Doubt there hath been, when with his golden chain
The orator so far men’s hearts doth bind,
That no place else their guided steps can find,
But as he them more short or slack doth rein,
Whether with words this sovereignty he gain,
Clothed with fine tropes, with strongest reasons lined,
Or else pronouncing grace, wherewith his mind
Prints his own lively form in rudest brain:
Now judge by this, in piercing phrases late,
The anatomy of all my woes I wrate;
Stella’s sweet breath the same to me did read.
O voice, O face! maugre my speech’s might,
Which wooed woe, most ravishing delight
Even those sad words, even in sad me did breed.
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: “The anatomy” in line 10 is elided “Th’anatomy”; “wooed” in line 13 is two syllables; and both occurrences of “even” in line 14 are the customary one-syllable “e’en.”
This is a companion sonnet to number 57, continuing the story of the exciting moment when Stella read some of this poetry aloud.
The octave paraphrases an ongoing debate among rhetoricians (“Doubt there hath been . . .”), when a golden-tongued persuades others to do his bidding (lines 1-4), “Whether with words . . .” this is accomplished (5-6), “Or else” with the manner in which those words are spoken (“pronouncing grace,” 7-8). It is the age-old debate between substance and style.
In the sestet, the speaker offers compelling judgment in favor of style, based on his own immediate experience. As we just read in Sonnet 57, he had hoped to move Stella to pity or grace with the “sad” words (the substance) of his poetry. But when Stella read those same “sad words” back to him, the manner (or style) of her delivery created “ravishing delight . . . even in sad me.” Clearly delivery trumps content, or style trumps substance, in this case.
Next time (weekend of October 3): Sonnet 59
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.