Eric Song Lecture Explores Changing Definitions of Marriage in Literature

“Now I kind of feel like a traveling salesman, selling the same vacuum,” Professor Eric Song said at his lecture, “The Queen is Not a Subject: The Politics and Theology of Edmund Spenser’s Matrimonial Poetics,” referencing how often he had talked about this subject.

Song has been a faculty member of the English department at Swarthmore since 2009. He attended Queens College and later received his PhD from the University of Virginia. His first book, Dominion Undeserved: Milton and the Perils of Creation, was published last year. The lecture he gave last Thursday drew from material from his book in progress, tentatively titled Love Against Substitution.

Song’s lecture focused on his idea of love and marriage as a rejection of substitutes and drew heavily upon analysis of Edmund Spenser’s literary work. Driven to understand how marriage came to be conceived as symbolic of love for a unique individual, Song examined literary conceptions of marriage from multiple time periods.

The first definitions of marriage Song offered were biblical. Genesis, referencing the relationship between Adam and Eve, states: “This is now bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. […] Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Song argued this definition established marriage as a fusion of two into one and was intended to serve as a model for future marriages.

He provided a definition from Paul the Apostle to offer more insight into this conception. According to Paul, “Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” Paul also asserts that husbands should aspire to emulate Christ in their treatment of their spouses. However, Song pointed out that this definition raised further issues, such as the relationship between reproduction and marriage, and the question of why specific husbands and specific wives were supposed to emulate Christ.

“Marriage is called upon to hold together a cluster of dynamics, like regulated reproduction, sacrifice, and love, that do not fit together very neatly,” Song said. His project ultimately investigated the way royalist ideology utilized this conception of marriage to maintain control, specifically by portraying the king as “Christ-like”.

During the tumultuous 16th century in England, the monarchy was briefly threatened, and authors began to define marriage against this idea of substitution as a way to test these political ideas.

Authors like Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton use marriage in literature “in ways that continue to exert an indirect but formidable influence on us,” Song said. “Whether or not we have any particular interest in 17th century religion and politics, there’s a history behind our politically charged, collective imagination about what marriage really means.”

Song then brought his focus to the literary work of English poet Edmund Spenser to further clarify his point. Spenser, despite growing up in poverty, attended Cambridge and later moved to Ireland, where he became a colonial administrator. While there, Spenser worked on The Faerie Queene, an epic poem devoted to Queen Elizabeth I, probably his best-known work.

Song focused most of his discussion, however, on Amoretti, a sonnet cycle written by Spenser about his wife, Elizabeth Boyle, whom he married in 1694. Amoretti ends with a sonnet celebrating the wedding of the narrator and his love, which was notable to Song because “sonnet sequences are supposed to end miserably.” This specific sonnet sequence, he argued, was a difficult mechanism of portraying a love for a specific person.

Song provided a specific analysis of Amoretti 74, Amoretti 66, Amoretti 68, which the audience was instructed to read out loud, Amoretti 67, the poem in which the narrator mysteriously wins his love, and Amoretti 33, the poem in which Spenser apologizes to the queen for distracting himself by writing about his love.

“There may ultimately be no satisfying answer as to why we love this particular person and not another,” said Song, who argued that Spenser invoked the myth of Narcissus in multiple places within Amoretti to explore whether the narrator merely viewed his beloved as an extension of himself. However, at the end of the poem the object of the narrator’s desire is revealed to be a “she,” separating her from the narrator, turning his narcissism into love for another person.

In an extended analysis of Amoretti 67, Song made the argument that Spenser makes specific allusions to Christ in order to establish his marriage as Christian. “A number of scholars have shown that the question of free choice versus fate in Amoretti 67 […] echoes theological questions concerning human free will in salvation” Song said.

“In the Amoretti, Spenser will go on to produce a poetic sequence that can and does end happily with marriage. Marriage allows the real and the poetic to converge,” Song said. Song ended with a reiteration of the novelty of this conception of marriage that required individuals to act on their free will out of love. Spenser’s work provides the first glimpse of how people would come to write about and think of matrimony.

Featured image by Eléna Ruyter ’14/The Daily Gazette.

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