26. sonnet 54—edmund spenser
1. Sonnet 54 Edmund Spenser 15521599 2. Analysis 1 Of this world's theater in which we stay, a My love like the spectator idly sits, b Beholding me, that all the pageants play, a Disguising diversly my troubled wits. b Sometimes I joy when glad occasion fits, b And mask in mirth like to a comedy: c Soon after, when my joy to sorrow flits, b I wail, and make my woes a tragedy. c Yet she, beholding me with constant eye, d Delights not in my mirth nor rues my smart: e But when I laugh she mocks, and when I cry d She laughs, and hardens evermore her heart. e What then can move her? If nor mirth nor moan, f She is no woman, but a senseless stone. f The first line of the poem is reminiscent of the famous Shakespearean line, All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players (As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII, lines 139-140). Spenser stands on the stage of the metaphorical theater of life and performs for his beloved spectator, Elizabeth Boyle. She sits quietly, unmoved, as he performs the dramatic scenes from a play, watching as he carefully disguises his troubled mind by taking on various characters. Her stance may be likened to that of God: like God, she watches his life as it unfolds, regarding his attempts at pleasing her dispassionately, and readers may infer that she is in a position to dole out punishment, perhaps in the form of denying him her company or affection. Alliteration features twice in the first four lines of the poemnamely in the phrases pageants play (l. 3) and disguising diversly (l. 4) and both instances create the impression that Spenser, bitter and on the verge of anger, is scoffing at his own foolishness, which has landed him in his current predicament in the first place. Diversly] variously Smart] pain Nor nor] neither nor Sonnet 54 is part of a larger sonnet cycle known as Amoretti, first published in 1595. Amoretti describes Spensers courtship of and eventual marriage to Elizabeth Boyle. Unlike regular Petrarchan tradition, the sonnets do not deal with unrequited or adulterous love, but with the purity and peace of marriage, or rather of a love that the poet hoped would lead to marriage. Amoretti means little notes or little cupids. THEME: The poem explores the vicissitudes of courtship. As the sonnet is part of Amoretti, Spensers sonnet cycle, one may assume that it records an early phase of the relationship between Spenser and his romantic interest; the lady is as yet unimpressed by Spensers advancesor otherwise is putting up token resistancebut, despite an inauspicious start, the courtship ends in marriage. The subdued bitterness that characterizes the poets TONE throughout the poem is elided into a paroxysm of anger in the couplet. Although Spenser developed and used his own sonnet form, Sonnet 54 does not seem to conform to the pattern of a typical Spenserian sonnet. While it does indeed feature iambic pentameter as its predominant meter, its rhyme schemeabab-bcbc-dede-ffdeviates from the abab-bcbc- cdcd-ee model that distinguishes Spensers style from standard Italian and English sonnets. Differences in pronunciation may account for this anomaly, but it is also possible that the discrepancy was intentional: the rhyme scheme seems to be a play on a standard Petrarchan, or Italian, sonnet, in which case the poem at hand would be divided into an octave and a sestet rather than three quatrains and a couplet; this appears to be substantiated by the presence of the volta in line 9, where it introduces the ladys perspective, as the line in question would also mark the beginning of the sestet. Furthermore, it may be said that the octave and the sestet present the situation through different prisms: the former deals with Spensers attempts at courtship, whilst the latter showcases the ladys cold-hearted rebuff. Enjambment occurs only once in the sonnet, in lines 11-12, and it conveys the poets growing distress. As for the prevalence of end-stopped lines, it mirrors the rigidity of a script, which, according to Spenser, permeates his behavior toward his beloved as he complies with courtship conventions. Alternatively, it might add to the poets portrayal of the ladys intractability. The sonnet makes use of a conceit, using the metaphor of life as a play to convey Spensers failure at wooing his love interest. 3. Of this world's theater in which we stay, a My love like the spectator idly sits, b Beholding me, // that all the pageants play, a Disguising diversly my troubled wits. b Sometimes I joy when glad occasion fits, b And mask in mirth like to a comedy: c Soon after, // when my joy to sorrow flits, b I wail, // and make my woes a tragedy. c Yet she, // beholding me with constant eye, d Delights not in my mirth nor rues my smart: e But when I laugh she mocks, // and when I cry d She laughs, // and hardens evermore her heart. e What then can move her? // If nor mirth nor moan, f She is no woman, // but a senseless stone. f Spenser is adept at displaying a wide range of emotions. He pretends to be happy when the script calls for it and hides his true feelings with laughter, as if it were a comedy. When the script changes and he must portray sorrow, he cries and turns his own distress into a tragedy. The word flits (l. 7) implies that said change is rapid and unpredictable, introducing the idea that happiness is short-lived. Moreover, the close proximity of comedy (l. 6) and tragedy (l. 8) creates an exaggerated antithesis, implying that Spenser magnifies his emotions and resulting demeanor so as to attract the ladys attention. Alliteration is once again usedin the phrases mask in mirth (l. 5) and wail woes (l. 8)thus adding to the hyperbole that dominates the second quatrain of the sonnet: the former is unaccountably jovial, while the latter, with its resemblance to howling wind, creates an almost mournful atmosphere. Analysis 2 The word idly (l. 2) strikes one as subtly critical, as though Spenser were lamenting his beloveds predisposition to expect him to do everything while she simply sits by, deriding his failure. The ninth line introduces the volta, as evidenced by the conjunction yet (l. 9), and, therefore, commences an account of the ladys mien. The word constant (l. 9) creates an impression of detached critical appraisal, as though the lady were mildly interested in Spensers antics, although her emotional involvement is evidently minimal. The instance of enjambment in lines 11-12 is a testament to the poets distress at perceiving that his beloved has a cruel side to her personality; after all, Spenser plainly states that his tears induce nothing but amusement. The caesura in line 11 contrasts the two situations, highlighting the ladys reaction, which is diametrically opposed to what would be expected of her, in both of them. As for the caesura in line 12, it creates a pause that may hint at Spensers reluctance to acknowledge his beloveds perennial coldness toward him and the prospect that it will only get worse. The rhetorical question in line 13 provides evidence of Spensers despair: he is at a loss what to do, being forced to accept that his attempts at wooing will not be successful. The caesura following the rhetorical question marks a shift in the poets attitude: he seems to blame the lady, deeming her lack of sympathy proof that she is not part of the female sex. The alliteration of the letter m in the phrase mirth moan (l. 13) paints the two emotions implied by the words in question as similar, alluding to the entire range of human emotions; one may infer that the aforementioned feelings, while evidently dissimilar, are treated in much the same way by the lady, namely with cool indifference. The caesura in line 14 emphasizes the juxtaposition of the sensitivity a woman (l. 14) should exhibit and the senseless stone (l. 14) his beloved has been proven to be. The sibilance apparent in the latter phrase creates a cold hissing sound reminiscent of serpents.