Tag Archives: Petrarch

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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