This poem follows the cycle of the seasons presenting each as a reflection on human life, from childhood to old ages. Spring is the warrior age of energy and romance, giving way to the mature beauty of Summer that still bursts with energy, but is now more controlled and skilful like a hunter.
Autumn is the farmer, mature and contented with life and the happy memories generated, but no longer filled with the vigour of youth. Finally, Winter is presented as a feeble old man crumbling towards the grave in a miserable state.
So forth issued the seasons of the year.
First, lusty Spring , all dight in leaves of flowers
That freshly budded and new blooms did bear,
In which a thousand birds had built their bowers
That sweetly sung to call forth paramours,
And in his hand a javelin did he bear,
And on his head, as fit for warlike stours,
A gilt-engraven morion he did wear,
That, as some did him love, others did him fear.
Then came the jolly Summer, being dight
In a thin silken cassock coloured green
That was unlinéd all, to be more light,
And on his head a garland well beseen
He wore, from which as he had chaféd been
The sweat did drop; and in his hand he bore
A bow and shafts, as he in forest green
Had hunted late the leopard or the boar
And now would bathe his limbs, with labour heated sore.
Then came Autumn all in yellow clad
As though he joyéd in his plenteous store,
Laden with fruits that made him laugh, full glad
That he had banished hunger, which to-fore
Had by the belly oft him pinchéd sore;
Upon his head a wreath, that was enrolled
With ears of corn of every sort, he bore,
And in his hand a sickle he did hold
To reap the ripened fruits the which the earth had yold.
Lastly came Winter clothéd all in the frieze,
Chattering his teeth for cold that did him chill,
Whilst on his hoary beard his breath did freeze;
And the dull drops that from his purpled bill,
As from a limbeck, did adown distil.
In his right hand a tippéd staff he held
With which his feeble steps he stayéd still,
For he was faint with cold and weak with eld
That scarce his looséd limbs he was able to wield.
Edmund Spenser (1542-99)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
Not a lot to say here. I’ve given you a brief background to Spenser here, but I can’t really find much else that is directly relevant to this poem.
This one sort of covers all the themes in this poetry selection. The most obvious one is nature, but we’ve also got a reflection on love or attitudes to love and life and quite a poignant reflection on mortality at the end.
So each stanza deals with one of the seasons and draws comparisons with the human lifecycle.
Spring represents young adulthood rather than childhood. In ‘lusty Spring’ we have an image of youthful vigour and energy. Don’t think of lust in the sexual way, it just means full of life. In our youth it is almost like this energy is uncontrollable, like an explosive puppy running around crazily. The personified Spring is described as being dressed in fresh flowers and bloom, so beautiful and fresh and perfect. The thousands of birds and their songs connect the Spring with romance and young love. The word ‘paramour’ simply means lovers, but very much in a sexual sense rather than a lovers as companions. The comparison now moves on to compare Spring to a human role or function in the world; Spring is a warrior with his javelin and helmet. Spring is loved, but feared. This shows the nature of Spring as a volatile and emotionally immature stage in our lives.
All the seasons are represented in the same manner – the way they are dressed and its equivalence to a man’s role in the world. Summer is ‘jolly’ rather than ‘lusty’, which moves us on from an image of unbridled energy to someone who is enjoying what life has to offer. Summer wears a green cassock – mirroring the trees full of life – which surely represents fertility and fulfilment. This is the peak of life and there is an association with performing the role of the head of the family as Summer is clearly working hard all day to provide for his family as demonstrated by the fact ‘the sweat did drop’. His role as a warrior has now been transformed to the skilled practice of hunting, which we should associate more with providing for his family than random violence and aggression associated with uncontrolled and inexperienced youth. Although Summer is associated with ‘sore[s’ and ‘sweat’ and might sound unpleasant, this isn’t the case and we should be drawn back to the opening adjective, ‘jolly’, and realise this is the most fulfilling period in a man’s life – as a father, mature and setting himself up for life.
This is clearly seen in Autumn where our personified season is enjoying the labours of his hard work and looking back on his life. The sweat and toil of Summer have left Autumn with ‘plenteous store’ or lots of fruit or food to keep him going. He is now enjoying the fruits of his labour and no longer has to worry about his belly being ‘pinched sore’ by hunger and instead ‘reaps the ripened fruits’ of earlier labour and efforts. Notice how joyful and satisfied we become in this stanza as we ‘laugh’ and are ‘full glad’, therefore truly enjoying life.
Winter is a dramatic shift in this poem. While all the other seasons seemed to have a clear purpose, Winter’s purpose is to meekly carry on and stave off death for a while. The ‘frieze’ worn by Winter is a heavy cloth and would have been considerably warmer than the leaves and flowers of spring and the green silk of summer. There are four direct references to the cold in this stanza – ‘chattering his teeth for cold’, ‘chill’, ‘breath did freeze’ and ‘faint with cold and weak’ – that directly position the cold with death and decay. Winter is fighting off this cold in order to try to preserve his existence, but it is a loosing battle and our once proud hunter is now vastly diminished and enfeebled as he is described repeatedly as ‘feeble’, ‘faint’ and being scarcely able to wield his staff. This is in no way a fitting way for the personified image of the previous seasons to end – it is humiliating and painful and is a clear reflection on the cruelty of death and our own mortality.
Language and techniques
The key things to mention are the personification of each season, which is done in order to metaphorically reflect on the human lifecycle.
I’ve explored a lot of this above, but things you might want to zoom into would be the role each season has. Spring’s warrior, summer’s hunter, autumn’s farmer and finally winter’s – the poems takes us through aggressive and vigorous, but untamed youth; then mature and considered adulthood; next to the carer and father looking after his family; and ending with a decrepit image of a man on his way to the grave. Think about the connotations of each of these roles – strength, bravery; skill, expertise; caring, providing; weak, miserable. There is a clear reflection upon death here and it is not a positive one; old age and the path to the grave are seen as a miserable end to a wonderful existence and the personified winter mirrors the harsh and unforgiving conditions of a particularly fierce English winter time.
Also explore the imagery of clothing for each season. We’ve got the light and beautiful natural leaves and flowers adorning spring, which represent the beauty and perfection of youth; the fertility of the ‘thin silken cassock coloured green’; autumn’s yellow; followed by the thicker and substantially warmer ‘frieze’ in winter. These represent the stages of life clearly and represent the purpose of each stage, with winter almost seeming like a way of clinging on or surviving.
I’d also make this by exploring the shared semantic field of joy and beauty in the first three stanzas (stanza one: ‘freshly budded’, ‘new blooms’, ‘sweetly sung’. Stanza two: ‘jolly’. Stanza three: ‘plenteous’, ‘laugh, full glad’) in stark contrast with the semantic field of pain and misery in the final stanza (‘chattering his teeth’, ‘chill’, ‘feeble steps’, ‘faint with cold and weak’). We’ve got a real contrast between the joyful elements of life and the sudden decline to misery with the winter and old age.
You could also perhaps mention the foreshadow of death in Autumn. The farmer reaps his crops with a sickle which is traditionally the weapon carried by Death or the Grim Reaper when he comes to take our souls.
I’m not going to say too much here as I’m a bit stumped by this one in terms of significance.
The stanzas all share a regular length, rhyme and construction. The final line of each stanza actually acts as an overall summary of each one and gives us an impression as to how the stage of human life is considered by others. Spring is uncontrolled, but beautiful; Summer is hard working; Autumn is enjoying the fruits of the prior labour’ Winter is battling death.
I’d probably say contemplative. Although we get a very different account of Winter, nothing in the rhyme, structure or punctuation suggests a change of pace of feeling and I think the poet is just reflecting on the stages of life as he sees them with no great emotion at any point.