Have a read first, then we’ll explain:
|One Day I Wrote Her Name Upon the Strand|
Edmund Spenser (1552–1599)
Hope you liked this as much as I. This poem is a sonnet. We’ve talked about sonnets before. Just to recap, a sonnet is a verse form invented in Renaissance Italy and it has 14 lines. The last two lines usually rhyme.
The sonnet quickly became popular in England too. All the great English poets have written sonnets: Shakespeare, Milton and Auden, to name a few. So also modern poets are still using this form. Spenser is the master of a very long poetic epic “The Faerie Queene.” But he wrote sonnets too. The theme of sonnets is often love and the immortalization of love and writing. Immortalization means it cannot die.
What’s the Sonnet About?
What’s the situation in the poem? The poet is on the beach (“strand” is an old word for beach) with his beloved. He writes her name on the beach, but the waves wash it over. The poet tries again, but the same thing happens. The tide is the movement of ebb and flood; the water is lower or higher, depending on the time of day.
In line 5 to 8 we meet the beloved. She says her boyfriend is a fool. Why? Well, because he tries to make something exist forever that simply can’t. She says that she herself will one day die and her name will disappear. “Eke” is an old word for also. And “wiped out” means erased, deleted. “Dost” means do. “Assay” means try.
The Second Half
The poet answers her again from line 9 until the end of the poem. He says (“quod”) he doesn’t agree. He says that “baser things” = lower things will die in the dust, but his girlfriend will live in his writings. What these baser things are he doesn’t say, but since people at the time believed that humans are higher beings than animals, we can assume he means animals. Or maybe he means people who don’t write poetry! The poet says he will write beautifully about his lover’s virtues (her good qualities). Her name will appear even in heaven.
The last lines present the poet’s vision about how their love will not be destroyed (“subdued”) by death. The meaning here is a bit vague, and the poet doesn’t actually say they will continue to live after they’ve died. He could also mean that his writings will live on, and that in later times their love will be renewed each time when people read this poem. It’s a beautiful thought. And indeed, it’s what has happened.