"The Mystery of the Missing Line: Spenser's Epithalamion stanza 15"

John Hale and Stefan Lane
Department of English
University of Otago
New Zealand

Deep South v.2 n.2 (Winter, 1996)

Copyright (c) 1996 by John Hale and Stefan Lane, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the New Zealand Copyright Act 1962. It may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the journal is notified. This consent does not extend to other kinds of copying, such as copying for general distribution, for advertising or promotional purposes, for creating new collective works, or for resale. For such uses, written permission of the author and the notification of the journal are required. Write to Deep South, Department of English, University of Otago, P. O. Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand.

In the Ode which celebrates Edmund Spenser's second marriage, and which was his wedding present to his wife for that occasion, he is exceptionally careful with his numbers. They point to his theme, Time. The poem has exactly 365 long lines, and 24 stanzas, 16 of which describe the daylight hours of his wedding day and 8 the hours of the wedding night. Such numbers allude to time as theme, namely the day itself and the couple's future: the poem itself is to be 'for short time an endless monument' (line 433, the last line of all). It therefore poses a question, that whereas the stanzas are mostly either eighteen or nineteen lines long, just one stanza has only seventeen. We write this note to get others to propose answers to the question, perhaps provoked by ours.

It should be conceded at once that just as he takes care with some numbers he is not equally occupied with all. If 365 is a number that implies volition, 433 is not. The number of the short lines (that is, lines having fewer than ten syllables) matters less than the number of the long ones (ten or twelve syllables, pentameter or alexandrine). And the final stanza , the envoi, is unlike all the rest: it has neither 18 nor 19 lines, but just 7. Still, that is the number of days in a week, and anyhow envois tend to be formally marked off from what they 'send off' into the world by difference and shortness of form. These anomalies, if such they be, are not as puzzling as the 17-line stanza which occurs within the main, stately series of 18- and 19-line stanzas. (18, 18, 19, 18, 18, 18, 19, 19, 19, 18, 19, 19, 19, 19, but then 17, and so again 18, 19, 19, 19, 19, 18, 19, 18, 7.)

Something special happens, metrically, in stanza 15. We can readily observe that it lacks the usual third mid-stanza short line (trimeter), and hence lacks the usual four-part metrical division of the sense. Are there particular factors governing the departure? Or is it just a mistake? These issues are raised here, not simply to get other people's answers, but as a case study which will resemble other cruces -- for instance because the answers swing between a charge of negligence and a praise of deep artistic originality; the former answer being the natural, brusque one, the latter being our occupational hazard of implausible ingenuity.

So to the stanza, quoted for ease of access from the Norton Anthology.

Ring ye the bels, ye young men of the towne,
And leave your wonted labors for this day:
This day is holy; doe ye write it downe,
That ye for ever it remember may.
This day the sunne is in his chiefest hight,
With Barnaby the bright,
From whence declining daily by degrees,
He somewhat loseth of his light and heat,
When once the Crab behind his back he sees.
But for this time it ill ordainèd was,
To chose the longest day in all the yeare,
And shortest night, when longest fitter weare:
Yet never day so long, but late would passe.
Ring ye the bels, to make it weare away,
And bonefiers make all day,
And daunce about them, and about them sing:
That all the woods may answer, and your Eccho ring.

The obvious first, 'brusque' answer would be that Spenser simply forgot his prevailing pattern of 19 or18 lines per stanza. After all, these numbers are inherently hard to remember and control. Certainly they are harder than his stanzas for other poems: 9 lines for The Faerie Queene, 14 for sonnets, and so forth -- all stanzas whose size and metrics are visible and audible. But the omission of a trimeter at the by now expected place definitely rocks the boat. That place (on the model of every 18-line stanza) would be after the ninth line, ' . . . ill ordainèd was'. We are expecting a short line at mid-stanza to bring a welcome pausing of sense, to balance and punctuate the short-line pausing at lines 6 and 11. To invoke amnesia in such a delicately aural poet is a last resort.

The same applies to another simple hypothesis, the postulating of a line having dropped out of the text in the course of printing. There is no other evidence of such laxity. But indeed, the evidence of rhyme-scheme militates against the whole guess. This stanza rhymes ABABCC (trimeter), DCDEFFEGG (trimeter) HH. The next stanza, of 18 lines, rhymes ABABCC (trimeter) DCDD (trimeter) EFEGG (trimeter) HH. The two rhyme-schemes begin the same (lines 1-6) but then diverge before converging at FEGGHH. They are both complete and whole. No signs can be detected of attempted but incomplete paralleling of 15 with 16. Textual lacuna seems to be a further desperate remedy.

Accordingly, in a poem which relies much on number-symbolism, one where numbers alert us to theme and mime it, we should look to see whether numerology solves our difficulty. Mainly, it does not. The number of trimeters will not affect the count of the longer lines, which yield the needed 365.

But in one way, number-symbolism does offer a solution, by giving us a sort of onomatopoeia, an imitating of the meaning by something in the form, the local effect of one expected short line being absent. After all, the stanza itself contemplates length and shortness. Lines 11-13 explicitly note the length of this day, and the shortness of its night; so something unexpected about the length and shortness of the stanza's form will subserve the theme. We notice length because fewer lines are trimeters than we expect, and a greater proportion of the stanza consists of long lines. We are experiencing length, on our ears and pulses, because eight pentameters go by together mid-stanza, where normally shortness is experienced because of the mid-line trimeter. We notice shortness because the stanza is curtailed, by one trimeter. (Not that the thought itself is in the slightest complex: Spenser did not flinch from the obvious.)

One might, however, wish he had. Or reflect that the mimicry of short and long comes just too early in the stanza: not right at the explicit musing upon long day / short night, but just preceding it.

Another form of onomatopoeia might remove some of the triteness of this first one. This is a local effect of musicality, agreeing with many in the poem (dawn chorus, wedding music, and so on). The stanza addresses the young men as bell-ringers (lines 1 and again, resumingly, at 14). Is that why it, almost literally, 'rings the changes' on its own musicality? And if it jangles the sensibilities somewhat, why, so does bell-ringing.

A risk of special pleading, or at least of excessive ingenuity to preserve a theory, may be felt by now. How do we, as readers of poetry and complex prose, decide between blaming the author -- or the text -- for an ostensible lapse, and persisting in upholding an obscure but exculpatory special beauty we have discovered? Is there any principle by which to decide? And what do other readers think about this present instance of the general puzzle?

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