Sir Philip Sidney – Sonnet 47


This sonnet uses Petrarchan conventions in its expression of the rejected lover’s plight. It casts the speaker’s attempt to free himself from debilitating adoration in terms of emancipation and slavery, serfdom and political tyranny. The poem’s interest in human agency brings into focus the issue of predestination, with a religious struggle becoming almost as prominent as the amorous one which it supposedly analogues. Battle lines are drawn in the unmistakable volta separating octet and sestet, and the inner anguish of the speaker is conveyed in wonderfully dramatic language. The resolution is obscured in ambiguous syntax but yields to the lover and love’s representative in tyrannous, predestining religion.

The octet introduces the sonnet’s discussion of agency and the possibility of free choice with imagery of slavery. We can see in line 1 the speaker’s attempt to maintain a sense of his own free will – it is he that has ‘betrayed my liberty’, the lover hasn’t taken it. The illusory nature of this assertion is suggested by the way it jars with its own metaphor – slaves don’t ‘betray’ their freedom, it is seized from them. The other possibility offered is that the speaker is ‘born a slave’, making his devotion seem like an inheritance as out of control as genetics. This idea is beautifully expanded in line 4 where ‘becomes’ means ‘suits’ in the sense of an item of clothing. This implies that the speaker has some natural affinity with or suitability for bondage in adoration. There is also the suggestion that the addressed lover takes a sadistic aesthetic pleasure in seeing her suitor enchained – as one might admire and compliment someone wearing something ‘becoming’. This sense of a naturally imposed servitude is the dominant strain in the octet, furthered by the image of an ‘alms’ beggar, where love is linked with some natural physical impairment like blindness. Here the traditional Petrarchan anguish at the scornful rebuttals of the lover gains a new pointedness is likening it to a scornful refusal of poverty and need.

The speaker’s pain gains much of its drama in hyperbolic but ambiguous language. The ‘black beams’ of the slave image give a startling clarity to that image when taken as the bonds of imprisonment. They also combine with their ‘burning’ effect to suggest a demonic light that darkens rather than illuminates, or else a light that illuminates dark and forbidden knowledge like witchcraft does. The speaker is implicitly accusing his lover of holding him under a spell by foul means. This makes one sense of the volta’s imploring, ‘Virtue awake!’, as righteousness drives out demons, so the speaker’s conscience will free him from his lover’s she-devilry. More faintly the ‘black beams’ may resemble the crucifix of Jesus’ death, with the first 3 lines alluding to Calvary in the pained mark on the sufferer’s ‘side’, and the opening rhetorical question recalling ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ This implication becomes significant when the poem is considered for its discourse on religious differences.

Religion is only implicit in the octet, in the crucifixion allusion, the idea of ‘alms’ and meditations on agency which is strongly connected with predestination. The volta after line 8 changes this, as ‘Virtue’ is invoked and the style changes such that the Catholic-Protestant division is dramatized in the two parts of the poem. The speaker’s sudden new resolution to throw off the bonds of servanthood is emblemized by the Reformation and religious rebellion. The sparse, literal style of the sestet contrasts with the ornate splendour of the imagery in the octet – representing personal, simple Protestantism and grand Catholicism respectively. The ‘Catholic’ element of the octet is its visual representation of Calvary – symbolising the lavish decorative Catholic representations rejected by Protestantism. The distrust of ‘Beauty’, and the sparseness epitomized in line 10 are suggestive of reduced, more intimate Protestantism. That line, ‘I may, I must, I can, I will, I do’ is extraordinary for its emphatic-ness and its monosyllabic hollowness – as if the speaker isn’t entirely convinced by his own assertive independence. This speaks into both the relationship and the religion, where Protestantism also advocates this personal choice and faith – showing that the vehicle and the tenor are equally in focus by this point; this poem is as much about religion as it is about love. The resolution to these twin discourses is obscured in ambiguity by the final line, which seems to surrender to the lover, and so to the resplendent, inescapable beauty of Catholic tradition. However the syntax interrupts the normal meaning of ‘give the lie to’ such that we are left unsure whether the ‘heart’ or the ‘tongue’ is lying.

This sonnet uses the powerful rhetorical images of slavery and emancipation to frame the speaker’s relationship with his lover – depicted as the cruel but irresistible slave master. In its questioning of agency and the value of beauty the poem also has an important discourse on religion but refuses to give an emphatic solution to either question.

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