Sonnet 54 is part of Spenser’s Amoretti, an eighty-nine sonnet cycle. Amoretti was published in 1595, and it depicts Spenser’s courtship and eventual marriage to Elizabeth Boyle. In Sonnet 54, Spenser uses the theatre to describe his situation as a lover; the lyrical voice is the actor who plays various roles and his loved one is the unmoved spectator. Thus, Sonnet 54 is a conceit that relates the lyrical voice’s actions to that of the theatre.
Sonnet 54 is a Spenserian sonnet, formed by three interlocked quatrains and a couplet. The rhyme scheme is ABAB BCBC CDCD EE and it has iambic pentameter. The main theme in Sonnet 54 is unreciprocated love and the tone of the poem shows the lyrical voice’s frustration passing through annoyance and anger.
Analysis of Sonnet 54
Of this worlds theatre in which we stay,
My love like the spectator idly sits
Beholding me that all the pageants play,
Disguising diversely my troubled wits.
The first quatrain of Sonnet 54 sets up the metaphor that the lyrical voice is going to use to talk about his love. The lyrical voice starts by saying: “Of this worlds theatre in which we stay”. This sets the scene of the sonnet, the theatre, and the central element of the metaphor used throughout the sonnet (the theatre works as a metaphor for life: “this worlds theatre in which we stay”). This first line can also be an allusion to a line in As You Like it (“All the world’s a stage”), a play by William Shakespeare. Then, the lyrical voice furthers on this theatrical metaphor by constructing a simile between his loved one and a theatre spectator (“My love like the spectator idly sits). The lyrical voice tries to be a desirable gentleman and gain the attention of his lover by doing several things and trying to impress her constantly (“Disguising diversely my troubled wits”). Notice the alliteration on the third and fourth line (“pageants play” and “Disguising diversely”) that emphasize the lyrical voices attempt to win his lover’s attention.
Sometimes I joy when glad occasion fits,
And mask in mirth like to a comedy:
Soon after when my joy to sorrow flits,
I wail and make my woes a tragedy.
The second quatrain of Sonnet 54 describes how the lyrical voice can demonstrate a range of emotions in order to win his lover’s attention. The lyrical voice explains how he acts in different situations. He can be happy: “Sometimes I joy when glad occasion fits,/And mask in mirth like to a comedy:”. The lyrical voice hides his feelings to portray a comedy scene. Notice the accentuation on his pretense at happiness with the alliteration of the letter “m” (“mask in mirth”). But, the lyrical voice can also express sorrow: “Soon after when my joy to sorrow flits,/I wail and make my woes a tragedy”. He shows his grief and turns it into a tragedy. Again, there is an alliteration to emphasize his sadness (“I wail […] my woes”). The lyrical voice can move quickly from comedy to tragedy, but his lover remains unmoved by his actions.
Yet she, beholding me with constant eye,
Delights not in my mirth nor rues my smart:
But when I laugh she mocks, and when I cry
She laughs and hardens evermore her heart.
The third quatrain shows how this girl is not impressed by the lyrical voice’s actions. At the beginning of this stanza, there is a volta, the turn of thought or argument, which introduces the girl’s reaction. The girl watches the lyrical voice without any amusement, and she doesn’t recognize his talents (“Yet she, beholding me with constant eye,/Delights not in my mirth nor rues my smart”). Instead, the girl mocks him (“But when I laugh she mocks”) and reacts the opposite way of what he expected (“and when I cry/She laughs and hardens evermore her heart”). Notice, in the third line, the repetition of “when I” in order to stress the lyrical voice’s rejection.
What then can move her? if nor mirth nor moan,
She is no woman, but a senseless stone.
The final couplet provides a resolution to the matter. The lyrical voice seems frustrated as he doesn’t know what to do in order to amuse the girl (“What then can move her?”), as he tried everything to get to her emotions (“if nor mirth nor moan”). The alliteration of the “m” sound accentuates his frustration (“move […] mirth […] moan”). The lyrical voice comes to a conclusion: “She is no woman, but a senseless stone”. Sonnet 54 presents a continuing logic, without a paradox, that culminates in the rhyming resolution of the final couplet. This resolution presents the conclusion of the logic that has been presented throughout the stanzas.
About Edmund Spenser
Edmund Spenser was born between 1552 and 1553, and died in 1599. He was an English poet. Spenser’s best-known work is The Faerie Queene, an epic poem that celebrates the Tudor dynasty and Elizabeth I. The Faerie Queene is one of the longest poems in the English language and it originated the Spenserian sonnet form. The Faerie Queene’s first books (1-3) were published in 1590 and the rest of the books (4-6) in 1595. The poem can be read on a literal level, but also in a fantastical allegorical level. Spenser was deeply influenced by Irish faerie mythology. With the Faerie Queene, he intended to build an English national literature, following the examples of the great epic writers (such as Homer and Virgil).
Moreover, Edmund Spenser is considered to be one of the greatest English poets of all time. He wanted to create poetry that was strictly English, and he had Chaucer as his main figure of reference. Between 1579 and 1580, Spenser got directly involved in Sir Philip Sidney’s literary circle. This set him on the literary course that he pursued throughout the rest of his life. Around that time, Spenser wrote The Shepheardes Calender, his first major poetic work. The Shepheardes Calender is a series of pastorals that are greatly influenced by Virgil’s Eclogues. He used archaic spelling to relate his work with medieval literature and, particularly, Chaucer’s works. In 1591, Complaints, Containing Sundrie Small Poemes of the Worlds Vanitie was published, and some years later, in 1595, Amoretti and Epithalamion were published.