What, have I thus betrayed my liberty?
Can those black beams such burning marks engrave
In my free side? Or am I born a slave,
Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny?
Or want I sense to feel my misery?
Or sprite, disdain of such disdain to have,
Who for long faith, though daily help I crave,
May get no alms but scorn of beggary?
Virtue awake; beauty but beauty is;
I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
Leave following that, which it is gain to miss.
Let her go! Soft, but here she comes. Go to,
Unkind, I love you not. O me, that eye
Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie.
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: “following” in line 11 is elided to two syllables.
The “slave to love” is a well-worn Petrarchan conceit, but in the context of this sequence it points to the speaker apparently reaching the same conclusion that his critical friends have been trying to impress upon him, that he is destroying himself with his pathetic infatuation. The jerky rhythms of this sonnet, with thoughts of varying lengths, reflect the speaker’s inner torment, perhaps overstated a bit in parody, as the poem turns downright comic at the end.
Despite the irregular thought-lengths, the poem as a whole has the most typical outline for an Italian sonnet, with a strong change of direction coming after the octave. In fact the sestet begins with exactly that—a determination to change direction—and this both culminates and ends three words into the twelfth line with “Let her go!” At this point Stella herself approaches, and the speaker returns to the whimpering mass he was before. The comic determination and failure to grow a spine is accentuated by the unusually monosyllabic language from line 10 on; the last five lines contain 48 words.
The sonnet begins and ends with the power of Stella’s eyes, much-referenced throughout the sonnets, and particularly in Sonnet 42. In this case they become the branding irons used to permanently mark as slaves men who, in some instances (“my free side”) were formerly free. The other dismal possibilities the speaker considers are (lines 2-3) he was born into slavery, or (line 4) he has become inured to it, or (line 5) he lacks a man’s spirit (“sprite”) to rise up and resist abuse. Lines 7 and 8 make more direct reference to the futility of his love, likening himself to a beggar who is despised rather than pitied for his persistent self-humiliation.
The invocation to “Virtue” that opens the sestet recalls the abstract enemy to passion mentioned several times in earlier sonnets—but in this context we are also reminded of the older meaning of the word, rooted in vir—manliness. The speaker is seeking the will to recognize that Stella’s beauty is not unique; there are “other fish in the pond,” as the saying goes. But line 10, both asyndeton and auxesis, turns almost farcical with its five attempts to start the next sentence before the final “I do” manages to launch into the rest of the thought; one is reminded of the cartoonish coward who shouts “Let me at ‘em, let me at ‘em,” while being easily held back by his friends. Finally “released,” he works his way to “Let her go!” before her approach immediate shuts him up. Though he implies that “Go to, Unkind, I love you not” is spoken with his tongue, it is clear from his self-silencing (“Soft”) that his muttering is not actually in her hearing. In any event, one more flash of that enslaving eye puts him firmly back in his abject place.
Next time (weekend of May 2): Sonnet 48
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.