Tag Archives: Love poems

Thou Blind Man’s Mark

V0006947 The death of Sir Philip Sidney at the battle of Zutphen: he

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.

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You and I and Amyas

The_Field_of_the_Cloth_of_Gold

The Field of the Cloth of Gold

Last time I promised another post on Philip Sidney, but before that, I want to take a little diversion into the early years of the 16th century…

The poem will have a familiar ring to anyone who has read a lot of late-medieval and early 16th century poetry, from the years before Wyatt and Howard (and, in a different way, Thomas More) brought new influences and ideas into English poetry. The poetry of this era is characterised by its simplicity – even the most famous poet of the age, John Skelton, wrote a great deal of his poetry in rhymed couplets. Poetry of this era has a sort of endearing naivety and often a sweetness – sometimes quite at odds with the character of the poet who wrote it (Skelton comes to mind again, but also his pupil, Henry VIII, who wrote a bit of verse on the side). The language has much of the middle ages in it, and the familiar themes are often drawn from the great cultural influences of the day: Catholic piety and (as here) chivalric romance.

 

You and I and Amyas, 

Amyas and you and I, 

to the green wood must we go.

 Alas! You and I, my life and Amyas.


The knight knocked at the castle gate;

the lady marvelled who was thereat.

To call the porter he would not blin; 

the lady said he could not come in
The portress was a lady bright; 

Strangeness that lady hight.

She asked him what was his name; 

he said ‘Desire, your man madame’
She said ‘Desire what do you here’; 

He said ‘Madame, as your prisoner.’
He was counselled to brief a bill; 

And show the lady his own will.

 

Kindness said she would it bear; 

And Pity said she would be there.

Thus how they did we cannot say;

 We left them there and went our way.

 

*(blin – cease, Strangeness – Aloofness, hight – be called, brief a bill – call a petition)

*Poem and language notes from The New Oxford Book of 16th Century Verse, ed. Emyrs Jones, Oxford, 2011

William Cornish was a poet, dramatist and composer who worked in the court of Henry VII and VIII, and was most famous for arranging the entertainments at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, a great ersatz palace of cloth and wood, resembling a castle from a medieval romance, built for the meeting of Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France. That was a great homage to the ideals of the chivalric age for the benefit of two young kings, at least one of whom was eager to renew the great martial endeavours of the middle ages – war between England and France. It is not surprising then that his poetry, too, celebrates the chivalric values.

The most beautiful part of the poem is the first stanza. I have not found a version of this poem with any kind of textual notes, but I take it that this stanza is a kind of chorus, although another version available online repeats only the last line of this chorus as a short refrain every four lines. Part of its beauty is in its directness – unlike the rest of the poem, it is in first person, and its message is urgent. Part of its beauty lies in its very mystery. Who are this couple, and why must they so urgently flee to the green wood with only love – Amyas – to accompany them? But a greater part of its beauty is in its sound. Reading that first stanza aloud, it is almost monosyllabic, and, with increasing syllables in each line, it accelerates the rhythm, as if it to evoke the heart beating beneath the armour’s knight or the lady’s mantle, or the beating hooves of the horse as he takes them on their way.

The rest of the poem, somewhat less mysteriously, explains the situation. A knight knocks at the castle gate and will not desist until the lady answers his call. It turns out this lady is Strangeness (Aloofness), and the knight is Desire, who is her prisoner – that is, he is in love with her- and has brought her a petition, no doubt asking that he be freed from his captivity – i.e. that she submit to him. The rather heavy-handed allegory is a reframing of Romance of the Rose motifs: a lovelorn man, a knight no less, supplicant to an unattainably aloof, beautiful noblewoman. The knight gets what he wants: Kindness and Pity, two chambermaids of the lady perhaps, or aspects of her inscrutable character, intercede on the Knight’s behalf and then – and then what, exactly? We don’t know, although we may guess – the poet, revealing himself as a passing stranger, tells us his party just then left the couple to their business.

This ending to the poem, like a camera moving towards a crackling fireplace as a hero embraces his heroine lustily, winks at the flesh and blood relationship between man and woman behind the categorical figures of Desire and Strangeness. If the opening stanza gives the poem a heartbeat, the ending gives it a very human little smile.

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Having this day my horse

300px-Paulus_Hector_Mair_Tjost_fig2

De arte Athletica, Paulus Hector Mair, 1540, From Wikipedia

Jousting was already somewhat archaic by the late sixteenth century, seen as a remnant of an older age and not particularly valued by the court of Queen Elizabeth I, but one of the iconic poets of her reign, Philip Sidney, wrote a rather good poem about it:

Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance 

Guided so well that I obtain’d the prize, 

Both by the judgment of the English eyes 

And of some sent from that sweet enemy France; 

Horsemen my skill in horsemanship advance, 

Town folks my strength; a daintier judge applies 

His praise to sleight which from good use doth rise; 

Some lucky wits impute it but to chance; 

Others, because of both sides I do take 

My blood from them who did excel in this, 

Think Nature me a man of arms did make. 

How far they shot awry! The true cause is, 

Stella look’d on, and from her heav’nly face 

Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.

If there is something anachronistically medieval about Sidney’s poem, in other respects it was very modern. Though the late-medieval / early Renaissance Italians Petrarch and Dante had written their poetry over 200 years earlier, the Renaissance was just getting into swing in England, and Sidney with other poets like Spenser, following the Henrican Poets Wyatt and Howard, was instrumental in bringing the their influence into English poetry. Part of that influence was formal – the form used here is an English adaptation of the Italian form made popular by Petrarch, the sonnet. Part of that influence was stylistic – subtle rhythms, long complex lines, far-fetched metaphors and analogies. And another part of that influence was in subject matter and tone: a tendency towards platonic idealization and the overriding theme of a suitor trying to win the favour of a – usually quite unattainable – woman, the latter a theme the Italian poets had inherited from the troubadour tradition of early medieval Europe. The centre of the troubadour and romance tradition was of course France rather than Italy, and perhaps Sidney is aware of this in the way he values the praise of the French and designates England’s great rivals with the memorable epithet “sweet enemy”.

In this poem, Sidney proves his masterly command of the sonnet. Sidney’s sentences, you’ll notice, are long. The first 11 lines, for example, are composed of one long sentence (or four sentences connected by semi-colons, depending on your definition of a sentence, but they were probably put there by later editors anyway), as Sidney describes his success at the jousting and the competing theories as to why he was successful. At the same time as he balances all those carefully arranged clauses, he is maintaining a mildly modulated iambic pentameter, and a strict rhyme scheme. Not easy.

It is quite fitting that a poem so masterful in its command of language should be boasting of the poet’s (or his protagonist’s) impressive command of a horse. Sidney, besides his poetry, which was not published in his lifetime, had much to boast of. An early favourite of the queen, both sides of his family were families of note, courtiers of Elizabeth’s father and protestant stalwarts, an immensely influential and self-important clique that included in their train the executed Duke of Northumberland Lord Dudley (not a ‘real’ Northumberland like the Percys), the queen’s closest confident the Earl of Leicester, and the later over-reacher the Earl of Essex. He brags about his lineage thus:

because of both sides I do take 

My blood from them who did excel in this, 

Think Nature me a man of arms did make

But this is just one in a long line of boasts – even the French agree on his brilliance; he’s a great horseman; he’s strong; he’s skilful, or lucky. Sidney’s (or Astrophil’s) all-round brilliance is the subject of the first four fifths or so of the poem.

A sonnet traditionally has a turn, somewhere near the end of the poem that turns the whole meaning of the poem on its head, or at least that changes the context in which we understand the previous lines. In an Italian sonnet, which is comprised of two quatrains (or an octave) and a sestet, the turn comes with those last six lines. In an English sonnet, where the change in structure is more abrupt – a final couplet after three quatrains, the placing of the turn is less regular – often it is with the third quatrain, sometimes in that pithy final couplet. In this poem, it comes rather late on, in the last line of the third quatrain, thus:

How far they shot awry! The true cause is

Stella look’d on, and from her heav’nly face 

Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.

 Sidney leaves it pretty much to the last gasp to turn the poem on its head, or attempt to.

The writer and critic John Williams divided the poets of the sixteenth century into nativists and Petrarchans, and Sidney is naturally classed as a member of the latter – perhaps the defining member. He comments of the Petrarchan style that, ‘subject and theme have drawn so far apart that only by an act of rhetoric can they be reunited.’* The subjects are various – here it is the poet’s own horsemanship, but the theme is always the same – love, the courting of the lady, or her all conquering brilliance. The Petrarchan poet’s tenor and are such that their similarities will not be immediately obvious to the reader, but rather persuaded out by the skilled poet. You could complain that such techniques are artificial, but you could also admire the very artifice that unites such disparate things, or uses an unlikely parallel to draw out an interesting truth. In this poem the subject may be Astrophil’s superb jousting, but the true theme is love, and the realization we are brought to is that commonplace of medieval romance, that the knight‘s brilliance is a reflection of his love’s heavenly beauty.

Somehow, I don’t quite buy it. I can’t shake the feeling that what Sidney really wants to talk about is his success at the tilt yard – nothing wrong with that, as there is something satisfying about his swagger, but the stuff about Stella is merely a bit of pretty dressing (or dressage) at the end. When Dante and Petrarch put Beatriz and Laura at the heart of all their poems, as mad as it may seem considering that both hardly knew their muses, it comes across as nothing but absolutely sincere; but when Sidney does it, and so many that follow him, it seems something of an affectation. Then again, Sidney pulls it off with panache. That ingratiating turnaround at the end is the poetic equivalent of a grand, ostentatious bow to the lady watching in the stands that the jouster makes after dismounting.

Sincere or not, it’s still a splendid poem – and Sidney did actually develop a more interesting and realistic attitude towards love later in his career, as I’ll explore in my next post.

* In his “English Renaissance Poetry”, most recently published by NYRB publishing, New York, 2016

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Shall I come, Sweet Love

A paraclausithyron is a poetic genre that originates in Ancient Greek, meaning ‘lament by a closed door.’ A lover, or suitor speaks aloud by the door of a woman who has refused him entry. Here is a salty example from Asclepiades of the Hellenistic Greek period.

The night is long, and it is winter weather, and night sets when the Pleiads are half-way up the sky. I pass and repass her door, drenched by the rain, smitten by desire of her, the deceiver. It is not love that Cypris smote me with, but a tormenting arrow red-hot from the fire.

(http://www.attalus.org/poetry/asclepiades.html)

Cypris, is another name for the Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of love, who was supposed by some to have originated in Cyprus, thus named so. Sherod Santos did away with the Goddess in his translation, and turned the second half of the poem into a question, starting ‘So how have I come / wet and whimpering / as a beaten dog […]? (I would heartily recommend Santos’s Greek Lyric Poetry to anyone – it was one of the books that ignited my interest in poetry about a decade ago; but one must accept his translations as creative, not strictly literal.) A question this brought to my mind was ‘what on earth did those infamously strict Greek fathers think of these lovelorn poets lurking outside their daughter’s doors’?

In this commentary on a paraclausithyron of Ovid, W. Turpin, part-answers the question for me, though it refers to Roman rather than Greek life: the lover is not outside a bedroom door, or even a front door, but the great wooden doors of the great courtyard through which a visitor would have to pass to reach the ‘front doors’ of the house. Thus a ‘paraclausithyron’ is not only a lament by the door, but effectively to the door – no-one else can hear it. In the poem Turpin is discussing, Ovid changes this a little by having the lover address the doorkeeper, a slave actually chained to his post on the inside of the doors, and responsible for letting people in, or not. In contrast to the short, bitter Asclepiades poem, Ovid’s is wry, rambling and somewhat deprecatory. Thus there is the predictable, and, to the modern reader, distasteful comparison of the slave’s actual chains and the lover’s slavery to love. And the lover makes several, part-humorous arguments to the doorkeeper to let him in the door. He leaves a garland of flowers for the girl, as literary convention demands, then, after a few final snipes at the door keeper, bids him farewell and departs.

 And, flowery wreath, which from my brows sadly I disengage, lie there upon this heartless threshold through the night. When on the morrow my mistress shall descry thee trailing there, tell her the hours that, sick at heart, I wasted at her door. Farewell, porter; in spite of all, I say to thee, farewell.

(Transl. J. Lewis May 1930, available here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/ovid/lboo/lboo12.htm)

Farewell then, Ovid, and onto the 16th Century English poet and songwriter, Thomas Campion. In the sense that the speaker is at his love’s door, Campion’s poem can also be classed a paraclausithyron; but unlike Asclepiades’ and Ovid’s protagonist, the speaker addresses not the door, or doorkeeper, but the woman behind the door. Perhaps Campion, classically-minded though he was, wont to set his poems in an Arcadian idyll rather than England, had English houses in mind when he wrote this, although he too seems blithely unconcerned by the thought of the girl’s father.

 

Shall I come, sweet love, to thee,

When the evening beams are set?

Shall I not excluded be?

Will you find no feigned let?

Let me not, for pity, more

Tell the long hours at your door?

 

Who can tell what thief or foe,

In the covert of the night,

For his prey will work my woe,

Or through wicked foul despite?

So may I die unredressed,

Ere my long love be possessed.

 

But to let such dangers pass,

Which a lover’s thoughts disdain,

‘Tis enough in such a place

To attend love’s joys in vain.

Do not mock me in they bed,

While these cold nights freeze me dead.

 

(This version as printed in the NYRB English Renaissance Poetry, ed. John Williams)
In its humour, the poem sits between the two poets above: he is not as bitter and mournful as Asclepiades, but he does not deprecate the tradition of paraclausithyron as Ovid does. He is significantly more charming than either, and, unlike in the classical poems, there is a sense that he actually believes he might be let in, at least until the last stanza. The poem comes off more as an earnest attempt at a seduction, of sorts, even if in the end he settles for the conventional lover’s consolation of mere proximity to his love. And even if, yes, this seduction comes off as rather odd to our contemporary sensibility, relying as it does on emotional blackmail and shameless appeals to the woman’s pity.

There is a heavy element of carpe diem in the poem – in the suggestion that death is ever present and thus the lover must possess his love whilst he may. A generation or two later, Andrew Marvell would write his most famous poem with this motif in mind, contrasting the pleasures of love and the approaching horrors of death with comic aplomb. Marvell was also more explicit – or reductive – about what ‘possession’ of one’s love might actually entail – ‘tearing our pleasures with rough strife’, as he puts it; but Campion’s poem has the decorum of the drawing room to think of, where such coarse language might send the ladies of the house out blushing. Campion’s poem was, after all, a song too, to be played for a small audience in a domestic setting.

The music is quite as charming as the poem– here for example in the countertenor of Alfred Deller.

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And wilt thou leave me thus?

Wyatt and Boleyn

Jamie Tomas King and Natalie Dormer as Thomas Wyatt and Anne Boleyn in The Tudors (http://tudors.wikia.com/wiki/Thomas_Wyatt)

The above image is from HBO’s series The Tudors, and shows the lovelorn poet Thomas Wyatt wooing a somewhat less enamoured Anne Boleyn. In this scene of the series, Wyatt reads the below poem to Boleyn, and then she swiftly tells him never to see him again – not because of the poem, but because she knows the King of England wants her. We don’t know if such a scene ever took place, or indeed if Wyatt’s poem was inspired by his infatuation with the future queen, but of all the many liberties taken with history by that TV series, that was one of the more plausible ones: Boleyn really did terminate their relationship soon before being wooed by Henry VIII, and Wyatt really was besotted by her. Although it didn’t, alas for Wyatt – and for Boleyn – have the desired effect on its subject, it is indeed an arresting poem.

And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay, for shame,
To save thee from the blame
Of all my grief and grame;
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

And wilt thou leave me thus,
That hath loved thee so long
In wealth and woe among?
And is thy heart so strong
As for to leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

And wilt thou leave me thus,
That hath given thee my heart
Never for to depart,
Neither for pain nor smart;
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

And wilt thou leave me thus
And have no more pity
Of him that loveth thee?
Alas, thy cruelty!
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

Thomas Wyatt

Notes: Grame- Sorrow; the ‘pity’ of the last stanza sometimes has an accent written on the second syllable; ‘Alas’ is sometimes written in French ‘Hèlas’

Wyatt is often credited (alongside Henry Howard) with bringing the influence of Petrarch into English poetry, an influence that would have such a great impact, for good and bad, through the English Renaissance and beyond. But there is much about this poem that is very un-Petrarchan. The language is plain and straightforward, and there are none of the elaborate metaphors and oxymorons that characterise Petrarchan poetry. Wyatt is not talking to his muse, to a distant and unobtainable image of feminine perfection, such as Petrarch, Dante and so many of their imitators, but a real woman, albeit one suddenly unobtainable. It is a poem with something of what has been called the ‘native’ tradition of English poetry, typified by Skelton and, especially, Gascoigne. The novelist John Williams, who edited the NYRB’s English Renaissance Poems, characterised this group rather nattily as ‘mortals speaking to mortals’. In this poem a mortal, that is normal – and, frankly rather desperate man, vents his feelings to his belle, aloof and cold-hearted, perhaps, but accessible enough to address directly.

Each stanza consists of a tercet in iambic trimeter (bada bada bada  – to save thee from the blame / of all my grief and grame) sandwiched between the poem’s refrain. As C. Jobin has pointed out down in the comments, one of Wyatt’s great skills was the adaptation of Italian forms to the English language with its accentual (‘stress-timed’) rhythm, as opposed to the syllabic rhythm of most Romance languages. Unlike French, Italian and Spanish poets, who must count the number of syllables in a line, an English poet should (while paying heed to the number of syllables) instead count the number of stresses. The correct placement of stressed and unstressed syllables will affect how natural the poem sounds in the reading. A skillful poet can vary the meters of individual lines of the poem, according to the rhetorical tone required, without breaking the underlying rhythm of the poem. Wyatt does this exceptionally well, only faltering on the words ‘pity’ and ‘cruelty’, which we feel compelled to pronounce pity and cruelty. This aside, he follows the natural rhythm of English very well.

This might be the first poem in the English language to start with the word ‘and’. Of course, starting with and may have been put there as a necessary unstressed syllable before the stressed ‘wilt’. But it somehow  creates a quite modern impression. We seem to be are coming onto the scene in media res, as they say on screenwriting courses, as if the girl has just declared her intention to break their engagement, and the poet is giving his heartfelt response. Having asked her if she really will leave like this, he does not let her get a word in, but appeals rather ‘say nay, say nay’ – a refrain that is repeated at the end of each stanza. This emotional ejaculation makes up the first four syllables of the first tercet, and the effect is to make the start of the poem more conversational . This may not have been Wyatt’s intention, but it could be said to reflect the state of mind of the scorned lover.

The poet goes on in his incredulous way, pleading the woman to stay, listing the brief reasons why she shouldn’t leave. For anyone used to the love sonnets of Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney et al, it is very direct and undecorated. There are, as I said, no elaborate metaphors – no metaphors at all, in fact – and no clever conceits. The ideas expressed may be conventional – some lines indeed are very similar to traditional marriage vows, and many are quite formulaic – but they are apt.

Where the poem really succeeds is in the marriage of a formal poetic form with a natural English rhythm, which makes it sound like an authentic (if unsuccessful) attempt at wooing, and more importantly to allow the charming voice of the 16th century poet to emerge.

The poem is also, how to put this? … abject. He appeals to the woman’s pity for him rather more than we might think manly these days. Sixteenth century men had a very different idea of what emotions were worthy of poetry. Could you think of a poem from subsequent centuries quite so pathetic and desperate? Certainly, it is hard to imagine any poet of the twentieth century laying down such emotions so baldly. Such sentiments are nowadays more likely to be heard in pop music – off the top of my head, say, Don’t Leave Me This Way by the Communards, but I’m sure you could think of a half-dozen others. Thus (if we were being a bit silly), we could say that Wyatt with all his other achievements wrote an early example of the ‘Don’t leave me, baby’ genre of lyrics.

Interestingly, this poem was put to music by the early 20th Century composer Peter Warlock, who turned many poems into songs. His composition is a eerie with a lovely piano melody, although the song lacks the human warmth and natural rhythm of the poem read by the spoken voice.

N.B. I amended parts of this post in response to C. Jobin’s comments below. Thanks to her for her important observations.

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Faith (wench) …

This poem provides an interesting perspective on the art of wooing. It will, I’m sure, strike a chord with some gentleman readers – or perhaps some rather ungentlemanly readers.

John Davies was a well-known trouble maker at the Inns of the Court in late Elizabethan and Jacobean England. He was expelled from the Inns for cudgelling a fellow scholar over the head. Later he won official favour again (few sins were irredeemable in Stuart England) and won his way to high office in Ireland as Governor-General where he was known for being particularly unsympathetic to the native Gaels, even by the standards of the time, giving them little recompense for the Ulster lands that had been expropriated from them and handed over to English and Scots settlers. He was by no means good looking, and somewhat lacking in manners, with one observer noting how he ‘goes waddling with his arse out behind him as though he were about to make everyone that he meets a wall to piss against’ (The Ulster Plantations).

Knowing this about Davies, you’d be surprised to find out that when he wasn’t brawling and politicking he wrote delicate love poetry. And indeed he didn’t. But he once wrote the below poem. It was first printed in a collection of poems by both Davies and Christopher Marlowe, and put between two of Marlowe’s poems, though recently it has been considered a discrete poem in its own right. The opening line picks up Marlow’s phrase ‘sprightly eyes’, but the rest of the language is all Davies.

Faith (wench), I cannot court thy sprightly eyes
With the bass viol placed between my thighs.
I cannot lisp, nor to some fiddle sing,
Nor run upon a high-stretched minikin.                        (minikin = the treble string of a viol)

I cannot whine in puling elegies,
Entombing Cupid with sad obsequies.
I am not fashioned for these amorous times
To court thy beauty with lascivious rhymes.

I cannot dally, caper, dance and sing,
Oiling my saint with supple sonneting.
I cannot cross my arms, or sigh, Ay me,
Ay me, forlorn — Egregious foppery!

I cannot buss thy fist, play with thy hair,                           (buss = kiss)
Swearing by Jove thou art most debonair.
Not I, by cock! But shall I tell thee roundly,
Hark in thine ear: Zounds, I can ( ) thee soundly.

John Davies

The four-space bracketed gap in the last line, my Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse (Ed. David Norbrook) informs me, is the F-word, which I have not replaced in full, in case you’re reading this at work, but obviously it’s a lot more fun if you say it when you’re reading the poem aloud. The poem is, all of it, great fun to read aloud, with its brisk couplets, its brazen false modesty and its dismissive sarcasm. Davies may have been a lawyer and a politician, but I can’t help but detect something of a soldier’s swagger in this verse, with its contempt for civilian gentility and its rough, combative language. Strangely, much of the imagery has a pre-taste of the sexual vulgarity of the last line. The bass viol between his thighs, in the original spelling can be read as ‘base vial’ or ‘bass vile’, that is something base or vile between his legs. The image of ‘oiling’ , that is flattering, his lover beings to mind a vaguely sensual movement, there’s that ‘supple’ sonnet, and then all those breathy noises, the whining, the sighing, the ‘Ay me’s. He may not go in for gentle wooing, but he seems to be doing his best to get his lady in the right mood…

***

Apologies to regular readers for the rather long, unheralded absence from WordPress. Life has been busy – I have been working on other projects, as they say – and taking on more childcare duties as my wife starts to feel the strain of her second pregnancy. I will try to keep in touch, however – though posts may be somewhat shorter than in the past!

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Change thy minde since she doth change

The Earl of Essex by Marcuse Gheeraerts

The Earl of Essex by Marcuse Gheeraerts

Our last poem showed poor Marvell’s mower wandering the woods his mind ‘displac’d’ by the lovely Juliana. And this week too, we’ll look at a man whose mind was moved to distraction by a woman. In this poem, however, it is the poet himself, none other than the Earl of Essex, who has lost his wits as a result of a woman, although, despite appearances, not at all in the same way.

One of the interesting differences between the present day and the 16th or 17th centuries is that many of the prominent poets of the day were also important men of their age, or else knew some. There are a few notable exceptions in the modern age – the current President of Ireland is a poet and the last President of the European Council (whatever that is) wrote Haikus – but you can’t quite compare that to the big men at Elizabeth’s court like the Sidneys, Raleigh and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, who wrote this:

Change thy mind since she doth change,
Let not fancy still abuse thee.
Thy untruth cannot seem strange
When her falsehood doth excuse thee.
Love is dead and thou art free;
She doth live, but dead to thee.

Whilst she lov’d thee best awhile,
See how she hath still delay’d thee,
Using shows for to beguile
Those vain hopes that have deceiv’d thee.
Now, thou see’st although too late
Love loves truth, which women hate.

Love no more since she is gone;
She is gone and loves another.
Being once deceiv’d by one,
Leave her love, but love none other.
She was false, bid her adieu;
She was best, but yet; untrue.

Love, farewell, more dear to me
Than my life which thou preservest.
Life, all joys are gone from thee,
Others have what thou deservest.
O my death doth spring from hence;
I must die for her offence.

Die, but yet before thou die,
Make her know what she hath gotten.
She in whom my hopes did lie
Now is chang’d, I quite forgotten.
She is chang’d, but changed base,
Baser in so vile a place.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Though this sounds like a lover complaining about his untrue woman, the tone is one of rancour. Although lyrical, with simple rhymes and a jaunty rhythm, it is not really love poetry at all. It shares some qualities with the complaints of Catullus, with his speeches to himself not to pursue an unreturned love. But in fact it is not about romantic love at all, but about courtly pre-eminence. The woman Essex woos is long beyond the age of wooing – and in fact was never successfully wooed: he is adressing, rather too boldly, Elizabeth I of England.

It was written some time after Essex had lost his prestige at court, and perhaps not long before he made the wild, ill-conceived rebellion that he would be most remembered for. Essex clearly felt a great sense of injustice at his treatment at the hands of the queen (what he hints at in the poem, he confirmed by his armed uprising!) And there is a great ring of truth to his complaints: anyone who has read much about Elizabeth will recognise the eloquent and slippery obfuscator he characterises, who ‘ hath still delay’d thee, / Using shows for to beguile / Those vain hopes that have deceiv’d thee.’ But Essex would have been wiser to blame his own vain hopes for his misfortune, rather than her beguiling shows and delaying tactics: Elizabeth used equivocation and deliberate ambiguity as a means of rule. Even so, it is fair to ask if there is any justification in his sense of aggrievement.

Earlier in his career, he had been a favourite of Elizabeth, who had been impressed by his eloquence and dandiness, and later by his swashbuckling derring-do in England’s conflicts with Spain, not least a starring role in the capture of Cadiz. By the late 1590s he had built up a court faction to rival that of Elizabeth’s more austere, pragmatic ministers, the Cecils, Lord Burghley and his son Robert Cecil. In 1598, the elder Cecil died and the younger took his post as Chancellor, among other things, while Essex became the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. This was no mere fob-off, but a very important job: the Irish Nine Years War was in full flight, with rebellious Ulster, led by another great warrior of the age, Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, causing the English severe headaches. This was no mere local quarrel – the Spanish were happily sponsoring the Irish rebels to keep the English too busy to disrupt their own ambitions. For Elizabeth and Cecil this was an urgent and costly matter. Perhaps they both hoped that putting Essex in charge there would both relieve London of his oversized ego, and help to win England her war in Ireland.

Essex went into Ireland with a large contingent of troops but made no real difference to the situation there. Nor had the men before him, so he might have got away with that but for a fateful encounter with the Earl of Tyrone in Ulster. Their armies within fighting distance of each other, the two men agreed to parley head to head. They did so on horseback, for an hour or so, the Earl of Tyrone’s horse standing in a flowing stream. In their parley, the men agreed a truce, and their armies retreated. It is not clear exactly what had happened – had Essex been beguiled by the Earl’s charm and reputation, or – as a direct battle loomed – had he suddenly lost the heart to fight? Most likely, I think, in his gargantuan self-regard, he had deemed himself important enough to be able to come to terms as he wished. But he had miscalculated terribly. In Elizabeth’s eyes the Earl of Tyrone was an unforgivable traitor – he had been raised by the English in Dublin to rule in the Queen’s interests, and later in life he had rebelled and even colluded with the Spanish. Elizabeth didn’t want a truce with Tyrone, she wanted his head on a Pike. When Essex returned home, he was put on trial and thrown in the tower where he would brood on his revenge.

Elizabeth was like that. I have no sympathy for Elizabeth’s goals in Ireland, and a great deal more for Hugh O’Neill, in whose story there is more of great tragedy than the semi-farcical fall of the Earl of Essex. Still, it is pretty easy to understand what Elizabeth wanted and why she wanted it. When Essex complains that ‘others have what thou [i.e. he] deservest’, he doesn’t stop too long to wonder whether he did deserve the plaudits he yearned for. It is he, not women, who hates truth – the truth of his failure. He is wrong to claim ‘She in whom my hopes did lie / Now is chang’d ‘, for Elizabeth, shrewd, clever, calculating and ruthless, was the same as she had ever been. All that had changed was her view of the Earl. And on that she was quite right, really.

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