Guniya is a final year undergraduate at the University of Delhi. She has a keen interest in writing and literature.
Background to Edmund Spenser and the Sonnet Tradition
The word sonnet comes from the Italian word sonetto, meaning ‘little song or poem’. Started by Francesco Petrarch during the Italian Renaissance, it is a 14-line poem that follows a strict rhyme scheme and meter with a tightly wound thematic and poetic structure.
The sonnet tradition was brought to England by poets of the English Renaissance, one being Geoffrey Chaucer, the first English writer to translate Petrarchan sonnets. The second was Sir Thomas Wyatt, who brought the tradition to England after his trip to Italy in 1527. And the third was Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, who experimented and improvised with the Petrarchan sonnet. His improvisations were then adopted by William Shakespeare, who created his version, thus adding to the sonnet tradition.
Edmund Spenser wrote during the reign of Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII, who had found the Protestant Church of England. By the time of Elizabeth I, the influence of the Anglican Protestant church had grown. Hence poetry had a stronger Christian and moral flavour.
Spenser (1552–1599) was a Protestant poet born in the modest family of London. Unlike most poets of his time, Spenser published his poems to reach wider audiences outside courtly circles.
In this article, you will find:
- the whole poem
- line by line analysis
- rhyme scheme and meter
- comparison to other contemporary poets
'Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew'
— Edmund Spenser
'Amoretti LXXV' by Edmund Spenser
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
"Vain man," said she, "that dost in vain assay,
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise."
"Not so," (quod I) "let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name:
Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew."
In this poem, Spenser made considerable departures from the sonnet tradition. This poem can be counted as 'love poetry', but it is unlike the love poetry of that period. It is not about courtly love or favours. Spenser did not write this poem for a monarch, but for the woman he eventually married, Elizabeth Boyle.
This poem has strong Christian values. As aforementioned, Spenser was a Protestant poet. Protestantism values the companionship between a man and a woman. Their emotional bond is essential to their marriage.
The woman in the poem is not unattainable; she is not being pursued. There is a serious relationship between the two that comes from the ethos of Protestantism.
The sonnet's couplet, 'Where whenas death shall all the world subdue, Our love shall live, and later life renew,' is the most impactful part of the poem with a climax-like quality. It drives forward the whole point of the sonnet: the immortality of words.
One day I wrote her name upon the strand, But came the waves and washed it away:
'strand': shore, where the sea meets land. The poet wrote the name of his beloved on the shore but it got washed away. 'washed': pronounced as 'washéd' with two syllables
Again I wrote it with a second hand, But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
He wrote her name again but it got washed away the second time as well. The poet refers to the tide/sea with a gendered pronoun 'his'. This has two meanings: 1. the sea's personification, 2. emphasis on the sea's powers and capabilities; it can demolish anything man-made.
"Vain man," said she, "that dost in vain assay, A mortal thing so to immortalize;
The woman (his beloved) calls him out on his vanity, in case he thinks he can overpower nature and immortalise a mortal creation. 'assay': attempt
For I myself shall like to this decay, And eke my name be wiped out likewise."
She tells him that just like her name that has been wiped out by the sea, one day she will, too, decay and die. Neither would her name live on forever and nor would she. eke: also; wiped: pronounced as 'wipéd' with two syllables
"Not so," (quod I) "let baser things devise To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
The poet contradicts her. He believes that things without meaning are meant to die, but she shall live by fame. quod: said.
My verse your vertues rare shall eternize, And in the heavens write your glorious name:
verse, vertues (virtues): Spenser spells 'virtues' as 'vertues', similar to 'verses', drawing a similarity between the two. His verses and her virtues are related.
Where whenas death shall all the world subdue, Our love shall live, and later life renew."
Even if their mortal bodies perish, the poet and his beloved will meet in heaven. 'whenas': when
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Form: Rhyme Scheme and Meter
The poem is a sonnet and has 14 lines in total.
The 14 lines are divided into two parts:
- Octave (first eight lines)
- Sestate (next six lines)
Rhyme Scheme: abab bcbc cdcd ee
Meter: iambic pentameter, 10 syllables in each line
Form: The poem has an interlacing rhyme scheme. It is fluid and less sharp, with no strict division between the octave and the sestate.
Let's take a look at the main themes of the poem.
Secular, Man-Woman Love
It is often questioned how can this be a poem about secular love when it is clearly impacted by Protestant Christian values.
Renaissance (the literary period in which this poem was written) saw a great upsurge in art and literature. While the medieval period and literature was all about religious topics, the Renaissance took inspiration from Greek and Latin literature and have momentum to secular themes.
The 'secular' love in this poem is secular because it is man-woman love that celebrates courtship. It is not love for God. It is love for all things earthly, nothing beyond this life.
Death, Decay and Immortality
The octave of the poem discusses the inevitability of death, and how nothing lasts forever. The way her name was washed away from the shore, similarly one day, she too would decay. But in the sestate, Spenser writes about his superior understanding of what he is doing. It is a comment on the sonnet itself. He is immortalising through his writing. Her mortal body may perish, but the fame that his poem would garner will live on forever.
Spenser puts humans above nature. He is certain that his writing would immortalise his beloved. It lacks realism.
O, none, unless this miracle have might/That in black ink my love may still shine bright
— Shakespeare, 'Sonnet LXV'
Similarities to Contemporary Poets: Shakespeare and Wyatt
Spenser shares some thematic resemblance and parallelism with his literary precursors and successors.
For example, Spenser and William Shakespeare share the conceit of poetic immortality in both their works. Spenser in 'Amoretti LXXV': ‘…My verse your vertues rare shall eternize…Our love shall live and later life renew.’ Shakespeare in 'Sonnet LXV': ‘O, none, unless this miracle have might/That in black ink my love may still shine bright.’
Unlike Shakespeare, however, Spenser does not succumb to the natural force and is certain that his writing will immortalise his beloved. Shakespeare does not have full conviction in his ability to immortalise his beloved through his writing, ‘…miracle have might… may still shine bright.’
When comparing with Thomas Wyatt, a precursor of Spenser, a contrast of gender and agency emerges in both of their poems. Wyatt’s beloved, allegedly Anne Boleyn, is a female figure of authority who is out of reach. The themes of gender in his poem 'Whoso List to Hunt' are based on a power dynamic that is both private and public. The gender hierarchy in Wyatt’s poem deals with political hierarchy. The courtship of a woman is reduced to a chase, her identity to an animal owned by the monarch. The objectification extends as the ‘hind’ also wears a collar, like a shackle, that binds her to her owner.
By contrast, the woman in Spenser's poem is not unattainable. She is not being 'hunted' or being pursued. She is also not a trophy or a prize to be captured. And mostly importantly, she has agency—she speaks. The relationship is private, monogamous and sacred without being corrupted by the politics of the court and the public life.
- Living Literatures, 2007
- Masculinity and the Hunt: Wyatt To Spenser (Reprint ed.), 2016
Spenser and Shakespeare at Sonnets, 2000
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Guniya Sharma