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Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Renaissance in Love

Astrophil and Stella 93 strikes a note that seems unusual, to me, in Renaissance poetry:

O fate, O fault, O curse, child of my bliss;
What sobs can give words grace my grief to show?
What ink is black enough to paint my woe?
Through me, wretch me, even Stella vexed is.
Yet truth -- if caitiff's breath might call thee -- this
Witness with me, that my foul stumbling so
From carelessness did in no manner grow;
But wit, confused with too much care, did miss.
And do I then myself this vain 'scuse give?
I have (live I, and know this?) harmed thee;
Though worlds 'quit me, shall I myself forgive?
Only with pains my pains thus eased be,
That all my hurts in my heart's wrack I read;
I cry thy sighs; my dear, thy tears I bleed.

The last few lines turn into the kind of narcissistic statement that seems typical of sonnet sequences. But what comes before those lines is at least a little striking: the poet is acknowledging that he's caused pain in the other person, he acknowledges this as his fault, and he blames it on a failed effort to be witty. It's a social gaffe, the result of straining too hard to say exactly the right thing -- and as a result saying exactly the wrong thing. There's a quotidian social situation behind this, in a way that seems to me to be all too untypical of sonnet sequences; there's a recognition that wit can fail, can go awry, can itself be the cause of pain and misunderstanding; and there's an attention to the social mistake that seems to me to be quite unusual in a form that's generally so impossibly self-conscious and idealistic about language and writing ("'Fool,' said my muse to me; 'look in thy heart, and write'" -- as if that adequately describes Sidney's writing practice, or as if that looking inward would somehow necessarily produce perfect expressions of emotion. I won't mention Shakespeare's promises of literary immortality in poetry, or Sidney's virtual obsession with the process of writing, throughout the sequence). "Foul stumbling" doesn't make a frequent appearance in sonnet sequences.

There's also an emotional tone here that seems a little different from the usual combination of idealization and anger, in Sidney:

But now that hope is lost, unkindness kills delight,
Yet thought and speech do live, though metamorphosed quite;
For rage now rules the reins, which guided were by pleasure.
I think of thy faults, who late thought of thy praise. (Song 5)

That seems more typical, for Sidney, and for English sonnet sequences in general: the beloved is idealized; the beloved rejects the poet, unjustly; and the poet is alternately miserable and enraged. Sonnet 93 is a little different. Blame is assessed differently, and the poem opens onto interactions and conflicts that seem more complicated than the narrative of unrequited love normally suggests. It seems striking how seldom unrequitedness produces a sense of self-blame or self-criticism; the ethical pose is more typically a kind of wounded pride. The fault that is the child of happiness, the unintended result of happiness, is rarely encountered.

I'm not someone who works on sonnet sequences (as this post probably makes clear), but whenever I've taught them -- Sidney, Shakespeare, Wroth; especially Wroth, though students don't seem to like her -- I've tended to read them as commentaries on issues pretty remote from their ostensible subjects -- various kinds of politics, generally. Normally, I've positioned them in a series of readings that allows for that kind of essentially allegorical decoding. But I guess what's motivating this post is my sense of the comparatively narrow emotional range of these poems, when you actually read them for the emotions they express. You can get from them a feeling of abandonment and betrayal, especially in Wroth; and you can get flashes of anger, especially in Sidney. And everywhere you can get a kind of lyrical idealization, at least of the physical beauty of the beloved. But more complicated, more compromised emotional positions don't seem to be available -- above all, that kind of emotional position that combines sorrow with self-blame and thereby goes beyond the usual pose of the betrayed lover. Except, maybe, in Sonnet 93.

Maybe this is why I read novels, for pleasure, and not sonnet sequences. Reading sonnets -- that's work.

  • At 1/21/2007 10:25:00 AM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    I'm interested in hearing what other people have to say in response to this post, because I have to say that my instinct is to agree with you entirely--both about Sonnet 93, but more especially about sonnet sequences (and, to a lesser and more complicated degree, a lot of Renaissance lyric poetry).

    I think it's why I don't work on lyric poetry, actually, and instead work on material in a genre and on a subject that many people consider seriously dull--said material has always struck me as more individual, idiosyncratic, and even weirdly more personal than most sonnets. There are just more points of entry.

    (But, I've been yelled at for saying this before, and maybe what it really reveals is my own intellectual limitations. . .)


  • At 1/21/2007 11:25:00 AM, Blogger GWYNN DUJARDIN wrote…

    Oh happy day, Astrophel and Stella. You know that obnoxious question about "what's your favorite book?" I can't answer that one, but if someone asks me why I do early modern, A & S is it. Where neoclassical (poet as maker, "studying inventions fine") and romantic (poet as inspired, "look into thy heart and write") notions of poetry subsequently branch off, here -- in the 16C, and in A & S in particular, you have them duking it out (among other models).

    With all due respect to you and your readers, and perhaps in homage to Sidney, the following will probably be a laborious process.

    You are so right -- i.e. a *million thanks, I will no doubt end up citing you -- to point out how unusual it is for Astrophel/Sidney to acknowledge that Stella is "vexed" and "harmed." I agree with you (if I'm following you here) to loop this sonnet back to the first sonnet in the sequence (to that awesomely bitchy muse), to where Ast. imagines (idealizes) how his writing will work on his star reader: "That she, deare Shee, might take som pleasure of my paine,/Pleasure might cause her reade, reading might make her know,/Knowledge might pittie winne, and pity grace obtaine."

    For "What ink is black enough to paint my woe?" echoes "I sought fit wordes to paint the blackest face of woe," and "foul stumbling" seems to recall "words came halting forth" and "others feet seemed but strangers in my way." Ascham refers to writing poetry in terms of "stumbling," specifically referring to those English poets (by which he means ballad writers and the like) who "stumble" over every "rime," versus the graceful and upright (humanist) poets who properly follow classical precedent in writing in English quantitative verse. So stumbling here seems to refer again to the plausibility of following others' models, in their 'foot'steps (so as to posit himself as exceptional in some way, by marking his stumbling). I wonder whether we can read "foul" in relation to "foul papers" of the theatre, given the emphasis on "ink," and how foul papers, like sonnets, are always provisional in some way.

    But returning to your question abt Stella "vexed" and "harmed": I guess my question is, what does he mean by "vexed" and "harmed"? How and why is she "vexed," how has he "harmed" her? Through his writing (which, if so, would just be another way of venturing the power of poetry. . .)? Or does this gesture out to Sidney's stumbling where the whole Rich affair was concerned?

    If we read 93 as looping back to 1, it suggests that his writing hasn't worked on her as he hoped. But we know that. And he doesn't parse or elaborate on that reader/response process here, the way he does in 1.

    Two other observations, or lines for further inquiry: how, anticipating the final typically narcissistic lines you point out, he is not concerned that *Stella forgive him for vexing/harming her, but asks "shall I myself forgive"? Also, who is he writing to when he writes "_witness with me_ that my foul stumbling so/From carelessness did in no manner grow;/But wit, confused with too much care, did miss." From wit/ness to wit/miss. How could any reader miss his wit . . . and isn't that what we're supposed to witness? So how does Stella's vexation matter?

    Hmm. Much to think about: thanks. Sorry for the stumbling ramble. (Shall I forgive myself? More to the point: will you?)

    Funny, my students enjoyed Mary Wroth, how she writes herself through the (allegorical) "labyrinth(s)" of unrequited love, gender convention, and court protocol through the labyrinth of the sonnet sequence (see the sonnet at the beginning of the corona), and thus rework's Uncle Philip's process; and because she actually posits a resolution at the end, eventually upholding her "constancie," and concluding by leaving the genre to other "young beginners" -- in other words, I've done it, I've mastered the form, I'm done here, I'm moving on. While my feminist students balked at her subscibing to gender norms to effect a generically unconventional conclusion, they were generally impatient -- vexed? -- with the sequence's lack of resolution.

    Thanks for the post -- this was fun -- must stumble back to my own work now. . . (ho hum)


  • At 1/21/2007 12:00:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    I wonder whether we can read "foul" in relation to "foul papers" of the theatre...

    The contrast between "fair" and "foul" papers was by no means restricted to theatrical manuscripts. Which only helps your point here, I think.


  • At 1/21/2007 12:27:00 PM, Blogger GWYNN DUJARDIN wrote…

    That's what I figgered; I didn't want to play too fast and loose. Thanks. (Btw, did anyone see Juliet Fleming's paper on "blotting" at the MLA? Part of Jeff Masten's Shakespeare's Intentions panel . . .)

    Ok: if we go with that, then "foul stumbling" could refer to manuscript circulation, or to the "stink" his writing, and none-so-subtle, or "careless," stalking of Penelope Rich, caused at court (which must've vexed her. . .).

    Interesting, then, that he would ask the reader to "witness *with [him]," as audience, that spectacle in which he was principally a player.

    Does the poem then ask the reader tacitly to re-see those events, his writing, and therefore him, in a more *sympathetic light?

    PS Sorry for the obnoxious bold caps in my name. Switching from the old blogger to new buggered up my formatting, and by the time I realized my name would appear that way in comments, there was no way I could (or would!) reconfigure the blog again.


  • At 1/21/2007 12:30:00 PM, Blogger Truewit wrote…

    Only with pains my pains thus eased be...

    Nice choice here.

    I think we can get a lot out of the pun on “pains” – witty labor v. emotional hurt.

    The work of wit -- the usually hidden "pains" of social or literary fluidity -- gets the poet into trouble in the first place. He misfires: Stella is vexed, and his pains to please her cause his anguish. To ease that pain (the latter "pain" in l. 12), he returns immediately to his witty pains -- counting syllables, hashing out strong rhymes, and doing whatever it is he needs to do to take the hurts in his heart’s wrack and make them comprehensible. It’s annoying, perhaps, that he interprets the results (or maybe the practice?) of his doubled pains as some kind of perfect identification with Stella in the last line, and I think our own ideas about individuality in sexual relationships predispose us to read that line as presumptuous and invasive, but this is I think, the expression of a very raw moment of desire: the result of his painful mistake and pains-full wit is a legible, imagined union in misery. That, I think, is the honest heart of the sonnet.

    But because of the way we respond to formal conventionality (and the pains taken to achieve it), a sonnet, especially in sequence, is always the sign of its own emotional insufficiency, which seems to be what bothers Flavia and Inkhorn about Renaissance lyric more generally. (It bothers me, too, but I try to argue against that feeling when I teach, so I’ll follow through here.) For all his black woe and bleeding tears, Sidney can’t leave his goddamn quill in the inkwell. How, then, are we supposed to take his pains seriously? From where we sit, with 108 of these gorgeous things staring us down, number 93 isn’t going to make us say, “Ah. I see. You really do feel for this girl.” In some way, then, Sidney is enacting his original mistake (“wit, confused with too much care, did miss”) when he publishes this sonnet. We’re a little bit offended by the obviousness of his pains. But I’m pretty sure that’s the whole point of the project – or at least of sonnet 93. The painful practice of witty writing is, for Sidney, the only ease for the painful failures of his wit. This is the paradoxical machinery of an obsessive writer’s psyche at work, and knowing who we are, I think we can all feel Phillip’s pain.


  • At 1/21/2007 03:32:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Gwynn Dujardin, Truewit: thank you. I see a lot more about the poem now than I did before, specifically that I was wrong to disparage the final lines as mere narcissism. But, Truewit, I'm not sure that my problem with Sidney is a problem with form per se, but rather with the particular emotional and ethical resources of this particular form. We're always taught to read sonnets in terms of form -- of Petrarchanism, of meta-meditations on writing and poetry, etc. That's how we respond to our students' general complaint against formal poetry as being limited in its expressiveness. But doesn't that distinction between form and expression sort of miss the point that specific forms do have -- however embarrassed we may be to talk about this -- specific emotional and expressive possibilities? Expression is always driven by form. I'm less concerned about the formalism of sonnets -- actually, I find it very interesting -- than I am about what I perceive as their tendency to operate within a very limited emotional territory.

    I quoted earlier the example of Song 5, with its burst of rage. One could also point to Sonnet 105, with its affirmations -- very much against the spirit of 93 -- of the speaker's blamelessness ("I / Was not in fault," "guiltless"). The pose of unrequited love seems to require a kind of lament about betrayal that at times seems pretty uncomplicated, not to mention ethically over-simple.

    I like the idea that what's at stake in Sonnet 93 is in fact a failure of form, or that the form itself is about its own failure, its own missing the mark. That seems to me to be the interesting thing throughout the sequence.


  • At 1/21/2007 04:00:00 PM, Blogger GWYNN DUJARDIN wrote…

    Oh absolutely, the form itself is about its failure: if it hit the mark, there would be nothing more to write!

    Now, as to how this relates to the "limited emotional territory" . . . hmm. Maybe (probably) I'm missing your point, but I see the sequences covering a lot of emotional territory -- steps forward and back, sideways (hence Wroth's labyrinth) -- progress, regress, ingress -- hope, despair, rage, reflection. . .

    What I see as limited is endemic to the lyric itself -- that is, the focus on the subjectivity of the poet/speaker. Which is why I thought it was neat that you pointed out how he gestures to Stella's emotional state here. . . (only to reincorporate her? Do we think that's what happens in 93?)

    Truewit, help me out here.

    And please, call me Gwynn!


  • At 1/22/2007 07:15:00 PM, Blogger Truewit wrote…

    Your comments, Inkhorn, are making me think more about the relationship between form and emotional expression. You wrote, "Expression is always driven by form," which seems right to me, but I wonder what happens if we reverse those terms or place them in dialectical relation to each other. Can literary form in the late 16th century be driven by expression? Or, to put it another way, can particular emotions in particular historical contexts change form or inspire new strategies? And do established textual forms in some way deny emotional expression? Is it The Sonnet's fault that, say, fratricidal rage or glum ennui generated by morning fog never (to my knowledge) made their way in our period into 14 lines of interlocking pentameter? Or is it the fault of the rage and the glumness and the social codes that make those emotions meaningful?

    These are crazy questions, maybe. Or the wrong ones? Maybe the answer to all of them lurks in habits of decorum, which in turn mediate the decisions one makes about one's emotions. And maybe someone who has read more sonnets than I have will turn me on to Barnabe Goodge's Heptadecalion on Fog-bourne Melancholia or something like that. But I wonder.

    And in re Gwynn's comment: the more I think about sonnets, the more clearly I see the centrality of the flirtatious games they play with division and incorporation. Depending on the interpretive aims of the critic and the thrust of a poem, those games might show us the split subjectivity that produces and undermines the speaker's authority; the alienation of lover from beloved (which, in A&S 93, is also the shared, unifying experience of lover and beloved); the oscillating distance between and proximity of formal seriousness and erotic play; the always-failing (and familiar) quest for total possession in the breaking down of the body into parts... et cetera. And -- not that you're arguing this, G -- I'm not sure that we can ever quite say "here is the moment of reincorporation that finally undoes the earlier division" since each wished-for incorporation carries a trace of division -- and vice versa (I really want to say "reinscribes division" but I swore off that word 10 years ago). Nothing can be undone in a sonnet, I think.

    Again, I get the feeling that Ted Tayler or Rosalie Colie or someone said all this in 1964, and they probably said it more clearly. But I'm glad to be working through some of this.


  • At 1/22/2007 08:55:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Yeah, I give up -- if this is an inappropriate line of thought, it's my fault for initiating it. I guess I just want my sonnets to have the mentality of Smiths songs, or Joy Division, or something. (And *that's* not a limited emotional terrain at all, of course). The slight disappointment I feel reading sonnets, or the sense that something isn't quite being said, is probably either exactly the point (as both Truewit and Gwynn have been trying to tell me), or just a misguided feeling prompted by the wrong expectations.

    Has anybody out there read any of the crazier sequences? Aside from the obvious ones, I'm not so well versed. So to speak.


  • At 1/22/2007 09:00:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Maybe some of this business about "foul stumbling" explains my odd fondness for the most incompetent of all sonnet sequences -- the one that in fact in the middle abandons the attempt to be a sonnet sequence at all, in any usual understanding of what that means, or turns the whole project of sonneteering inside out. I'm referring to Fulke Greville's *Caelica.* Weird thing that it is.


  • At 1/22/2007 09:04:00 PM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    I have no authority with which to make these claims about the 16th-century sonnet, for reasons of both genre and period, but if by "form" we mean something more like "genre" (that is to say, if we’re talking about the sonnet not only as a specific verse form, but rather that verse form as it is usually employed--by certain kinds of people in certain contexts or for certain social functions), I would say that, yes: I think form does limit expression. As you note, Truewit, there’s no reason why one couldn’t use the sonnet (if by that we mean the verse form alone) to express all sorts of things—-but it is, I think, the associations that get built up around the uses of that form that do or can limit its expressive range. (And maybe this is partly what you mean by "decorum.")

    That being said, I also think that expression (or emotion, or subject matter, or whatever) can drive form; not always, and maybe not usually, but sometimes. I feel that we see this all the time in Renaissance prose genres, which are—-well, are they even genres in our sense of the word? It can be hard, actually, to find a travel narrative, or spiritual autobiography, or political tract that’s only a travel narrative, spiritual autobiography, or political pamphlet (and those are the nonfiction genres!). There’s always so much other stuff thrown in, and so many ways in which any given example is never really "typical" of the genre--and what I think this shows isn’t that the writers didn’t know what they were doing (or that their genres weren’t yet sufficiently formalized, although that’s probably true, too), but that they wanted to be doing something other, or additional, to whatever it was they originally set out to do.


  • At 1/22/2007 09:40:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    I like Flavia's last point a lot; it's something I try, but find very hard, to get across to my students--the ways in which particular emotional (or ideological, or political) moments can "break" the form in which they are ostensibly being written. (Back in my semiotics days, I'd have been tempted to call these "irruptions" but that's like "reinscribed" to me now.)

    One thing about teaching in the Renaissance is that you're always trying so hard to make contemporary students understand the importance of genre/form--ie, that it's not simply boring and "unoriginal" (or even plagiarized, as a student once told me of Milton's use of Genesis)--that I think sometimes we place too much emphasis on generic tradition and not enough on the more bizarre generic experimentations.

    Thomas Browne, for instance, is so awesomely weird. Yes, he's writing to some extent in an essayistic tradition of Montaigne, Bacon, et al. At the same time, there's really nothing else like him. At times you can almost watch him inventing it as he goes along--both in terms of genre and in terms of formal prose style--as he tries to accommodate his strange thoughts about those buried urns that have recently been dug up.

    On a side note: I find it interesting that I absolutely hated Browne as an undergrad and now I love him so much that I sometimes think about writing on him. What happened to me?


  • At 1/22/2007 11:09:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    You discovered Owen Feltham, and suddenly Browne looked awesome.

    I like Flavia's comment very much as well. I would like to resist completely identifying "form" with "genre," though -- "genre" seems to turn the notion of "formal resources" into something that's purely historical, and really sort of accidental; but, even at a very obvious, naive level, doesn't it make sense to think that the intense formal patterning of the sonnet, multiplied through the sequence, is probably inevitably going to provoke a kind of self-reflexive poetics? So, at that level at least, there's a link between generic and more fundamentally formal resources.

    The idea of expression driving form, at certain moments, seems crucial. Is this the same thing as Coleridge's "organic form"? Are we looking for something in the Renaissance that literary history wants to tell us to find in Romanticism? Or, are we saying that Romanticism projected back a kind of reified notion of the more formal genres, which we have to unlearn? In the sense that it's hard to appreciate formal gardens after you've seen landscapes.


  • At 1/22/2007 11:52:00 PM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    H: I have it on good authority that Browne is the new black.

    And I: no, I agree that form is different from genre, and that it does impose its own necessary restrictions on expression (there still aren't a lot of sonnets on fratricide rage, 'sfar's I know). But although those are the obvious restrictions (certainly the most obvious ones to my students, when I make them write their own sonnets or Spenserians!), I think the cultural associations also impose their own, albeit looser, restrictions.


  • At 1/23/2007 09:16:00 AM, Blogger GWYNN DUJARDIN wrote…

    I have much more to add to this great discussion, and will later, after class. In fact, once I'm done with my book on early modern letters (the ABCs), early modern poetics -- how both we and they define poetic "form" -- is my next project (I can't wait).

    I must provide Inkhorne some succor, however: The Smiths: "Girlfriend in a coma"? Joy Division: "Love will tear us apart"? It's all there! Just substitute pentameter for Johnny Marr's thrombing chords. Enjoy! (or not. . . because, after all, the bliss is in the misery)


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