Out, traitor absence; darest thou counsel me
From my dear captainess to run away,
Because in brave array here marcheth she
That to win me, oft shows a present pay?
Is faith so weak? Or is such force in thee?
When sun is hid, can stars such beams display?
Cannot heaven’s food, once felt, keep stomachs free
From base desire on earthly cates to prey?
Tush, absence; while thy mists eclipse that light,
My orphan sense flies to the inward sight,
Where memory sets forth the beams of love;
That where before heart loved and eyes did see,
In heart both sight and love now coupled be;
United powers make each the stronger prove.
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Reading notes: “darest” in line 1, “heaven’s” in line seven, and “powers” in line 14 are elided to a single syllable; and it is perhaps worth noting that there is no elision in lines 10 and 11, so we have the full three syllables for “the inward” and “memory.”
The second of three “absence” sonnets, this one has “outie” ABAB quatrains for the octave so that, in spite of grammatical breaks, one continuous idea spills out for that space. The opening metaphor is from military recruiting, often competitive (Farquhar’s great comedy The Recruiting Officer comes to mind). The sense here is that “absence” plants the treacherous seed of an idea that Stella is just playing with the speaker’s emotions, doing things when he is present to keep him interested in her. But the second quatrain asks rhetorically how one (i.e., the speaker himself) could ever be so faithless as to feed on lesser light or food just because the greater is absent.
The treacherous appeal of absence is easily dismissed at the poem’s fulcrum (“Tush”) because of what Wordsworth called the “inward eye/Which is the bliss of solitude.” Memory and imagination keep vivid the “beams of love” in spite of the clouds (“mists”) of absence. The figure in the final tercet suggests the mildly paradoxical idea that absence actually strengthens the speaker’s faith because, while in her presence heart and eyes function separately, now both are one and the same. Where the sonnet began with the somewhat petty image of competing recruiting officers, it now ends with the military ideal of “United powers.”
Next time (weekend of November 27): Sonnet 89
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.