On a fine Easter poem by the author of The Faerie Queene
‘Most glorious Lord of Lyfe that on this day / Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin’: so begins the sonnet ‘Easter’ by Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-99), which is the 68th poem in his sonnet sequence Amoretti. The poem is a joyous celebration of the Easter festival and the meaning behind it.
Most glorious Lord of Lyfe! that, on this day,
Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin;
And, having harrowd hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive, us to win:
This joyous day, deare Lord, with joy begin;
And grant that we, for whom thou diddest dye,
Being with Thy deare blood clene washt from sin,
May live for ever in felicity!
And that Thy love we weighing worthily,
May likewise love Thee for the same againe;
And for Thy sake, that all lyke deare didst buy,
With love may one another entertayne!
So let us love, deare Love, lyke as we ought,
—Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.
Edmund Spenser composed Amoretti in the 1590s, probably influenced by the publication, in 1591, of Astrophil and Stella, the sonnet sequence by Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86). Astrophil and Stella was the first long sonnet sequence composed in English (although not the very first sonnet cycle), and it paved the way for numerous further sequences, most famously Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Easter was a more important religious festival in medieval England than Christmas, and this remained the case into the Elizabethan era, when Spenser was writing. As William Dunbar’s poem about the Resurrection shows, Easter and the ritual of the Harrowing of Hell which preceded the Resurrection remained popular subjects for religious poetry well into the sixteenth century. In his Easter poem, Edmund Spenser ruminates on the love that Jesus Christ showed to humanity by sacrificing himself on the Cross for them, and reflects, to his beloved, that they should take their ‘lesson’ from Christ and practise love towards one another. The poem is thus a religious sonnet that turns, in the final couplet, into a romantic poem.
The two commonest kinds of sonnet in English are the Petrarchan sonnet and the Shakespearean sonnet. Spenser wrote neither, instead devising his own rhyme scheme, the Spenserian sonnet, rhymed ababbcbc cdcdee. This kind of sonnet, if you will, combines the repeating of rhymes that is central to the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet with the rhyming couplet that concludes the English or Shakespearean sonnet.