Whether the Turkish new moon minded be
To fill his horns this year on Christian coast;
How Pole’s right king means, without leave of host,
To warm with ill-made fire cold Muscovy;
If French can yet three parts in one agree;
What now the Dutch in their full diets boast;
How Holland hearts, now so good towns be lost,
Trust in the shade of pleasing Orange-tree;
How Ulster likes of that same golden bit
Wherewith my father once made it half tame;
If in the Scottish Court be weltering yet:
These questions busy wits to me do frame.
I, cumbered with good manners, answer do,
But know not how, for still I think of you.
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.
Reading notes: “Orange” in line 8 and “weltering” in line 11 both have two syllables.
This reads as something Sidney—a polished ambassador—might have “doodled” while sitting through a boring diplomatic meeting of some sort, presumably in the summer of 1582, when Duncan-Jones (citing in turn an earlier editor) places all the events mentioned. It is definitely a “footnote” poem, requiring a gloss for each of the seven current events mentioned, but Sidney also assigns himself the little poetic exercise of coming up with some word-play for each item. I will be depending on Duncan-Jones’s notes for the topical parts of the explanations that follow:
Lines 1-2: The Turks, whose empire often stretched into Europe, were threatening to attack Spain that summer. The word-play is on the crescent moon which was already Turkey’s most identifiable symbol. Here it is a “new moon” (suggesting a new initiative) and the points of the crescent are “horns,” which are both weapons of aggression and something that can be “filled” (think horn of plenty) with the spoils of conquest.
3-4: The elected (“right”) king of Poland, Stephen Bathory, had invaded and then occupied parts of Russia, the stereotypical “cold” place for English authors; the invader is pictured as a rude guest who lights a fire without first receiving permission (“leave”) from his host.
5: Three religio-political factions (Catholics, Protestants, and Moderates) struggled for control of France throughout this era.
6: The “Dutch” are actually the Germans (Deutsch) here, sometimes stereotyped as hearty eaters. The pun on “full diets” is that the Diet (legislative meeting) of the Holy Roman Empire took place in Germany that summer.
7-8: Several Dutch (i.e., Holland-Dutch) towns (“good towns”) were lost to the Spaniards that year, and the country’s hopes lay in William of Orange. “Holland hearts” probably plays on the fact that artichokes first came to England from Holland in the reign of Henry VIII.
9-10: Sidney’s father was Lord Deputy Governor of Ireland until 1578, and subdued the UlsterProvince, in part through taxation, the “golden bit” with which the Ulstermen were “tamed.”
11: The now-obsolete noun “weltering” means twisting or turning around, or being unstable or agitated, and there were any number of political intrigues in the Scottish court in the summer of 1582.
Although the full rhyme scheme of the sonnet (ABBAABBACDCDEE) is more common than any other (and used for three in a row, starting here), the period after line 12 makes it perhaps as close to a Shakespearean sonnet as Sidney’s hybrid Italian form can come. Line 12 explains the context of all the items of conversation just discussed, and then there is a full stop while the camera shifts (so to speak) from all the other “busy” and insistent speakers to the quiet, distracted young man (think of the moment just before Hamlet speaks his first line) who has (in my imagined scene) been pretending to take notes while not saying much. I don’t think the final couplet is Sidney’s best poetry by any means, but it very simply captures the tongue-tied state of a man whose mind is elsewhere.
Next time (weekend of September 6): Sonnet 31
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.