Come, let me write. ‘And to what end?’ To ease
A burdened heart. ‘How can words ease, which are
The glasses of thy daily vexing care?’
Oft cruel fights well pictured forth do please.
‘Art not ashamed to publish thy disease?’
Nay, that may breed my fame, it is so rare.
‘But will not wise men think thy words fond ware?’
Then be they close, and so none shall displease.
‘What idler thing, than speak and not be heard?’
What harder thing than smart and not to speak?
Peace, foolish Wit; with wit my wit is marred.
Thus write I while I doubt to write, and wreak
My harms on ink’s poor loss; perhaps some find
Stella’s great powers, that so confuse my mind.
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.
This sonnet, if it were found outside the sequence, might have the title “A Dialogue Between the Poet and his Wit.” As I have noted before, “wit” here means “wisdom,” or the reasoning part of the brain, as opposed to the passions or fancies. As I’m sure the reader has already detected, the speeches of Wit are in quotation marks, and the speaker—obviously here identified with the poet—says all the rest. Thus (at the one point of possible confusion) line 10 is the poet’s direct response to line 9, while line 11 (the poet still speaking) is a general shushing of Wit, who, we may imagine, has drawn breath to continue the argument.
The setting of the poem is the poet’s writing desk, where he has come (as must be his routine) to write another sonnet. But instead of being visited by the Muse—every poet’s hope in that setting—he is interrupted immediately by his Wit, who turns out to be the very opposite of encouraging. Wit argues that writing about unrequited passion is hardly the best way to get over it (since the words are “glasses”—i.e., mirrors—of the woe), but the poet answers (line 4) as an artist, not a psychiatrist; in fact, the idea that poetic treatment of “cruel fights” can bring pleasure, despite the subject matter, is very much that of Sidney in his Defense of Poesy.
So Wit sharpens his attack in the second quatrain with an appeal to shame. The word “disease” was at this time in transition from an older, more literal meaning of “unease” or “discomfort,” to its modern meaning of “illness,” and Sidney makes a subtle play on the difference: Wit means the word in the older sense, but the poet jests that people become famous for having rare diseases. Then, in a parallel shaming question, Wit again uses a transitioning word in its older sense, i.e., “fond” as “foolish.” The poet does not directly respond to that word choice (though the reader will certainly catch a word-play because of the word’s modern meaning), but instead says O.K., I won’t share the poems with anyone. (“Close” in line 8 means “secret” or “closeted.”)
Wit (being, of course, an expert in logic) now senses that the poet’s argument has fallen apart, since everything said to this point assumes sharing or publishing of the poems. So line 9 could be loosely translated “So what’s the point, if you’re just writing them for yourself?” The poet has no real answer to that, and instead just whines that he has to speak up if he has been wounded (“smart”); the poetry, in other words, has no logical explanation, but is just an animalistic cry of pain. The dialogue comes to an end in line 11 with a confession that “with wit my wit is marred,” an admission of defeat in a logical debate.
The final tercet is like a “recap” of the contest, a reflection on what is happening here. The dialogue apparently characterizes a very real confusion in the poet’s mind, and doubts about the wisdom of writing these love sonnets. “Wreak/My harms on ink’s poor loss” means take out my injuries on poor, defenseless words. The seemingly simple verb “find” is actually an important word-play; the words might manage to “find (= capture) the subject matter of Stella’s hold on him, or the words might “find” (= make their way to) Stella’s powers and exercise some persuasion on them. In any case, the sonnet again ends in paradox, since the doubtful, confused mind has perfectly and poetically spelled out its own confusion.
Next time (weekend of November 1): Sonnet 35
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.