Both Spenser’s Sonnet 75 and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 19 similarly claim to bestow immortality upon the beloved. Despite similar themes, however, these sonnets contrast sharply. Spenser’s sonnet ostensibly reports a conversation between the poet and his beloved, whereas Shakespeare’s sonnet directly addresses personified time, and shows the greater dramatic flair. Spenser’s first two words, “One day”, eschew drama by setting his poem in a vague and unparticularised past.
Line 1 tells how he wrote his beloved’s name on the beach, and line 2 of how the waves washed that name away.
Lines 3 and 4 tell of how he rewrote the name and the sea repeated the act of erasure, this cycle of erasures mimetically echoing the cyclic action of the waves. This cyclic action is emphasised by the repetition of the verbs “wrote” and “came”. These first four lines speak of the uselessness of writing, since the writer’s efforts (“paynes”) were metaphorically eaten (“made … is pray”) by the tide, here seen as some beast which hunts – or as an incarnation of devouring time.
The first four lines of the octet having described the action of the sea, the second four lines then quote the beloved as explictly drawing a moral from that action, saying “I my selve shall lyke to this decay”. The woman meant that she too would be obliterated like words written on the beach. Spenser thus makes explicit the parallel between the transitory words and mortal human life. The octet contains, then, a deliberate step-by-step argument.
By saying that “I my selve shall lyke to this decay”, the beloved has acknowledged that the seeds of decay are in herself.
This claim permits this sonnet to be related to Christian doctrine in which mortality is an inevitable part of our inheritance in consequence of the original sin of Adam and Eve. Indeed, Spenser ends his sonnet by positing a Christian resurrection which will “later life renew”. By contrast, Christian sentiment does not feature in Shakespeare’s poem, and we would not take Shakespeare to be a pagan worshipper of personified time. Arguably, then, Spenser’s poem is nderwritten by and refers to the poet’s actual religious beliefs, whereas Shakespeare’s poem is more of a pure rhetorical performance, a display of wit operating without any connection to the poet’s actual beliefs. By way of comparison, it is also worth noting that the chief image in Spenser’s octet, that of time as an erasing tide, is a simile. By contrast, Shakespeare works with metaphor all through Sonnet 19, in which personified time is an external agency which the poet addresses directly. The use of metaphor rather than simile helps make Shakespeare’s the more direct and forceful poem.
Spenser, having in the octet indicated the inevitability of death, then in the sestet makes the conventional claim that his verse will bestow immortality upon the beloved (lines 10 and 11). Shakespeare similarly claims that “My love shall in my verse ever live young”, and ends his sonnet on this note, offering no evidence for this egotistical (or defiant) boast. Spenser more modestly and less assertively dilutes the claim he makes for his poetry by piously acknowledging the Christian promise of resurrection and an afterlife.
In Sonnet 75, Spenser writes in metrically regular lines which make great use of alliteration: “waves and washed”, “wrote it with”, “paynes his pray”, “dy in dust”, “verse your vertues”, “Where whenas”, “love shall live” and “later life”. The metrical regularity and the music of alliteration provide a smooth background against which the poet carefully works out his argument, opposing the vanity of writing on a beach to the “vertues rare” and “glorious name” which can be written “in the heavens”.
Thus Sonnet 75 sets up a carefully argued opposition between earthly things and heavenly things. By contrast, in Sonnet 19 Shakespeare proceeds not by argument but by proclamation, in a dramatic soliloquy directly addressed to personified time: “Devouring time, blunt thou the lion’s paws”. This is a very heavily stressed line, containing a string of three heavy stresses which fall on “time”, “blunt” and “thou”. Line 2 is regular iambic pentameter, but line 3 opens with a trochaic foot followed by the two strongly stresed words “keen” and “teeth”.
Line 4 is again irregular, with heavy stresses on both “long” and “lived”, and a third heavy stress directly afterwards on the first syllable of “phoenix”. This disruption of the expected metrical pattern of the sonnet emphasises the dissonant nature of time, which is being invited to perform violence upon the strongest of creatures – it being understood by the reader that time will perform such violence anyway, even if not invited. The direct command which opens Shakespeare’s sonnet is followed by others – “blunt,” “make,” “Pluck,” “burn,” and “make glad” – all of which are phrased as permissions.
This vigorous string of permissions culminates in a grant of total licence – “And do whate’er thou wilt” – in opposition to which there is set one prohibition, in that time is forbidden the “heinous crime” of ageing the beloved, here male. This opposition emphasises the poet’s horror of the “heinous crime”. “Heinous” is one of a copious supply of adjectives, most linked to concrete nouns such as “teeth” and “jaws”, which help carry the highly charged emotions of this sonnet.
In contrast to Shakespeare’s vivid and specific instancing of concrete detail, Spenser is vague and generalising, from his opening “One day” to the abstract and unparticularised nouns “things” and “virtues”. Spenser’s language is calm, and scantily supplied with adjectives. Shakespeare addresses time intimately as “thou”. In this period, “thou” was used in the most intimate situations, as for example “when addressing God”. (Ronberg: 76). “Thou” is also lower-class usage which contrasts with the “you” commonly substituted by the upper classes. (Ronberg: 76-77).
Shakespeare, then, has chosen the most intimate form of address available to him, whereas Spenser’s choice of second person pronoun (in “you shall live by fame”) locates his sonnet in the context of upper class discourse. In summary, in contrasting these two sonnets, Shakespeare’s is dramatic, direct, intimate and emotional whereas Spenser’s is by comparison calm, remote and more concerned to reason out an argument. It is fair to say that they reflect the contrasting careers of the men who wrote them: Spenser the civil servant and Shakespeare the dramatist.
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