Quick Read ❧ Sidney’s Sonnet 64

This post is a request. Since the sonnet is relatively straightforward, thought I might be able to squeeze in a “quick read”.For a brief overview of Sidney’s metrical practice and the types of sonnets he wrote, you can try my earlier post: Sir Philip Sidney: His Meter and his Sonnets. The present sonnet is a kind of hybrid between what would become the Shakespearean Sonnet (with it’s closing epigrammatic couplet) and the Patrarchan sonnet, with its less argumentative closing sestet. As to Sonnet 64, I’ve copied it from an edition of Sidney’s selected writings by Richard Dutton. First, in plain text:

Sonnet 64

No more, my dear, no more these counsels try,
··O give my passions leave to run their race:
··Let Fortune lay on me her worst disgrace,
Let folk orecharg’d with brain against me cry.
Let clouds bedim my face, break in mine eye,
··Let me no steps but of lost labour trace,
··Let all the earth with scorn recount my case,
But do not will me from my love to fly.
··I do not envy Aristotle’s wit,
Nor do I aspire to Caesar’s bleeding fame,
Nor aught do care, though some above me sit,
Nor hope, nor wish another course to frame,
··But that which once may win thy cruel heart,
··Thou art my wit, and thou my virtue art.

Next, the scansion. The lines are space so that I can insert scansion markings. All unmarked feet are iambic. If you’re unsure of scansion, my post on Iambic Pentameter (The Basics) might help you.


A Note about the Scansion

There are modern readers and poets who make the argument that meter doesn’t exist. Then there are others who grudgingly admit that English is an accentual language (sort of like admitting the earth is round) but that scansion is arbitrary. And then there are readers and scholars who argue that we should scan poems the way we read them, now, without regard to the poet’s intentions or how language was spoken in the poet’s day.

I disagree with all of them.

In the scansion above, I try to take into consideration the era in which Sidney was writing. Iambic Pentameter was brand-spanking new, Elizabethan poets were excited to have a meter comparable to that of the Lain poets. Poets weren’t yet interested in how they could break the rules. They were still making the rules. With that in mind, I’ve scanned the sonnet with the assumption that Sidney intended his poem to be Iambic Pentameter throughout.  In the first foot of the third quatrain, one can easily read |Nor do I| as an Iambic foot if one slurs the vowels. This, in fact, was standard practice in the day and is reflected in the punctuation of a poet like Donne (when modern editors don’t blithely edit it out). So, Sidney probably would have read the first foot: (Nor d’I). Modern speakers of English do the same thing on a daily basis. We slur our words when it suits us.

  • The poet Sydney Lea (and my state’s Poet Laureate) rightly points out (in my Guest Book) that Chaucer wrote Iambic Pentameter. As a historical matter, Iambic Pentameter was not new to the English language. However, Chaucer’s innovations were not adopted by the poets immediately following him or in the centuries that followed. By the  time Sidney and his circle settled on Iambic Pentameter, their experimentation shows little, if any, of Chaucer’s influence. Iambic Pentameter was essentially new to the Elizabethans.  They rediscovered it, in a sense, and reinvented it, making it the verse form that we are now familiar with. As to the Elizabethans’ opinion of Chaucer, Donald R. Howard writes:
Between Chaucer’s time and Shakespeare’s, the pronunciation of English changed, so much so that Chaucer’s poems no longer sounded right. He was admired for his rhetoric and his “philosophy,” his skill as a storyteller, and as the “first finder of our fair language,” but his rhythms were a puzzle and his rhymes did not sound true. People tolerated Chaucer’s “rough” verse and assumed he had a tin ear. Henry Peacham, writing in 1622, found “under a bitter and rough rind,” a kernel of “conceit and sweet invention.” Dryden said there was in his verse “the rude sweetness of a Scotch tune” — “natural and pleasing, though not perfect.” (p. 513Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World)

On the other hand, in the first line line of the closing couplet, I’ve read cruel is disyllabic: cru|el. I can’t swear that Elizabethans, normally, pronounced this word disyllabically, but even among modern speakers of English, we sometimes can hear two syllables in the word. What is certain is that Sidney, knowing full well how to write an Iambic Pentameter line when he wanted to, was treating cruel as a conventionally poetic, two syllable word.

Sidney’s Argument

Nearly all Elizabethan sonnets were displays of argumentation and Sidney’s, earliest among them, are a prime example. Addressed to Stella, his imaginary mistress, they try to cajole, persuade, dissuade, convince, argue, concede, and manipulate with all the rhetorical cleverness and inventiveness expected from a brilliant Elizabethan soldier and lover..

No more, my dear, no more these counsels try,
··O give my passions leave to run their race:
··Let Fortune lay on me her worst disgrace,
Let folk orecharg’d with brain against me cry.

Sidney may be playing on the sense of a lawyer, a counsel, who pleads a case. In Sidney’s day, the word could mean, advice, consultation, deliberation, one’s secret and inmost thoughts or to one who gives counsel in law. Sidney is saying, enough with your arguments. There’s a sense, possibly, that he’s personifying the woman’s arguments as if they were, themselves, like lawyers attempting to persuade his better nature. If you’ve seen the old cartoons, think of an angel on Sidney’s right shoulder, a devil on the left, and the woman’s “counsel” attempting to persuade them. Sidney won’t have it. Try no more counsels (lawyers), my mind is made up. The devil has decided.

Let my passions run their race, he says. Putting it politely, that translates into: Let me make love to you! Damn the consequences. If “fortune” (reputation) disgrace me, then so be it.  The fourth line, “Let folk orecharg’d with brain” refers to the Elizabethan commonplace contrasting the corrupting lusts and passions of the body with the ennobling pursuits of the mind. He says, let those orecharg’d with “high-brow” self-regard (in the sense of an explosive being “too charged” with powder) cry against him. Sidney was the Elizabethan ideal – the nobleman of good birth who is both brilliant (he was an accomplished man of culture) and an accomplished soldier.

This stuff was in the air. The protestants had redefined the meaning of chastity, making it no less upright than celibacy.

In this light, a man or woman could still claim chastity so long as sexual intercourse occurred within the sanctity of marriage. (Catholics considered chastity to be lesser than celibacy.) The essence of chastity pertained to the purity of mind and body, and the absence of carnality. The above quote comes from Society and religion in Elizabethan England by Richard L. Greaves. Greaves continues:

Chastity was not associated with sexual abstinence, but the suppression of sexual lut, unnatural sexual desires… and sexual affections for someone other than one’s spouse. To be chaste, a single person must not burn with sexual desires, engage in sexual relations, or sexually abuse his mind or body. pp. 122-123

And all this is the background to the fourth line of the first quatrain and to the entirety of the sonnet in general. The argument of Sidney’s sonnet is a refutation of chastity.

  • Just a few years later (perhaps less), Shakespeare would write a play poking fun at the pretensions of noblemen who pompously agree to forgo the company of women for the sake of “higher” pursuits: Love’s Labour’s Lost.  Did I mention that the play is a comedy? Here’s how Wikipedia sums up the plot: “The play opens with the King of Navarre and three noble companions, Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville, taking an oath to devote themselves to three years of study, promising not to give in to the company of women – Berowne somewhat more hesitantly than the others. Berowne reminds the king that the princess and her three ladies are coming to the kingdom and it would be suicidal for the King to agree to this law.

Naturally, rejecting chastity was ruinous to ones reputation. Sidney acknowledges this, and this gives more force to his plea. Reputation was everything to a well-heeled Elizabethan man. The Earl of Oxford (erroneously claimed to be the author of Shakepseare’s plays by “Oxfordians”) reportedly bowed to Queen Elizabeth and cut a fart that must have brought down the house and has survived the ages. Oxford was apparently so humiliated by the episode that he promptly exiled himself from the entire island nation known as England. These were a people who took reputation seriously. Here’s how the 17th historian John Aubrey, in Brief Lives, tells the story:

“The Earl of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to travel, seven years. On his return the Queen welcomed him home and said, ‘My Lord, I had forgot the Fart.'”

It’s no small matter that Sidney is claiming he “doesn’t care” what others think. Obviously he does, or he wouldn’t claim that he didn’t.

…I would suffer for you…

Let clouds bedim my face, break in mine eye,
··Let me no steps but of lost labour trace,
··Let all the earth with scorn recount my case,
But do not will me from my love to fly.

In the second quatrain, Sidney offers up boilerplate proofs of his love. Let clouds bedim his face or, as Shakespeare would later write, let him suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Clouds, akin to weather, is offered as a metaphor for life in general. Let life’s misfortunes (like a storm) break “in mine eye”. (Break in the sense of a storm cloud finally releasing its rain.) In other words, let me see (mine eye) nothing but misfortune; let all my labour (efforts and undertakings) be “lost labour” (counterproductive); let the earth, the world’s population, recount my story with scorn. So long as you do not will me (demand me) to fly (to leave) I will willingly suffer all these misfortunes.

…because you are everything to me…

I do not envy Aristotle’s wit,
Nor do I aspire to Caesar’s bleeding fame,
Nor aught do care, though some above me sit,
Nor hope, nor wish another course to frame,

  • Aristotle’s wit • Aristotle was considered the exemplar of reason and the rational.  Aristotle’s “wit”, in this case, refers to the “charge” of a his brain but, as Sidney closes his sonnet, his take on “wit”, will take a bawdy turn.
  • Caesar’s bleeding fame • refers to Caesar’s reputation as a great military leader of a great empire (not an insignificant reference in a country itself on the cusp of empire). But matters didn’t end well for Caesar. He was murdered by Brutus in a conspiracy that involved nearly the entire Roman Senate (painting below). Brutus accused Caesar of being too ambitious and of being a threat to representative governance. Caesar was stabbed 23 times.
  • some above me sit • Sidney doesn’t care that others may have a higher station and rank.
  • nor wish another course to frame  • He has no desire to reconsider (to re-frame) the object of his ambition. “Give my passions leave to run their race…”

··But that which once may win thy cruel heart,
··Thou art my wit, and thou my virtue art.

If you read the last line of this poem and think to yourself, what a sweet thing to say, then the joke’s on you.

The last line, in fact, is more like the punchline of a joke (and the whole sonnet has set up). This gets good. Let’s begin with the word heart and a visit to A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and their Significance.  To quote the editor, Frankie Rubinstein,  “heart is no sentimental metaphor”. There’s a pun at work having to do with the Hart and the Hind. A Hart was a male deer and a Hind was a female deer. The joke, in Elizabethan times, was on both words.  The word heart became a pun on hart and all that the male deer signifies — fertility, erection, etc… The word “hind”, which was too close to “behind” (read arse or ass) for poets (especially Shakespeare) to pass up, evolved into a pun on a woman’s behind along with all that that signifies — fecundity, her womb, and chastity.  As the pun evolved, a “woman’s heart” could be understood as a pun on her hind (read hind-end), womb and chastity.

From this, Sidney proceeds to the inevitable pun: “Thou art my wit,” he writes. The word wit was a pun on genitalia — his and hers.Here is how Rubinstein defines the pun:

Wit/whit/white Puns on each other and on genitals. Jonson, The Alchemist, ii, iii: Mammon spies Dol Common (each part of her name means a mistress – F&H; P), a ‘brave piece’: ‘Is she no way accessible? no means/No trick to give a man a taste of her — wit — /Or so?’ In archery, 15th cent., the white or target was placed on a butt and was called the prick (LLL, iv.i.134: ‘let the mark have a prick in it’).

This is followed by an example from Shakespeare:

RJ, I.i.215 With reference to hitting the ‘mark’ (vulva – C; P). Romeo says Rosaline will ‘not be hit/ With Cupid’s arrow; she hath Dian’s wit’ — the wit or chaste white mark of the goddess of moon and chastity cannot be with/ wit (K) the arrow (‘the dribbling dart of love’- MM, I.iii.2).

So, Sidney’s puns work at various levels. Stella is a cruel heart — pun on arse. This is followed by a pun on wit. She is his white mark, ‘his wit’, the thing that he aims at (vulva) with his ‘wit’, his erection. In this sense, she is both his target and his erection.  “Thou art my erection,” and “thou art the wit I aim at”. The pun also works because it stands in contrast to his earlier assertion that he does not envy “Aristotle’s wit”. That is to say, Aristotle’s wit is that of the “orecharg’d brain”. That’s not the “wit” he wants.

“And thou my virtue art…”

Here too, Sidney plays on meanings. As I’ve written elsewhere, in discussing Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, virtue had a double meaning. For women, virtue referred to chastity. In men, predictably enough, virtue meant the opposite: potency, virility, manhood and prowess (again from A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns). So which meaning, exactly, is Sidney using when he states that Stella is his “virtue”? To the gullible reader, she is everything that is good in him; but, to the Elizabethan reader, she is also everything he claims to give up earlier in the sonnet – his potency, virility, manhood and prowess. By gaining her, he gives up nothing. He looses nothing. This is both the pinnacle of flattery and the height of seduction. She glorifies him, not the other way around.

Puns on the hunt, marksmanship and male prowess abound.

…and in conclusion

Anyone who reads Sidney’s Sonnets as platonic and ethereal professions of love is being played for a fool. The Elizabethans weren’t a sentimental crew and Sidney’s sonnets are full of double meanings. They loved language and prided themselves on their “wit”, in every sense of the word. Sidney’s sonnets are, addressed to Stella, full of sly and lascivious subterfuge. This was expected and enjoyed by an Elizabethan audience who lived in an age of spies, subterfuge, deceit  and intrigue – political and sexual.  If you detect a sly and not-to-be-trusted subtext in Elizabethan poetry, trust your instincts. The fun in Sidney’s sonnets is in reading between the lines. Read them in the spirit with which they were written, not as distant and fusty works of dry and elevated ambition. They are full of brilliant wit and sparkling jest.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Quick Read ❧ Sidney’s Sonnet 47 « PoemShape

  2. Pingback: Sir Phillip Sidney: His Meter and his Sonnets « PoemShape

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