Edmund Spenser’s ‘Sonnet 75’: The Immortality of Poetry

Edmund Spenser’s beautiful Sonnet 75 articulates the power of poetry. The speaker of the poem expresses the idea that while death is universally inescapable, through poetry, we can become immortal. Although this is something that is related to us in the narrative of the sonnet, this idea becomes resonant through Spenser’s employment of poetic devices and his choice of verse form. The form and rhythm of the poem, the alliteration, rhyme and meter used are the elements of the piece that make the reader believe that poetry can overcome death and without them, Sonnet 75 would merely be a story of a man that wrote his lover’s name in the sand rather than an amorous and powerful piece of literature that conveys the force and the beauty of poetry.

Sonnet 75 is a Spenserian sonnet, a variant on the traditional sonnet form. The heroic couplet that brings the poem to a close is perhaps the most striking change that Spenser made to the form of the sonnet and it gives his closing lines a sense of surety. The final two lines of Sonnet 75 are particularly interesting as they imply earnestness in the speaker’s assertion that he will canonise his lover in his work; we understand that this comment is not merely a passing thought of the speaker but something that he believes to be comprehensively true and as a result of this, we begin to believe it too. The narrator of the sonnet is the speaker, the ‘vain man’, attempting to immortalise his beloved in poetry. He, in addition to expressing his own view (that it is possible and that he will make it happen), presents us with his lover’s view: that he is vain in his attempt to immortalise her, that his words cannot possibly be as powerful as the forces of nature that will eventually extinguish all life. There are, therefore, two different, contrasting points of view in the poem and as sonnets typically reveal the thoughts of only one speaker, this multi-dialogic dynamic is unusual. The speaker concludes his poem with the heroic couplet that asserts his own view:

Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,

Our love shall live, and later life renew.”

The intense perfection of these lines, written in perfect iambic pentameter with a neat, full rhyme (‘subdue’ and renew’) makes it difficult to see the declaration as anything other than true. The speaker, after acknowledging his lover’s view, returns to his own and expresses it so beautifully and with such surety that we cannot help but feel as though it is a truth that cannot be denied, that in poetry, we can become immortal. Without the sense of certainty and closure that the heroic couplet brings, the poem would appear to be only a discussion on mortality, rather than an ardent affirmation of the power of poetry.

Sonnet 75 is heavily alliterative, so much so that it seems almost excessive. This abundance of alliteration cannot go unnoticed and it appears that Spenser does this intentionally, in order to make the reader completely aware that they are reading a poem. The speaker claims to have a flair for poetry so strong that he can contravene with mortality and he certainly works to prove his talent in the poem. This is evident in the second line of the sonnet: ‘But came the waves and washed it away:’. The alliteration of the ‘W’ sound is onomatopoeic, emulating the soft sound of the waves taking the words from the sand. Similarly, when speaking of death, the harsh ‘D’ sound is repeated, revealing the speaker’s distain towards mortality. This alliteration, in it’s abundance, seems to be an attempt by Spenser to remind us that the speaker of the poem is an artful poet and as a result of this, we cannot escape the reality of the fact that the speaker has done as he intended to in attempting to immortalise his beloved in poetry. Sonnet 75 itself is the poem in which the speaker’s beloved has been immortalised.

As opposed to the Petrarchan rhyme scheme, which follows the pattern ABBA ABBA CDECDE, Spenser used his own rhyming pattern, which he developed when writing Amoretti. This sequence follows the pattern ABAB BCBC CDCD EE as seen in Sonnet 75 and it gives the poem a sense of harmony by rhyming two lines from one quatrain with two lines in the next quatrain. The following lines are taken from the end of the first quatrain and the beginning of the second:

But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.

“Vain man,” said she, “that dost in vain assay,

A mortal thing so to immortalize;

Here, we can see that Spenser takes the B rhyme from the first quatrain (‘prey’) and incorporates it into the second before adding the C rhyme (‘immortalize’) which then continues through to the third quatrain. This gives the effect of seamlessness. There are no abrupt ends to the rhyme in the body of the text before the concluding heroic couplet, which creates an easy and graceful poem, doing nothing to distract the reader from the narrative of the poem until the very end, making those final lines prominent and profound. Spenser uses this poetic device to allow the reader to hear and understand what the speaker is saying without interruptions from the formalities of the text. This allows us to thoroughly comprehend the ideas of the poem, to really take in what the speaker is revealing to us, contributing to our understanding of the poem.

Spenser’s Sonnet 75 is written in almost perfect iambic pentameter. While this does sometimes fluctuate, Spenser retains the steady, comfortable pace throughout the sonnet and this allows the reader to indulge in the beauty of the poem. The woeful melancholia expressed in the first quatrain, for example on the second line (‘But came the tide, and made my pains his prey’), is accentuated by the iambic pentameter which gives the narrative a sober rhythm to match the somewhat sorrowful narrative. This smooth rhythm may emulate the soft sounds of the waves ‘upon the strand’, gentle and steady in it’s movement and so while the speaker tells us of his ‘pains’, we hear the sound of the sea that lulls us into a sense of melancholia. This, however, is interrupted on line five with the spondee ‘vain man’. The two stressed syllables take us away from that comfortable rhythm and bring forth the idea that perhaps the actions of the speaker are not beautiful as we believed them to be but rather that they are naïve and frivolous. It is interesting that it is the voice of the speaker’s beloved, who challenges his view that poetry is more powerful that the forces of nature, that supplies these harsh sounds that penetrate through the soft rhythm of the poem. It almost makes the reader resent the voice of the lover and therefore, makes her cynical thoughts on poetry unwelcome. By creating this distinction in the rhetoric of the speaker and his lover, Spenser makes the gentle and steady voice of the speaker sound preferable to the harsh sound of his beloved and so we, as readers, are more likely to empathise with the speaker and his thoughts which once again, encourages us to believe in the power of poetry.

While the narrative of the poem itself explicitly states that the speaker believes that in poetry, we can evade mortality, it is the formal features of the sonnet that bring this idea to life. Not only do we read about the way poetry can make something immortal, we also hear the resonant power of poetry in the alliteration of the sonnet, we are lulled into the belief that poetry can eternise a mortal by the rhyme and rhythm of the poem and we resent the voice that tells us that poetry does not have that power. Spenser uses the verse form and poetic devices that he employs in Sonnet 75 to contribute to the meaning of the poem.

2 Comments

  1. As someone who has completely left English literature around 5 years ago this made me reminisce so much. You wrote this so beautifully and you definitely have a such a poetic way of analysing this. I feel like I need to write so proper now hahaha. Either way I am SO happy that you got this finished and I cannot believe what a smart and clever woman I am supporting! Absolutely incredible, Char!x

    Like

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