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Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

An Hymn Of Heavenly Beauty


              1Rapt with the rage of mine own ravish'd thought,
              2Through contemplation of those goodly sights,
              3And glorious images in heaven wrought,
              4Whose wondrous beauty, breathing sweet delights
              5Do kindle love in high-conceited sprights;
              6I fain to tell the things that I behold,
              7But feel my wits to fail, and tongue to fold.

              8Vouchsafe then, O thou most Almighty Spright,
              9From whom all gifts of wit and knowledge flow,
            10To shed into my breast some sparkling light
            11Of thine eternal truth, that I may show
            12Some little beams to mortal eyes below
            13Of that immortal beauty, there with thee,
            14Which in my weak distraughted mind I see;

            15That with the glory of so goodly sight
            16The hearts of men, which fondly here admire
            17Fair seeming shews, and feed on vain delight,
            18Transported with celestial desire
            19Of those fair forms, may lift themselves up higher,
            20And learn to love, with zealous humble duty,
            21Th' eternal fountain of that heavenly beauty.

            22Beginning then below, with th' easy view
            23Of this base world, subject to fleshly eye,
            24From thence to mount aloft, by order due,
            25To contemplation of th' immortal sky;
            26Of the soare falcon so I learn to fly,
            27That flags awhile her fluttering wings beneath,
            28Till she herself for stronger flight can breathe.

            29Then look, who list thy gazeful eyes to feed
            30With sight of that is fair, look on the frame
            31Of this wide universe, and therein reed
            32The endless kinds of creatures which by name
            33Thou canst not count, much less their natures aim;
            34All which are made with wondrous wise respect,
            35And all with admirable beauty deckt.

            36First th' earth, on adamantine pillars founded,
            37Amid the sea engirt with brazen bands;
            38Then th' air still flitting, but yet firmly bounded
            39On every side, with piles of flaming brands,
            40Never consum'd, nor quench'd with mortal hands;
            41And last, that mighty shining crystal wall,
            42Wherewith he hath encompassed this All.

            43By view whereof it plainly may appear,
            44That still as every thing doth upward tend,
            45And further is from earth, so still more clear
            46And fair it grows, till to his perfect end
            47Of purest beauty it at last ascend;
            48Air more than water, fire much more than air,
            49And heaven than fire, appears more pure and fair.

            50Look thou no further, but affix thine eye
            51On that bright, shiny, round, still moving mass,
            52The house of blessed gods, which men call sky,
            53All sow'd with glist'ring stars more thick than grass,
            54Whereof each other doth in brightness pass,
            55But those two most, which ruling night and day,
            56As king and queen, the heavens' empire sway;

            57And tell me then, what hast thou ever seen
            58That to their beauty may compared be,
            59Or can the sight that is most sharp and keen
            60Endure their captain's flaming head to see?
            61How much less those, much higher in degree,
            62And so much fairer, and much more than these,
            63As these are fairer than the land and seas?

            64For far above these heavens, which here we see,
            65Be others far exceeding these in light,
            66Not bounded, not corrupt, as these same be,
            67But infinite in largeness and in height,
            68Unmoving, uncorrupt, and spotless bright,
            69That need no sun t' illuminate their spheres,
            70But their own native light far passing theirs.

            71And as these heavens still by degrees arise,
            72Until they come to their first Mover's bound,
            73That in his mighty compass doth comprise,
            74And carry all the rest with him around;
            75So those likewise do by degrees redound,
            76And rise more fair; till they at last arrive
            77To the most fair, whereto they all do strive.

            78Fair is the heaven where happy souls have place,
            79In full enjoyment of felicity,
            80Whence they do still behold the glorious face
            81Of the divine eternal Majesty;
            82More fair is that, where those Ideas on high
            83Enranged be, which Plato so admired,
            84And pure Intelligences from God inspired.

            85Yet fairer is that heaven, in which do reign
            86The sovereign Powers and mighty Potentates,
            87Which in their high protections do contain
            88All mortal princes and imperial states;
            89And fairer yet, whereas the royal Seats
            90And heavenly Dominations are set,
            91From whom all earthly governance is fet.

            92Yet far more fair be those bright Cherubins,
            93Which all with golden wings are overdight,
            94And those eternal burning Seraphins,
            95Which from their faces dart out fiery light;
            96Yet fairer than they both, and much more bright,
            97Be th' Angels and Archangels, which attend
            98On God's own person, without rest or end.

            99These thus in fair each other far excelling,
          100As to the highest they approach more near,
          101Yet is that highest far beyond all telling,
          102Fairer than all the rest which there appear,
          103Though all their beauties join'd together were;
          104How then can mortal tongue hope to express
          105The image of such endless perfectness?

          106Cease then, my tongue, and lend unto my mind
          107Leave to bethink how great that beauty is,
          108Whose utmost parts so beautiful I find;
          109How much more those essential parts of his,
          110His truth, his love, his wisdom, and his bliss,
          111His grace, his doom, his mercy, and his might,
          112By which he lends us of himself a sight.

          113Those unto all he daily doth display,
          114And shew himself in th' image of his grace,
          115As in a looking-glass, through which he may
          116Be seen of all his creatures vile and base,
          117That are unable else to see his face,
          118His glorious face which glistereth else so bright,
          119That th' Angels selves cannot endure his sight.

          120But we, frail wights, whose sight cannot sustain
          121The sun's bright beams when he on us doth shine,
          122But that their points rebutted back again
          123Are dull'd, how can we see with feeble eyne
          124The glory of that Majesty Divine,
          125In sight of whom both sun and moon are dark,
          126Compared to his least resplendent spark?

          127The means, therefore, which unto us is lent
          128Him to behold, is on his works to look,
          129Which he hath made in beauty excellent,
          130And in the same, as in a brazen book,
          131To read enregister'd in every nook
          132His goodness, which his beauty doth declare;
          133For all that's good is beautiful and fair.

          134Thence gathering plumes of perfect speculation,
          135To imp the wings of thy high-flying mind,
          136Mount up aloft through heavenly contemplation,
          137From this dark world, whose damps the soul so blind,
          138And, like the native brood of eagles' kind,
          139On that bright Sun of Glory fix thine eyes,
          140Clear'd from gross mists of frail infirmities.

          141Humbled with fear and awful reverence,
          142Before the footstool of his majesty
          143Throw thyself down, with trembling innocence,
          144Ne dare look up with corruptible eye
          145On the dread face of that great Deity,
          146For fear, lest if he chance to look on thee,
          147Thou turn to nought, and quite confounded be.

          148But lowly fall before his mercy seat,
          149Close covered with the Lamb's integrity
          150From the just wrath of his avengeful threat
          151That sits upon the righteous throne on high;
          152His throne is built upon eternity,
          153More firm and durable than steel or brass,
          154Or the hard diamond, which them both doth pass.

          155His sceptre is the rod of righteousness,
          156With which he bruiseth all his foes to dust,
          157And the great Dragon strongly doth repress,
          158Under the rigour of his judgement just;
          159His seat is truth, to which the faithful trust,
          160From whence proceed her beams so pure and bright
          161That all about him sheddeth glorious light:

          162Light far exceeding that bright blazing spark
          163Which darted is from Titan's flaming head,
          164That with his beams enlumineth the dark
          165And dampish air, whereby all things are read;
          166Whose nature yet so much is marvelled
          167Of mortal wits, that it doth much amaze
          168The greatest wizards which thereon do gaze.

          169But that immortal light, which there doth shine,
          170Is many thousand times more bright, more clear,
          171More excellent, more glorious, more divine,
          172Through which to God all mortal actions here,
          173And even the thoughts of men, do plain appear;
          174For from th' eternal truth it doth proceed,
          175Through heavenly virtue which her beams do breed.

          176With the great glory of that wondrous light
          177His throne is all encompassed around,
          178And hid in his own brightness from the sight
          179Of all that look thereon with eyes unsound;
          180And underneath his feet are to be found
          181Thunder and lightning and tempestuous fire,
          182The instruments of his avenging ire.

          183There in his bosom Sapience doth sit,
          184The sovereign darling of the Deity,
          185Clad like a queen in royal robes, most fit
          186For so great power and peerless majesty,
          187And all with gems and jewels gorgeously
          188Adorn'd, that brighter than the stars appear,
          189And make her native brightness seem more clear.

          190And on her head a crown of purest gold
          191Is set, in sign of highest sovereignty;
          192And in her hand a sceptre she doth hold,
          193With which she rules the house of God on high,
          194And manageth the ever-moving sky,
          195And in the same these lower creatures all
          196Subjected to her power imperial.

          197Both heaven and earth obey unto her will,
          198And all the creatures which they both contain;
          199For of her fullness which the world doth fill
          200They all partake, and do in state remain
          201As their great Maker did at first ordain,
          202Through observation of her high behest,
          203By which they first were made, and still increast.

          204The fairness of her face no tongue can tell;
          205For she the daughters of all women's race,
          206And angels eke, in beauty doth excel,
          207Sparkled on her from God's own glorious face,
          208And more increas'd by her own goodly grace,
          209That it doth far exceed all human thought,
          210Ne can on earth compared be to aught.

          211Ne could that painter (had he lived yet)
          212Which pictured Venus with so curious quill,
          213That all posterity admired it,
          214Have portray'd this, for all his mast'ring skill;
          215Ne she herself, had she remained still,
          216And were as fair as fabling wits do feign,
          217Could once come near this beauty sovereign.

          218But had those wits, the wonders of their days,
          219Or that sweet Teian poet, which did spend
          220His plenteous vein in setting forth her praise,
          221Seen but a glimpse of this which I pretend,
          222How wondrously would he her face commend,
          223Above that idol of his feigning thought,
          224That all the world should with his rhymes be fraught.

          225How then dare I, the novice of his art,
          226Presume to picture so divine a wight,
          227Or hope t' express her least perfection's part,
          228Whose beauty fills the heavens with her light,
          229And darks the earth with shadow of her sight?
          230Ah, gentle Muse, thou art too weak and faint
          231The portrait of so heavenly hue to paint.

          232Let angels, which her goodly face behold
          233And see at will, her sovereign praises sing,
          234And those most sacred mysteries unfold
          235Of that fair love of mighty heaven's King;
          236Enough is me t' admire so heavenly thing,
          237And being thus with her huge love possest,
          238In th' only wonder of herself to rest.

          239But whoso may, thrice happy man him hold,
          240Of all on earth whom God so much doth grace
          241And lets his own beloved to behold;
          242For in the view of her celestial face
          243All joy, all bliss, all happiness, have place;
          244Ne aught on earth can want unto the wight
          245Who of herself can win the wishful sight.

          246For she, out of her secret treasury,
          247Plenty of riches forth on him will pour,
          248Even heavenly riches, which there hidden lie
          249Within the closet of her chastest bower,
          250Th' eternal portion of her precious dower,
          251Which mighty God hath given to her free,
          252And to all those which thereof worthy be.

          253None thereof worthy be, but those whom she
          254Vouchsafeth to her presence to receive,
          255And letteth them her lovely face to see,
          256Whereof such wondrous pleasures they conceive,
          257And sweet contentment, that it doth bereave
          258Their soul of sense, through infinite delight,
          259And them transport from flesh into the spright.

          260In which they see such admirable things,
          261As carries them into an ecstasy,
          262And hear such heavenly notes, and carollings
          263Of God's high praise, that fills the brazen sky;
          264And feel such joy and pleasure inwardly,
          265That maketh them all worldly cares forget,
          266And only think on that before them set.

          267Ne from thenceforth doth any fleshly sense,
          268Or idle thought of earthly things, remain;
          269But all that erst seem'd sweet seems now offence,
          270And all that pleased erst now seems to pain;
          271Their joy, their comfort, their desire, their gain,
          272Is fixed all on that which now they see;
          273All other sights but feigned shadows be.

          274And that fair lamp, which useth to inflame
          275The hearts of men with self-consuming fire
          276Thenceforth seems foul, and full of sinful blame;
          277And all that pomp to which proud minds aspire
          278By name of honour, and so much desire,
          279Seems to them baseness, and all riches dross,
          280And all mirth sadness, and all lucre loss.

          281So full their eyes are of that glorious sight,
          282And senses fraught with such satiety,
          283That in nought else on earth they can delight,
          284But in th' aspect of that felicity,
          285Which they have written in their inward eye;
          286On which they feed, and in their fastened mind
          287All happy joy and full contentment find.

          288Ah, then, my hungry soul, which long hast fed
          289On idle fancies of thy foolish thought,
          290And, with false beauty's flatt'ring bait misled,
          291Hast after vain deceitful shadows sought,
          292Which all are fled, and now have left thee nought
          293But late repentance through thy follies prief;
          294Ah cease to gaze on matter of thy grief:

          295And look at last up to that sovereign light,
          296From whose pure beams all perfect beauty springs,
          297That kindleth love in every godly sprite,
          298Even the love of God, which loathing brings
          299Of this vile world and these gay-seeming things;
          300With whose sweet pleasures being so possest,
          301Thy straying thoughts henceforth for ever rest.

Notes

1] In his dedication of the Fowre Hymnes, Spenser says that the last two were written "In way of retractation. . . . making instead of those two Hymns of earthly or natural love and beauty, two others of heavenly and celestial". He seeks in the present Hymn to blend certain of the philosophical ideas of Plato and of such Renaissance Platonists as Marsilio Ficino and Giordano Bruno with Christian teaching as he found it in the Bible and in the doctrines of the church. The probability is that this Hymn was written just shortly before the date of the dedication, September, 1596.

2] Through contemplation. According to the Phaedrus of Plato certain souls have seen the divine beauty before coming to earth.

5] high-conceited. With noble thoughts.

9] Cf. Proverbs, ii, 6: "the Lord giveth wisdom, out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding".

16] fondly. Foolishly.

24] by order due. The idea of the ladder of Beauty from the earthly to the divine comes from Plato. The order of the ascent was elaborated by the later Platonists, especially by Ficino.

26] soare. Young.

31] reed. Perceive.

39] piles of flaming brands. The sphere of fire which surrounds the air.

41] crystal wall. The sphere of the fixed stars.

71] these heavens. The heavens "which here we see".

72] first Mover's bound. The outermost sphere, the "Primum Mobile" which gives motion to the spheres within.

75] redound. Overflow, one going beyond the other.

82] Ides. The perfect forms which are imperfectly shadowed in the corresponding earthly forms, the patterns of Beauty, Justice, Wisdom, etc. Cf. In Hymn in Honour of Beauty, 36.

86] Powers and mighty Potentates. Two of the angelic orders.

90] Dominations. Another angelic order.

91] fet. Fetched.

92] Cherubins. Cherubim, angels of contemplation.

94] Seraphins. Seraphim, angels of love.

108] utmost. Outermost.

111] doom. judgment.

115] As in a looking-glass. Cf. I Corinthians, xiii, 12: "For now we see through a glass, darkly". Spenser may have had in mind Bruno's phrasing: "in this world where we can see God only, as it were, in shadow and in a mirror".

122] rebutted back. Thrown back in reflection.

133] Cf. in Hymn in Honour of Beauty, 139.

135] imp. Engraft feathers in a hawk's wing to improve its flight.

155] Cf. Psalms, xlv, 6: "the sceptre of thy kingdom, is a sceptre of righteousness".

157] the great Dragon. Cf. Revelation, xii, 9: "And the great dragon that old serpent, called the devil and Satan, was cast out".

176-79] Cf. Paradise Lost, III, 377:

Admidst the glorious brightness where Thou sitt'st
Throned inaccessible. . . .

183] Sapience. In the Phaedrus of Plato, Wisdom is the most beautiful of the Ideas. In Ficino Sapience is identified with Heavenly Beauty. In the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon she sits by god's throne.

211] that painter. Probably a reference to Anacreon of Teos the "Teian poet" of l.219, who in his 56th ode gives a description of Venus.

223] idol of his feigning thought. Venus, a mere creation of the imagination.

225] novice of his art. A mere beginner in poetry.

274] that fair lamp. Earthly beauty.

286] fastened. Steadfast.

293] follies prief. Experience of folly.


Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: Edmund Spenser, Fowre Hymnes (London: [R. Field] for W. Ponsonby, 1596). STC 23086. Facs.Edn. (New York: Da Capo Press, 1971). PR 2360 F6 1971
First publication date: 1596
RPO poem editor: N. J. Endicott
RP edition: 2RP 1.137.
Recent editing: 4:2002/5/23

Composition date: 1596
Rhyme: ababbcc


Other poems by Edmund Spenser