Edmund Spenser by Margaret Coats Edmund Spenser (1552–1599) wrote 121 sonnets of rhyme scheme abab bcbc cdcd ee, including 87 in his love sequence Amoretti. The Spenserian sonnet differs from the Shakespearean because its three quatrains are linked by rhyming couplets. This variant is sometimes treated as the third important type of sonnet in English, but quoted examples always seem to be by Spenser. Who else wrote this kind of poem? The answer, for the sonnet vogue of the 16th and early 17th centuries, is that more Scottish poets than English wrote Spenserian sonnets. The Scots had heard of Petrarch, and considered Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (creator of the Shakespearean sonnet form), the premier English poet. But to them, “ane sonnet” usually meant one with the Spenserian rhyme scheme. The Spenserian sonnet, then, might be called the Scottish sonnet, just as the Shakespearean is called the English, and the Petrarchan the Italian. The first publication of Spenserian sonnets took place in Edinburgh in 1584 and 1585 with King James VI’s Essays of a Prentice in the Divine Art of Poesy. Among the commendatory poems by Scots authors were two by the brothers Thomas and Robert Hudson, who came from the North of England but for many years served the Scottish king as musicians in his chapel royal. Their poems are the first publication of Spenserian sonnets by Englishmen, for the earliest known example written by Edmund Spenser himself is the sonnet to Gabriel Harvey of 18 July 1586. Spenser did not publish any such sonnets until 1591. The first woman to write a Spenserian sonnet was probably Mary Beaton, lady in waiting to Mary Queen of Scots. At least four other Scotswomen of the period left examples, while there seem to be none from Englishwomen. Spenser remains the greatest writer to employ the Spenserian or Scottish sonnet, but here are ten others, along with sample sonnets gently edited for easier reading. 1. Alexander Montgomery (died 1598) This Scottish poet, recognized as one of Scotland’s finest writers of sonnets, may be the originator of the Spenserian sonnet form. He wrote one of the commendatory sonnets in King James’s Essays of a Prentice. As an older poet with an established reputation, he may have instructed the king, who was just 18 at the time of publication. Because the Scottish literary scene of this era was still largely one of circulating manuscripts, most of Montgomery’s 38 known Spenserian sonnets were published only in 1821. They include masterful variations such as a double Spenserian sonnet of chained lines. In the following variant of rhyme scheme abab bcbc cdcd dd (recently named “the Spenserian forte”), the poet declares “That He Wrought Not Against the Maidens of Edinburgh.” What reckless rage has armed thy tiger’s tongue, On sweet and simple souls to spew thy spite? What siren should such poisoned songs have sung? What devil such ditties devisèd to indyte? What madness moved, such venomous words to write? What hellish hands has led thy bloody pen? What furious fiend inflamed thee so to flyte? Thee—nowise now to numbered be with men! Whatever thou be, thou art a knave, I ken, So lewdly on these lasses to have laid, And if thou please, appoint how, where, and when, And I shall make thee, Beast, not to bide beid, That neither are they sik as thou has said, Nor am I by these rascal railings made. beid: “by it” The sonnet begins as a traditional flyting, or hurling of insults at an adversary. But the speaker immediately takes the moral high ground on behalf defenseless lasses unjustly injured by his accuser. This gives the poem a tone both robust and tender—and earns the respect of the reader. The turn of the sonnet occurs as the speaker proclaims the slanderer not a man but a knave. The sestet challenges this beast to a duel, in which the poet will maintain the maidens’ honor along with his own. He succeeds in turning the accusation back upon the accuser. Montgomery employs the alliterative line with great skill, and places his words with precision. In line 4, “devil” and “ditties” should each be read as a single accented syllable. “Rascal” in the last line properly describes the railings of the opponent. The reader misses the point if he must unravel that line to say, “I am not made a rascal.” The confident speaker disdains to deny the slur, for he has pledged to fight any application of it to himself. Assailed by all the foulness he outlines in the octave, he overcomes. His valiant sonnet elicits the exalted emotions of storied chivalry. 2. King James VI of Scotland (1566–1625) King James VI Author of 17 Spenserian sonnets, James Stuart wrote and published poetry only as king of Scotland, not after he became King James I of England in 1603. His Essays of a Prentice showcases the first published sequence of Spenserian sonnets, twelve poems in which the young monarch asks the classical pagan gods to bless his poetic labors. This is the seventh sonnet. And when I do descrive the Ocean’s force, Grant syne, O Neptune, god of seas profound, That readers think on leeboard and on dworce, And how the seas o’erflowed this massive round; Yea, let them think they hear a stormy sound Which threatens wind, and darkness come at hand, And water in their ships syne to abound, By welt’ring waves, like highest towers on land. Then let them think their ship, now low on sand, Now climbs and skips to top of raging seas, Now down to hell, when shipmen may not stand, But lifts their hands to pray thee for some ease; Syne let them think thy trident doth it calm, Which makes it clear and smooth like glass or alm. syne: then dworce: windward alm: crystallized alum This nautical sonnet undulates by quatrains. The first sets a somber scene, not only invoking the ungovernable forces of Neptune, but recalling the global Flood of Noah. In the second quatrain, a storm breaks for readers to hear and feel and see—if they can view towering waves through thick darkness. Their ship, in the third quatrain, surges and plunges to knock them to their knees for frightened prayer. Finally, the poet offers a quiet ending, achieved through the power of the trident. While the trident is Neptune’s emblem, it is also a symbol for the Trinity. The three prongs represent divine omnipotence in land, sea, and air. With a crossbar added to the central prong, the trident cross figures God the Son, Savior from hell. When the trident cross has a short, round base, this base can be seen as the head of a descending bird, perhaps the dove of the Holy Spirit. Or the bird may be a diving gyrfalcon, reserved to the use of royalty, including the author of the sonnet. This royal poet’s prayer seems to have been answered with descriptive ability, and he has learned the vigor of many-faceted symbolic allusion, as well. 3. William Fowler (c.1560–1612) William Fowler Fowler was secretary to Anne of Denmark, queen consort to King James VI. He wrote 130 Spenserian sonnets, many for The Tarantula of Love, a sequence of 71 sonnets in final form. Most of his poems are known from a carefully prepared manuscript dated 1587; only a few were published before Volume I of his Works appeared in 1914. Below is Tarantula of Love XXVII, on love during a plague outbreak. Although this poisoning pest, black, red, and pale, Disperseth some and others als infect, And both the cities and the land assail, And terrifies with dangers and suspect, Yet unafraid these terrors I neglect. I have no fear of a pestiferous breath, Sen of Love’s force I feel the full effect, Who in my breast his poison sparpled hath. Thus ways prepared I walk a careless path, And boldened so I fear no pest nor boach Which by my senses may procure my death, For so love’s venom does on me encroach As no infection can infect my corse, For where that pest is, poison tynes her force. sen: since sparpled: scattered boach: illness with boils corse: body tynes: loses “Tarantula” means both the venomous spider and the frenzied movements resulting from its bite—imitated in the mad dance known as the tarantelle. Fowler’s tarantula is love itself, and the poet’s agony includes forced separation from his lady due to a plague epidemic. Bubonic plague sporadically terrified Europe for centuries after the Black Death carried off a third of its population around 1348, when Petrarch’s beloved Laura was among the victims. Here Fowler turns the Petrarchan commonplace of absence from one’s lady into a horror show, hinting at frightful aspects of the most dreaded of diseases. “Boach” frankly suggests the pustulent boil in the sufferer’s groin or armpit. The reader’s alarm is meant to be apocalyptic, as the sonnet’s first line recalls the black, red, and pale horses of the Biblical Apocalypse, representing plague, war, and famine. All this bravado, however, only demonstrates that love is stronger than death. Imagine a contemporary sonnet in which the young lover cares nothing for mass shootings, college debt, the CCP corona virus, or even climate change, because he is dying of love. Such is this poet’s posture of bold nonchalance. 4. Henry Lok (c.1553–1608 or after) Lok is the first Englishman in this list, but he has a Scottish connection. The first of his 161 Spenserian sonnets appeared in King James VI’s Poetical Exercises (1591). Lok’s own Sundry Christian Passions was published in 1593, but only the 1597 version remains extant. Its First Part is a sequence of 102 sonnets, 100 of them Spenserian. This is Sundry Christian Passions, the First Part, Sonnet VI. In pride of youth, when as unbridled lust Did force me forth, my follies to bewray, I challengèd as patrimony just Each vain affection leading to decay, And trusting to that treasure, post away I wand’red in the world’s alluring sight. Not reason, virtue, shame, or fear could stay My appetite from tasting each delight, Till want and weariness began me bite, And so perforce to father I retire, To whom I prostrate kneel—unworthy wight— To name of son not daring to aspire; Receive me yet, sweet Saviour, of Thy grace, Poor penitent, into a servant’s place. wight: creature The speaker identifies with the Prodigal Son of the Gospel parable, which he retells from the son’s point of view. This allows Lok to use the technique of unwritten ending, in which the reader who knows the story supplies the poem’s outcome. The father does not grant the son’s humble request, but showers him with overwhelming love and undeserved gifts, signifying God’s grace. This is a model Spenserian sonnet, because all 14 rhyme words fulfill key functions in the story and in the form’s pattern. The “a” rhymes (lust/just) set up a meaningful contrast, informed by the sad intervening “b” word “bewray.” All the “b” rhymes supply negative nuance, and speed up the son’s collapse with a fast-moving quatrain link (decay/away) in lines 4–5. The other quatrain link (delight/bite) is a deliciously appropriate turn for the sonnet. The “d” rhymes (retire/aspire) imply contrary motion, hesitantly disclosing the returning son’s returning love for his father. The final couplet, humbly yet strongly contrasting the Saviour’s grace with a servant’s place, supplies potential energy from which the unwritten surprise ending can spring. Many of Lok’s sonnets are quite complex due to profound and intricate Biblical allusion, but in this simpler one, a common reader can easily observe capable artistic structure. 5. Samuel Daniel (1562–1619) Daniel is one of the more important sonnet writers of the 1590s. His 1592 Delia features no Spenserian sonnets, but for the 1594 and 1601 editions, the poet rewrote his prose dedication, revised two Shakespearean sonnets, and composed three new poems to give the sequence six Spenserian sonnets. This one was new in 1601. And yet I cannot reprehend the flight, Or blame th’ attempt presuming so to soar; The mounting venture for a high delight Did make the honor of the fall the more, For who gets wealth that puts not out from shore? Danger hath honor, great designs their fame; Glory doth follow, courage goes before, And though th’ event oft answers not the same, Suffice that high attempts have never shame. The mean observer (who base safety keeps) Lives without honor, dies without a name, And in eternal darkness ever sleeps— And therefore, Delia, ’tis to me no blot To have attempted, though attained thee not. Rather than complain of his lady’s cruelty or his own suffering, Daniel takes a practical look at the platitude of the unyielding mistress. His point of view compliments Delia as the supremely worthy goal of his soaring flight, bold venture, and great designs. The sonnet contains two focal words that both appear three times. The more obvious is “attempt,” clearly emphasized in the final line by contrast with “attained.” The poet speaks of his courageous, dangerous, and positively presumptuous attempt to win Delia—and acknowledges his failure. The effort, though, covers him with glory. “Honor” is the poem’s second key term, always referring to honor gained by the valorous lover. He never says, but lets the reader reflect, that he may have made an improper “attempt” upon his lady’s “honor.” There is just a hint of such in line 3’s “mounting venture for a high delight,” but line 4 declares the resulting fall a greater honor for the fallen adventurer, achieved precisely because the lady’s honor remains uninjured. She is too exalted to be touched by scandal, and thus no blot due to a scandalous attempt besmirches the lover either. Indeed, he eternizes himself in contrast to the “mean observer” of Delia—and she can bask in his reflected glory. This is not unchivalrous. Her admirer proves himself a poet of suave eloquence, astute word choice, and subtle argument. He cherishes an understated egotism, but converts it into surpassing praise for his beloved. 6. Thomas Edwards (1699–1757) Edwards is credited with reviving the sonnet after a century of neglect. He went on to write sonnets in the Shakespearean and Petrarchan forms, but says that his initial inspiration came from reading the sonnets of Spenser. His first three sonnets, published in 1748, were Spenserian addresses to friends, this one to John Clerke. Wisely, O Clerke, enjoy the present hour, The present hour is all the time we have; High God the rest has placed beyond our power, Consigned perhaps to grief—or to the grave. Wretched the man who toils, ambition’s slave, Who pines for wealth, or sighs for empty fame, Who rolls in pleasures which the mind deprave, Bought with severe remorse, with guilty shame. Virtue and knowledge be our better aim; These help us Ill to bear, or teach to shun. Let friendship cheer us with her generous flame, Friendship, the sum of all our joys in one. So shall we live each moment fate has given; How long or short, let us resign to heaven. Readers must pause at the pithy second line: it is good enough to conclude any wistful carpe diem poem—but that is only one theme in this packed sonnet. The overall point, stated in the first word, is to enjoy time wisely. “Wisdom psalm” might be the best classification for this lyric brimming with serious meditation on how to live. Notice that “live” in line 13 is a syllable that could be called “long by position.” It should be held and emphasized in reading, for it summarizes and expands the author’s counsel, applying it not just to the present hour, but to “each moment.” Moral guidance here is magnified by a lofty spiritual tone, but the warmth and joy of the poet’s man-to-man discourse is friendship. Line 12 explicates the first line’s “enjoy” by saying that friendship is “the sum of all our joys in one.” Friendship is, to use another word—the poem’s last word—heaven, available here and now. Edwards begins the 18th century sonnet revival with discerning attention to friendship, an element of sonnet tradition usually overshadowed by love, the spiritual life, and matters of art or politics, but still significant. 7. William Thompson (1712–1766) In 1760, Thompson published Garden Inscriptions, a book in the styles of various poets, probably meant to be read at suitable spots in fashionable gardens. Its two Spenserian sonnets re-introduce a noteworthy variation used by Spenser himself in a few sonnets addressed to courtiers. Lengthening the final line later becomes a practice adopted by some authors of all kinds of sonnets. Here, Thompson may have done it to imitate the stanza form of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and thus make the sonnet even more Spenserian. The title of this sonnet is “In Il Spenseroso,” alluding to John Milton’s “Il Penseroso,” a long poem in rhyming couplets that describes the contemplative man with a melancholy side to him. Lo, here the place for contemplation made, For sacred musing, and for solemn song! Hence, ye profane, nor violate the shade. Come, Spenser’s aweful genius, come along, Mix with the music of th’ aerïal throng! Oh, breathe a pensive stillness through my breast While balmy breezes pant, the leaves among, And sweetly soothe my passions into rest. Hint purest thoughts, in purest colors dressed, Ev’n such as angels prompt in golden dreams To holy hermit, high in raptures blest, His bosom burning with celestial beams. Ne less the raptures of my summer day, If Spenser deign with me to moralize the lay. The poet follows Milton in a brief prelude banishing profane joys, then replaces Milton’s goddess Melancholy with the genius of Spenser, who brings moral purity and calm to the garden setting. Evidently, virtues learned in reading Spenser lead to celestial raptures like those of a genuinely devout hermit. Thompson’s hermit differs from those who really inhabited some 18th century English gardens: unkempt, wisecracking characters hired by landowners to add cachet to their grounds. These might seem more like Spenser’s caricature in The Faerie Queene, Book I, Canto 1. However, there is an authentic hermit (named Contemplation) in Canto 10. One finds his dwelling by climbing a steep and rugged hill, only to hear him advise fasting and prayer with “labors long and sad delay.” Thompson clearly prefers a shady bower on a summer’s day, with pensive quiet and background bird song. Perhaps he recalls mainly the lines where Spenser’s Contemplation likens his abode to that pleasaunt Mount, that is for ay Through famous Poets’ verse each where renowned, On which the thrice three learned Ladies play Their heavenly notes, and make full many a lovely lay. 8. Thomas Stott (1755–1829) Stott lived in Ireland, and contributed to periodicals more than 50 Spenserian sonnets (serious and lighthearted). This “Sonnet in Favour of Whiskey” is the second in a pair (the first being against whiskey) from The Morning Post of October 1, 1810. Idol of jovial Ireland’s social train, Parent of wit, and nurse of smiling glee, Killer of care, and banisher of pain, Friend of the brave, and fav’rite of the free! Though coy Morality thy presence flee And prim Hypocrisy turn up her nose, A secret fondness both still bear for thee, While they would pass in public as thy foes. At thy approach, how Fancy’s visage glows! Sparkling with rapture roll the eyes of Fun, Misfortune speedily forgets her woes, And Toil the task that he has left undone. Let Envy shoot her venomed shafts in vain— Whiskey, triumphant Whiskey, still shall reign! The previous sonnet had personified whiskey as Ireland’s monstrum horrendum. This one offers a full parade of personifications—and cleverly overcomes the earlier impression. Whiskey may be the idol of the Irish, but it is parent and nurse of healthy social traits. It kills or banishes misery, and befriends honorable men. Granted, Morality is a public foe, but she and Hypocrisy secretly like whiskey, too. Claiming them for his tipsy circle, the poet universalizes whiskey’s charm. The best pleas against alcohol never convince everyone, but here Stott wins the contrary argument, and the sonnet turns to inebriated Fancy and Fun. Misfortune and Toil join the jig, and the sole enemy left is ineffectual Envy. Whiskey now stands personified as a triumphant monarch. The poet displays a deft touch for sketching abstractions as amusing folk, and for making a delicate political point. He was loyal to the United Kingdom, and to him Ireland was definitely a part of it, but he affably mentions the brave and the free who had rebelled in 1798. Gone is the earlier sonnet’s rebuke of sedition, replaced by a conciliatory ending in which all merrily salute King Whiskey. 9. Thomas Hood (1799–1845) Hood, son of a Scottish bookseller doing business in London, became known as a humorist. Some of his seven Spenserian sonnets are lively light verse. His Spenserian sonnet tributes to Shakespeare and Wordsworth, though, show more subtle humor, for those great poets championed other kinds of sonnet. Hood’s poem “Death” is the only Spenserian sonnet not written by Spenser in The Oxford Book of English Verse. It is not death, that some time in a sigh This eloquent breath shall take its speechless flight; That some time these bright stars, that now reply In sunlight to the sun, shall set in night; That this warm conscious flesh shall perish quite, And all life’s ruddy springs forget to flow; That thoughts shall cease, and the immortal spright Be lapped in alien clay and laid below; It is not death to know this, but to know That pious thoughts, which visit at new graves In tender pilgrimage, will cease to go So duly and so oft—and when grass waves Over the passed-away, there may be then No resurrection in the minds of men. The poem is a succession of graceful images of death in pairs of lines. The poet makes them paradoxically attractive, and claims that they do not define death. Lines 1 and 2 speak of breath ceasing, lines 3 and 4 of eyes closing, lines 5 and 6 of flesh cooling, lines 7 and 8 of the spirit departing, all in beautifully crafted phrases. Line 9 is the sonnet’s turn, hinged on a repetition of its first words, “It is not death.” To know what happens to the body is not death; the poet goes on to explain what knowledge is, in fact, death. It is the realization that pious memories will grow fainter (lines 10 and 11), and that unthinking grass will sway over the settling grave (lines 12 and 13), while there may (not “will” but “may”) be no resurrection in the minds of men. The perfect final line states the genuine—but still only potential—horror of death. And yet, the exquisite expressions leading up to the revelation make this final calamity merely sad, and thus the poem offers present consolation, with the prospect of peaceful rest, to those who may be approaching death. In this sonnet, it seems to be not the deceased or the dying who suffer, but the guilty still living, implicitly accused of betraying their beloved dead. The poem addresses them, but even they are treated with gentleness. 10. William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878) William Cullen Bryant The first major American poet wrote only a few sonnets, and only one of these is Spenserian. Bryant may have chosen the form to highlight his dispute with Spenser over the earlier poet’s favored theme of mutability. “Mutation” (1824) features the lengthened final line, which by this time had precedents in popular volumes such as Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets and John Clare’s The Village Minstrel. They talk of short-lived pleasure—be it so— Pain dies as quickly: stern, hard-featured pain Expires, and lets her weary prisoner go. The fiercest agonies have shortest reign, And after dreams of horror, comes again The welcome morning with its rays of peace. Oblivion, softly wiping out the stain, Makes the strong secret pangs of shame to cease; Remorse is virtue’s root: its fair increase Are fruits of innocence and blessedness; Thus joy, o’erborne and bound, doth still release His young limbs from the chains that round him press. Weep not that the world changes—did it keep A stable, changeless state, ’twere cause indeed to weep. Spenser and others like him may long for whatever is desirable to be stable as well. Bryant, rather than complain of transience, dramatically and patiently shows how it transforms pain as well as pleasure. The rhythm of the poem seems to cough in painful lines, and breathe easily in ones of pleasant resolution. The argument reaches fruition in line 10. Next, the poet offers “joy o’erborne and bound” as a judicious portrait of happiness in which affliction obscures virtue. The image might also indicate that contemplating mutability can create overwhelming dejection. Bryant’s joy, though, is a youth in the process of releasing himself from chains. Mutation is nothing to mourn, says the superb couplet. Its first line, or “change” line, gives another therapeutic shock to the poem’s iambic meter. The final or “stable” line returns to regularity in a slow, heavy pace, proceeding a foot beyond its expected length to emphasize the effect. This is a Spenserian sonnet to please a fallen world where everyone, discontented or not, can think of something that demands change. At no time—except during the early years in Scotland—have Spenserian sonnets made up any sizable proportion of all sonnets written, but this list of authors could be much expanded. And there are recent developments of interest. In 1983 Robert B. Parker, Northeastern University professor of English literature and author of detective novels that became the television series Spenser for Hire, produced “A Spenserian Sonnet” as an art press broadside. It is worth the sleuthing necessary to locate it. Scottish poet Roddy Lumsden in 1997 published Yeah Yeah Yeah, a book of which the title poem is a noted Spenserian sonnet. Another appealing title poem is Sonnet 101 from Complete: 101 Sonnets (2009) by Canadian poet Margaret I. Gibson Bates. On May 6, 2011, The New Yorker published what may be its first Spenserian sonnet, “The Facebook Sonnet” by Sherman Alexie, an Indigenous American author. Also in 2011, New York songwriter Leigh Harrison issued her Finding Sermons in Stones. Its online sample poem is the kaleidoscopic Spenserian sonnet, “Folding into White.” Postings on poetry websites manifest the widespread allure of the Spenserian sonnet. Some examples of merit are “Scarecrow” by Finnish physicist Stanislav Rusak, “The Proof” by Kaleb Pier from Wisconsin, “A Moonless Path” by Jez Farmer of the United Kingdom, “The Vows” by Joyce Johnson of Washington State, and “Sonnet Struggle” by Maryse Achong from Trinidad and Tobago. Gary Kent Spain of California has proposed two new variations appropriate to the form, “Spenser’s Necklace” (abab bcbc cdcd da) and “Spenser’s Necklace Clasped” (Abab bcbc cdcd dA). His suggestions, written in the proposed rhyme schemes, elicited some commendable poems, especially “Come What Come Mary” by an author with pen name Discoveria, who uses a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to clasp the necklace. Indeed, the Spenserian or Scottish sonnet has a promising future as well as an intriguing history. Spenserian sonnets published by the Society of Classical Poets include “Form Sonnet” and “Spenserian Sonnet” by Theresa Rodriguez. The Society also published an interview with Rodriguez on rediscovering the sonnet, in which she calls writing a Spenserian sonnet “a truly challenging and rewarding undertaking.” Margaret Coats lives in California. She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University. She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others.