du Bellay, Spenser, Shakespeare, and the "devouring Time" Motif: Poetry vs. Entropy

        The final stanza of "Epithalamion"'s last line, which refers to the poem's being "for short time an endlesse moniment," sounds a theme that Spenser derived from the immensely popular French poet, Joachim du Bellay, whose Les Antiquitez de Rome (c. 1557) Spenser paraphrased in 1591. Scholars call this the "ruins of time" or "devouring time" motif, and it usually combines a rumination on the destruction of human monuments by time's relentless passage with assertions about the immortality offered in verse. How does this work?

        Consider the Rome du Bellay, Sidney, or any other young poet of the late 1500s would have seen after it was sacked and pillaged by the imperial soldiers of Charles V in 1527. Wolves roamed the streets where the Caesars had ruled, and the columns against which Virgil and Horace had leaned were lying in piles of rubble. Beside the old imperial capital, in the Vatican, papal wealth and the influence of the Medici family enabled artists like Michelangelo to create a new system of glorious structures which rose beside the ruins of the old. The contrast must have been devastating. The fashion for musing upon ruins and for melancholy thoughts on the brevity of life become commonplaces in the Renaissance literature of England. But beside this sad and destructive vision grew another, of poems in the English language rising to take their place beside the works of Homer, Virgil, Horace, and Ovid, in a literary pantheon that would outlive mere physical empires, even like the one England was building while the poets wrote.

        Spenser wrote several works based on this motif, which clearly was immensely influential among young poets of his cohort, including, most famously, Shakespeare.  Among them are The Ruines of Rome: by Bellay (a close translation),  Visions of the Worlds vanitie (influenced by du Bellay), and Bellayes visions.   Perhaps the most currently famous expression of this sentiment is in Shakespeare's sonnets, where the theme animates many of the strategies which structure the poems.  To go to the page discussing Shakespeare's sonnets, click here.

For a typical example of a sonnet without the "devouring Time" motif, but one which is just on the threshold of using it, we might consider Spenser's Amoretti number 75:
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it way:
Agayne I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tyde, and made my paynes his pray.
"Vayne man," sayd she, "that doest in vaine asssay,
A mortall thing so to immortalize,
For I my selve shall lyke to this decay,
And eek my name bee wyped out lykewize."
"Not so," quod I, "let baser things devize,
To dy in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens wryte your glorious name.
Where whenas death shall all the world subdew,
Our love shall live, and later life renew."
Compare the Shakespearian use of this same motif, with a more explicit reference to architecture, in Sonnet 55:

  • Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
    Of princes, shall outlive this pow'rful rhyme,
    But you shall shine more bright in these contents
    Than unswept stone besmear'd with sluttish time.
    When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
    And broils root out the work of masonry,
    Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn
    The living record of your memory.
    'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
    Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
    Even in the eyes of posterity
    That wear this world out to the ending doom.
    So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
    You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.