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Teaching Assignment: Spenser, Amoretti 75

Read by Julian Lethbridge. [ Listen to Audio]

ONE day I wrote her name vpon the strand,
  but came the waues and washéd it away:
  agayne I wrote it with a second hand,
  but came the tyde, and made my paynes his pray.
Vayne man, sayd she, that doest in vaine assay,
  a mortall thing so to immortalize,
  for I my selue shall lyke to this decay,
  and eek my name be wypéd out lykewize.
Not so, (quod I) let baser things deuize
  to dy in dust, but you shall liue by fame:
  my verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
  and in the heuens wryte your glorious name.
Where whenas death shall all the world subdew,
  our loue shall liue, and later life renew.

#75 is perhaps the best-known sonnet in Spenser’s sequence, Amoretti.  The sequence itself presents a disjunctive narrative that chronicles the wooing of Elizabeth Boyle by Spenser. 

At this point in the sequence, Spenser has won the hand of Elizabeth.  She would become his second wife (the marriage happened on June 11, 1594, and is celebrated in the poem “Epithalamion,” which follows Amoretti).  Yet despite capturing Elizabeth’s hand, and perhaps because of it, the speaker is anxious about the passage of time: time wipes out lives, memories, affections, and writing, as the sea does the shore.  Elizabeth sharply reminds him of this fact: “Vayne man, sayd she, that doest in vaine assay/ A mortall thing so to immortalize,/ For I my selue shall lyke to this decay….“ 

In the poem’s central image, or conceit, the poet writes Elizabeth’s name on the “strand,“ or beach, as lovers do, but the waves come and “wash[ ] it away.“  By contrast, he insists that his love, attested in his poems, will last forever:  his love for Elizabeth is both bodily and a spiritual, everlasting one.  His love also inspires his poems, and they help make her name and his love for her immortal.

What does this poem have to do with Kilcolman Castle?  Not much, apparently, although the “strand“ calls our attention to real sea-coasts, such as those in south Munster, an area with long sandy beaches that both Spenser and Elizabeth would have known well.  Despite its geographical incertitude, the poem raises relevant questions about Spenser’s feelings towards the passage of time.  Time would eventually sweep away his castle home and life along with it.  Spenser’s estate was named “Hap-Hazard,“ as if attesting to the mutability of the world and the fickleness of fate.  The spiritual comfort of his married life and poetic vocation helped to counterbalance this fear of change.

Study Questions

Listen to the poem and ask yourself these questions:

1) in what ways might the rhythm of the poem imitate the rhythms of the sea?  Is there wave action at work within it?  What about the alliterative sounds in the poem?  How might they conjure up images of the sea?

2) what words does the reader stress most heavily, and why?

3) where does the reader slow down most effectively, and why?

4)  where does the reader pause most effectively, and why?

5) why does Elizabeth chastise the speaker?  What is his reaction?

6) elsewhere in Amoretti, Spenser makes a symbolic connection between his mother, his bride and his queen:  all were named Elizabeth.  How then, on a symbolic level, might the loved one in this poem represent Queen Elizabeth I, and not only Elizabeth Boyle?

7) what might the strand itself symbolize?

8)  the last word, “renew,“ is a crucial one to our understanding of the spiritual values of the poem.  Explain why, including discussion of the strategic placement of the word.