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.