years before his death in 1658, passing on the leadership to his son Richard, who was rather ineffective, so the monarchy was restored in 1660.
English Literature of 1484-1625 came in full flower when a cultural movement known as the Renaissance (14th –century Italy-originating revival of Classical Greco-Roman-inspired literary, artistic and intellectual blossoming) swept through the European continent, jumping its way across the channel into England. As a response to Renaissance, Queen Elizabeth I extended active support to education, science, the arts and the humanities. Her encouragement helped to crystallize tremendous number of scholarship and literary activity. With influences from the classical works of ancient Rome and Greece, writers harnessed new literary heights and generated some of the most sterling works Britain has ever produced.
On the other hand, the writers from the period 1625-1660 can be delineated vitally into two divisions: the metaphysical poets and the Sons of Ben. A group comprising John Donne and many of his protégés, the metaphysical poets are renowned for their intellectual verse injected with complicated, intricate, and striking similarities. In opposition, the Sons of Ben, led by the influence Ben Jonson, are popular for their delicate, clever, and elegant poetry. Nevertheless, John Milton, perhaps the most important writer of the period, did not suit either of these divisions. Drawing upon array of literary traditions, Milton composed a plethora of different kinds of masterpieces.
The most significant progress of the English Renaissance belonged to the genres of poetry and drama. Shying away from the epics of the Medieval Ages, poets invented a new poetic form, the lyric. Lyrics are short, tightly structured poems in which the speaker wholly centers on conveying his or her thoughts or emotions. Frequently during this period, lyrics were composed in sonnet form, and they often dealt with the subject of love. Sonnets were frequently written in patterns and were quite teeming with vibrant, musical language. Written in meticulously crafted verse, these dramas dig into complex themes and characters, often delving into human nature’s significant insights.
Among the metaphysical poets, the conceit, a specifically striking kind of metaphor, was a famous literary device. Inflamed by ancient Greco-Roman masterpieces, The Sons of Ben depended on classical poetic forms and often used allusions in their works. Milton, meanwhile, made vast utility of metaphors and allusions alike.
Edmund Spenser: The Poet’s Poet
Edmund Spenser (1552-1599), the “poet’s poet,” is among Elizabethan times’ greatest poetic geniuses, alongside Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. An imaginative innovator of versed forms, he introduced the Spenserian stanza and the Spenserian sonnet, which powerfully smoldered the poets in his following.
The Faerie Queene, a lengthy romance-epic allegory based on the story of a 12-day celebration in the Queen of the Fairyland’s (Elizabeth I) honor, built Spencer’s dignity as the leading poet among his contemporaries. Commemorative of his wife Elizabeth Boyle, his sonnet sequence Amoretti (meaning “little cupid” or “little love of poems”) is unique in the English Renaissance for alluding to Spenser’s beloved.
Ben Jonson: The Literary Dictator
Ben Jonson (1572-1637), hailed as the literary dictator of the bright circle of dramatists at Saint James’ court, was a poet, dramatist, critic, and a song writer. He was the original English dramatist to publish his play. As an astute lyricist, he was superbly admired by his readers.
A limitlessly energetic and heavily courageous large man whose life story is the perfect tale of rags to riches, Jonson was the prime rival in drama and lyric of his friends William Shakespeare and Jonson Donne. From being a brick layer, he rose to become a classical scholar, an excellent prose stylist, an arbiter of “taste,” and a skillful translator. However, he lived a turbulent life: he was hauled behind bars one time for working on a slanderous and seditious play, almost executed for slaying a fellow actor, and suspected of plotting to kill King James I.
A number of the most brilliant and finest young courtly writers hovered around Jonson and tagged themselves the “Sons” or “Tribe or Ben,” among whom were Robert Herrick and John Suckling. Jonson’s first-hand influence extended beyond these poets to the close of the Seventeenth Century, into the Eighteenth, and in fact, is still making waves nowadays.
A Comparative Analysis of Edmund Spenser’s Sonnet # 15 And Ben Jonson’s Song: To Celia Using Thematological Approach
Below is one of Renaissance-trained Spenser’s many notable sonnets juxtaposed with quasi-poet laureate Jonson’s song for a comparative study:
Sonnet # 15
Edmund Spenser (ca. 1552-1599)
Ye tadefull merchants, that with weary toyle
Do seeke most pretious things to make your gain,
And both the Indias of their treasure spoile,
What needeth you to seek so farre in vaine?
For loe my love doth in her selfe containe
All this world’s riches that may farre be found.
If saphyres, loe her eies be saphyres plaine:
If rubies, loe her lips be rubies found:
If pearles, her teeth be pearles both pure and round.
If yvorie, her forehead yvorie weene;
If gold, her locks are finest gold on ground;
If silver, her faire hands and silvery sheene.
But that which fairest is, but few behold:
Her mind adorned with verteus manifold.
Song: To Celia
Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I’ll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine
But might I Jove’s nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.
I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
Not so much honoring thee
As giving it a hope that there
It could not withered be;
But thou thereon didst only breathe
And sent it back to me;
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself, but thee.
Edmund Spenser’s Sonnet # 15 and Ben Jonson Song: To Celia both imparts the idea that one can find genuine treasure in one’s love. Reasons and textual proofs from the two poems being compared are as follows:
Genuine treasure is not about literal and material wealth, or is an end product of pursuit and the eventual possession of material wealth. Material treasure will soon vanish although one exhausts all his efforts to find and keep it, rendering the travails futile. The first four lines in Spenser’s sonnet mock the pointless (because impermanently rewarding) attempt of merchants to explore the vast richness of the historically-chronicled uncharted Indias: the El Dorado-fabled South American continent of the West and the Indian subcontinent of the East. Deluded that their precious spoils (oxymoronic pun intended) would last them a lifetime, these merchant struggled fierily to seek and hoard them, whereas these would sooner or later vanish in one regretful way or another. Meanwhile, the wine and the Classical Roman chief god Jove’s nectar sup referred to in Jonson’s song’s fourth and seventh lines are well-covered material treasures that, after being sipped empty from a kiss-laced cup and causing temporal ecstasy on the taker’s part, would vaporized as soon as he got over from his hangover, which lasted no more than a day. Wine’s availability is out of the question, but Jove’s nectar sup is one mythical fantasy that is as fictional and as scarce as alchemy’s philosopher’s stone, meaning seeking for it is to no avail. These manifestations of material wealth in the two poems are, ironically, enormously immaterial to the pursuit of the true happiness, and toiling to find and keep these forms of treasure is an exercise in futility.
Non-material treasure such as that epitomized by one’s love is forever, which is to say that the hard work of finding and keeping the love one is largely compensated by the everlasting happiness and gratification brought about by the experience of loving (and being loved in return). The remaining lines of the Spenser’s sonnet (lines 5-14)—a wonderful unrestrained outpouring of Spenser’s innermost passion for the beloved addressee—literally likened the bodily parts of the love to gems of fantastic fabulousness: eyes like sapphires, lips like rubies, teeth like pearls, forehead like ivory, trees like gold, and of silver fairness. More than the analogous comparison, the physical loveliness described by the persona was gloriously capped with many-splendored virtues deep-seated in the love one’s mind. As long as the beloved lived and after she succumbed to earthly death, the beloved’s beauty would persist, because ephemeral as her life was, permanent was the impact her beauty created, a condition which prompted the poet to immortalize her in his rhapsodic sonnet. She was his love already, and becoming his love justified the better state of finding her than finding volatile treasure because she was joy—eliciting summum bonum—the greatest thing in the world. Similarly, the outburst of feeling of love in Jonson’s sonnet pointed to that permanent and satisfactory happiness originating from the beloved Celia: her eyes (line 1) and kiss (line 3) that were equal in proportion to a divine drink (line 8), and the requited symbolic love (line 9-16), all of which non-material treasure enriched the persona’s attitude toward his feelings, so much so that he would not trade his love experience for anything considerably less when juxtaposed to that summum bonum. The real treasure, the returned love which emanated bigger joy than drinks, transcended overtime.
Between material and non-material treasure, the latter is the real treasure since the overwhelming love experience cannot be substituted to artificial happiness offered by volatile riches. Both the poems imply the higher quality of the non-material treasure than material treasure. One may source out all the wealth-envy of the world, but even as he is separated from it in death, it can fade away faster than a blink of an eye. The fruit of all labors throughout a whole worldly passing may disintegrated instantly, and how worse can you label that experience but vain and unrewarding? Bringing the material treasure to the next higher level, godly drink or earthly drink of heavenly magnitude, it is no less futile and non-motivating than keeping jewelry or money, but all the same no more fulfilling than that which can be gotten when non-material treasure like love experienced is concerned.
Love in its truest form, coming from lover or the beloved, is never superficial even as for the life of either, he or she dies and lays forgotten (every so often). The fullness of their love has achieved a footing, be the time as long as their mortality will allow or as brief as a minute; the experience is a non-material treasure that cannot pass for the most prized possession in the universe. The permanence of this richness of lovers’ passion seeks it way to literary pieces or better yet, in human memoirs. Real wealth lends them life.
The poems under study intend to ascertain the truisms of material vs. non-material treasure, symbol vs. non-symbol, and permanence vs. impermanence. Of course, human experience such as love subjected in the lyrics is more significant than material objects with neither life nor emotion.
The English Renaissance and the Seventeenth Century period of the Sons of Ben generated what are considered the most splendid love-themed lyric poems of all time. The historical context in which these poems’ writers lived proved that their tumultuous eras became years of world charting, colonization, socio-political and cultural upheavals, rebirth and reformation because the humanity at-large tried hard to discover the truth was the challenge of conventional notions regarding beauty, symbol, faith, permanence, science, philosophy and justice as attested by the literature produced during those inchoate times, the two poems included. While the theme of love in literature is universal one because love is what all good literatures expound, these themes was especially explored during the English Renaissance and the period immediately succeeding it, because the bastion of Western civilization was being reborn, and the rest of the planet was rapidly becoming the exotic place in which to chance upon and uphold the cause of happiness—be it truth, beauty, goodness, or love—that had been elusive to human beings all along.
Babusci, Roger, et al. Prentice Hall Literature: The English Experience. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliff, 1989.
Garcia, J. Niel C. “Philippine Gay Literature.” In Filipiniana Reader. Edited by Legasto, Priscelina, P. Quezon City: OASIS, University of the Philippines Open University, 1998.
Hitchcock, Alfred M., Composition and Rhetoric. New York: Henry Hold and Co., 1925.
Ilas, Sara C., et al. A Subtreasury of World Literature. Quezon City: Phoenix Press, 1985.
Pensacola Christian College. Backgrounds to World Literature. Pensacola, Florida: Pensacola Christian College, 1992.
__________.Masterpieces from World Literature. Pensacola, Florida: Pensacola Christian College, 1992.
Ribo, Lourdes M., et al. Language in Literature 3: Anglo-American Synthesis. Quezon City: Vibal Publishing House, 1998.