Category Archives: Elizabethan Poets

Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

Today when people think of sonnets, they think of Shakespeare. But once upon a time, Edmund Spenser was the master of the form. Enjoy a sampling:

Penelope for her Ulysses’ sake,
Devised a Web her wooers to deceive:
In which the work that she all day did make
The same at night she did again unweave,
Such subtle craft my Damsel doth conceive,
Th’importune suit of my desire to shun:
For all that I in many day do weave,
In one short hour I find by her undone.
So when I think to end that I begun,
I must begin and never bring to end:
For with one look she spills that long I spun,
And with one word my whole year’s work doth rend.
Such labor like the spider’s web I find,
Whose fruitless work is broken with least wind.

Return again my forces late dismayed,
Unto the siege by you abandoned quite,
Great shame it is to leave like one afraid,
So fair a peace for one repulse so light.
’Gainst such strong castles needeth greater might,
Then those small forts which ye were wont belay,
Such haughty minds inured to hardy fight,
Disdain to yield unto the first assay.
Bring therefore all the forces that ye may,
And lay incessant battery to her heart,
Plaints, prayers, vows, ruth, sorrow, and dismay,
Those engines can the proudest love convert.
And if those fail fall down and die before her,
So dying live, and living do adore her.

Sweet warrior when shall I have peace with you?
High time it is, this war now ended were:
Which I no longer can endure to sue,
Ne your incessant battery more to bear:
So weak my powers, so sore my wounds appear,
That wonder is how I should live a jot,
Seeing my heart through launched every where
With thousand arrows, which your eyes have shot:
Yet shoot ye sharply still, and spare me not,
But glory think to make these cruel stores,
Ye cruel one, what glory can be got,
In slaying him that would live gladly yours?
Make peace therefore, and grant me timely grace.
That all my wounds will heal in little space.

Men call you fair, and you do credit it,
For that your self ye daily such do see:
But the true fair, that is the gentle wit,
And virtuous mind is much more praised of me.
For all the rest, how ever fair it be,
Shall turn to naught and loose that glorious hew:
But only that is permanent and free
From frail corruption, that doth flesh ensue.
That is true beauty: that doth argue you
To be divine and borne of heavenly seed:
Derived from that fair Spirit, from whom all true
And perfect beauty did at first proceed.
He only fair, and what he fair hath made,
All other fair like flowers untimely fade.

New year forth looking out of Janus gate,
Doth seem to promise hope of new delight:
And bidding th’old Adieu, his passed date
Bids all old thoughts to die in dumpish spright.
And calling forth out of sad Winters night,
Fresh love, that long hath slept in cheerless bower:
Wills him awake, and soon about him dight
His wanton wings and darts of deadly power.
For lusty spring now in his timely hour,
Is ready to come forth him to receive:
And warns the Earth with divers colored flower,
To deck herself, and her faire mantle weave.
Then you faire flower, in whom fresh youth doth rain,
Prepare your self new love to entertain.

Venomous tongue tipped with vile adders sting,
Of that self kind with which the Furies tell
Their snaky heads do comb, from which a spring
Of poisoned words and spiteful speeches well.
Let all the plagues and horrid pains of hell,
Upon thee fall for thine accursed hire:
That with false forged lies, which thou didst tell,
In my true love did stir up coals of ire,
The sparks whereof let kindle thine own fire,
And catching hold on thine own wicked head
Consume thee quite, that didst with guile conspire
In my sweet peace such breaches to have bred.
Shame be thy mead, and mischief thy reward.
Do to thy self that it for me prepared.

If you enjoyed these, I heartily recommend you give The Faerie Queen a try. The Faerie Queen is Spenser’s epic romance (and the longest poem in the English language–and would’ve been much longer, if Spenser had lived to complete his original plan), written in a deliberately archaic language, celebrating faerie, heroism, and virtue. Each book follows a different knight (representing a different virtue) in their adventures through the enchanted faerie land. Along the way, they fight with magicians, giants, monsters, and various incarnations of sin and folly; at times receiving help from the good King Arthur, or various other virtuous figures.
But you might want to find a version with plenty of footnotes.