I might (unhappy word), O me, I might,
And then would not, or could not, see my bliss;
Till now, wrapped in a most infernal night,
I find how heavenly day, wretch, I did miss.
Heart, rend thyself, thou dost thyself but right;
No lovely Paris made thy Helen his;
No force, no fraud, robbed thee of thy delight;
Nor Fortune of thy fortune author is;
But to myself myself did give the blow,
While too much wit, forsooth, so troubled me
That I respects for both our sakes must show,
And yet could not by rising morn foresee
How fair a day was near. O punished eyes,
That I had been more foolish—or more wise!
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: “heavenly” in line 4 is elided to two syllables.
Since it seems to refer to a specific moment in the poet’s life, this sonnet seems obscure in the absence of a biography. Back when I was being schooled in the “new critics” (a hundred years ago, or so), the famous question for any text was, “What if it were anonymous?” The obvious temptation here would be to answer, “Well, if it were, we’d just be out of luck, and we’d go on to the next one; and since it’s not, we need to look at the footnotes.” But the new-critical hypothetical question might be more helpful (or less fatuous) than it appears at first blush, and I’d like to see what we can work out on this poem before I turn to the footnotes.
I’ll use a method I often use in class for a poem that presents any sort of difficulty, not just the biographical kind. At the top of different sections of the board, I write two simple questions, “What’s clear?” and “What’s not?” Often by the time we have recognized everything that is clear about a poem, the other column has either shrunk into insignificance, or the possibilities for interpretation of the “unclear” parts have become a short, manageable, discussable list. So let’s try that exercise here:
–It is a poem about missed opportunity, or what you might call a “woulda-coulda-shoulda” poem.
–The speaker squarely blames himself for the missed opportunity, as opposed to Fate, Fortune, or the choices of others. A first-person pronoun is used three times in the first line; when used twice in line 4, one of them is in reverse-apposition with “wretch”; and after careful elaboration in the second quatrain, the thesis is bluntly stated in line 9 with a double reflexive pronoun: “But to myself myself did give the blow.” * (Remember, by the way, that the speaker is not always above blaming others for his woes in these sonnets!)
–The beginning and end of the poem use the conceit of a man whose previous life was spent entirely in darkness (associated with hell in the adjective “infernal”), who suddenly finds “heavenly” daylight, but does not recognize it, or know what advantage to take of it. This could be interpreted as the height of folly—who cannot tell day from night?—or, more generously, as the natural confusion of someone whose reality is turned upside down, or who is presented with a completely new experience. This range of possibility is helpful for seeing both how the event in question could easily happen and why the speaker feels extremely foolish that it did.
–Lines 6 and 7 make explicit what the general nature of the event, or the “loss,” was: the speaker has missed out on a “Helen” that would have given him “daylight,” and of course in the context of the whole sequence, we know that this is the speaker (or Sidney) missing an opportunity to make Stella (or Penelope) his own. And, as mentioned above, the whole quatrain is at pains to say (with Jimmy Buffet) “It’s my own damn fault.”
–Lines 10-11 suggest the speaker thinks he was overly cautious (“too much wit [i.e., wisdom] . . . so troubled me”), or was too “respect[ful]” to avail himself of the opening.
–And the poem ends (as so many Renaissance sonnets do) in paradox, with the speaker wishing he had been either “more foolish” (i.e., ignored his caution or his conscience) or “more wise” (i.e., been able to foresee the consequences of his inaction).
So what we know about the poem’s meaning is really quite a bit: at some particular moment in time, the speaker had what at least in hindsight was an opportunity to lay claim to Stella simply by taking positive action; and, to his lasting regret, through caution or indecision, he let the opportunity go by.
All that’s left that’s unclear (I think) is exactly what moment in Sidney’s life the sonnet might refer to. Duncan-Jones, sifting through opinions of earlier biographers, argues that the best guess is a possible first meeting between the poet and 13-year-old Penelope in 1576, when Sidney’s father was still alive and a betrothal could have been nailed down, but the reasons for feeling no great haste to do so would be obvious. This leads to an interpretation of the final line—“Would that I had been foolish enough to fall in love with Stella when I first saw her, or wise enough never to fall in love at all”—which readers may prefer to the one I offered above.
But does settling on a precise biographical moment actually enhance or diminish the poem’s meaning? It seems to me that, first, there might have been other more subtle conversations in Sidney’s evolving acquaintance with Penelope when he might have sensed such an opening; secondly, all but the most brazen men probably recall with a bit of pain the moments when caution, modesty, or respect caused them to remain alone, while a bolder forwardness might have led to a relationship; and thirdly, however rooted in reality these sonnets may be, they are still products of imagination, and a poet (as Sidney himself asserted in his Defense) is as free to develop an imagined conversation as a real one. Sonnets 45 and 63, for example, refer to specific “incidents” in the relationship with Stella, but no one in his right mind would venture a footnote to track those to actual moments in Philip Sidney’s life; they are clearly poetic inventions. So, given the universality of the emotion captured and the license to use invention to capture it, the question “What if it were anonymous?” is perhaps, in this instance, a helpful one to ask.
* One of four instances of clever use of direct repetition within lines of this poem, in addition to “close” pairs such as “would not . . . could not” (2) or “No force, no fraud” (7), or contrastive juxtaposition such as “infernal night . . . heavenly day” (3-4) and “more foolish . . . more wise” (14).
Next time (weekend of October 18): Sonnet 34
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.