By William Minto


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I.--SIR PHILIP SIDNEY [1] (1554-1586).

IN 1591 a volume of sonnets was issued under the editorship of Thomas Nash, containing Sidney's "Astrophel and Stella," twenty-eight sonnets by Samuel Daniel, and other poems by "Divers Noblemen and Gentlemen." The publication was most probably surreptitious: Daniel, who published his "Sonnets to Delia" in the following year, complained that "a greedy printer had published some of his sonnets along with those of Sir Philip Sidney"; and a corrected and authentic edition of Sidney's sonnets was issued before the close of 1591.

The main attraction of Nash's volume was the "Astrophel and Stella" series of sonnets; this was the title of the work, the other poems being merely appended. The editor extolled Sidney with characteristic eloquence and extravagance. He apologises for commending a poet "the least syllable of whose name, sounded in the ears of judgment, is able to give the meanest line he writes a dowry of immortality." He deplores the long absence of England's Sun, and ridicules the gross fatty flames that have wandered abroad like hobgoblins with a wisp of paper at their tails in the middest eclipse of his shining perfections. "Put out your rush candles, you poets and rhymers," he cries; "and bequeath your crazed quatorzains to the chandlers; for lo! here he cometh that hath broken your legs."

The story of the romantic passion between Sidney and Penelope Devereux, Astrophel and Stella, is well known to readers of literary history. Lady Penelope, sister of the unfortunate Earl of Essex, was some nine years younger than her distinguished lover. Her father had formed a high opinion of Sir Philip's promise, and on his deathbed expressed a wish for their union: but her guardians were in favour of a wealthier match, and two or three years after the old Earl's death, she was married at the age of seventeen, much against her own wishes, to an unattractive young nobleman, Lord Rich. This event may have been hastened by Sidney's attitude before the marriage. If his self-reproaches in the sonnets were well founded, he would seem to have been undecided and vacillating in his addresses, his natural impulses being obstructed by a pedantic fancy that love was unworthy of a great thinker like himself--perhaps a temporary result of his correspondence with Languet: but when the lady was married out of his reach, his love became most ardent, and he courted her favours in a long series of passionate sonnets. Seeing that he very soon after married another lady--a daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham--it might with some reason be inferred that there was in Sidney's as in other sonnets not a little make-believe passion, and that his delight as an ambitious young poet at finding such an amount of literary capital was quite as strong as the pain of the disappointment. Certainly, however, Lady Rich, whose rare charms of beauty and wit were the theme of many celebrated Elizabethan pens, was likely enough to be the object of a genuine passion. As the wife of a man whom she disliked and kept in thorough fear and subjection, and as the sister of an ambitious nobleman nearly related to the throne, she led as she advanced in years a brilliant and a troubled life, and was in the Court of England the most conspicuous and fascinating woman of her generation. When Sidney wrote his sonnets she was in the prime of her beauty, and he may well have been sincere in deploring the loss of such a prize, and praying in wailful sonnets that he might continue to have a place in her affections.

In the choice of ideas for his sonnets Sidney prided himself on being original.[2] This was a natural reaction from the long line of imitators between Surrey and himself. In Watson's "Hecatompathia, or Passionate Century of Love," published in 1582, about the time when Sidney was composing his sonnets, the imitative and artificial character of the fashionable English love-poetry was specially illustrated by the candid acknowledgments of the accompanying notes. The poet makes no pretence to spontaneous effusion. Prefixed to the many ingenious praises of his lady's beauty, and allegations of her cruelty, and his own varied professions of unalterable love and consuming pangs of despair, are full references to the literary sources of his inspiration. Before depicting the pangs of Cupid's deadly dart and praying for its withdrawal, the commentary informs us that "the author hath wrought this passion out of Stephanus Forcatulus." Before a dire lament that Neptune's waves might be renewed from the poet's weeping eyes, Vulcan's forge from the flames within his breast, and the windbags of AEolus from his sobbing sighs, we are candidly informed that "the invention of this Passion is borrowed for the most part from Seraphine, Son. 125." A praise of his lady is imitated from Petrarch: a sweet fancy about the capture of Love by the Muses, from Ronsard: a vision of his lady in sleep from Hercules Strozza. Another commendation of the most rare excellencies of his mistress is imitated from a famous sonnet by Fiorenzuola the Florentine, which was imitated also by Surrey and by two other writers in Tottel's Miscellany. So with the majority of Watson's "passions," as he called his poems; very few of them professed to be wholly original, and the adaptation was generally very slight. Now Sidney revolted from this habit of adopting the praises, vows, and "deploring dumps" of other amorous singers. He swore "by blackest brook of hell," that he was "no pick-purse of another's wit." His eloquence came from a different source: "his lips were sweet, inspired with Stella's kiss." He had tried the old plan--

I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain;
Oft turning others' leaves to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburned brain.

But Invention, the child of Nature, fled from the blows of Study. He sat biting his pen, and beating himself for spite, till at last--

Fool! said my Muse to me, look in thy heart and write.

His success was such that be could not refrain from boastful tirades against the old imitators--

You that do Dictionary's method bring
Into your rhymes, running in rattling rows
You that poor Petrarch's long deceased woes
With new-born sighs and denizened wit do sing,
You take wrong ways, those far-fetched helps be such
As do betray a want of inward touch.

This and many other passages in Sidney illustrate the almost Homeric complacency of self-estimate among the Elizabethans.

Most of the conceptions and conceits in Sidney's sonnets are really his own; and they display very exquisite subtlety and tenderness of fancy. In these respects they deserve all the admiration they received from his contemporaries. What, for example, could be finer than the ruling conceit of his 38th sonnet?

This night while Sleep begins with heavy wings,
To hatch mine eyes, and that unbitted thought
Doth fall to stray, and my chief powers are brought
To leave the sceptre of all subject things:
The first that straight my fancy's error brings
Unto my mind, is Stella's image, wrought
By Love's own self, but, with so curious draught
That she, methinks, not only shines but sings.
I start, look, hark: but what in closed-up sense
Was held, in open sense it flies away,
Leaving me nought but wailing eloquence:
I, seeing better sights in Sight's decay
Called it anew, and wooed sleep again:
But him, her host, that unkind guest had slain.

The first fifty or sixty sonnets exhibit Astrophel's love in what may be called in fashionable mathematical language the statical stage: the subsequent dynamical stage being composed of sonnets descriptive of moods and conceits occasioned by a sequence of incidents between the lovers--supposed encouragement, venturous liberties, discouragement, despair, and so forth. During the statical or brooding stage, the poet-lover's mind is occupied with similitudes and all sorts of fanciful inventions to set forth the incomparable charms of his mistress and the unexampled force of his passion. During that period his love is subject to no fluctuations, no dynamic change; it suffers neither increase nor abatement. It is chiefly in this stage that the soft gracefulness and ethereal reach of Sidney's fancy are displayed. Instead of the sighing lover's commonplace raw assertion that his mistress is fairer than Helen, or Semele, or Ariadne, or Chloris, or any other mythological beauty, or that she would have borne away the apple from Juno, Pallas, and Venus, Astrophel presents Stella with the following ingenious and delicately wrought conceit, enlivened by a sportive breath of tender humour:--

Phoebus was judge between Jove, Mars, and Love,
Of those three gods whose arms the fairest were
Jove's golden shield did eagles sable bear,
Whose talons held young Ganymede above:
But in vert field Mars bore a golden spear,
Which through a bleeding heart his point did shove.
Each had his crest; Mars carried Venus' glove,
Jove on his helm the thunder-bolt did rear.
Cupid then smiles: see! on his crest there lies
Stella's fair hair; her face he makes his shield,
Whose roses gules are borne in silver field.
Phoebus drew wide the curtains of the skies
To blaze these last, and sware devoutly then
The first thus match'd, were scantly gentlemen.

He is brimful of fancies equally delicate. Venus falls out on Cupid because under terror of the threats of Mars he would not wound that god deep enough. The angry mother breaks her son's bow and shafts, and the poor boy is disconsolate--

Till that his grandame Nature, pitying it,
Of Stella's brows made him two better bows,
And in her eyes of arrows infinite
O how for joy he leaps! O how he crows!
And straight therewith, like wags new got to play,
Falls to shrewd turns,--and I was in his way.

The commonplace that his mistress's eyes are like stars he builds up into a profession of faith in Astrology. He takes Plato's saying, that if Virtue could come directly in contact with our eyes, it would raise flames of love in our souls, and maintains the truth of the doctrine, for Virtue has taken Stella's shape, and he is conscious of the effect in his own person. He exults over Reason, who at first intermeddled and decried, but when Stella appeared, knelt down and offered to produce good reasons for loving her. He is puzzled to make out why his plaints move her so faintly. He will not admit that she is hard-hearted; but at last he hits upon the true explanation:--

I much do guess, yet find no truth, save this,
That when the breath of my complaints doth touch
Those dainty doors unto the court of bliss,
The heavenly nature of that place is such
That once come there the sobs of mine annoys
Are metamorphosed straight to tunes of joys.

These sweet fancies rise in the head when the heart is comparatively tranquil. When storms began to agitate, the lover's strains became more impassioned. The following is the 48th sonnet:--

Soul's joy, bend not those morning stars from me,
Where virtue is made strong by beauty's might
Where Love is chasteness, pain doth learn delight,
And humbleness grows on with majesty.
Whatever may ensue, O let me be
Copartner of the riches of that sight:
Let not mine eyes be hell-driven from that light:
O look! O shine! O let me die, and see!
For though I oft myself of them bemoan,
That through my heart their beamy darts be gone,
Whose cureless wounds, e'en now, most freshly bleed;
Yet since my death-wound is already got,
Dear killer, spare not thy sweet cruel shot:
A kind of grace it is to slay with speed.

Farther on in the series, having so far conquered the lady's indifference, he prays for and receives a kiss, "poor hope's first wealth, hostage of promised weal, breakfast of Love," and expresses his rapture in several most impassioned sonnets. The following is the 81st:--

O kiss, which dost those ruddy gems impart,
Or gems, or fruits, of new-found Paradise:
Breathing all bliss and sweet'ning to the heart;
Teaching dumb lips a nobler exercise!
O kiss, which souls even souls, together ties
By links of Love, and only Nature's art:
How fain would I paint thee to all men's eyes,
Or of thy gifts, at least, shade out some part!
But she forbids; with blushing words she says,
She builds her fame on higher-seated praise:
But my heart burns, I cannot silent be.
Then since, dear life, you fain would have me peace,
And I, mad with delight, want wit to cease,
Stop you my mouth with still, still kissing me.

Sidney observes the Petrarchian form of the sonnet in so far as regards the division of the stanza into two staves, the first of eight lines with two rhymes, the second of six lines with three rhymes. Whether for ease or for variety, he is not particular about the arrangement of the rhymes within these limits. In the first stave he employs sometimes the alternate, sometimes the successive arrangement; and when the rhymes are alternate, he sometimes reverses but oftener repeats in the second quatrain the order of the first. In the second stave, he sometimes interweaves the lines so as to make a stave proper; but oftener he subdivides it into a quatrain followed by a couplet. Sometimes, as in two of the sonnets above quoted, he begins with the couplet and ends with the quatrain; and the arrangement is seemingly dictated not by ease or accident, but by a just sense of metrical effect.

Interspersed with the sonnets are several songs, and in these our poet is happier than in the more confined measures. The last of these songs, which is in the form adopted by Shakespeare for the serenade to Silvia (Two Gent. of Ver., iv. 2), contains some very sweet staves. The two first lines go to the lady; the three following to the lover:--

Who is it that this dark night
Underneath my window plaineth?
It is one, who from thy sight
Being (ah!) exiled, disdaineth
Every other vulgar light.

Why, alas! and are you he?
Be not yet those fancies changed?
Dear, when you find change in me
Tho' from me you be estranged
Let my change to ruin be.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

But Time will these thoughts remove:
Time doth work what no man knoweth.
Time doth as the subject prove,
With time still affection groweth
In the faithful turtle-dove.

What if ye new beauties see
Will not they stir new affection?
I will think they pictures be
Image-like of saint-perfection,
Poorly counterfeiting thee.

Two such songs as this and the one to Silvia make the stave seem the only true form for a lover's lyric: the lines run into music of their own accord, and scatter sweet perfumes with their light motion. There is nothing more ravishing in the language.

Footnotes (Click on footnote number to return to text)

[1] I have given some account of Sidney's life and character in my Manual of English Prose Literature, and shall here confine myself to his sonnets.

[2] He carried his disdain of commonplace into other walks of love. The ladies of the Court thought him a dry-as-dust hecause he wore no particular colours "nor nourished special locks of vowèd hair."--Son. 54.

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