The Ruines of time follows Spenser as he has ruminates on a succession of visions of fallen cities, forgotten kings, and all things great or mundane, lost to time. Spenser's visions are triggered when he sees:
'A woman sitting sorrowfullie wailing,
Rending her yeolow locks, like wyrie gold,
About her shoulders careleslie downe trailing
And streams of teares from her faire eyes forth railing.
In her right hand a broken rod she held,
Which towards heauen shee seemd on high to weld'
This woman is a personification of the once great, but now fallen and forgotten city of Verlame. Verlame spends the first part of the poem lamenting her lost greatness to Spenser. She regrets how for all man's strivings, it comes to naught when we die. Even those who flatter us in life soon forget us when we're gone.
'Why then dooth flesh, a bubble glas of breath,
Hunt after honour and aduancement vaine,
And reare a trophee for deuouring death,
With so great labour and long lasting paine,
As if his daies for euer should remain?
Sith all that in this world is great or gaie,
Doth as a vapour vanish, and decaie'
Verlame vanishes, and her appearance gives way to a series of numbered visions, in which Spenser sees how everything great and small, must eventually fade. Alters of clay melt, towers built on sand collapse, the Garden of Eden falls into ruin, a giant drowns in the ocean, and two bears are crushed to death by the collapsed cave in which they sleep. From the despair of futility that follows, a voice calls out to Spenser and advises him:
'Behold (said it) and by ensample see,
That all is vanitie and griefe of minde,
Ne other comfort in this world can be,
But hope of heauen, and heart to God inclinde;
For all the rest must needs be left behinde:'
A series of new visions follows, in which the fallen that heeded the voice do not lament their loss of glory in the mortal plane after death. They rise up to heaven for the richer life in eternity. Spenser, having learned his lesson, calls out to Verlame:
'And ye, faire Ladie th'honor of your daies,
And glorie of the world, your hight thoughts scorne;
Vouchsafe this miniment of his last praise,
With some few siluer dropping teares t'adorne:
And as ye be of heauenlie off spring borne,
So vnto heuen let your high mind aspire,
And loath this drosse of sinfull desire'
Ultimately, this is a poem about loss, time and ruin. Spenser urges us not to despair at the futility of our worldly plans, successes and failures, but instead, to be content with God and ourselves. It is being concerned about whether we are remembered in thousands of years for our contributions that is really futile. What matters is spiritual integrity and inner contentment with living and enjoying the fleeting moments while they last.
The poem also warns against dwelling in misery. As she concludes her long sermon of despair, Verlame confesses:
'Yet it is comfort in great languishment,
To be bemeoned with compassion kinde,
And mitigates the anguish of the minde'
Verlame is the personification of the self-pitying sap who, incapable of finding joy in themselves, leeches on the pity of others to maintain her sense of worth. It's for this reason that she finds herself bound to earth, wailing and trying to get others to remember her. On the other hand, the beautiful swan, who, accepting that its time on earth is transitory, 'sweetly' sings the prophecy of its own death and, after dying, floats up to heaven.
The poem has a wonderful structure. It begins with Verlame and her lamentations, which then give way to the first visions focusing on loss. Then we have the interlude of Spenser's despair, followed by the voice, and then another set of visions which look up at heaven. The visions always begin on earth with the description of some object, animal, or human. But while the visions visions of loss end in death, ruin and lamenting the past, the heavenly visions end with ascension, happiness, and the future. The visions are comprehensive too; Spenser isn't just concerned with the rise and fall of great kings queens and civilisations, but also with the rise and fall of animals, and even objects. Even some of those objects find themselves hurtling towards heaven in the final visions. What matters for an objects ascension seems to be whether it was created to glorify man or whether it glorifies god or spirituality. Perhaps that's why the tower build on sand must fall, while the celestial harp plays music in heaven for eternity.
You can read the full poem here