Shakespeare & Spenser Told Us Long Ago Life’s a Beach
Critical guides to complex literary works can be great resources, doing the dirty work of identifying themes and trends for us. It can be arguably more rewarding, however, to make connections on our own. Even if they’re as simple as the one I made a few weeks back (and have been meaning to share) between Shakespeare’s Sonnet #60 and Spenser’s Sonnet #75, both of which use the conceit of waves erasing marks in the sand to express the ephemerality of life.
Sonnet #60 (from Shakespeare’s Sonnets, written 1590’s, published 1609)
Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end,
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crowned,
Crooked eclipses ‘giants his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow.
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.
Sonnet #75 (From Spenser’s Amoretti, published 1595)
One day I wrote her name upon the sand,
but came the waves and washed 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 doest in vain assay,
a mortal thing so to immortalize.
for I my self shall like to this decay,
and eek my name be wiped out likewise.
Not so, (quod I) let baser things devise
to die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
my verse to your virtues rare shall eternize,
and in the heavens write your glorious name.
Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,
our love shall live, and later life renew.
In both sonnets, the speakers assure their respective addresses of poetry’s ability to provide them, their love, their lover’s virtue, a life beyond death. After three quatrains on the ravages of the Time, I especially appreciate the optimism of how Shakespeare’s ends, his verse “stand[ing]” “to times in hope.” Literary immortality was major thematic preoccupation of 16th and 17th century authors; through their writing, authors sought this end for themselves and for those they loved.
Have you encountered any 20th or 21st century works (of any genre) that take on this rather reflexive theme? And how might the Internet, blogs in particular, figure in our contemporary sense of literary mortality? If you write a blog, have you ever thought of it as a means in which you will live on, your words and ideas will survive you? Does that sound too vain (as Spenser’s addressee argues) to admit?