You that with allegory’s curious frame
Of others’ children changelings use to make,
With me those pains, for God’s sake, do not take;
I list not dig so deep for brazen fame.
When I say “Stella,” I do mean the same
Princess of beauty for whose only sake
The reins of love I love, though never slake,
And joy therein, though nations count it shame.
I beg no subject to use eloquence,
Nor in hid ways do guide philosophy;
Look at my hands for no such quintessence.
But know that I, in pure simplicity
Breathe out the flames which burn within my heart,
Love only reading unto me this art.
I suggest you click here to open the sonnet in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to it as you read on through the analysis.
It’s not unusual, in an introductory literature course, for a student to tell me something like this: “I’ve never been any good at reading poetry, because I can’t find those hidden meanings.” At such times I have to insist that there are no “hidden” meanings; if a meaning can not be found in, and supported by, the words of the poem, then it’s not there. Poets write to reveal truths, not to conceal them. One of the first slogans I write large on my blackboard is: POETRY IS WRITTEN TO MAKE SENSE.
But I may be at least partly to blame for the defeatist attitude, because I also write on the board: EVERYTHING MEANS SOMETHING ELSE. This is not just a statement about poetry; it is, indeed, a statement about everything. A student’s posture in my classroom has meaning. Whether a man does or does not wear a tie to work has meaning. Posture is still posture and a tie is still a tie, but we ignore the symbolism of the details of our life at our peril. The meanings may not be obvious, but that is why developing symbolic literacy is just as important as other basic kinds of learning, and incidentally why the study of poetry is a good preparation for life.
But say I wore a red tie to work one day, and someone said to me that this color tie indicated my affiliation with a local gang whose chosen color was red. This would of course be a preposterous assignment of meaning, based only on coincidence, and having nothing to do with either the conventional symbolism of ties or the context in which I was wearing the tie. Conventional understandings (e.g., Venus = love, Mars = war) and specific context are what we use to identify the “extra” meanings of things.
Now, Stella is the name chosen for a specific (apparently lovely) woman, and that Stella is rich in additional meaning is evident from the fact that 108 sonnets are addressed to her, and written about her. But if someone said, “When Sidney writes about Stella, he is really writing about his lost religious faith, and his strong desire to get it back,” I would have to blow the whistle on that one! I can’t deny that one of these poems might make that thought come into your head, but if so, a lot of other people’s poems would make the same thought come into your head, because the thought is already in your head, and not in the poem itself. This is an example of imposing an allegorical meaning that is supported neither by convention nor context.
And fortunately for me and my profession, Sidney himself has addressed such allegorical reading in this sonnet. The allegorists, he says, “Of others’ children changelings use to make.” The “children” here are clearly the poet’s offspring, or poems, and “changelings” (the most notable of which is at the center of the plot of Midsummer Night’s Dream) are babies exchanged by fairies during the night, so that fairies have the most beautiful babies and mortals are left with the ugly ones. (“Use to” is the archaic idiom meaning “are accustomed to.”) That is, such people are making a poem something it is not, by digging “deep” below what the poem actually says on its surface. There is wonderful word-play in both of the rhyming phrases “curious frame” and “brazen fame.” The “frame” into which the poem is being unnaturally squeezed is “curious” in that it is very carefully studied and inquisitive, but also in being odd or strange. And in rejecting “brazen fame,” the poet/speaker is saying both that he is not reaching so high (brazen = arrogant) and that such meaning cheapens his actual intent (brazen = brass, inferior to gold or silver).
The second quatrain states the simple and obvious about the sonnets, but also acknowledges the challenge and complexity of the speaker’s situation: he loves the “reins” (the control over him, or his thralldom) of love, though these reins are never slack (“slake”) or easy; and though everybody (“nations”) tries to talk him out of this shameful infatuation (as we have already seen repeatedly).
The first tercet of the sestet is fairly clear in its full meaning, though the specific wording may be a bit obscure. I think “subject” in line 9, like “philosophy” in line 10, can be understood as a special rhetorical purpose beyond what the poems directly say; and note that line 10 explicitly rejects “hid” meanings! (Students please take note!) “Quintessence” in line 11 is literally the “fifth element” of which only celestial objects were made. (The periodic chart for our own planet had only four elements at this point in history.) The word implies strongly that the poems are not pretending to be something they aren’t.
The fulcrum comes after line 11, as the poet/speaker shifts from the somewhat elaborated statement of what he is not doing to a simpler account of what he is doing, which is following the dictates of the Muse in Sonnet 1: “Look in thy heart and write.”
Next time (weekend of August 9): Sonnet 29
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.