Edmund Spenser's "One day I wrote her name upon the strand"

Updated on April 28, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edmund Spenser

Source

Introduction and Text of "One day I wrote her name upon the strand"

Sir Edmund Spenser is credited with the creation of an eponymous sonnet style, taking his place along with such luminaries as Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Milton. The Spenserian sonnet was featured in the poet's epic poem, The Faerie Queene. The Spenserian sonnet is also referred to as the Spenserian stanza when referring to his long poem.

The Spenserian sonnet features three quatrains and a couplet, as does the Shakespearean; however, the rime scheme differs slightly. While the Shakespearean sonnet's rime scheme is ABABCDCDEFEFGG, the Spenserian features two fewer rimes with the scheme, ABAB BCBC DCD EE.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

One of Edmund Spenser's most widely anthologized sonnets is "One day I wrote her name upon the strand," number 75 in his sonnet sequence, Amoretti. In this sonnet, the speaker addresses indirectly his beloved, attempting to convince her that their love will live eternally.

One day I wrote her name upon the strand

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, quoth I, let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name.
Where, when as death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.

Reading of Spenser's Sonnet 75 from Amoretti

Commentary

In sonnet 75 from Edmund Spenser's Amoretti, the speaker addresses indirectly his beloved, attempting to convince her that their love will live eternally.

First Quatrain: Writing in Sand

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.

The first quatrain finds the speaker reporting that he had written his beloved's name upon the sandy seashore. Of course, the water rushed over this sandy name and vanquished it to nil.

But then he announces that he repeated his vain gesture, and yet once again the waves rode in and erased the name. The speaker seems to address an unknown party, but he is speaking about his sweetheart, fiancée, or lover, and it becomes obvious that he means this message to be intended for her alone.

This fantasy exchanges is a clever technique allowing the speaker to invent a conversation that could take place but likely has not. The speaker's use of ellipsis is also genius, "hand" replacing "handwriting" allows for a convenient rime.

Second Quatrain: Failure to Accomplish the Impossible

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.

The speaker's sweetheart then castigates the speaker for attempting to accomplish the impossible: to make a mortal immortal. She reminds her lover that not only will the ocean waves obliterate her name, but in time she herself will vanish from the shores of life. The beloved labels her lover a man of vanity for having the notion that he can buck the eternal rounds of life and death by such a limp gesture.

The economic speaker again employs the brilliant use of ellipses to keep his rhythm in tact: instead of "eke out" he inserts "eke," which allows the reader to understand and supply the necessary missing term.

Third Quatrain: Having None of It

Not so, quoth I, let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name.

The speaker, however, is having none of the nonsense of mortality. He admits that lesser things may, indeed, succumb to the whims of the moral realm, but she is not of those lesser things.

The speaker will, in fact, immortalize her in his poems. She possesses such glory as to allow him the ability to "frame" her for eternity. His poems will live far beyond the lives to the two lovers, gaining for them an immortality upon which they likely had not, heretofore, cogitated.

The notion is a poetic staple from the birth of poetry itself. Poets have been claiming to immortalize their subjects by displaying them in verse that will continue to be published and read far and wide.

Such a notion may seem like a mere poet's vanity, but it has proven true for all of the accomplished sonnet makers, sonnet style originators, and other poets who have fashioned their beloveds, and other interests in their verse. We need only look to Spenser, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman for verification of the ability of poetry to immortalize.

The Couplet: Immortalized in Poems

Where, when as death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.

The speaker then professes that immortality is in the offing for himself as well as his beloved: their "love shall live." And it will be renewed in the future every time a reader encounters the speaker's poems.

Later poets who followed this prescription for immortality have faired the same way. They have immortalized their lovers and every aspect of their lives that they held dear as readers and listeners have applied their minds and hearts to the verses so lovingly offered by these scribblers.

Note on the Sonnet Title

According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Questions & Answers

  • Why did the lady love rebuke the poet in the poem "One Day I Wrote Her Name Upon the Strand"?

    The speaker's sweetheart castigates the speaker for attempting to accomplish the impossible: to make a mortal immortal. She reminds her lover that not only will the ocean waves obliterate her name, but in time she herself will vanish from the shores of life. The beloved labels her lover a man of vanity for having the notion that he can buck the eternal rounds of life and death by such a limp gesture.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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