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Featured Poem: One Day I Wrote Her Name Upon The Strand by Edmund Spenser

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 2nd August 2010

It’s a fact, if a rather disheartening one, that nothing lasts forever. In some respects this is a good thing; for the times when there appears to be a metaphorical rain cloud directly above your head (worse if an actual one happens to appear in the skies above as well) and when every little thing that can go spectacularly wrong does, it’s comforting to know it’s only a phase and that better times will be just around the corner. But it’s not so good when the bright spots in life, the small but satisfying occurrences – a very relaxing bubble bath, a delicious meal or, preferably for a sweet-toothed person such as myself, a substantial slab of chocolate cake – as well as the altogether more momentous events can’t be extended, despite best efforts. Although of course life is all about light and shade, yin and yang…it would be much harder for us to appreciate the highs without the lows. But it would be nice for the scales to be weighted ever so slightly...

Despite this it seems that now more than ever we go out of our way to try, beyond all logic and reason sometimes, to make the temporal permanent, to not just hold a thing as forever accessible in memory but to make it so in a tangible form. Perhaps it’s an instinctive reaction to a society that appears to be increasingly concerned with fickle fads and fashions or alternatively just something that makes us feel better about things flashing by in the blink of an eye. There’s no shortage of mediums for which we can document every second of our existences; photographs, video recordings, blogs, our very own personal social networking pages, good old fashioned journals and letters. If you so desire, you can mark a particularly significant moment in time by having words, symbols or images etched upon your skin to eternally remain (unless you later decide that displaying a name of a former admirer or a rather obscure and misconstrued Chinese character perhaps doesn’t send out the best impression). The possibilities are, it does indeed seem, endless. So maybe we’d better think again; maybe ‘forever’ can be achieved. Even if it is somewhat artificial, surely that is better than nothing? Or perhaps it’s better to learn to savour and really live in the moment, without worrying too much about preserving it and clinging on tight so as to not watch it slip away.

Of course that’s easier said than done, and most of us will continue to frantically record and hold in place those things that matter and even those that don’t that much in the grand scheme of things. Each different method of freezing what is almost unstoppably fluid in time has its advantages (though I personally struggle to find any when it comes to the art of tattooing). For me, any form of writing always has and always will hold privilege. Not to say I don’t appreciate the visual – I can spend a great deal of time musing over collections of beautifully staged photographs – but there is something undeniably powerful about the written word. And especially about poetry. In terms of encapsulating a specific moment, a poem may not always be completely accurate as other formats, being perhaps prone to idealising. But for revealing what may at the time not have been noticed, for offering different perspectives each time it is revisited and for simply being read over again, the moment it captures is infinitely extended. This poem by Edmund Spenser is about capturing not just a singular moment but a whole lifetime as he attempts to immortalise his loved one, despite her protestations and accusations of his vanity for trying to achieve the impossible. But as marks in the sand are washed away and the sands of time will too eventually run out, Spenser’s verse does ‘eternize’ her and them both and comes as a fine example of how poetry may just come the closest to ensuring that moments of glorious emotion and intensity do indeed last forever. This sonnet is part of one of Spenser’s most famous works, Amoretti, a sonnet cycle consisting of 89 sonnets which describe his courtship and wedding to Elizabeth Boyle (who was immortalised to an extent which she could never have imagined). It also utilises Spenser’s own distinctive verse form – termed, as you may or may not expect, a Spenserian sonnet – which like a typical Shakespearean sonnet, features three quatrains and a couplet and also employs the problem/reflection/comment pattern of the Petrarchan sonnet.

One Day I Wrote Her Name Upon The Strand

One day I wrote her name upon the strand
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.
Vain man, said she, that dost in vain assay
A mortal thing so to immortalise!
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise.
Not so quoth I, let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name;
Where, whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.

Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

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