One day I wrote her name

One Day I Wrote her Name

by Edmund Spenser

One Day I Wrote her Name (Sonnet 75) Summary and Analysis

In Short

  • In Spenser’s sonnet 75, the speaker writes his beloved’s name on the sea-shore. But waves wash it away.
  • The lady then calls it a ‘vain attempt’ as she herself is mortal and will be erased from this world one day.
  • The lover then vows to write her in his poem and thus eternalize her.

One Day I Wrote her Name (Sonnet 75) – Explanation

Lines 1–2

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:

As the poem begins with “One day”, it seems that the speaker is recalling some past events of his life. That day he wrote her beloved’s name upon the sandy shore (strand) of the sea. But the waves came and erased the name he wrote.

Understandably, our speaker is at the sea-shore, most probably with his mistress. And he wants to get all romantic. He is seen making useless attempt to write her name on the sand. The waves come and wash it all away.

Lines 3–4

Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.

As expected, the speaker wrote his girlfriend’s name for the second time. The words ‘second hand’ here imply ‘second handwriting’. But the result was just the same. Again, the high tide came and affected it.

The tide is personified. He (the tide) made the speaker’s labour (pains) of writing his prey. So, the name of the speaker’s ladylove on the sand becomes an object of hunting to the tide. We thus see the hungry tide on one hand and the speaker’s efforts to write his beloved’s name on the other. In the end, nature wins over man.

Lines 5–8

“Vain man,” said she, “that dost in vain assay,
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise.”

From this point, the poem turns into the conversational tone. And we were right. The speaker’s ladylove is with him on the shore, and she now speaks for the first time. This is actually rare to have a conversation in the middle of a short poem like a sonnet though.

She calls the speaker a proud (vain) man. She tells him that he is making useless attempt (vain assay) to immortalize a mortal thing.

She then emphasizes her mortal nature. One day she will disappear (decay) from this world just as her name was removed from the beach. And, with her death, her name will also (eke) be erased (wiped out) forever from this world. Nobody will remember her name after her decease. So, it is a futile attempt to write her name because she, like the words on the sand, is subject to decay.

Lines 9–10

“Not so,” (quod I) “let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:

Now, the speaker replies to his ladylove’s statement. His answer is negative. He says that such a thing will not happen. According to the lover, inferior (baser) things may plan (devise) to disappear (die in dust), but his beloved will live through fame, i.e., in stories, in people’s hearts.

Here we get the classical volta (a turn in the subject or tone). So far, the poem has been all about mortality. We thought nothing can live forever. But now we hear that some things can. Let’s see how.

Lines 11–12

My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name:

The speaker here vows to eternalize his mistress’s rare qualities (virtues) in his poetry (verse). He will write such poems in praise of her goodness that she will live in the readers’ minds and that will basically immortalize her. According to the speaker, that will be synonymous to writing her glorious name in the heavens.

Lines 13–14

Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.”

The lover will write his beloved’s splendid name in the poetic firmament. When death shall gain control over all the world, it will be unable to do any harm to his verse. His verse will live on to remind others of their pure, unparalleled and ideal love. It will later inspire life, inspire all succeeding lovers.

The speaker seems to be overconfident about the prospects of his poetry. But, in reality, we are here reading Spenser’s poem now and analysing it. We are thinking about the poet and his beloved. Thus, their love has truly reached the height of immortality through his poetry.

One Day I Wrote her Name – Into Details

Publication

Edmund Spenser (1552-1599), one of the greatest Elizabethan English poets, is well-known for his sonnets. The present sonnet “One day I wrote her name upon the strand” was published in 1595 in his famous sonnet sequence “Amoretti”. The present sonnet is sonnet No. 75 in the collection of 88 sonnets. ‘Amoretti’ is an Italian word meaning ‘little loves’ which refer to the sonnets so dear to the poet.

Background/Context

All 88 sonnets in Edmund Spenser’s sonnet cycle ‘Amoretti’ are love sonnets. The lady in question was Elizabeth Boyle, a pretty Irish woman, with whom Spenser was in a relationship and they later married. The present sonnet depicts Spenser’s courtship of Boyle, which took place over the course of 3 months in the spring of 1594.

Also, Spenser belongs to the Elizabethan age. He wrote this during the English renaissance, a time when English poets followed the classical languages and ideals while also playing with new forms and techniques.

Setting

The poem “One Day I Wrote her Name” presents a dramatic setting. The vast sea serves as a background here. There are two lonely lovers who enact their story of love. The absolute loneliness is pierced by the presence of the two human beings. There are high waves tormenting them by washing the name of the ladylove the speaker writes on the sand. They are talking to each other and they are talking of love.

Title

Spenser did not allot individual titles to each of his sonnets. He finished his job by just allotting mathematical numbers to them. When we mention any of his sonnets, we have to choose either the original number of it or the first line of the poem or invent a suitable title for it.

For the present poem ‘Amoretti LXXV’, the first line “One day I wrote her name upon the strands” serves as an appropriate title. It refers to the writing of the name of the ladylove which was removed by the waves. The lover then takes resolution to write it at a place where no destructive force such as death would be able to do any harm to it.

Form and Language

As already mentioned, Spenser’s “One Day I Wrote her Name” is a sonnet, a 14-lines poem generally written in iambic pentameter and with a particular rhyme scheme.

Spenser was very much influenced by Petrarchan sonnet form and his earlier sonnets came under the influence of Petrarch. Later, he succeeded in breaking himself loose from that influence.

Sonnet 75 takes the form of a Spenserian Sonnet (invented by none other than Edmund Spenser himself) which is a combination of the Italian sonnet (or, Petrarchan sonnet) and the English sonnet (or, Shakespearean sonnet) forms. A typical Spenserian sonnet has three interlocked quatrains and a final couplet with rhyme scheme of ABAB BCBC CDCD EE.

The language of this poem creates a melodious effect in our mind. Spenser uses puns, colloquialism and archaic words like ‘vayne’, ‘eek’, ‘quod’, ‘hevens’, ‘wryte’ etc. to enhance the musical effect and establish a link with the tradition. His coinage of words (such as ‘eternize’ in place of ‘eternalize’) also adds to the delicate beauty of the poem.

Meter and Rhyme

Amoretti Sonnet 75 is a traditional Spenserian sonnet, a mix of English and Italian sonnet forms.

Outwardly his sonnet can be divided into two sections – the octave (first eight lines) and the sestet (last six lines) like the Italian (Petrarchan) sonnets. In fact, the volta (turn) here comes in line 9. The problem presented in the octave is that the speaker’s beloved is mortal, and the sestet tries to find a resolution.

Again, like the English (Shakespearean) sonnets, it can be broken into three quatrains (four-line stanza) followed by a rhymed couplet (two rhyming lines). The quatrains here follow an interwoven pattern. The rhyme scheme is ABAB BCBC CDCD EE.

Sonnets are generally written in iambic pentameter and “One Day I Wrote her Name” is not an exception. An iamb is a two-syllable foot where an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed one. Follow the patterns used in the following example –

One day | I wrote | her name |up- on | the strand,
But came | the waves | and wash– | ed it | aw- ay:

Spenser actually used an accent mark on the word ‘washéd’ in the original version of the sonnet to indicate that it should be pronounced in two syllables to preserve the pentameter pattern. There are a few spondee (two stressed syllables) though, if the stress pattern is followed strictly.

One Day I Wrote her Name – Themes

Immortalizing Power of Poetry

In the sonnet “One Day I Wrote her Name”, Edmund Spenser presents poetry as a means of immortalizing his beloved and her rare virtues.

In the octave, the speaker presents the problem of mortality. As he writes his ladylove’s name on the sandy sea-shore, it gets washed away by the tides. Then his mistress stresses on the mortal nature of things. She herself is mortal and will die some day. So, how can her name remain there forever? It is just a futile effort then to write her name there.

In the sestet, the speaker suggests a resolution. He proposes to write a poem glorifying her goodness. Though all other things will fall prey in the hands of death, she will live on in the readers’ minds through his verse. Thus, the speaker’s beloved can achieve the height of immortality.

My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name:

So, we see that the entire poem is framed to present this single important idea that poetry can be an effective medium to eternalize a mortal thing.

Love

Like all other Amoretti sonnets, the present one is also a love poem. We see the speaker getting romantic in his ladylove’s presence and writing her name on the sand. When it is proved to be a vain attempt, he finds a far better idea to immortalize her. He vows to write her in his verse as a means to eternalize her.

Understandably, the speaker and his beloved are in a genuine love relationship. That is why the lover is so much concerned with her mortal nature and so eager to immortalize her. In the last line of the poem, the speaker says –

Our love shall live, and later life renew.

It seems, the lover is not only worried about her beloved but also their love. He wants to eternalize not only his mistress but also their love. Their pure and unparalleled love will live on through his verse. And he also wants their love to inspire others (life renew) in future when there is no love and hope. Thus, the poem sings of love.

Immortality

Immortality is definitely a major theme in Spenser’s poem “One Day I Wrote her Name”. The mortal nature of human beings and all other things in the world makes the speaker worried. That is why he is in the lookout for a way out to immortalize his mistress and their love.

The lady says that the lover is trying in vain to immortalize a mortal thing when he writes her name on the shore. But the speaker thinks otherwise. According to him, things can be immortal if they remain in people’s hearts. So, he decides to write about their love and his mistress in his verse. This way, when death will subdue all other things, their love will remain in the readers’ minds and will thus achieve immortality.

“One Day I Wrote her Name” – Symbols

The Tide/Waves

The waves or tides in the poem “One Day I Wrote her Name” symbolize the passing of time. Just as the waves erase the evidence of the speaker’s writing by washing the shoreline, time also destroys human beings and erases their identity.

The lover writes his beloved’s name on the seashore but the waves wash it away. He writes it again, but in vain. It makes the speaker’s attempt to immortalize his beloved futile. Similarly, death is inevitable. The speaker can’t stop death from approaching. In fact, every object in this world, living or non-living, will be erased with the passing of time.

The name

The speaker writes his mistress’s name on the shore but the waves wash it away twice. This reminds the lady that she too will be erased from this world like her name getting washed away. The name becomes a symbol for the beloved herself.

Again, we hear the speaker almost say, “Well, I have a better plan. I’m going to write your name in my verse then.”

My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name

Thus, the word ‘name’ is used repeatedly in the poem as a symbol to mean something more substantial – the beloved and her goodness. It signifies one’s identity.

“One Day I Wrote her Name” – Literary Devices

Assonance

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in nearby words. A few examples from the poem are –

But came the waves and washed it away:

But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.

“Vain man,” said she, “that dost in vain assay,

Consonance

Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in nearby words. Here are some examples from the poem –

But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.

Alliteration

Alliteration is a sub-category of consonance. It is the repetition of consonant sounds in the beginning (or, stressed syllables) of nearby words. Take some examples –

But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.

My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,

Our love shall live, and later life renew.

Simile

A simile is a direct comparison between two different things generally using ‘as’ or ‘like’.

For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise.”

In the above extract, the speaker’s beloved compares herself to her name written on the shore. She will be erased from this world just as the writing is getting washed away. Similarly, her name will be removed from the world altogether with her death. These comparisons are made directly using ‘like’ and ‘likewise’. These are examples of simile in the poem.

Personification

Personification is the attribution of human qualities to non-human things.

But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.

In the above line, tide has been personified. It has been treated as a hungry hunter who is hunting as a ‘prey’ the speaker’s writing on the sand. The poet also uses the pronoun ‘his’ to make the personification clear.

Polyptoton

Polyptoton is a stylistic device where words derived from the same root are repeated in a sentence. For example –

mortal thing so to immortalize;

Our love shall live, and later life renew.”

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