What is the theme of the poem Sonnet 79 by Edmund Spenser?

The theme of Sonnet 79 by Edmund Spenser is the impermanence of outer beauty and the fact that inner beauty, which is not subject to the same “corruption,” has far greater value.

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In Sonnet 79, Spenser is addressing a person who, according to other men, is extremely “fair,” or physically beautiful. Spenser accepts that this is the case. However, he points out that this external beauty is not permanent; it will be affected by the passage of time and will be subject to “corruption,” rendering it eventually meaningless. For this reason, Spenser says, he does not place a particularly high value on outward beauty. He describes this sort of impermanent beauty as being liable to “fade” like a flower; it is something which has a limited time to exist and which is a part of youth, rather than implying anything about the state of the beautiful person’s soul.

Spenser’s theme, then, seems to be, firstly, the impermanence of outer beauty. However, the theme is more developed than this: Spenser goes on to ascribe a “divine” element to inner beauty, or “wit.” It is this type of beauty, the beauty of the character and soul, which is true beauty, according to this sonnet. Spenser argues that this type of beauty is superior to physical beauty because it shows an indication that “fair” people are creatures of God. It is a type of beauty which, unlike the temporary physical, will never decline and will serve a person for their entire life.

Spenser’s overall theme, then, is the value of a “virtuous mind” and how far this exceeds the sort of physical beauty which is much admired in youth but which does not survive. That sort of beauty is less true than the kind of beauty which presents evidence of God’s hand in the creation of humanity.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 26, 2021
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In Sonnet 79, the speaker addresses an unnamed subject who, by all accounts, is exceedingly beautiful:

Men call you fayre, and you doe credit it

There is no denying the very real and "fair" beauty of the subject, but they are so much more than simply beautiful:

but the trew fayre, that is the gentle wit,
and vertuous mind is much more praysd of me.

Instead of focusing on the subject's fair outer beauty, the speaker notes that their real "fairness" is their "gentle wit" and "virtuous mind." Their character and intelligence are of far greater beauty than their loveliness. This is especially important because of the speaker's reflections about the nature of outer beauty in the following lines:

For all the rest, how ever fayre it be,
shall turne to nought and loose that glorious hew

It is possible to retain one's wit and intelligence for decades and decades. However, youthful beauty peaks and fades, making it impossible to retain. It is fleeting, no matter how outwardly beautiful one is. The subject's beauty comes directly from heaven, as all true beauty does, from the author of perfection:

That is true beautie: that doth argue you
to be divine and borne of heavenly seed:
deriv'd from that fayre Spirit, from whom al true
and perfect beauty did at first proceed.

The theme, therefore, is that inner beauty has far greater significance than outward appearances and is a gift from a perfect Creator.

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In this poem, the speaker addresses his beloved. He says that other men tell her that she is physically beautiful, and she can verify this in the mirror, but her "virtuous mind" and "gentle wit" is what he finds truly beautiful about her. Eventually, he claims, her external beauty will fade—her body will age and wither—so the only true beauty is the one contained by the ultimately frail body. Her soul is what connects her to the divine, and this is where her true beauty lies and where it first originated, long before her body was even created. Therefore, one theme of this poem is that all physical beauty is temporary and liable to corruption, but beauty of spirit is permanent and eternal. Another, related, theme is that the physical body is but an earthly house for the soul, and the soul will live on when that house has decayed.

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The seventy-ninth sonnet from Spenser's Amoretti Cycle sets goodness and virtue against physical beauty, with the later found lacking in comparison. Spenser begins this poem by noting that its subject is certainly "fair," but Spenser finds that there is far greater beauty in her "gentle wit" and "vertuous mind."

Ultimately, in this poem, Spenser voices an awareness that physical beauty is fleeting and will be worn away by time. However, goodness of spirit, this internal rather than external beauty, is far more enduring and of far greater value. Additionally, Spenser brings up Christian themes, noting that goodness is derived from God. In this, it is all the more precious than any other form of beauty human beings can claim. It is in these deeper levels that true beauty resides.

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The theme of "Sonnet 79" by the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser is the true meaning of beauty. Spenser makes a distinction between eternal beauty, that which is given by God, and the more fleeting, earthly beauty that will one day fade away. In "Sonnet 79" the speaker gladly acknowledges the immense physical beauty of his lover. At the same time, however, he gently reminds his beloved that what makes her really beautiful is her intelligence and virtue:

Men call you fair, and you do credit it,
For that your self ye daily such do see:
But the true fair, that is the gentle wit,
And vertuous mind, is much more prais'd of me.
These are truly beautiful because they will never die. The same cannot be said of physical beauty, however much it may be admired, however much attention it attracts:
For all the rest, how ever fair it be,
Shall turn to naught and lose that glorious hue:
But only that is permanent and free
From frail corruption, that doth flesh ensue.
That is true beauty
As a convinced Neoplatonist, Spenser believes that the soul—wherein true beauty lies—is eternal, trapped inside a decaying physical body. That being so, if we wish to discover where true beauty really lies, we must look to the eternal soul and its outward expressions in intelligence and virtuous conduct.
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