An utterly beautiful, romantic little thing.
Spenser is still the lovesick little puppy we saw in Sonnet 54, but now he has the affections of Elizabeth Boyle and it seems they are out for a nice trip to the beach. He writes her name in the sand only for it to be washed away, for which she chastises him for trying to make a mortal become immortal. However, he tells her he will make her last forever in his poetry.
What a lovely man!
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves, and washéd 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 immortalise;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wipéd out likewise.’
‘Not so,’ quod I, ‘let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your virtues rare shall eternise,
And in the heavens write your glorious name:
Where, whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.’
Edmund Spenser (1542-99)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
Read my analysis of Sonnet 54 for more details, I’ll just explain here the context of this poem.
This is another sonnet from Amoretti, but now we’ve moved from frustrated attempts to woo to head-over-heel love. I’m sure you’re thrilled for Spenser!
Obviously love, but more interestingly mortality.
Spenser thinks his verse can conquer mortality and make something last forever. This should sound quite familiar –The Flowers That on The Banks and Walks Did Grow was meant to immortalise Margaret Clifford, the Countess of Cumberland.
Beautifully simple, just with a few archaic words to trip you up.
In the first quartet, we open with this image of the lovers on a beach and Spenser writing his love’s name in the sand twice, with the waves washing it away each time. The waves represent mortality: Boyle will not last forever, but will be swept away by death inevitably.
The second quartet is written in Boyle’s voice. She gently chastises him for being ‘vain’ enough to think he can conquer mortality and drawing more acutely the comparison between the waves washing her name away and the fact that she ‘shall like to this decay’ – end up the same way.
The third quartet and the final couplet are just mesmerisingly beautiful. I feel silly for being so moved!
Spenser voice now informs Boyle that ‘baser things’ shall be allowed ‘to die in dust’, but she is elevated above everything – other people, animals, whatever – and is seen as worthy of eternity. He promises her she ‘shall live by fame’ as he will ‘eternise’ (weird way of saying make eternal) her through his ‘verse’ – the expression of her virtues in his poetry (not sure she’d be happy with Sonnet 54 being used to make her eternal).
He is indeed vain, as he claims in this final couplet that they will defeat death while it ‘shall all the world [apart from them] subdue’. There love will live forever in his poetry! Aww, bless!
Language and techniques
Again, I’ve dealt with a lot of it in the content section.
Initially I’d comment on the personification of the waves. The waves ‘made my pains his prey’ we get the idea of it hunting, mostly clearly associated with Death or the Grim Reaper wiping away lives.
Make sure you also talk about the vocabulary used to present death in quite a horrifying manner. ‘Decay’, ‘wiped out’ and ‘die in dust’ all make death sound sudden and inglorious.
However, the vocabulary to describe or discuss his lover is beautiful. ‘Fame’, ‘virtues’, ‘eternise’, ‘heaven’ – he thinks this woman is semi-divine and deserves to be immortalised through his work.
Four distinct parts of the sonnet again.
1-4* Image of what is happening – writing lover’s name in the sand
5-8* Boyle’s reflection on mortality – she’s going to decay as she’s mortal.
9-12* How Spenser is going to immortalise her with his poetry.
13-14* An up yours to mortality.
Notice as well that the rhyme schemes mirrors the waves – A as the waves rush in then B as they recede and then A as they rush back in. I think this reflects the flow of life – life and then death. Inevitable, unchanging. The final couplet defies this as he claims his poetry will help their love last forever.
I can imagine Spenser almost high on love here. He is so enthusiastic and overwhelmed with the enormity of his feelings towards his love. You can hear this with the wash of emotive language used to describe Boyle’s deserving character.