One Day I wrote Her Name Upon the Sand
This poem by Edmund Spenser is about capturing not just a singular moment but a whole lifetime as he attempts to immortalise his loved one, despite her protestations and accusations of his vanity for trying to achieve the impossible. But as marks in the sand are washed away and the sands of time will too eventually run out, Spenser’s verse does ‘eternize’ her and them both and comes as a fine example of how poetry may just come the closest to ensuring that moments of glorious emotion and intensity do indeed last forever. This sonnet is part of one of Spenser’s most famous works, Amoretti, a sonnet cycle consisting of 89 sonnets which describe his courtship and wedding to Elizabeth Boyle (who was immortalised to an extent which she could never have imagined). It also utilises Spenser’s own distinctive verse form – termed, as you may or may not expect, a Spenserian sonnet – which like a typical Shakespearean sonnet, features three quatrains and a couplet and also employs the problem/reflection/comment pattern of the Petrarchan sonnet.
One Day I Wrote Her Name Upon The Strand
One day I wrote her name upon the strand
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 dost in vain assay
A mortal thing so to immortalise!
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise.
Not so quoth I, let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse 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.
Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)
With Amoretti Spenser descended on the permanent paradox, namely the principle of change inherent in nature that causes merciless mutations to everything in this world. This is a paradox which baffled the European intellectuals historically since Ovid. The problem became acute with Renaissance thinkers as they were mainly concerned with the glorification of the self and were seeking to hold onto something that could give resistance to the effacement of the personality caused by time. The popularity of Neo-Platonism can be accounted for by the fact that it provided a clean way out of the clutches of time or the temporal. The urge to seek the resolution can be also found in the artistic scheme of the poets, deliberately making the structure symbolic of certain specific doctrine. This is no less evident in Spenser’s Amoretti, which can be read as a symbolic structure in which the lover’s attainment of his beloved is symbolic of the manifestation of divine beauty.
The sonnet no. 75 (One Day I wrote Her Name…) derives its singular belief from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, where he claimed to have found permanence in the monument created by art. Spenser begins the sonnet with a simple yet archetypal and obsessive and symbolic act on the part of a lover:
“One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away…”
Undeterred the poet tried for the second time; but in the same way his second attempt was futile. Seeing her name thus being repeatedly wiped out, the beloved reminded him that he was trying to immortalize a mortal thing as like her name she would also one day be wiped out from this world:
“Vain man”, said she, “that dost in vain assay”
A motal thing so to immortalize…”
Unusually for a Renaissance lady, the beloved has been given a voice here, and she seems to understand the symbolic and archetypal significance of the waves leveling the sand. The evidence of the destructive properties of time available in the natural world has been grafted on to the context of the human world by the beloved. Not only that, she does reproach the lover for this. This provides the poet with the intellectual necessity to answer her in the sestet.
In the sestet the lover hurries forth to silence the beloved and resolve the tensions created in the octave. Typical with a renaissance poet, the answer lies in the Neo-Platonic idealization of the beloved. The speaker starts with a belief of the renaissance alchemy that baser elements naturally perish in the dust. For Spenser, however, “baser things” symbolize the earthly things subject to decay and death. What he seeks to immortalize is not the physical beauty of the beloved, but those spiritual qualities which provide the beloved with spiritual beauty. The poet is hopeful that his verses will be able to eternize the memory of the beauty of the beloved and transfigure her into a heavenly being.
“…you shall live by fame
My verse your virtues write your glorious name.”
Thus he thinks that he will be successful in preserving her name even after the world is destroyed in the Apocalypse.
The most important assertion, however, comes in the concluding line, in which the poet wants to use this kind of idealization as a way to preserving and immortalizing their love. He hopes further that this will help them to transcend their mundane existence and find a permanent place in the divine scheme of things:
“Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.”