Humanism is a concept that has changed since the sixteenth century. Its original
meaning was the belief in the validity of the human spirit that coincided with
piety for God. Now, humanism refers to the glorification of man over God. The
passing of time has transformed the concept of love, also. In our present
society, one “loves” pizza or one “loves” a spouse.
Currently, love encompasses a vast majority of ideas and intensities. The
sonnets and poems of Surrey, Sidney, Spenser, and Wyatt deem love as a consuming
passion. To the sixteenth century poet, love is a powerful force that creates
misery, but surpasses the pain to be a worthy endeavor. Love is a personified
superior entity which must be obeyed. In Wyatt’s The Love That in My Thought
Doth Harbor, love is his “master” (441; ln. 12). His master controls
his heart, and endeavors to reign. Even when love cowers from shame the poet
still supports him. In Astrophil and Stella, love’s decrees must be followed,
since they have such power (Sidney 460; sonnet 2, ln. 4). Love can act such as
wringing one’s heart and giving wounds (Surrey 452; ln. 6; Sidney 460; sonnet 2,
ln. 2). Love possesses one’s self to produce much affliction. Wyatt wrote a
poem, Farewell Love, to express his tumultuous emotions. He desired for love to
leave him after years of suffering at love’s mercy (Wyatt 440). In My Lute,
Awake, Wyatt addresses love as an illness: “I am past remedy” (442; ln.
14). Wyatt also desires to watch his former love suffer for the pain she
inflicted on him. Surrey considers love the reason for his discomfort in Alas!
So All Things Now Do Hold Their Peace (452; ln. 11). Sidney endeavors to ignore
love, yet at the same time “with a feeling skill I paint my hell”
(460; sonnet 2, ln. 13-4). Love’s pain produces a type of hell and a disease for
those ensnared that cannot be ignored. The misery love produces cannot surpass
the benefit of love. Surrey considers love his lord and writes “Yet from my
lord shall not my foot remove: Sweet is the death that taketh end by love”
(451; ln. 13-4). Death is even pleasurable if caused from love. Sidney addresses
love by writing, “I call it praise to suffer tyranny” (460; ln. 11).
Later in Astrophil and Stella, Sidney says that love’s effect caused anguish,
but that “the cause more sweet could be” (471; sonnet 87, ln. 12-3).
The rule of love is still worthy of praise, regardless of the affliction.
According to Spenser’s Amoretti, “love is the lesson which the Lord us
taught” (737; sonnet 68, ln. 14). Love would be desirous because God uses
it to teach us. Love painfully invaded the lives of the poets, but resulted in
an eventual joy, even if the joy was at death. Love dominated their poetry as it
dominated their lives. Today, our spouses may afflict our emotions, but love of
pizza will probably never leave a deep emotional attachment. Our society has
downgraded love in our life from what was considered the normal experience.
Despite the hermeneutical transformation applied to the concept of love, the
words of the nineteenth century poet Tennyson ring true today as they would have
in the sixteenth century: “’tis better to have loved and lost, than to have
never loved at all” (qtd. in Stevenson 1463).
Abrams, M. H. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th Ed. New York: W.W.
Norton & Company, 1993. Stevenson, Burton, ed. The MacMillan Book of
Proverbs, Maxims, & Famous Phrases. New York: MacMillan Co., 1948.