Like as the Culver on the barèd bough,
Sits mourning for the absence of her mate:
and in her songs sends many a wishfull vow,
for his return that seemes to linger late,
So I alone now left disconsolate,
mourne to my self the absence of my love:
and wandring here and there all desolate,
seek with my playnts to match that mournful dove:
Ne joy of ought that under heaven doth hove,
can comfort me, but her owne joyous sight:
whose sweet aspèct both God and man can move,
in her unspotted pleasauns to delight.
Dark is my day, whyles her fayre light I mis,
and dead my life that wants such lively bliss.
Culver in the first line is an archaic word for the dove that reappears at the end of line 8. Spenser liked the authority and history of words that were already edging into archaism in his time (he died in 1599, about half-way through Shakespeare's career). These birds were also frequently referred to in Elizabethan writing as turtles (as in turtle-doves), so when you read Shakespeare's poem The Phoenix and the Turtle, or when you read in the King James translation of the Song of Solomon "For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; / The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land" (chapter 2, verses 11-12) the reference is not to a croaking reptile with a shell but to a singing bird. Whether called culver, turtle, turtle-dove, or dove, it was considered the type of constant love. So the first line immediately and dramatically sets the stage: the reference to the dove leads us to expect a love poem, but one in which something is probably wrong, given the stark, wintry detail of the "barèd bough." And we find out in the rest of the quatrain that the faithful bird is mourning her absent mate. There's a bit of a mystery as to where her mate is; he is later than expected (she longs for "his return that seemes to linger late"); is he just delayed, or is he dead? Her love is deep, and she mourns his absence no matter what the cause.
Like the dove, the poet is alone, mourning in his song his absent love; like the dove, nothing can comfort him but the sight of his beloved ("her owne joyous sight"; that is, his joy-filled sight of her). He feels a bit competitive with the bird; he seeks with his playnts (that is, his plaints: complaints, lamentations) "to match the mournful dove"; his love is as deep as the instinctive love of the most faithful of birds. He describes his beloved woman in terms that Dante might have used for his Beatrice: besides the joyous sight of her, her sweet aspect (that is, appearance and air) can move not only man, but even God, and nothing in God's creation ("ought that under heaven doth hove" – that is, hover, which brings birds to mind, though it is not restricted to them) can bring joy or comfort. This is a neat way of tying into the figure of the beloved woman – again, as Dante did with Beatrice – the idea not only of physical beauty but also of moral perfection approaching the heavenly. Not only man, but also God, can be moved by her "unspotted pleasauns"; that is, her innocent, even immaculate pleasantness, charm, amiability.
The concluding couplet shoots off a number of paradoxes like firecrackers to emphasize the magnitude of what he is missing: his day is dark, since she is his light; his life is dead, without her lively (life-giving) bliss. There has been a subtle, gender-reversal paradox throughout the poem: it is the female dove mourning the absent male, but in the poet's case, he is the one left at home, mourning the beloved, absent woman. Since this poem is the last in Spenser's sonnet sequence Amoretti, we can guess that this love story does not have a happy ending.
We think of England as the home of many great writers, as well as a former Empire, but in Spenser's time it was politically and culturally a small island on the edge of Europe (this was even before there was a United Kingdom; Scotland would not join with England until James VI of Scotland (as James I) succeeded Queen Elizabeth I in 1603). Politically and economically England was not a great world power like Spain and Portugal, although it was already beginning its exploration of North America as well as its oppressive colonization of neighboring Ireland, in which Spenser had a role as part of his duties as a government official. And culturally it was a bit of a backwater. An ambitious and patriotic writer like Spenser naturally looked to Italy (as did his great predecessor, Chaucer) as the source of the most advanced art and learning, and attempted to equal or surpass in English the achievements of Italian poets. I've mentioned some Dante-esque elements in this poem, but Petrarch is the major influence here, as he ultimately is for all writers of love sonnets.
This sonnet uses three quatrains and a concluding couplet to make up the fourteen lines, but instead of keeping the quatrains as separate units there is an interesting and sophisticated interlocking rhyme scheme: the second rhyme in each quatrain becomes the first line in the next (so mate and late in the first quatrain are linked to disconsolate and desolate in the second; and love and dove in the second quatrain are linked to hove and move in the third – bear in mind that some rhymes that seem not quite rhymes to us actually worked as perfect rhymes in Elizabethan pronunciation; and some rhymes that seem trite to us (love/dove) seemed much fresher four hundred years ago.
I took this from the Penguin edition of The Shorter Poems (which means everything but The Faerie Queene) of Edmund Spenser, but I have to say how annoyed I am that my copy is imperfect: though a large blank space is left for the woodcuts that went with the Epigrams in A Theatre for Worldlings, the woodcuts themselves aren't there. That's really sloppy printing! So if you do buy a copy, make sure to check it immediately, and I hope you're better at returning things than I am.