Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-1599) was one of the most influential English poets. Spenser was highly influenced by Geoffrey Chaucer and Spenser, in turn, influenced such minor poets as Sidney, Drayton, and Daniel, as well as more eminent poets, such as Milton and Shakespeare. He also had a great influence on the romantic revival of the nineteenth century and inspired the likes of Keats and Tennyson.
Spenser’s longest work, The Faerie Queene, was meant to address twelve moral virtues in twelve books, but Spenser was only able to complete about half of this ambitious project. In this epic poem, Queen Elizabeth I was represented by some of the main characters.
Spenser’s sonnet sequence Amoretti (Italian for “little loves”) was about Spenser’s courtship of his wife-to-be, who was also named Elizabeth. Spenser used his own rhyme scheme for his sonnets, and this scheme defines the Spenserian sonnet: abab bcbc cdcd ee. As one can see, the Spenserian sonnet requires one to find two sets of four rhyming words (b and c), and the three quatrains are linked by these rhyming words. The sonnets in the Amoretti were inspired by the Italian poet Petrarch and they include these aspects: an unattainable woman resulting in an unhappy lover, and a metaphorical conceit that is the overt subject of each poem.
Spenser, in addition to intentionally using the archaic spelling of words, also invented many new words and enriched the English vocabulary by borrowing words from modern and classical languages.
Below is Spenser’s famous Sonnet 75 from the Amoretti. On the left is the original poem, and on the right is my modern English paraphrase. Below the poem, you will find my analysis.
|Sonnet 75||Modern English|
|1||One day I wrote her name upon the strand,||One day, I wrote her name upon the shore,|
|2||But came the waves and washed it away:||But the waves washed it away;|
|3||Agayne I wrote it with a second hand,||I wrote it a second time,|
|4||But came the tyde, and made my paynes his pray.||But the tide came and devoured my work;|
|5||Vayne man, sayd she, that doest in vaine assay||She said, vain man, you’re trying in vain|
|6||A mortall thing so to immortalize!||To immortalize something mortal;|
|7||For I my selve shall lyke to this decay,||For I myself will decay,|
|8||And eek my name bee wyped out lykewize.||And my name will also be wiped out.|
|9||Not so (quod I) let baser things devize||No, I said, baser things may intend|
|10||To dy in dust, but you shall live by fame:||To die in dust, but you will live by fame;|
|11||My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,||I will immortalize your virtues with my verse,|
|12||And in the hevens wryte your glorious name;||And write your glorious name in heaven.|
|13||Where, whenas death shall all the world subdew,||And when death overcomes the whole world,|
|14||Our love shall live, and later life renew.||Our love will live on and be renewed by later life.|
In this sonnet, Spenser uses the idea that one’s name stands for one’s self. The shore can be seen to represent this world, and Spenser’s writing his beloved’s name on the shore can be seen as an attempt to immortalize his beloved and her name in this world.
However, Spenser’s beloved says that his action is in vain (L5-L8) because her self and her name will be erased like the words in the sand. But Spenser counters (L9-L12) and says that baser things may become dust, but that his beloved will be famous and will obtain immortality through Spenser’s verses. Spenser concludes (L13-L14) by saying that even if death should overtake the whole world, their love would be immortal and would continue in a later life.
Immortality is a controversial subject, and it has been debated in many, if not all, ages. Some hope to be retained in others’ memories and obtain a type of immortality in that way. Some expect to reincarnate in various bodies until they reach nirvana. And others hope that they will attain heaven and avoid hell. Still others expect that their life and consciousness will end at death.
Whose view is right? Maybe we will have to wait to find out what will happen to us, but our view of the future does make a difference in our present life. For example, if I believe that life doesn’t end, then I will see my present life as merely a stepping stone or a learning experience. If, on the other hand, I believe that I will lose all awareness after death, then I might try to obtain all the happiness that I can in this world, regardless of how my actions affect others.
In conclusion, Spenser’s sonnet presents some ideas that have been debated for centuries, but I believe that we should keep an open mind about the future. We should consider all the evidence that we have encountered and make our best estimation of what will happen to us. Because we don’t have all the answers, keeping an open mind allows us to change our minds when we obtain new data. Until we can see the big picture, if that is even possible, we will have to be content with our limited perspective while seeking the truth to the best of our ability.