Sir Walter Ralegh – Nature, that Washed her Hands in Milk

Assuming the narrative of a kind of creation myth of femininity, this poem has a clear undertone of reproach to a cold mistress in the ‘carpe diem’ vein. Qualities if ‘wantonness and wit’ are celebrated, with the carefree and capricious ‘Nature’ held up as a feminine ideal. Also stressed is the proximity of death and the inevitability of ageing, which conventionally encourage the mistress to seize the moment and the suitor. At the same time the poem almost undermines itself by so powerfully glorifying chaste purity; as so often in ‘carpe diem’ poetry we strike upon a complex layered masochism in the suitor who on one levels enjoys his suffering for an unreachable mistress. The speaker seems aware of this paradox, reflecting that Time ‘gives her love the lie’. Finally the poem appears to recognise idealised love as a self-deception yet still wills the subject to participate in the delusion. Continue reading


William Wordsworth – Three Years She Grew

This poem mourns the loss of a beloved, evoking her beauty and intimacy and suggesting a futility and wastefulness in her sudden death. Nature is described simultaneously as the inspiration and mirror of her beauty – through which Wordsworth explores competing conceptions of femininity – and as a rival lover, jealously snatching ‘Lucy’ away before the speaker can have her. The poem concludes in a state of ambivalence regarding nature’s effect on life – imparting both beauty and impermanence. Continue reading

Sir Thomas Wyatt – My Lute, Awake!

This song of a complaining suitor is interesting for its explicit threat of violence and insistent ferocity towards its subject. The speaker sees his ‘lute’ as the tool of wooing, which having failed will now be replaced with the ‘bow’. However, beneath this show of aggression are many of the typical themes of Renaissance love poetry – the suitor’s dependence on the woman and their inability to ‘put down the lute’, – to escape the influence of the beloved.

Striking imagery at the start of the poem captures the woman’s beauty but also the aggressive instinct of the suitor. The woman is ‘marble stone’ – flawless, elegant and statuesque but also cold and inhuman. The purity of ‘marble’ contrasts with the rawness of ‘lead’ to suggest that the suitor may be of a lower social status than his beloved. The second image also sees the woman as ‘rock’, here in the cliff battered by waves. The impression is of loftiness or haughtiness in the woman, and again the scene has affecting beauty to it. Both of these images thinly mask a violent impulse in the speaker, who wants to ‘grave’ (carve) the marble, lamenting that his song cannot ‘pierce her heart’. The image of the cliff face is interesting because implicit is the recognition that waves do gradually undermine the rock and collapse it – this is the first indication in the poem that much of the speaker’s sentiments are rhetorical posturing, underpinned by some kind of continued hope of success.

The poem is an overt threat to the lover of violent retribution for her coldness. If the courting process is imagined as a hunt, then the speaker invokes an ironic justice that replaces the ‘lute’ of the metaphorical chase with the ‘bow’ of the literal. It must be noted the extent to which this is a break with traditional Petrarchan decorum, the poet is saying ‘If you don’t love me I will hunt you down…’. TA pun is made on the word ‘game’, reflecting the woman’s lighthearted approach to her suitors but also suggesting her new role as quarry. See how the half internal rhyme with ‘pain’ overpowers the stanza with the harsh ‘ain’ sound, implying the agony of the hunt’s victim.

Despite these threats, it is the following two stanzas that presents the bitterest, most affecting attack on the lovers. This may be because in imagining her old, the suitor betrays a lack of belief in his threats to murder her. The image is almost the reverse of the traditional carpe diem sentiment – the speaker clearly takes pleasure in imagining the fate befall his lover – the same isolation and sadness that he feels. The effects of sound in ‘plaining in vain unto the moon’ are particularly evocative, suggesting a howl or scream and perhaps implicitly lunacy. Wyatt anticipates later renaissance poets in his interest in the shallowness and temporality of beauty , ‘thou know beauty but lent’. The speaker imagines the thrill of rebuffing the desperate beloved once her earthly attributes have faded.

However, we must of course doubt that genuine feeling is expressed in these sentiments. The poem plays on the difference between words spoken and reality by having the speaker continually ‘I have done’ in the refrain of each stanza. The frequency of this return becomes almost exasperating, we begin to feel for the beloved, pitted against this sustained declamation. It’s as if the speaker is so angry that he can never quite leave it alone – each stanza’s opening could start with And another thing…’. Yet beneath this hyperbolic anger is the recognition – and here the poem fits itself back comfortably with the conventions of the genre – that the suitor isn’t going to be able to give up on his beloved. The implicit hope in the image of the cliff face inspires the symmetry of first and last stanza – affirming that this is unlikely to be the ‘last Labour’ of the suitor attempting to woo his beloved.

This poem is a powerful display of amorous rhetoric that suggests an aggressive attitude towards the lover and threatens her with the consequences of rejection. The poet allows us to see through this rhetoric, however, to see the much more classically minded speaker who is resigned to pursuing his lover in the ‘hunt’ of courtship for as long as is necessary.

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.

William Shakespeare – Sonnet 23

This sonnet employs a mixture of theatrical, financial and religious imagery to convey a complex feeling the speaker towards his lover. It stretches between the bashful embarrassment of the first two lines and the implicit threatening of the speaker looking ‘for recompense’. The sonnet’s basic meaning, that love is better communicated in verse than face to face, is just the canvas onto which these nuances of tone and attitude are painted.

The first two images used by the speaker are striking for their difference in mood – the first a simple shyness, the second a more complex blend of ferocity and tameness. The simile of the actor is naturally a favorite of Shakespeare’s, drawing from the much used Elizabethan idea of ‘theatrum mundi’, ‘All the world’s a stage’ etc. The simple likeness between the nervous actor forgetting his lines and the nervous suitor unable to find the right words therefore carries with it all the associations of the life as a play’ idea. This emphasizes the transience of life and humanity’s constant dissembling and is interested in ritual and ceremony. It conveys to the reader the fact that we ought to mistrust the eloquent rival suitor of line 12, just as we would in a play, and also promotes a kind of carpe diem attitude which clearly has a pertinence for the maiden being addressed. The essence of the simile – shyness in the speaker – is, however, simple in comparison with the image that follows. It is startling in its vagueness, ‘some fierce thing’ suggests an animal but clearly the intention is not to give us a clear mental picture. The point of contact between vehicle and tenor is the magnitude of feeling, but how strange that the emotion described here is not love but ‘rage’. As if the speaker was wary of sounding pitiable in the ‘actor’ simile, he here tries to assert a ferocity that rings hollow in its generality and lack of logic – why should ‘strength’s abundance’ weaken ‘his own heart’?

The ‘ceremony of love’ is both undermined and affirmed in the poem – where a contradictory attitude towards courtship itself is analogous to the speaker’s complex love for the maiden. The idea of ritual is closely linked to the theatrical imagery of lines 1 and 2, and therefore carries forward the idea of theatrum mundi which emphasizes the gap between superficial ceremony and genuine humanity. However, there is also a religious significance to the idea of ceremony which acts against the theatrical to affirm the role of ritual. The final couplet of the poem reveals that the speaker’s intention is not to invalidate ceremonial courtship but to reposition it from the physical to the visual: ‘silent love hath writ’ suggests a kind of scripture in poetry with love as the deity, and ‘hear with eyes’ sounds like the Biblical paradoxes beloved of Donne.

The seeming ugliness of the mixed metaphor in lines 7 and 8 implies a darker element within the speaker’s feeling. The incongruous images of ‘decay’,’burden’ and ‘might’ can all be accounted for individually. ‘Decay’ acts as a suppressed carpe diem motif, reminding the addressed lover that time is passing. The paradoxical ‘burden’ of ‘might’, when might would surely assist with a burden, is perhaps a continuation of the hollow assertion of strength in lines 3 and 4. The overall effect of the mixed metaphor, however, is to seem fragmentary and jagged. This signals an equally contradictory, equally ugly side to the speaker’s love, shown in the financial imagery of the poem. The pun on ‘rite’ in line 6 introduces the idea of ‘right’ or inheritance, suggesting the feeling of being owed something by the maiden the speaker is addressing. This is continued in ‘recompense’, implying through the image of commerce a lower, corrupted form of passion that works in opposition to the high, courtly ceremony operating explicitly in the poem. The speaker’s slight on his rival suitor, in whom the three ‘mores’s comically and subtly have us imagine a boorish, dull tone of voice, might suggest a reason for this darker current. Deep in the poem or in the imagined speaker’s mind, there is a subconscious, misogynistic ‘rage’ at the idea of the woman having two suitors, that gives rise to these suggestions of commoditized love with inevitable associations of prostitution.

The far dominant current of meaning in this sonnet presents a bashful, slightly comical speaker, light-heartedly dismissing his failures as a suitor by invoking the immortality of poetry and wittily ridiculing his rival. However, there is a small suggestion that his love isn’t as innocent as laudable as it seems, but rather based in a misogynistic notion of commoditized femininity.