O how the pleasant airs of true love be
Infected by those vapours which arise
From out that noisome gulf, which gaping lies
Between the jaws of hellish jealousy:
A monster, others’ harm, self-misery,
Beauty’s plague, virtue’s scourge, succour of lies;
Who his own joy to his own hurt applies,
And only cherish doth with injury;
Who since he hath, by nature’s special grace,
So piercing paws as spoil when they embrace,
So nimble feet, as stir still, though on thorns;
So many eyes aye seeking their own woe,
So ample ears, as never good news know:
Is it not ill that such a devil wants horns?
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 note: “devil” in the final line is elided to a single syllable “de’il,” creating in effect an internal rhyme with “ill.” This is sometimes made more obvious in editing with the use of “evil” instead of “ill,” in which case both words require elided—or at least rushed—pronunciations.
In a “breathless” (literally) opening quatrain, using a metaphor of pleasant or noxious air, the poem establishes that the very opposite of “true love” is “hellish jealousy.” Iago’s “green-eyed monster” comes to mind, and indeed heads the list that starts in line 5, but by the end of the poem it is clear that we are not just talking about an abstract passion, but rather a jealous person. Has Lord Rich perhaps taken some action to keep Penelope out of Sidney’s company? Or has the poet merely projected jealousy onto his rival, as the cause of his own thwarted designs?
Whatever the cause, the process towards ad hominem attack begins in the second quatrain. A list of six short derogatory phrases gives way in line seven and eight—the middle of the poem—to a two-line clause which suddenly uses the personal pronoun “his.” And the sense of this clause is somewhat specific: personified Jealousy is only capable of deriving “hurt” from his love, and “injures” the one he professes to “cherish.” (The ostensibly de-personalized “succour” at the end of line six need not be, as there was a sense of the word that essentially meant “succorer”; i.e., an enabler of duplicity.)
The sestet pushes personification on into beastialization, as the jealous one is endowed by “nature” with “piercing paws,” “nimble [i.e., nervous or pacing?] feet,” the multiple eyes of Argus, and “ample ears.” This is not just a beast but a monster! And the final line—a very clever punch line—makes clear that the personified Jealousy is specifically the jealous husband himself. Such a monster, the line says, has all the devil’s features except horns. So far, he lacks the horns of a cuckold, an “ill” that the speaker would love to redress!
Next time (weekend of July 10): Sonnet 79
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.