Today, the third Thursday in March, has been designated World Poetry Day. I’m not sure why it’s this particular date rather than any other but it seems an appropriate opportunity to initiate Third Thursday – a regular feature each month to recall a favourite poem. Edmund Spenser came to mind on this occasion as I traced a familiar path across central London recently.
One Day I Wrote her Name
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washèd 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 to so immortalise,
But I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wipèd out likewise.
Not so (quod I) let baser things divise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse 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.
On the beach, we’ve probably all written something in the sand and watched the tide sweep it all away, and Spenser’s meditation on the futility of this pastime is one that we can appreciate over 450 years later.
Strand is an old English word for beach, but one more likely to be used in Ireland rather than England. Spenser was an east-end boy, born in Smithfield in 1552 or 1553, and educated in London before heading off to Cambridge University so it’s natural to imagine him dallying with a lover and seducing her with sweet words as they walked along the river. When Spenser wrote this poem at the end of the 16th century, the Thames would have appeared very different from today; the stone embankments in central London today only date from the middle of the 19th century when Joseph Bazalgette constructed an effective and efficient sewer system. In Spenser’s time there were gently sloping beaches on the northern bank of the river, reeds and marshes on the southern bank and the old strand of the Thames is still signified by The Strand, a street which follows the line of the Thames.
The name he would have been writing was Elizabeth Boyle, the young woman he married after the death of his first wife, and the poem was 75th in a sequence of 89 sonnets dedicated to her in his book Amoretti in 1595. Spenser was an established poet who had already published The Shepheardes Calender in 1579 and the first parts of The Faerie Queen in 1590 to great public acclaim, and he initiated a number of developments in poetic form. This particular poem demonstrates a rhyme scheme he developed and has come to be known as the Spenserian sonnet,
If Amoretti in 1595 was intended to woo his love, Prothalamion in 1596 was written to celebrate marriage, albeit the double marriage of the daughters of the Duke of Worcester, Lady Elizabeth and Lady Katharine Somerset. Prothalamion is a long poem of ten 18 line stanzas, again with a unique rhyme scheme sustained for the length of the poem
The final couplet of each of the ten stanzas are almost identical: the last line repeats identically but the penultimate line repeats with a slight variation each time
Against the bridal day, which is not long:
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
Spenser’s education meant that he was familiar with classical literature, but his writing doesn’t reveal any obvious debts to classical forms. The language is accessible, and you get the sense that he was writing for a broader audience than just the subject of his desire.
The themes of love, death and eternity lead you to link his work with near contemporaries like John Donne and Andrew Marvell, the so-called metaphysical poets. However Spencer died quite young in 1599, ten or twenty years before those other writers became established, and his motives were perhaps more honourable than theirs. While Marvell and Donne playfully used their verse to seduce mature, more experienced women, often married to other members of the gentry and sexually unavailable, Spenser’s muse was an unattached young woman who eventually became his second wife. Sadly, he died aged 46, after a few years of marriage to Elizabeth Boyle, and was buried in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. (Elizabeth survived him, and married twice more.)
However, there is a skeleton in his closet and some might feel this in itself disqualifies him from receiving greater recognition for his work. To extrapolate from examples from the news over the last twelve months, it depends on whether you think we can still appreciate the art while condemning the behaviour of the artists, or not. In Edmund Spenser’s case it goes back to that word strand again. As a Londoner by birth, with his repeated refrain ‘Sweet Thames run softly till I end my song’, and the proximity of The Strand to the Thames, we might assume that the strand on which he was wooing Elizabeth Boyle was in London. But, as I said, the usage is most commonly found in Ireland and it was in Ireland that he was wooing the daughter of an established Anglo-Irish family that included the Earl of Cork.
Edmund Spenser had travelled to the west coast of Ireland in 1580 with military forces to suppress a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth. The rebels had been reinforced by a Papal army of Italian and Spanish soldiers and had some early success against the English army, but they were besieged and eventually forced to surrender. Upon capture, all 600 rebel and Papal soldiers were massacred, and the officers were separately tortured and hanged if they refused to renounce their Catholic faith. Spenser was not a military man but he was implicated by association and he was awarded an extensive estate in Ireland as a reward of some sorts.
He remained in an administrative role in Ireland, and in 1596 wrote A View Of The Present State of Irelande proposing a cruel and punitive programme to subjugate Irish nationalism permanently. He argued that the customs, the language, the culture and the religion should all be suppressed, with all livestock and crops being destroyed at the first sign of any resistance; famine was the means by which loyalty to the crown might be secured. The pamphlet wasn’t published during his lifetime and there’s no indication that it was ever adopted or implemented formally, but it is symptomatic of the strong anti-Irish and anti-Catholic currents prevalent at that time. A series of rebellions continued to trouble him until an incident in 1598 resulted in his home in Cork being attacked and burned down, with the death of one of his children. Spenser returned to London in poor spirits and died the following year.
In retrospect it might be argued that Spenser articulated a bigotry of that time, but hardly invented it. The crushing of a succession of rebellions happened without any input from Spenser and fifty years after his death Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland was savage enough in its own way without any justification from writers of Spenser’s generation.
Edmund Spenser is hardly a squeaky clean figure in literary history, but he writes lines that stick in your mind. Maybe we just need to keep pretending that his strand was where Somerset House is now standing and that he was just a simple London boy. But does his poetry do enough to atone for all that Irish stuff? Ultimately, I could live without Spenser much more easily than I could live without Ireland.