Authored by Andrew Zurcher, Fellow and Director of Studies at Queens’ College, University of Cambridge
Robert Herrick's short poem on Saint Valentine's day, published in Hesperides in 1648, initially appears to be all about couples, couplets, and coupling:
Oft have I heard both Youths and Virgins say,
Birds chuse their Mates, and couple too, this day:
But by their flight I never can divine,
When I shall couple with my Valentine. (To his Valentine, on S. Valentines Day)
Two rhyming couplets join into a brief and pretty quatrain, the aural emblem of the mating pair that the poem celebrates. As the rhyme, so the grammar and rhetoric: in the first line we find the couplet "Youths and Virgins", in the second the zeugma, turning on "Birds", that connects the verb "chuse" to the verb "couple". But then comes the limiting conjunction of line 3, the dreaded "but". Herrick's lover may want to play leapfrog with his lady, but when he looks for a prophetic augury in the "flight" of the busy birds of the preceding line, he finds himself unable to interpret (or "divine") their meaning. In the language of modern social networking, this poem is but a poke: Herrick's lover articulates with clever economy his urgent need to revoke pretty aesthetic and philosophical transcendence, and make an appointment of a carnal kind with his beloved. But the poem also reminds us – readers of the poem who are unlikely to be found trysting with Herrick or his persona anytime soon – that while poetry is rather divine at interpreting love, it's rather poor at scheduling, much less doing, it.
This is not, of course, news. As early as the fourth century B. C., the Athenian philosopher Plato could write in his dialogue on love, the Symposium, about the allegorical nature of love, which in the hands of Socrates becomes a ladder by which the lover ascends from gushy and infatuated sex, through the contemplation of beauty, to an understanding of and union with the divine. Plato's dialogue cast a long shadow on Renaissance poetry, and particularly on that of Petrarch, whose yearning for a woman called Laura in the Rime Sparse often seems to mount to the higher, homophonic contemplation of her spirit (l'aura, the "breeze" or air into which she frequently dissolves in his poems) and of the poetic fame Petrarch covets (laurus, the Latin name of the laurel, emblem of Apollo and of poets). In effect, Petrarch presents us in his erotic lyrics with allegories of love-yearning, poems that, with Platonic lubrication, slip back and forth with ease between material human desire, a more philosophical speculation on beauty and truth, and a self-reflective meditation on the nature of language and poetry itself. One gets the sense that Petrarch, like Herrick, spent a lot of time scanning the skies for encouraging auguries. They both seem to have ended up slightly dizzy.
Renaissance English sonnet-writers followed Petrarch's Platonizing example with enthusiasm and ingenuity. We tend these days to think of sonnets as sincere and perhaps soppy love-poems, partly because most of us know well only a handful of the most romantic-sounding, earnest examples drawn from the works of hunkily hyperbolized Renaissance masters – Michelangelo, maybe, or Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Philip Sidney, or William Shakespeare. But in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and especially during the heyday of the English sonnet between 1580 and about 1610, poets tended to produce sonnets in long sequences, and their works ranged with ironic and even allegorical playfulness across a host of aesthetic and philosophical topics, taking in problems of knowledge, the nature of the soul, ethical quandaries and paradoxes, the limits of language and rhetoric, temporality and mortality, even politics. In fact, English poets and their readers became so familiar with the allegorical side-shift of sonnet convention that one poet, Giles Fletcher, could write in the preface to his sequence LICIA of 1601 that love in a conventional sense – the infatuating desire traditionally associated with Venus and Cupid – was not his subject at all:
But the love where with Venus sonne hath injuriouslie made spoile of thousandes, is a cruell tyrant: occasion of sighes: oracle of lies: enemie of pittie, way of errour: shape of inconstancie: temple of reason: faith without assurance: monarch of tears: murtherer of ease: prison of heartes: monster of nature: poisoned honney: impudant courtizan: furious bastard: and in one word, not Love. Thus (Reader) take heede thou erre not, æsteeme Love as thou ought. If thou muse what my LICIA is, take her to be some Diana, at the least chaste, or some Minerva, no Venus, fairer farre; it may be shee is Learnings image, or some heavenlie woonder, which the precisest may not mislike: perhaps under that name I have shadowed Discipline. It may be, I meane that kinde courtesie which I found at the Patronesse of these Poems; it may bee some Colledge; it may bee my conceit, and portende nothing: whatsoever it be, if thou like it, take it...
Fletcher knows that his readers will immediately seek to interpret his love sonnets, assuming that by "Licia" he means some idea, some object, some person or even institution, altogether different from a real woman, or even the idea of a real woman. For Fletcher as for many of his contemporaries, a sonnet had to be interpreted to be understood – an interpretation that would enable the reader to transcend his or her material and worldly nature, an interpretation that allows him or her to "divine" his meaning.
In celebration of Valentine's Day, this month Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (OSEO) is making a small selection of Renaissance English sonnets freely available. The texts of these six poems, all of them sonnets from the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, come from celebrated OSEO editions, and each of them shows a different aspect of the rich English sonnet tradition. The consummate Elizabethan courtier, poet, and soldier, Sir Philip Sidney, leads the way with one of the most ironic and witty poems from his groundbreaking sequence Astrophil and Stella (c. 1582), "You that do search for everie purling spring". Sidney's sequence ostensibly narrates the story of two forbidden lovers, whose extra-marital yearnings end in tragi-comic stalemate; by contrast, Edmund Spenser's 1595 sequence, Amoretti, concludes with a marriage hymn, the Epithalamion, celebrating his own (second) marriage to Elizabeth Boyle. From this sequence we have the famous poem, "One day I wrote her name vpon the strand" (no 75). From Shakespeare's 1609 Sonnets comes the brooding and pained self-examination of "Is it thy will" (no 61). Sir John Davies, an Elizabethan lawyer and minor poet, produced in the 1590s a short sequence of "Gullinge Sonnets" – highly rhetorical, linguistically playful, and aesthetically appalling poems that pointed a satirical finger at the more philosophically excrescent effusions of his day. Davies is represented here by "My case is this, I love Zepheria bright". John Donne polemically adapted the Elizabethan love-sonnet to divine meditations, many of which (including "Since she whom I loved") still turn on the themes and patterns conventional to Petrarchan poems. Finally, Renaissance sonneteers were, even if only seldom, women; Lady Mary Wroth wrote many, including this one ("An end fond Jelousie") for her long prose romance, The Countess of Montgomery's Urania (1621).
Not one of these sonnets is "about love" in a simple sense. Sidney's poem provides a useful introduction to the ironizing complexities of early modern sonnet-writing. One of the most striking things about these poems is their recurrent preoccupation with literary and generic history – both that which has come before, and that which will follow after, the moment of the sonnet itself. Sidney's fifteenth sonnet from Astrophil and Stella is addressed not to the beloved, Stella, but to other poets who, Astrophil claims, build up their insincere poems entirely from artificial, almost academic methods – these are the poets who search "for everie purling spring / Which from the ribs of old Parnassus flowes", the poets who emulate "poore Petrarch's long deceasèd woes", and use various tricks – the "floure[s]" of rhetoric, as well as phonic devices such as alliteration – to decorate their verse. This poem, like many others in Sidney's sequence, insists on Astrophil's sincerity and "inward tuch" – even as it uses the very rhetorical tricks it denigrates, and emulates Petrarch's own claims to sincerity. Sidney's poem is deeply ironic, a virtuosic, highly rhetorical performance of the rejection of rhetoric, an argument against insincerity delivered entirely in bad faith.
Similarly ironic, but in a slightly different vein, is Spenser's Amoretti 75, "One day I wrote her name vpon the strand". At first sight, this poem may seem to provide a conventional claim for the lover's and his beloved's immortality: he writes her name on the beach, the waves wash it away, she complains that all mortal things perish, and he assures her, not so, for "my verse your vertues rare shall eternize, / and in the heuens wryte your glorious name". The better part of the beloved will survive, it is true – the poet promises to "eternize" her virtues and her name. But it may be important to Spenser's sonnet that the beloved's own voice – which appears in the poem in direct quotation – asks for a different kind of eternity – "for I my selue shall lyke to this decay", she says, drawing attention to the fragility and ephemerality of her body, her subjectivity. The poet's promise elides her anxieties by calling all such frail impermanences "baser things" that "dy in dust", but it's not clear whether his castles in the air actually do improve on castles in the sand. The immortality of the beloved's name may seem almost a weak consolation to the inevitable death of her self, especially given that the name is nowhere to be found in the sonnet itself – it appears in the preceding poem (no 73), where he immediately confounds that act of particular naming by dispersing it across several persons: his Queen, his mother, and his new wife, all called Elizabeth.
The language of early modern English law suffuses the meaning of two of the sonnets presented here, from the pens of Shakespeare and Donne. Shakespeare's lover muses in Sonnet 61 on his beloved friend, asking himself whether his sleeplessness is caused by the beloved, or by his own thinking about him. Is the beloved jealously sending his thoughts to keep the lover awake? As Colin Burrow points out in his linguistically sensitive commentary to this poem, words such as "scope" and "tenure" sounded in early modern ears as technical legal terms, as did "deeds" and "defeat". This sonnet might almost be titled "The Visitation", reflecting the early modern practice of dispatching heralds from the College of Arms to a particular county or area in order to enquire into property titles, estates, and pedigrees. But for all that the legal language may suggest precision and the implied "visitation" a resolution of late-night, half-understood doubts, the sonnet seems to end in yet more ambiguity: the lover professes he will be a "watchman", "watch[ing]" for the beloved; but it is not clear whether this means he will look out for the beloved's return, or simply take over the office of watching on which the beloved – that traitor, who now carouses or "wakes" elsewhere – has reneged. This is not the playful irony of Sidney, or the metaphysical irony of Spenser, but a bitter, accusatory, psychologically struggling double-mindedness. Shakespeare's sonnet bites at the heels of the beloved like a wounded dog.
John Donne was also capable of striking this ironic, bitter note. In his holy sonnet, "Since she whom I loved", his lover seems to perform either a textbook act of Platonic resignation from the world and the worldly, or a grievously troubled turning back toward God after the harrowing loss of a great human love. On the one hand, following Plato, the lover's experience of merely human loss should free him to turn wholly towards the divine; in this way the experience of mortal love leads to an understanding of divine love, "so streames do shew the head". But the "holy thirsty dropsy", a sense that Donne's lover is unsatisfied, is hungry, and has lost something carnal, material, sure, is palpable. The sonnet shudders unstably between a determination to embrace the divine, and a longing for a lost human embrace. The rhetorical question with which the sonnet concludes ("why should I begg more love[?]") thus shimmers – is it a self-chastisement, the lover reproving himself for his greed, or is it a rhetorical question aimed at the "tender jealosy" of God? To this soul-imperilling irony Donne brings the legal sense of the verb "tender", which means "to offer or advance (a plea, issue, averment; evidence, etc.) in due and formal terms; spec. to offer (money, etc.) in discharge of a debt or liability, esp. in exact fulfilment of the requirements of the law and of the obligation." (OED, "tender", v. 1a).
All four of these sonnets, then, exploit ironies of language, perspective, and tone to destabilize simple and earnest meanings. Here love, language, and religious devotion are all subjected to skeptical, ironizing thinking; love becomes a theme on which these poets, penitents, and philosophers test psychological and philosophical truths. The other two sonnets in the OSEO Valentine collection, by Sir John Davies and Lady Mary Wroth, play with and debunk this convention of meaning-not-meaning. In his poem about the lady Zepheria – an allusion to one of the least distinguished Elizabethan sonnet sequences, addressed to this lady – Davies uses a legal diction so technical that it ends up parodying the "language of courtship" familiar in other poems of the period. A few minutes with the Oxford English Dictionary will suggest just how lunatic is Davies' use of terms such as "fealtye", "discharge … perpetuallye", "distrein'de", "repleave", "impounde", "esloynde", and "withername". Davies poem seems mockingly to suggest that some poets have become so very allegorical that they have lost control of their subject entirely. Mary Wroth, by contrast, writes "An end fond jelousie" in a seemingly simple, guileless and earnest diction, the voice of a woman writing to a male lover to tell him she has seen through his ruses, and won't be deceived again:
All thy dissemblings, which by faigned showe,
Wonne my beliefe, while truth did rule my heart,
I, with glad mind embrac'd, and deemd my smart
The spring of joy, whose streames with blisse should flow … (ll. 5-8)
But Wroth, a clever satirist of court speech and manners, addresses this sharp-tongued poem of disabusion not to a male lover, but to jealousy itself. This is a woman who has seen through the lies of jealousy, that sickness of the mind that suspects one thing to be merely a dissimulation for another; from now on, she seems prepared to believe everything she hears. As the poem, concludes, though, we can't know what to think – has she learned to distrust jealousy? What would it mean to become skeptical of skepticism, or ironic at a further remove from irony? Wroth's clever deconstruction of distrust leaves the would-be Valentine as dizzy as ever.