The Death of Sidney, From Wellcome Images, Via Wikimedia
Philip Sidney died a young man’s death at thirty-two years old after a wound at the battle of Zutphen in the Netherlands (see above image). By that age he had some serious professional achievements under his belt – he was governor of Flushing (Vlessingen) in the Netherlands, a town the English held as a protectorate for the rebellious Dutch against their Spanish overlords, and he had written, although not widely published, a sonnet cycle, Astrophil and Stella, whose influence would be great in the decades following his death. Following in the tracks of Wyatt, Howard and Spenser, Sidney took new types of poem into the English tradition from Italy and France, and used them to bring the tradition of courtly, or chivalric, poetry to new levels of sophistication and nuance. Compare, for example, his Sonnet ‘Having this day my horse’ I covered two posts ago with Cornwall’s poem in the same genre from half a century earlier, You and I and Amyas. As for his influence, one does not need to look long through a book of 16th or 17th century poetry before finding a sonnet sequence, a la Astrophil and Stella, in which a love-sick knight seeks the hand of an impossibly aloof and unattainable lady with a name of Graeco-Roman vintage.
Strange to say then, that by the end of his short life, Sidney seemed to have foresworn some of the very same chivalric values that animated his earlier work. That is, if the poem ‘Thou Blind Man’s Mark’ is anything to go by. But that is only one of the remarkable things about this poem:
Thou blind man’s mark, thou fool’s self-chosen snare,
Fond fancy’s scum, and dregs of scattered thought;
Band of all evils, cradle of causeless care;
Thou web of will, whose end is never wrought;
Desire, desire! I have too dearly bought,
With price of mangled mind, thy worthless ware;
Too long, too long, asleep thou hast me brought,
Who shouldst my mind to higher things prepare.
But yet in vain thou hast my ruin sought;
In vain thou madest me to vain things aspire;
In vain thou kindlest all thy smoky fire;
For virtue hath this better lesson taught,—
Within myself to seek my only hire,
Desiring nought but how to kill desire.
In the first four lines of the poem, Sidney presents us with a list of metaphorical descriptions all applied to the same object – Desire, revealed in the fifth. Note that these are discrete, in some senses mutually exclusive metaphors, and not different aspects of one single extended metaphor. Let us compare it to a couple of structurally similar passages of poetry. Here is part of a list in the famous John of Gaunt speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II. Gaunt calls England:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise.
In Shakespeare’s passage the images bear enough similarity to each other – throne to seat, isle to earth, Eden to paradise, kings to gods – that the passage works to build up a coherent visual picture of England – of an idyllic island of near-divine kings. Sidney’s opening lines work quite differently – although a web is close to a snare, and both could conceivably resemble a cradle, none of these things bear any point of comparison to a mark, or some scum, or a band. In this way, the passage is similar to George Herbert’s poem Prayer:
Prayer, the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
There is no visual resemblance whatsoever between a banquet or an age, or breath or a plummet, or indeed between the series of metaphors that Herbert reels out through the whole poem. Herbert’s poem does not build a single picture of prayer the way Shakespeare does so of England, but rather lists a series of discrete images, each emphasizing a different aspect of the subject. Sidney’s litany works in a similar way, each metaphor emphasizing one of the aspects of Desire. Of course, there is an important difference between the two poems. Herbert’s poem is something of an encomium to prayer, and the overall impression we are left with after the series of images is a sense of prayer’s mystery, almost of it being beyond the comprehension of man. Sidney’s, on the other hand, is a veritable bdelygmia, a list of all the bad things about desire, leaving us with quite contrasting impressions of its power and its meanness. Actually, the list is not exactly as dissociated as Herbert’s – while Shakespeare’s list builds a cumulative image, and Herbert’s a series of contrasting images, unrelated except in relation to the ultimate referent of the poem, Sidney’s imagery does contain some points of comparison – that web, the snare and the cradle for example, or ‘scum’ and ‘dregs’, while at the same time containing a number of contradictory qualities – Desire is a ‘band’ of evil, but also of something ‘scattered’. Rereading yields more points of similarity than first spotted – ‘blind’, for example, if taken to mean deliberate ignorance (as its root in Middle English blin – ignore – implies) leads quite naturally to foolishness and then fantasy (fancy); and there seems to be a hint at the misled course of desire in the use of ‘band’ and ‘cradle’, synecdoches for marriage and childrearing. The picture built is one of confusion, connection mingled with contrast – quite appropriate given that one of the points of the poem is to demonstrate how Desire muddies the senses.
It is worth noting, in passing, that Sidney’s poem predates both the Shakespeare and Herbert passages, by two decades and about half a century, respectively, and so both poets could be utilising, and perhaps refining techniques which he had pioneered.
One technique heavily employed throughout the poem is alliteration. Alliteration has a long tradition in English poetry – much longer than rhyme – stretching back to Old English, in which it was the defining poetic technique, through Middle English, where it was revived – or perhaps, as in the case of north-western material like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where it survived the transition from Old to Middle English and the introduction of rhyme from the continent. It keeps reappearing because, as Simon Armitage proved when he translated Gawain into modern English, the English language, from Old to Modern, has retained its natural propensity for alliteration. And yet it is rare to see it used as heavily in sixteenth century poetry as it is here – it seems to have been considered a less elevated, less euphonious poetic technique than rhyme. Here it seems to be used in a spirit of scorn in a number of negative phrases – man’s mark, fond fancy (i.e. foolish dream), cause of care, web of will, mangled mind and worthless ware. This alliteration seems to summon the spittle on the tongue, a curl on the lip, a consonant repeated in emphatic contempt. Strangely enough it brings to mind that (comparatively) modern master of alliteration, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Not so much his great nature poetry, in which alliteration was one of a number of aural effects in poetry used to evoke the beauty of nature and the concomitant immanence of God. Rather the self-scorning alliteration of his so called ‘Terrible Sonnets’, or ‘Sonnets of Desolation.’
God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours.
(See the whole poem and my analysis/witty commentary here ).
The similarity to Hopkins lies in both the use of alliteration for scornful purposes, and in the sort of serious self-examination that both poets are subjecting themselves to. Hopkins finds himself dull and weak, unworthy of the God whose presence he yearns for, and finally resolving to be a better person; Sidney on the other hand, is taking a close look at his relationship with desire, analysing the ways it has undone him, and boasting of his ability to overcome this internal enemy.
And this is why, as I said at the outset, this poem seems to foreswear, or at the very least question the chivalric values that underpin Sidney’s earlier work. I complained in my last post about Sidney that his dedication to his love, Stella, and the way he turned the poem This Day My Horse around to make it about her did not quite ring true. It did when Petrarch and Dante did it, but in his poem, despite its merits, it seemed a mere pretext to talk about himself. Sidney’s own self-criticism is related but different:
Too long, too long, asleep thou hast me brought,
Who shouldst my mind to higher things prepare
Sidney’s complaint does not preclude the Dantean conceit that through love can make a better person of you, but he admits that in his case, it has led him to waste. The implicit critique of the courtly love ideal here, is that it can act as a sort of shield for mere lust. If Cornish very obliquely winked at as much in the poem we looked at last post, in Sidney’s late poem the critique, of himself most of all, is that much fiercer. Of course for a practical man such as Sidney, self-criticism could only be useful as a prelude to action, and at the turn of the sonnet – at the third quatrain, the poet’s self-criticism turns to resolve as he boasts of his ability to overcome desire itself.
It seems here that in casting off much of the dreaminess of his earlier poetry, and in taming the excess of the chivalric influence, Sidney is finally enjoying the fruits of his labour to bring the full influence of the Renaissance into English poetry, and at the same time he is finding his own voice. It is a surprisingly austere voice, more soldier than courtier, and puritan in both the 16th century and 21st century meanings, but it is a voice worth listening to – after all, what could be more apposite in a time of all-round plenty than an ode to self-control? It is not just in poetic technique that this represents a move towards modernity – or at least a move away from medievalism. If he still exudes a certain Tudor braggadocio, he also does so self-critically, reflectively, able to analyse his own thoughts and desires without too much recourse to the great personified abstractions that dominated medieval conceptions of the world. If ‘Desire’ capitalised is one such personification, there is at least recognition that the battle with desire is something internal to the poet – it is ‘within myself’, he says, that he will ‘seek my only hire,’ that is that he will set his own internal goals as motivation rather than struggle for an earthly body. In such habits of thought, Sidney seems to be reaping the benefits of the Renaissance the influence of humanism, and, some would argue (though not I), the influence of Protestantism. In that curiously Buddhist-sounding, and oxymoronic last line he both acknowledges the very real grip of the sexual desire he seeks to escape and, in implying two separate agencies at work within his own thought, hints at an understanding of human nature as something inherently fractured, something that seems closer to twentieth century thought than sixteenth.