Verse > Edmund Spenser > Complete Poetical Works
Edmund Spenser (1552?–1599).  The Complete Poetical Works.  1908.
Visions of the Worlds Vanitie
  [This series of original ‘visions’ is manifestly of kin to those translated from Petrarch and Du Bellay and, more distantly, to ‘Ruins of Rome.’ It is unquestionably of later composition, but how much later has been disputed. Some critics, observing that, whereas the sonnets of the three earlier series are in the common Elizabethan form, the sonnets of this are in the special form that Spenser devised for himself, have argued that the interval of time must be considerable. In the first place, however, we have no proof that Spenser may not have devised his own sonnet-form early (we meet it in the dedication to ‘Virgil’s Gnat,’ of Calendar days); in the second place, for the three series that were translations he might naturally choose the looser and therefore easier Elizabethan form, when, for original sonnets, he would adopt his own more complicated scheme. This point set aside, there is nothing in the series to denote a much later period: the style is, indeed, distinctly immature. One may plausibly conclude that ‘Visions of the World’s Vanity’ was suggested by the earlier ‘Visions’ and executed not long after them.
  The noteworthy fact about these various early poems is that they show Spenser, at the outset of his career, driving full on allegory. Partly by accident and partly by choice, he has committed himself to a special form of the art, from which he later progresses to others more comprehensive. This form is the literary counterpart of a mixed type, in which poetry and the graphic arts are combined, the so-called ‘emblem.’ The essence of both consists in the expression of an idea by means of a complete image or picture. Thus Du Bellay, having composed in his Antiquitez de Rome (‘Ruins of Rome’) a series of meditations upon the transitoriness of human grandeur, went on, in his supplementary Songe (‘Visions of Bellay’), to express those same ideas in a series of poetic pictures. These, when borrowed by Van der Noot for the Théâtre of 1568, were made into emblems proper by the addition of engravings that rendered them to the eye. Such emblem books, of engravings and poetry combined, were enormously popular through most of the sixteenth century. They affected the imagination of that period incalculably. Book followed book, edition edition. Mythology, fable, natural history, history were ransacked for themes and illustrations, which were repeated in a dozen forms. Poetry, which, as the ‘Visions of Petrarch’ show, had long since practised a variety of this art, was stimulated to it afresh. Spenser, in his turn, wrote ‘Visions of the World’s Vanity,’ among which the sonnets on the Scarabee and the Remora, adapted from the first great emblem-writer Alciati, sufficiently declare his indebtedness. The influence may be thought to extend even to the allegory of the Faery Queen; for the figures in the procession at the House of Pride and in the Masque of Cupid, with others of their kind, are in a way but figures from the emblem books glorified by a larger art. At this point, however, the emblem as a special type merges in the more common forms of allegory.]

ONE day, whiles that my daylie cares did sleepe,
My spirit, shaking off her earthly prison,
Began to enter into meditation deepe
Of things exceeding reach of common reason;
Such as this age, in which all good is geason,        5
And all that humble is and meane debaced,
Hath brought forth in her last declining season,
Griefe of good mindes, to see goodnesse disgraced.
On which when as my thought was throghly placed,
Unto my eyes strange showes presented were,        10
Picturing that which I in minde embraced,
That yet those sights empassion me full nere.
  Such as they were (faire Ladie) take in worth,
  That when time serves, may bring things better forth.
In summers day, when Phœbus fairly shone,
I saw a bull as white as driven snowe,
With gilden hornes embowed like the moone,
In a fresh flowring meadow lying lowe:
Up to his eares the verdant grasse did growe,
And the gay floures did offer to be eaten;        20
But he with fatnes so did overflowe,
That he all wallowed in the weedes downe beaten,
Ne car’d with them his daintie lips to sweeten:
Till that a brize, a scorned little creature,
Through his faire hide his angrie sting did threaten,        25
And vext so sore, that all his goodly feature
  And all his plenteous pasture nought him pleased:
  So by the small the great is oft diseased.
Beside the fruitfull shore of muddie Nile,
Upon a sunnie banke outstretched lay,        30
In monstrous length, a mightie crocodile,
That, cram’d with guiltles blood and greedie pray
Of wretched people travailing that way,
Thought all things lesse than his disdainfull pride.
I saw a little bird, cal’d Tedula,        35
The least of thousands which on earth abide,
That forst this hideous beast to open wide
The greisly gates of his devouring hell,
And let him feede, as Nature doth provide,
Upon his jawes, that with blacke venime swell.        40
  Why then should greatest things the least disdaine,
  Sith that so small so mightie can constraine?
The kingly bird, that beares Joves thunderclap,
One day did scorne the simple scarabee,
Proud of his highest service and good hap,        45
That made all other foules his thralls to bee:
The silly flie, that no redresse did see,
Spide where the eagle built his towring nest,
And kingling fire within the hollow tree,
Burnt up his yong ones, and himselfe distrest;        50
Ne suffred him in anie place to rest,
But drove in Joves owne lap his egs to lay;
Where gathering also filth him to infest,
Forst with the filth his egs to fling away:
  For which when as the foule was wroth, said Jove,        55
  ‘Lo! how the least the greatest may reprove.’
Toward the sea turning my troubled eye,
I saw the fish (if fish I may it cleepe)
That makes the sea before his face to flye,
And with his flaggie finnes doth seeme to sweepe        60
The fomie waves out of the dreadfull deep,
The huge Leviathan, Dame Natures wonder,
Making his sport, that manie makes to weep:
A sword-fish small him from the rest did sunder,
That, in his throat him pricking softly under,        65
His wide abysse him forced forth to spewe,
That all the sea did roare like heavens thunder,
And all the waves were stain’d with filthie hewe.
  Hereby I learned have, not to despise
  What ever thing seemes small in common eyes.        70
An hideous dragon, dreadfull to behold,
Whose backe was arm’d against the dint of speare
With shields of brasse, that shone like burnisht golde,
And forkhed sting, that death in it did beare,
Strove with a spider, his unequall peare,        75
And bad defiance to his enemie.
The subtill vermin, creeping closely neare,
Did in his drinke shed poyson privilie;
Which, through his entrailes spredding diversly,
Made him to swell, that nigh his bowells brust,        80
And him enforst to yeeld the victorie,
That did so much in his owne greatnesse trust.
  O how great vainnesse is it then to scorne
  The weake, that hath the strong so oft forlorne!
High on a hill a goodly cedar grewe,
Of wondrous length and streight proportion,
That farre abroad her daintie odours threwe;
Mongst all the daughters of proud Libanon,
Her match in beautie was not anie one.
Shortly within her inmost pith there bred        90
A litle wicked worme, perceiv’d of none,
That on her sap and vitall moysture fed:
Thenceforth her garland so much honoured
Began to die, (O great ruth for the same!)
And her faire lockes fell from her loftie head,        95
That shortly balde and bared she became.
  I, which this sight beheld, was much dismayed,
  To see so goodly thing so soone decayed.
Soone after this I saw an elephant,
Adorn’d with bells and bosses gorgeouslie,        100
That on his backe did beare (as batteilant)
A gilden towre, which shone exceedinglie;
That he himselfe through foolish vanitie,
Both for his rich attire and goodly forme,
Was puffed up with passing surquedrie,        105
And shortly gan all other beasts to scorne:
Till that a little ant, a silly worme,
Into his nosthrils creeping, so him pained,
That, casting downe his towres, he did deforme
Both borrowed pride, and native beautie stained.        110
  Let therefore nought, that great is, therein glorie,
  Sith so small thing his happines may varie.
Looking far foorth into the ocean wide,
A goodly ship with banners bravely dight,
And flag in her top-gallant, I espide,        115
Through the maine sea making her merry flight:
Faire blew the winde into her bosome right,
And th’ heavens looked lovely all the while,
That she did seeme to daunce, as in delight,
And at her owne felicitie did smile.        120
All sodainely there clove unto her keele
A little fish, that men call Remora,
Which stopt her course, and held her by the heele,
That winde nor tide could move her thence away.
  Straunge thing me seemeth, that so small a thing        125
  Should able be so great an one to wring.
A mighty lyon, lord of all the wood,
Having his hunger throughly satisfide
With pray of beasts and spoyle of living blood,
Safe in his dreadles den him thought to hide:        130
His sternesse was his prayse, his strength his pride,
And all his glory in his cruell clawes.
I saw a wasp, that fiercely him defide,
And bad him battaile even to his jawes;
Sore he him stong, that it the blood forth drawes,        135
And his proude heart is fild with fretting ire:
In vaine he threats his teeth, his tayle, his pawes,
And from his bloodie eyes doth sparkle fire;
  That dead himselfe he wisheth for despight.
  So weakest may anoy the most of might.        140
What time the Romaine Empire bore the raine
Of all the world, and florisht most in might,
The nations gan their soveraigntie disdaine,
And cast to quitt them from their bondage quight:
So, when all shrouded were in silent night,        145
The Galles were, by corrupting of a mayde,
Possest nigh of the Capitol through slight,
Had not a goose the treachery bewrayde.
If then a goose great Rome from ruine stayde,
And Jove himselfe, the patron of the place,        150
Preservd from being to his foes betrayde,
Why do vaine men mean things so much deface,
  And in their might repose their most assurance,
  Sith nought on earth can chalenge long endurance?
When these sad sights were overpast and gone,
My spright was greatly moved in her rest,
With inward ruth and deare affection,
To see so great things by so small distrest:
Thenceforth I gan in my engrieved brest
To scorne all difference of great and small,        160
Sith that the greatest often are opprest,
And unawares doe into daunger fall.
And ye, that read these ruines tragicall,
Learne by their losse to love the low degree,
And if that Fortune chaunce you up to call        165
To honours seat, forget not what you be:
  For he that of himselfe is most secure
  Shall finde his state most fickle and unsure.


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