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Compare Sonnet 54 by Edmund Spenser and the poem "What is Our Life?" by Sir Walter...

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zehrad | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) eNoter

Posted March 21, 2013 at 1:27 AM via web

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Compare Sonnet 54 by Edmund Spenser and the poem "What is Our Life?" by Sir Walter Raleigh. Include comparisons of language, theme, literary devices, etc. 

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amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted March 22, 2013 at 1:08 AM (Answer #1)

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Spenser's Amoretti was published in 1595 and Raleigh's "What is Our Life" may have been written in 1612 (Raleigh lived from 1554 - 1618). Shakespeare's As You Like It was written between 1598 and 1600. All three of these works contain a common theme that life is like a performance.

For one familiar with Shakespeare, reading Spenser's Sonnet 54 and Raleigh's "What is Our Life?" conjure's Jaques' famous speech from As You Like It, and it has similar themes: 

All the world's a stage,

And all the men and women merely players. 

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts, 

His acts being seven ages. (II.vii.138-42) 

Jaques continues but his description is not a celebration that we get to play many parts in life and that we are free to choose our roles. It is a rather cynical look at life. The same can be said for Spenser's sonnet and Raleigh's poem. 

In Spenser's Sonnet 54, the speaker describes his lover as the spectator and he is essentially the actor in a pageant. She watches him with a "constant eye." This is the speaker's beloved but he notes that she does not empathize with his experiences on the/his world stage: 

Yet she, beholding me with constant eye,

Delights not in my myrth, nor rues my smart:

But when I laugh she mocks, and when I cry 

She laughs and hardens evermore her heart. 

She is not happy when the speaker is happy and she doesn't regret (rue) or empathize with him when he is in pain (smart). Like Jaques' speech, this is a cynical view of life set to the metaphor of people as actors and the world as a stage. The speaker tries to play the roles as best as he can, but he feels that his audience, his beloved, is not moved. Thus, his performance is, in respect to her affections, useless. 

In Raleigh's "What is Our Life?", Heaven is the spectator/audience. Heaven (or God) watches and judges; that is, Heaven "sits and views whosoe'er doth act amiss." Our lives are the "play of passion" and our mirth is the "music of division." This "division" seems to indicate the separation (division) from our mothers at birth, but it could also mean struggle, conflict, and war: things which divide us. This is another cynical interpretation of humanity's role as performers in life. The suggestion at the end of the poem is that while we "die in earnest," we live in jest: as if to say we are fools for each other's (and/or God's) amusement in "life's short comedy." 

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