- As always, any discussion of Elizabethan “love poetry” that isn’t Rated R (and sometimes X) has never been to Elizabethan England. Sidney’s Sonnets are the work of genius. They are verbally brilliant and filled with puns and sexual innuendos and they profoundly influenced Shakespeare’s sonnets. These aren’t just the sentimental pluckings of the love-lorn. Each sonnet is a brilliant, tour-de-force display of Elizabethan wit, argumentation and wordplay. You’ve been warned.
A while back, I did a quick read of Sidney’s Sonnet 64. This will be similar to that. A reader, Milly, requested that I take a look at this poem. She tells me she has an assignment coming up in a week. So, here goes.
As before, for a brief overview of Sidney’s metrical practice and the types of sonnets he wrote, visit Sir Philip Sidney: His Meter and his Sonnets. The present sonnet, which follows the same pattern as Sonnet 64, is a hybrid between (what would become) the Shakespearean Sonnet (with it’s closing epigrammatic couplet) and the Patrarchan sonnet. I’ve copied 47 from an edition of Sidney’s selected writings by Richard Dutton. First, in plain text:
What, have I thus betrayed my liberty? Can those black beams such burning marks engrave In my free side? or am I born a slave, 4 Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny? Or want I sense to feel my misery? Or sprite, disdain of such disdain to have? Who for long faith, tho' daily help I crave, 8 May get no alms but scorn of beggary. Virtue awake, Beauty but beauty is, I may, I must, I can, I will, I do Leave following that which it is gain to miss. 12 Let her go. Soft, but here she comes. Go to, Unkind, I love you not: O me, that eye Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie.
I’ve taken my text from Richard Dutton’s edition of Sidney’s Writings, which are based on the 1598 Folio of Sidney’s works. I notice that most of the versions floating around include various exclamation points (which make sense) but they aren’t in the original. (I always prefer what the poet actually wrote.)
- Virtue could be pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, so I’ve read that foot as Iambic (though it’s possible to read it as trochaic).
For some background on the names Astrophil and Stella, Wikipedia is a good source:
“Probably composed in the 1580s, Philip Sidney‘s Astrophil and Stella is an English sonnet sequence containing 108 sonnets and 11 songs. The name derives from the two Greek words, ‘aster’ (star) and ‘phil’ (lover), and the Latin word ‘stella’ meaning star. Thus Astrophil is the star lover, and Stella is his star. Sidney partly nativized the key features of his Italian model Petrarch, including an ongoing but partly obscure narrative, the philosophical trappings of the poet in relation to love and desire, and musings on the art of poetic creation. Sidney also adopts the Petrarchan rhyme scheme, though he uses it with such freedom that fifteen variants are employed.” [Wikipedia ~ October 5th 2014]
Interestingly, the Wikipedia article adds the following (quoting the Oxford University Press edition of Sidney’s works):
“There is no evidence that the title is authorial. It derives from the first printed text, the unauthorized quarto edition published by Thomas Newman (1591). Newman may also have been responsible for the consistent practice in early printings of calling the lover persona ‘Astrophel’. Ringler emended to ‘Astrophil’ on the grounds of etymological correctness, since the name is presumably based on Greek aster philein, and means ‘lover of a star’ (with stella meaning ‘star’); the ‘phil’ element alluding also, no doubt, to Sidney’s Christian name.”
So, some interpreters might make hay out of the names Astrophil & Stella, but they may not even originate with Sidney. Caveat Empor. But, as with Sonnet 64, we’ll just go ahead and call Sidney’s real or imagined mistress Stella.
What, have I thus betrayed my liberty? Can those black beams such burning marks engrave In my free side? or am I born a slave, Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny?
The sonnet begins with a series of rhetorical questions. The Elizabethan poets prized wit, intelligence and rhetorical flair above all. But it’s the wit that the modern day reader can easily and especially miss. If you’re reading an Elizabethan sonnet sequence between lovers, expect obscene (albeit witty) sexual references to slip right under your radar. There are over 400 years that separate our vocabulary from theirs, and a good many words that look just the same today were very different animals back then.
Take the word liberty. Sidney isn’t just talking about freedom to read informative periodicals or to volunteer at the local SPCA. No. Not at all. If you were an Elizabethan, Sidney’s question is much more serious (especially if you were a young man of Sidney’s age and sex was as easy as the housemaid).
- Liberty – Excessive freedom from restraint or temperance in sexual matters, gaming, drinking. See quotation at drabbing; cf. Othello, III iv 39. [Shakespeare’s Bawdy]
So, the dichotomy or, in plain English, his complaint is that his obsession with Stella has taken him out of circulation. Has he betrayed his “liberty”, his licentious freedom to go chasing other women, gaming and drink, for the sake of a lover who won’t even give him the time of day? Is he mad?
Sidney goes on:
Can those black beams such burning marks engrave
in my free side?
This reference might remind readers of Shakespeare’s “dark lady”. We know from Sidney’s 7th Sonnet that Stella’s eyes are black.
When Nature made her chief work, Stella’s eyes,
In color black why wrapp’d she beams so bright?
- In the Renaissance, it was believed that the eye saw by emitting (presumably) invisible beams.
Black was the color of sexuality, danger and mystery. It’s no coincidence that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, The expense of spirit in a waste of shame, was written to the dark lady, and it’s not entirely unreasonable to assert that Shakespeare was well aware of (and influenced by) Sidney’s own “dark lady”. In the case of Sidney, those black, smoldering eyes “engrave” his free side and free side hearkens back to liberty. In other words, not only does she rob him of his ability to chase other women, but her eyes mark him — they make his infatuation with Stella obvious to other women.
Or am I born a slave,
Whose neck becomes the yoke of tyranny?
This gets complicated only because we, in America, associate branding and slavery with African Americans. There was no such slave trade in England. Sidney is referring to something different. The condition (and number) of the poor during Elizabethan times was especially worrisome to the aristocracy. Here’s how the learning site sums up the treatment of the very poor — the itinerant beggars who the government found the most worrisome:
The third group were known as Rogues and Vagabonds. This was the group targeted by the government. These were people who could work but preferred to beg or steal. This group worried the government as it was the one most like to get into trouble. The government made begging illegal and anybody found begging was flogged until “his back was bloody”. If he was found begging outside of his parish, he would be beaten until he got to the parish stones that marked his parish boundary with the next parish. Those who were caught continually begging could be sent to prison and hanged. During the reign of Edward VI, caught vagabonds could have their tongue branded and kept as a slave for two years. [The Learning Site October 5th 2014]
Remember this, because this is what Sidney had in mind and why he will later refer to his being a beggar. And also of interest:
Different types of torture and punishments were used depending on the victim’s crime and social status. There were also different punishments and tortures used according to the customs of each country. The punishment was adopted in the Dark and Middle Ages by the Anglo-Saxons. In 1547 the Statute of Vagabonds ruled that vagabonds, gypsies and brawlers were ordered to be branded, the first two with a large V on the breast. the last with F for fighter (brawler). Slaves too who ran away were branded with S on cheek or forehead. This law was repealed in 1636. [Middle Ages October 5th 2014]
So, when Sidney refers to himself as being branded on his “free side”, this may possibly be a reference to his forehead. Indeed, the high forehead was considered an aristocratic fashion statement:
“High hairline, perfectly arched brows and bright eyes were also standards of Elizabethan beauty. Many plucked their eyebrows and their hairline back at least an inch to give that aristocratic look of the fashionable high forehead.” [Unusual Historicals October 5th 2014]
And it is precisely there that slaves might be branded. It’s also possible that Sidney was referring to his cheek, although that would beg the question: If there’s a free side, what’s the other side? Another possibility is that he’s referring to his tongue (which could also be branded). At first glance, this doesn’t seem to make sense: Why would her eyes brand his tongue? Is she always looking at his tongue? But if Sidney was making this comparison, then he might have been figuratively thinking of his poetry as his tongue. In other words, her eyes brand his tongue (meaning his poetry). This last possibility fits nicely with the idea of “engraving”. She engraves his tongue — his poetry — which is itself engraved in being written. She brands his poetry — his “free side”. At any rate, take your pick. And there may be other possibilities I haven’t thought of.
From there, he asks if he wasn’t “born a slave” whose neck “becomes” [is suited to] a yoke of tyranny.
Or want I sense to feel my misery? Or sprite, disdain of such disdain to have? Who for long faith, tho' daily help I crave, May get no alms but scorn of beggary.
Is he so addled that he wants [lacks] the sense to feel his misery? — Does he [lack] the sprite [intelligence, spirit, soul] to disdain her disdain?
- Sprite • 1.) mood, occasional state of mind 2.) mind, soul 3.) any supernatural being [The Shakespeare Lexicon]
Who [in return for] for long [loyal] faith [fidelity], though daily help [sex] I crave [desire],
May get no [Will never get] alms [sexual favors] but [just] scorn for beggary.
- Alms • what is given in charity [The Shakespeare Lexicon]
And what is “the scorn of beggary”? During Edward the VI’s reign, that scorn was the branding of the tongue. Remember that “those who were caught continually begging could be sent to prison and hanged [and that] during the reign of Edward VI, caught vagabonds could have their tongue branded and kept as a slave for two years.” Sidney was born the year after Edward’s death. This makes it very likely that he would have seen (or heard of) the branded tongues of beggars and vagabonds. So, given Sidney’s allusion to insistent begging, I’m more convinced that he was referring to his tongue (and by extension his poetry) when referring to his “free side”, a likely reference to himself as a poet (as opposed to a soldier perhaps).
Virtue awake, Beauty but beauty is, I may, I must, I can, I will, I do Leave following that which it is gain to miss. Let her go. Soft, but here she comes. Go to,
Virtue is another one of those words that was nicely slippery during Elizabethan times.
- Virtue • Famale chastity: King John, II i 98 (see at rape); Othello, IV i 8. Ex L. vir, ‘a man’: the L. virtus = manliness, courage [Shakespeare’s Bawdy]
- Virtue • Chastity in women (p); but, not surprisingly, the opposite for men: potency, virility (L vir, a man) Vertue: manhood, prowess (Cot.) [A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and their Significance]
So, it’s all too easy to read this line with the complacency of our 21rst century vocabulary. Sidney was not talking about the kind of virtue you think he was. He’s saying that it’s time for him to get back in the game. Remember the first line? — Have I thus betrayed my liberty [to be read as excessive freedom from restraint or temperance in sexual matters, gaming, drinking.] His idea of virtue is the freedom to exercise his “liberty”, understood as masculine prowess in womanizing. gaming and drink. If you’re a girl, Sidney was there for you.
But there’s also the pun on a woman’s chastity. The line may be read two ways:
Virtue [referring to her frigidity] awake [wake up!], Beauty but beauty is, [you’re not going to be beautiful forever]
(Shakespeare picks up on this theme in his own sonnets, urging the young man to make hay while his beauty lasts.) Sidney, by referring to her as “Virtue”, is implying that she’s frigid and stuck up. Alternatively, the punning line is also a reference to himself:
Virtue [referring to his own masculine prowess] awake [wake up!], Beauty but beauty is, [all cat’s are gray at night]
I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
Leave following that which it is gain to miss.
The hard driving Iambics of I may, I must, I can, etc… nicely enact Sidney’s clenched-teeth-determination to free himself from his infatuation. Why this emotional outburst? What exactly is it that’s got Sidney so worked up? The curiously impersonal phrase “Leave following that” answers the question — yet another of Sidney’s bawdy insinuations. He’s not referring to her, but to her vagina, pussy, twat (forgive me) or “that which it is gain to miss”. In Shakespeare’s plays, there are over a hundred different words for a woman’s vagina. The very title of one of his plays is specifically about the subject: “Much Ado about Nothing“. The word Nothing was a well known and well-used pun on a woman’s vagina. Don’t think it’s odd that I refer to Shakespeare’s vocabulary. Shakespeare used words and made puns which he knew the playgoers would understand — Sidney and Shakespeare were both steeped in the same stew.
“Gain to miss” is a beautiful pun. First there’s the obvious meaning: He has much to gain (in more successfully pursuing other women) if he misses [gives up on] Stella’s “sex”. There’s also the suggestion of “missing” as would a marksman — arrow, bow and shaft. That is, by giving up on her, he will have “missed” his “aim”. There is also the pun of gain [as in something – a penis] and miss [as in nothing – a vagina]. If you think this is far fetched, then you might want to try reading Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s Most Outrageous Sexual Puns. Even if you end up disagreeing with some of the book’s more outlandish assertions, it will nevertheless open the eyes to a more robust Elizabethan humor. It’s a different kind of wit and brilliance, but witty and brilliant nonetheless.
Let her go. Soft, but here she comes. Go to,
As if recovering from his momentary madness, he corrects himself (and his objectification of her). Let her go, he says. These lines, metrically, are masterful. One might be inclined to read the line as follows:
Let her | go.
But the Iambic patten encourages us to emphasize her as well:
Let her | go. Soft,
So, we have two spondaic feet. He is talking to himself, once again, forcefully, emphasizing each word. The sonnet is written in the spirit of a monologue, a speech in a play — and one wonders whether Sidney might have written plays if he had lived long enough. On the other hand, Donne never wrote a play and his poetry is full of drama. The dramatic voice was in the air during that era.
The Epigrammatic Sting
Or the conclusion of the argument in the final couplet.
“Soft” he says. No sooner does he voice his intention to let her go, but he retreats. Soft [I must speak softly!], “but here she comes”. And then? “Go to!” Come on! Get real!
Go to, [Get real!]
Unkind [unkind woman], I love you not: O me [uh oh], that eye [the one that brands]
And here finally, in the last line, Sidney expressly refers to the tongue, further reinforcing the idea that he is recalling the branding of the itinerant beggar’s tongue.
Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie.
I’ve read many interpretations of these sonnets that blandly refer to the heart as the heart, but, to quote Frankie Rubinstein, author of A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns, “‘heart’ is no sentimental metaphor”. In a sonnet sequence full of brilliant word play and sexual innuendo, it’s only the naive who don’t or won’t consider that “heart” was among the most punned on words in Elizabethan wordplay — “the hart/hind pun on the male and female deer”. In other words, the hart/heart was synonymous with the penis and the hind was synonymous with the woman’s “hind”, hind-end and vagina. Don’t believe me? It’s no coincidence that the King James translators of the Bible wrote:
“Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your heart.” Jer 4:4
So, read the line literally but don’t miss Sidney’s brilliant bawdiness. On the one hand, the line can be read sentimentally:
Doth make my heart [love] give to my tongue [poetry] the lie [the mark of her branding].
And on the other:
Doth make my heart [my penis’s erection] give to my tongue [his prior words of rejection] the lie.
And that puts into perspective his previous admonition: Soft[possibly a pun on his erection], but here she comes.
It’s all there. If you need this analysis for your high school assignment, I recommend the sentimental interpretation. If you want some time off, being punished for the truth has and will always work.
❧ up in Vermont Oct. 5th 2014