Let dainty wits cry on the sisters nine,
That, bravely masked, their fancies may be told;
Or Pindar’s apes flaunt they in phrases fine,
Enam’ling with pied flowers their thoughts of gold;
Or else let them in statelier glory shine,
Ennobling new-found tropes with problems old;
Or with strange similes enrich each line,
Of herbs or beasts, which Ind or Afric hold.
For me, in sooth, no Muse but one I know;
Phrases and problems from my reach do grow,
And strange things cost too dear for my poor sprites.
How then? even thus: in Stella’s face I read
What love and beauty be; then all my deed
But copying is, what in her Nature writes.
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.
Written in the same vein as Sonnet 1, this poem, like 1, makes use of the poetic fancies that it mocks. Thus, we read of “sisters nine,” “Enam’ling with pied flowers,” and “herbs or beasts which Ind or Afric hold,” as practices which (sarcastically) “enrich each line,” while their less-than-original poets are described as “Pindar’s apes” (i.e., imitators). Lines 5 to 8, while parallel to the first four in describing the third and fourth problematic practices, take us to an opposite extreme from imitation (hence “Or else”), two forms of excessive new-fangledness. The first (lines 5-6) is using fancy rhetorical “tropes” to dress up the same old “problems” (i.e., subject matter), while the second refers to the Euphuean barbarism of drawing strange or forced comparisons with nature. And as with Sonnet 1 there is irony here that Sidney hopes we won’t notice, since he is guilty of every one of these practices himself—though every artist needs to be aware of the outer limits of the current fashions or trends in his own art. It is also good to remind ourselves that “artificiality” was considered a good quality by the Elizabethans, and was embraced fulsomely even in the poetic discussion of “natural” passion and sincerity.*
Structurally, the octave is a series of four equal and parallel phrases saying what we are to “let” the lesser poets do—“let” being in this case both the verb “allow” and a conventional way of posing a hypothetical, roughly equivalent to “Let’s say that some poets do this: ______________ etc.” Then the fulcrum comes in the expected place for an Italian sonnet, at the start of the ninth line as the speaker offers the contrast of himself, with the added double-meaning emphasis of “in sooth” (i.e., the mere expletive intensifier on the one hand, but the literal meaning on the other: his writing, unlike theirs, is actually true). In a mere three lines, he strips himself bare of everything it took eight lines to describe before, so sound is admirably imitating sense here, and the poem’s second full end stop further forces that comparison. So now there is a “sub-fulcrum” and line 12 is a perfect echoing response of line 9: “For me, in sooth” = “How then? Even [pronounced e’en] thus”; “no muse but one” = “in Stella’s face” (this of course is the most crucial echo); and, “I know” = “I read.” The final two lines have similar significant parallels, but in a chiasmic**, or crossing, pattern. The “frontwards” clause “What love and beauty be” is perfectly matched at the other end by the partly inverted clause “what in her nature writes” (again emphasizing that Stella requires no fancy ornamentation), while (focusing on the poet’s job) the “frontwards” “then all my deed” is echoed by the inverted “but copying is.” We might be reminded here of Keats’s famous dictum: “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body.” The speaker of this poem is professing such Negative Capability and such self-effacement, but of course with considerable irony since Stella would essentially not “exist” at all without the considerable poetic efforts and, yes, the artifice, of Philip Sidney.
* Duncan-Jones’s note on the octave offers help on the actual writers involved in the trends being mocked: imitation of Pindar and other ancients: Ronsard and other Pleiade writers; rhetorical elaboration: Thomas Watson, Hekatompathia (1582); and the exotic similes: of course Lyly, Euphues, in prose, but also employed by Petrarch and all his imitators. Finally she notes: “Sidney himself uses all four kinds of elaboration in [The Old Arcadia] poems; rhetorical and logical complexity is the only one used persistently in A&S.”
**Chiasmus, named for the Greek letter chi (X), is a pattern of parallel statements or phrases in which the elements are in reverse order (so that if you drew lines connecting the individual elements that were parallel, you would draw an X). So, crudely:
I went to the fair,
Then home came I.
Or more elegantly, by Keats:
Out went the taper
she hurried in.
In theory, you could have a chiasmus based on sound only:
Bam! went the
Next time (weekend of September 7): Sonnets 4 and 10
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.