Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti describes how he feels about Elizabeth Boyle throughout their courtship. Like any relationship, theirs was filled with ups and downs, happiness and sadness, and joy and loneliness. Sonnet 23 describes Spenser as being lonely and very much under the rule of his beloved. She controls their relationship; every time she destroys his weaving she is setting back their relationship. Perhaps Spenser was pressuring her to marry him, and she simply wasn’t ready to take that step so she metaphorically destroyed his weaving. For whatever reason, it seems that Spenser was ready to move forward, and Elizabeth was not. He draws upon the ancient Greek/Roman mythology of Penelope and Odysseus to describe their dynamic at that particular moment in their (Spenser’s and Elizabeth’s) relationship.
Penelope for her Ulisses sake,
Deviz’d a Web her wooers to deceave:
In which the worke that she all day did make
The same at night she did again unreave: (lines 1-4)
Spenser is comparing his relationship with his beloved to that of the famous Penelope and Odysseus (a.k.a. Ulysses in Roman mythology) from Homer’s Odyssey. This first stanza tells of how Penelope managed to stay faithful to Odysseus while he was away fighting in the Trojan War.
Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, had a son named Telemachus shortly before Odysseus left to fight in fight in the Trojan War. She waited for her husband to return for twenty years. Many gave up hope that Odysseus was still alive, so they pressured Penelope to remarry; however, Penelope never gave up hope that Odysseus was alive, and turned down 108 repulsive suitors. She devises a trick to delay having to choose a husband. She pretends to weave a burial shroud for Odysseus’s father Laertes, claiming that once she is finished she will choose a suitor. She works hard on it every day, but each night she undoes part of the shroud, so that it will talk longer to finish. This went on for three years until Melantho, one of her twelve unfaithful serving women, discovers her trickery and tells all of her suitors. When Odysseus finally does return, he is dressed as a beggar. Penelope stayed faithful to him all of those twenty years he was gone, which is why she is often seen as a symbol of faithfulness and chastity.
Such subtile craft my Damzell doth conceave,
Th’ importune suit of my desire to shonne:
For all that I in many days doo weave,
In one short houre I find by her undonne. (5-8)
Such a clever plan my damsel devises to shun my troublesome desires. He flips the Penelope story, making himself the weaver and his beloved the one who unweaves his work. All that he does is weave for days and days, but in just one short hour his beloved had undone all that he had worked so hard on.
So when I thinke to end that I begonne,
I must begin and never bring to end:
For with one looke she spils that long I sponne,
And with one word my whole years work doth rend. (9-12)
Just when I think that I am close to finishing that which I weave, I must begin again. It is a never ending cycle-I weave, she destroys. With one look she destroys everything that I had spun, and figuratively speaking she destroys my desire. With one word all the work I had done for the past year is split or torn apart, leaving me torn apart inside as well.
Such labour like the Spyders web I find,
Whose fruitless worke is broken with least wynd. (13-4)
My work is like a spider’s web: with one gust of wind the web is broken. It is fruitless labor, but I know not what else to do. It is ingrained in me to love her much like it is inherent in spiders to build and rebuild their webs.
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. New York: Mentor, 1940. 211-229.