The "Ruins of Time" Motif

        In Spenser's  "Epithalamion," the 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 as a poetic exercise 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?

        First, think of England's legendary relationship to the Roman Empire, perhaps best expressed in the medieval chronicle pseudo-history which told readers that London was founded by a Trojan prince fleeing the Greeks' destruction of Troy.  That notion builds upon Virgil's Aeneid, which tells in Latin epic hexameter verse the tale of how Rome supposedly was founded by Aeneas, a fleeing Trojan prince, so that Rome's destiny would be understood to be as the successor state to the great city of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.  Virgil's aim was to instruct Roman aristocrats in an ideological view of the Empire which emphasized their duties to overcome  their own petty desires for the good of the Empire and its people, but in the mean time he also was laying claim to having outdone Homer by combining an epic of wandering and homecoming (Odyssey) with an epic of war before a mighty city (Iliad) in half the number of books used to tell the tale of either predecessor poem.  In around 1136-8, Geoffrey of Monmouth invented a parallel "foundation myth" for England and grafted it to the Welch/Breton tales of Arthur, Lancelot, and Gawain in order to build a grand vision of England's destiny to rival that of Rome.  

        Wace and Laymon also included the English imperial myth in their own retellings of Geoffrey's Latin foundation myth, but their versions, in  Norman French and in Middle English, were not readily accessible to readers of Early Modern English, like Spenser and Shakespeare.  They would have known better another version of the English past that also told of an English relationship to Rome.  Around 1460-70, an imprisoned knight named Sir Thomas Malory took up the enormous task of reducing all the French and Middle English Arthurian romances and epics he could find to a single volume "the hoole book of kyng Arthur and his noble knyghtes of the Rounde Table" (Norton ed. 419-39).  Malory omitted the Trojan/Roman foundation myth of Geoffrey, Wace and Layamon, perhaps because he never knew it, but he was aware of a series of prophetic poems in circulation since the 1300s which foretold an English king who would conquer Rome and/or the Holy Land.  In some instances, this king was Arthur, returned, but Malory finally denied that (Norton ed. 434-5).  Nevertheless, he did tell the tale of Arthur's fall from power and his kingdom's destruction (from the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure), but only after telling of Arthur's conquest of Rome and establishment of an empire that stretched from Italy to England.  In Malory's version, the Round Table's dominion was broken by Mordred's  treachery and by a feud between the followers of Gawain and Lancelot, so Malory's story of the English Arthurian past ends on an elegiac note, more like Maldon than the Aeneid.  William Caxton published the first edition of Malory's Kyng Arthur (AKA, Le Morte Darthur [sic]) in 1485, the month before Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at Barnet, and it was reprinted several times by the time England's own imperial ambitions began to outstrip those of any mere Continental empire.  Now they were eyeing the entire world.  But the "ruins of time" motif told them they should beware empires' futures, as even Virgil (and Ovid) had warned Romans in Caesar Augustus' reign.

        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).  Ovid, in fact, taught English poets that trick, ending his Metamorphoses (circa 18, C.E.) with the claim that " . . . part of me, / The better part, immortal, will be borne / Above the stars; my name will be remembered / Wherever Roman power rules conquered lands, / I shall be read, and through all centuries, / If prophecies of bards are ever truthful, / I shall be living, always" (Rolfe Humphries trans.).  Note, though, that to C16 English eyes, the part about Rome's power and "conquered lands" would sound terribly ironic, though his claim for his art's power had proven true.  So which is more powerful, the scepter or the pen?

        How does Spenser represent time and the threats to poetic creation in the sonnets and the "Epithalamion"?  I think you can discover significant attempts to control time, especially "to adorn" time in such a way as to slow its passing.  Consider the difference between intricate rhymed verse and direct prose description.  How quickly could a prose writer have told us "it's my wedding day and I'm psyched!"?  Can you find traces of this concern for time in Sidney's sonnets?  Perhaps not so often or so obviously, but you will be well rewarded if you seek them in Shakespeare's sonnets, where these figures provide him with some of his most memorable images and observations. Of course, as in so many things poetic, Chaucer had been there before them all in his Troilus and Criseyde, c. 1385--see the palinode of Book V and the proem of Book II.)

        After the Elizabethan period, as you would expect, the "ruins of time" motif fell out of favor for centuries.  However, England, itself, had its own ruins from the medieval past, especially its monasteries which were broken into and nearly destroyed by Protestant mobs in the reign of Henry VIII.  One of them inspired a Romantic poet of the nineteenth century to rediscover this motif in a new way: Tintern Abbey.