1591
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Visions of the Worlds Vanitie.

Complaints. Containing sundrie small Poemes of the Worlds Vanitie. Whereof the next Page maketh mention. By Ed. Sp.

Edmund Spenser


Spenser's visions were probably imitated more frequently than might at first appear: the stanza form is not common but the sentiments and imagery are ubiquitous in later devotional poetry.

Retrospective Review: "Of the Visions of the World's Vanity, we have nothing more to say, than that they are tolerable exemplifications of their subject" 12 (1825) 155.

John Payne Collier: "They were, beyond question, youthful experiments, which received alterations and improvements, possibly, not long before they appeared in the shape which they bear near the end of the volume under consideration" Poetical Works of Spenser (1862; 1875) 1:lxxxvii-viii.



One Day, whiles that my daily Cares did sleep,
My Spirit, shaking off her earthly Prison,
Began to enter Meditation deep
Of things exceeding reach of common Reason;
Such as this Age, in which all good is geason,
And all that humble is and mean debac'd,
Hath brought forth in her last declining Season,
Grief of good Minds, to see Goodness disgrac'd.
On which, when as my Thought was throughly plac'd,
Unto my Eyes strange Shows presented were,
Picturing that, which I in mind embrac'd,
That yet those Sights empassion me full nere.
Such as they were (fair Lady) take in worth,
That when time serves, may bring things better forth.

In Summer's Day, when Phoebus fairly shone,
I saw a Bull as white as driven Snow,
With gilden Horns embowed like the Moon,
In a fresh flowring Meadow lying low:
Up to his Ears the verdant Grass did grow,
And the gay Flowres did offer to be eaten;
But he with Fatness so did over-flow,
That he all wallowed in the Weeds down beaten,
Ne car'd with them his dainty lips to sweeten:
Till that a Brize, a scorned little Creature,
Through his fair Hide his angry Sting did threaten,
And vext so sore, that all his goodly Feature,
And all his plenteous Pasture nought him pleased:
So by the Small, the Great is oft diseased.

Beside the fruitful Shore of muddy Nile,
Upon a sunny Bank outstretched lay,
In monstrous length, a mighty Crocodile,
That cramm'd with guiltless Blood, and greedy Prey
Of wretched People travailing that way,
Thought all things less than his disdainful Pride.
I saw a little Bird, call'd Tedula,
The least of thousands which on Earth abide,
That forc'd this hideous Beast to open wide
The griesly Gates of his devouring Hell,
And let him feed, as Nature doth provide,
Upon his Jaws, that with black Venom swell.
Why then should greatest things the least disdain,
Sith that so small so mighty can constrain?

The kingly Bird, that bears Jove's Thunder-clap,
One day did scorn the simple Scarabee,
Proud of his highest Service, and good Hap,
That made all other Fowls his Thralls to be:
The silly Fly, that no redress did see,
Spy'd where the Eagle built his towring Nest,
And kindling Fire within the hollow Tree,
Burnt up his young ones, and himself distrest;
Ne suffred him in any place to rest,
But drove in Jove's own lap his Eggs to lay;
Where gathering also Filth him to infest,
Forc'd with the Filth his eggs to fling away:
For which, when as the Fowl was wroth, said Jove,
Lo how the Least the Greatest may reprove.

Toward the Sea turning my troubled Eye,
I saw the Fish (if Fish I may it cleep)
That makes the Sea before his Face to fly,
And with his flaggy Fins doth seem to sweep
The foamy Waves out of the dreadful Deep,
The huge Leviathan, Dame Nature's Wonder,
Making his Sport, that many makes to weep:
A Sword-fish small him from the rest did sunder,
That in his Throat him pricking softly under,
His wide Abyss him forced forth to spew,
That all the Sea did roar like Heaven's Thunder,
And all the Waves were stain'd with filthy hue.
Hereby I learned have, not to despise
What-ever thing seems small in common Eyes.

An hideous Dragon, dreadful to behold,
Whose Back was arm'd against the Dint of Spear,
With Shields of Brass, that shone like burnish'd Gold,
And forked Sting, that Death in it did bear,
Strove with a Spider, his unequal Peer,
And bad defiance to his Enemy.
The subtil Vermin creeping closely near,
Did in his Drink shed Poison privily;
Which through his Entrails spreading diversly,
Made him to swell, that nigh his Bowels burst,
And him enforc'd to yield the Victory,
That did so much in his own Greatness trust.
O how great Vainness is it then to scorn
The Weak, that hath the Strong so oft forlorn!

High on a Hill a goodly Cedar grew,
Of wondrous Length, and straight Proportion,
That far abroad her dainty Odours threw;
'Mongst all the Daughters of proud Libanon,
Her Match in Beauty was not any one.
Shortly, within her inmost Pith there bred
A little wicked Worm, perceiv'd of none,
That on her Sap and vital Moisture fed:
Thenceforth her Garland, so much honoured,
Began to die, (O great ruth for the same!)
And her fair Locks fell from her lofty Head,
That shortly bald, and bared she became.
I, which this Sight beheld, was much dismay'd,
To see so goodly thing so soon decay'd.

Soon after this, I saw an Elephant,
Adorn'd with Bells and Bosses gorgeously,
That on his Back did bear (as Battelant)
A gilden Towre, which shone exceedingly;
That he himself, through foolish Vanity,
Both for his rich Attire and goodly Form,
Was puffed up with passing Surquedry,
And shortly 'gan all other Beasts to scorn:
Till that a little Ant, a silly Worm,
Into his Nostrils creeping, so him pain'd;
That casting down his Towres, he did deform
Both borrow'd Pride, and native Beauty stain'd.
Let therefore nought that great is, therein glory,
Sith so small thing his Happiness may vary.

Looking far forth into the Ocean wide,
A goodly Ship with Banners bravely dight,
And Flag in her Top-gallant I espide,
Through the main Sea making her merry Flight:
Fair blew the Wind into her Bosom right,
And th' Heavens looked lovely all the while;
That she did seem to dance, as in delight,
And at her own Felicity did smile.
All suddenly there clove unto her Keel
A little Fish, that Men call Remora,
Which stopt her Course, and held her by the Heel,
That Wind nor Tide could move her thence away.
Strange thing me seemeth, that so small a thing
Should able be so great an one to wring.

A mighty Lion, Lord of all the Wood,
Having his Hunger throughly satisfy'd
With Prey of Beasts, and Spoil of living Blood,
Safe in his dreadless Den him thought to hide:
His Sternness was his Praise, his Strength his Pride,
And all his Glory in his cruel Claws.
I saw a Wasp, that fiercely him defide,
And bad him battail even to his Jaws;
Sore he him stung, that it the Blood forth draws,
And his proud Heart is fill'd with fretting Ire:
In vain he threats his Teeth, his Tail, his Paws;
And from his bloody Eyes doth sparkle Fire,
That dead himself he wisheth for Despight:
So weakest may annoy the most of Might.

What time the Roman Empire bore the Reign
Of all the World, and flourish'd most in Might,
The Nations 'gan their Sovereignty disdain,
And cast to quit them from their Bondage quite:
So when all shrouded were in silent Night,
The Galls were, by corrupting of a Maid,
Possess'd nigh of the Capitol through Slight,
Had not a Goose the Treachery bewraid.
If then a Goose great Rome from Ruin staid,
And Jove himself, the Patron of the Place,
Preserv'd from being to his Foes betraid;
Why do vain Men mean things so much deface,
And in their Might repose their most Assurance,
Sith nought on Earth can challenge long Endurance?

When these sad Sights were over-past and gone,
My Spright was greatly moved in her Rest,
With inward Ruth and dear Affection,
To see so great things by so small distrest.
Thenceforth I 'gan in my engrieved Breast
To scorn all difference of Great and Small,
Sith that the greatest often are opprest,
And unawares do into Danger fall.
And ye, that read these Ruines tragical,
Learn by their Loss to love the low Degree;
And if that Fortune chance you up to call
To Honour's Seat, forget not what ye be:
For he that of himself is most secure,
Shall find his State most fickle and unsure.

[Works, ed. Hughes (1715) 5:1405-09]