Grief, find the words; for thou hast made my brain
So dark with misty vapours, which arise
From out thy heavy mould, that inbent eyes
Can scarce discern the shape of mine own pain.
Do thou then (for thou canst), do thou complain
For my poor soul, which now that sickness tries,
Which even to sense, sense of itself denies,
Though harbingers of death lodge there his train.
Or if thy love of plaint yet mine forbears,
As of a caitiff, worthy so to die;
Yet wail thyself, and wail with causeful tears,
That though in wretchedness thy life doth lie,
Yet growest more wretched than thy nature bears,
By being placed in such a wretch as I.
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: “even” in line 7 and “growest” in line 13 are pronounced with one syllable. For the second straight sonnet, the speaker refers to himself as a “caitiff” (line 10), a criminal wretch beneath contempt.
The speaker is in an extremely dark mood, and, ever the instinctive (or opportunistic) poet, he personifies his grief and turns it into a sort of muse for his poetry, asking it to “find the words” that he himself cannot, because of the darkness in his brain. This internal struggle of grief, self, and brain is already a bit mind-bending after one quatrain, but simple in comparison to the welter of nouns and pronouns that interact in the rest.
The second quatrain is especially thorny, though the general meaning is just that “Grief” is being asked to “complain” on behalf of the speaker’s soul. In line 6, the relative pronoun “which” is surely an object, rather than a subject, meaning that the sickness of grief, or melancholy, “tries” (as in tests, challenges, or pesters) the soul, which otherwise ordinarily dwells in a state of denial: the soul—the highest, and immortal, part of the mental makeup—denies to sense—the lowest, and mortal, part—awareness (“sense,” a typical Sidney antanaclasis) of its own mortality, even though the evidence of that (“harbingers of death”) is obvious. The implication, then, is that Grief might speak up for a soul that is unwilling or unable to speak up for itself.
But now, in the sestet, the speaker faces a paradox: if it is in the nature of Grief to mope and complain, then Grief might be relatively happy in present circumstances! Or at least it will “forbear” the speaker’s complaining, as we tend to be more tolerant of a condemned prisoner’s sobs as he heads to the gallows (“a caitiff, worthy so to die”). This will not do; the paradox must be met with another: the one way to assure that Grief lives up to its name is to argue that it now inhabits someone—the speaker—who is more wretched than Grief itself! Thus Grief can become more wretched, thus . . . Oh, never mind; this is reductio ad absurdum.
Next time (weekend of February 19): Sonnet 95
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.