Sonnet 54

 Overview

This is a poem that bemoans a woman being completely unmoved by a man’s actions. The theatre and the different type of plays the wannabe lover claims to be adept in, are really different aspects or spheres of life. He is left feeling confused and frustrated by her lack of interest in him.

Of this world’s theatre in which we stay,
My love like the spectator idly sits,
Beholding me, that all the pageants play,
Disguising diversly my troubled wits.
Sometimes I joy when glad occasion fits,
And mask in mirth like to a comedy:
Soon after, when my joy to sorrow flits,
I wail, and make my woes a tragedy.
Yet she, beholding me with constant eye,
Delights not in my mirth nor rues my smart:
But when I laugh she mocks, and when I cry
She laughs, and hardens evermore her heart.
What then can move her? If nor mirth nor moan,
She is no woman, but a senseless stone.

Edmund Spenser (1542-99)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.


ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Be aware that this sonnet is from a series of 89 that Spenser wrote called Amoretti. All these sonnets were to do with him wooing a lady called Elizabeth Boyle. You’ll be happy to learn that in the end she did notice him and they ended up getting married in 1594 – don’t we all love happy endings!

By this time Spenser (1542-99) was 42 at the time and only lived another 5 years (almost not worth all the bother). It’s thought that the poem uses the theatre analogy because in the two years preceding all the theatres had been closed to try to prevent a plague spreading.

 

 Themes

Unrequited love is probably the most obvious. The poetic voice (Spenser) explores his frustration that he cannot get this woman (Boyle) to notice him, despite all his best efforts.

You may also consider the theatre to be a key theme, but it is only used as a comparative so be aware.

 Content

A lovely little one.

Spenser uses an analogy comparing his pursuit of Boyle with the theatre. His love is the audience as he shows off his acting ability in a variety of plays. In reality this is Spenser trying to appear to be a desirable gentlemen in all sorts of differently real world situations. I say trying to appear as he says ‘Disguising diversly my troubled wits’ meaning that he is constantly think about how he can impress her.

His comparisons shows that whatever he does she doesn’t seem impressed. When he laughs she ‘mocks’ and when he cries she ‘laughs’. She doesn’t seem to recognise his talents and scorns his efforts to impress her. (In my head, I imagine Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream trying to impress with his acting and failing to understand why the audience doesn’t respond the way he expects them to).

In the final three lines, we get the sense that Spenser has almost given up as he questions ‘What then can move her?’ – is there anything that can impress her? Her calls her a ‘senseless stone’ and claims everything he does ‘hardens evermore her heart’, thus he’s in disbelief that she hasn’t melted after all his efforts and concludes it must be her fault as she is emotionless.

 

 Language and techniques

The analogy is the biggest thing. You need to be confident explaining that it is used to compare his attempts to woo her with an actor’s attempts to move his audience.

I’d also talk about the contradictory responses from his love. ‘Laugh’ contrasted with ‘mock’, ‘cry’ contrasted with ‘laugh’. This heightens the feelings of frustration to almost anger as this woman is not just rejecting him, but scorning him – laughing at or mocking his advances.

Finally that last line contains quite a harsh metaphor comparing her to ‘a senseless stone’. This conveys ideas of her having no emotion or heart and being cold and mean. It seems like Spenser has got to the stage of slagging off the girl he fancied, but who rejected him, in order to save face or his own feelings. I can’t imagine Boyle was all too impressed with this assessment.

 

 Structure

Okay, so it’s another sonnet. It’s divided into three quatrains and then a rhyming couplet at the end.

The first quatrain sets up the analogy and tells us how stressed or worried Spenser is as he is disguising his ‘troubled wits’ – putting his game face on, while secretly fretting about this girl’s affections.

The second almost seems to be boastful about how he can play all the occasions and demonstrate all the emotional range that should (in his opinion) leave this girl crazy for him. However, the third shows that she is not at all impressed and doesn’t show any empathy with what he is doing, rather she seems to think he’s a bit of an idiot.

Finally the couplet sums up all his frustrations. He questions whether there is anything he can do and then decides it’s her fault as she is emotionless.

 

 Tone

Frustration passing into annoyance/anger.

He explains all his efforts and seems to appeal to us to sympathise with him as she scorns him and then is fairly rude about her when he is on the point of giving up.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

5 thoughts on “Sonnet 54”

  1. I just discovered this blog by chacne and found your links very, very helpful. It saves me so much time especially now that it is down to revision crunch time. My students are writing the IGCSEs in May and the fabulous resources here will definitely help them. My thanks to your wonderful students too for their perceptive comments and engaging responses; I only hope that my students will find their ideas helpful in formulating their own perceptions of the poems studied.

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