Elia and The Last Essays of Elia / Charles Lamb, by Charles Lamb

Some Sonnets of Sir Philip Sydney

Sydney’s Sonnets — I speak of the best of them — are among the very best of their sort. They fall below the plain moral dignity, the sanctity, and high yet modest spirit of self-approval, of Milton, in his compositions of a similar structure. They are in truth what Milton, censuring the Arcadia, says of that work (to which they are a sort of after-tune or application), “vain and amatorious” enough, yet the things in their kind (as he confesses to be true of the romance) may be “full of worth and wit.” They savour of the Courtier, it must be allowed, and not of the Commonwealthsman. But Milton was a Courtier when he wrote the Masque at Ludlow Castle, and still more a Courtier when he composed the Arcades. When the national struggle was to begin, he becomingly cast these vanities behind him; and if the order of time had thrown Sir Philip upon the crisis which preceded the Revolution, there is no reason why he should not have acted the same part in that emergency, which has glorified the name of a later Sydney. He did not want for plainness or boldness of spirit. His letter on the French match may testify, he could speak his mind freely to Princes. The times did not call him to the scaffold.

The Sonnets which we oftenest call to mind of Milton were the compositions of his maturest years. Those of Sydney, which I am about to produce, were written in the very hey-day of his blood. They are stuck full of amorous fancies — far-fetched conceits, befitting his occupation; for True Love thinks no labour to send out Thoughts upon the vast, and more than Indian voyages, to bring home rich pearls, outlandish wealth, gums, jewels, spicery, to sacrifice in self-depreciating similitudes, as shadows of true amiabilities in the Beloved. We must be Lovers — or at least the cooling touch of time, the circum præcordia frigus, must not have so damped our faculties, as to take away our recollection that we were once so — before we can duly appreciate the glorious vanities, and graceful hyperboles, of the passion. The images which lie before our feet (though by some accounted the only natural) are least natural for the high Sydnean love to express its fancies by. They may serve for the loves of Tibullus, or the dear Author of the Schoolmistress; for passions that creep and whine in Elegies and Pastoral Ballads. I am sure Milton never loved at this rate. I am afraid some of his addresses (ad Leonoram I mean) have rather erred on the farther side; and that the poet came not much short of a religious indecorum, when he could thus apostrophise a singing-girl:—

Angelus unicuique suus (sic credite gentes)

Obtigit ætheriis ales ab ordinibus.

Quid mirum, Leonora, tibi si gloria major,

Nam tua præsentem vox sonat ipsa Deum?

Aut Deus, aut vacui certè mens tertia coeli,

Per tua secretò guttura serpit agens;

Serpit agens, facilisque docet mortalia corda

Sensim immortali assuescere posse sono.

QUOD SI CUNCTA QUIDEM DEUS EST, PER CUNCTAQUE FUSUS,

IN TE UNÂ LOQUITUR, CÆTERA MUTUS HABET.

This is loving in a strange fashion; and it requires some candour of construction (besides the slight darkening of a dead language) to cast a veil over the ugly appearance of something very like blasphemy in the last two verses. I think the Lover would have been staggered, if he had gone about to express the same thought in English. I am sure, Sydney has no nights like this. His extravaganzas do not strike at the sky, though he takes leave to adopt the pale Dian into a fellowship with his mortal passions.

I

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies;

How silently; and with how wan a face!

What! may it be, that even in heavenly place

That busy Archer his sharp arrows tries?

Sure, if that long-with-love-acquainted eyes

Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case;

I read it in thy looks; thy languish! grace

To me, that feel the like, thy state descries.

Then, even of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,

Is constant love deem’d there but want of wit?

Are beauties there as proud as here they be?

Do they above love to be loved, and yet

Those lovers scorn, whom that love doth possess?

Do they call virtue there —ungratefulness!

The last line of this poem is a little obscured by transposition. He means, Do they call ungratefulness there a virtue?

ii

Come, Sleep, O Sleep, the certain knot of peace,

The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe,

The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release,

The indifferent judge between the high and low;

With shield of proof shield me from out the prease19

Of those fierce darts despair at me doth throw;

O make in me those civil wars to cease:

I will good tribute pay, if thou do so.

Take thou of me sweet pillows, sweetest bed;

A chamber deaf to noise, and blind to light;

A rosy garland, and a weary head.

And if these things, as being thine by right,

Move not thy heavy grace, thou shalt in me,

Livelier than elsewhere, STELLA’S image see.

iii

The curious wits, seeing dull pensiveness

Bewray itself in my long-settled eyes,

Whence those same fumes of melancholy rise,

With idle pains, and missing aim, do guess.

Some, that know how my spring I did address,

Deem that my Muse some fruit of knowledge plies;

Others, because the Prince my service tries,

Think, that I think state errors to redress;

But harder judges judge, ambition’s rage,

Scourge of itself, still climbing slippery place,

Holds my young brain captiv’d in golden cage.

O fools, or over-wise! alas, the race

Of all my thoughts hath neither stop nor start,

But only STELLA’S eyes, and STELLA’S heart.

iv

Because I oft in dark abstracted guise

Seem most alone in greatest company,

With dearth of words, or answers quite awry,

To them that would make speech of speech arise;

They deem, and of their doom the rumour flies,

That poison foul of bubbling Pride doth lie

So in my swelling breast, that only I

Fawn on myself, and others do despise;

Yet Pride, I think, doth not my Soul possess,

Which looks too oft in his unflattering glass:

But one worse fault —Ambition— I confess,

That makes me oft my best friends overpass,

Unseen, unheard — while Thought to highest place

Bends all his powers, even unto STELLA’S grace.

v

Having this day, my horse, my hand, my lance,

Guided so well that I obtained the prize,

Both by the judgment of the English eyes,

And of some sent from that sweet enemy — France;

Horsemen my skill in horsemanship advance;

Townsfolk my strength; a daintier judge applies

His praise to sleight, which from good use doth rise;

Some lucky wits impute it but to chance;

Others, because of both sides I do take

My blood from them, who did excel in this,

Think Nature me a man of arms did make.

How far they shot awry! the true cause is,

STELLA look’d on, and from her heavenly face

Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.

vi

In martial sports I had my cunning tried,

And yet to break more staves did me address,

While with the people’s shouts (I must confess)

Youth, luck, and praise, even fill’d my veins with pride —

When Cupid, having me (his slave) descried

In Mars’s livery, prancing in the press,

“What now, Sir Fool!” said he; “I would no less:

Look here, I say.” I look’d, and STELLA spied,

Who hard by made a window send forth light.

My heart then quak’d, then dazzled were mine eyes;

One hand forgot to rule, th’other to fight;

Nor trumpet’s sound I heard, nor friendly cries.

My foe came on, and beat the air for me —

Till that her blush made me my shame to see.

vii

No more, my dear, no more these counsels try;

O give my passions leave to run their race;

Let Fortune lay on me her worst disgrace;

Let folk o’er-charged with brain against me cry;

Let clouds bedim my face, break in mine eye;

Let me no steps, but of lost labour, trace;

Let all the earth with scorn recount my case —

But do not will me from my love to fly.

I do not envy Aristotle’s wit,

Nor do aspire to Cæsar’s bleeding fame;

Nor aught do care, though some above me sit;

Nor hope, nor wish, another course to frame.

But that which once may win thy cruel heart:

Thou art my wit, and thou my virtue art.

viii

Love still a boy, and oft a wanton, is,

School’d only by his mother’s tender eye;

What wonder then, if he his lesson miss,

When for so soft a rod dear play he try?

And yet my STAR, because a sugar’d kiss

In sport I suck’d, while she asleep did lie,

Doth lour, nay chide, nay threat, for only this.

Sweet, it was saucy LOVE, not humble I.

But no ‘scuse serves; she makes her wrath appear

In beauty’s throne — see now, who dares come near

Those scarlet judges, threat’ning bloody pain?

O heav’nly Fool, thy most kiss-worthy face

Anger invests with such a lovely grace,

That anger’s self I needs must kiss again.

ix

I never drank of Aganippe well,

Nor ever did in shade of Tempe sit,

And Muses scorn with vulgar brains to dwell;

Poor lay-man I, for sacred rites unfit.

Some do I bear of Poets’ fury tell,

But (God wot) wot not what they mean by it;

And this I swear by blackest brook of hell,

I am no pick-purse of another’s wit.

How falls it then, that with so smooth an ease

My thoughts I speak, and what I speak doth flow

In verse, and that my verse best wits doth please?

Guess me the cause — what is it thus? — fye, no.

Or so? — much less. How then? sure thus it is,

My lips are sweet, inspired with STELLA’S kiss.

x

Of all the kings that ever here did reign,

Edward, named Fourth, as first in praise I name,

Not for his fair outside, nor well-lined brain —

Although less gifts imp feathers oft on Fame.

Nor that he could, young-wise, wise-valiant, frame

His sire’s revenge, join’d with a kingdom’s gain;

And, gain’d by Mars could yet mad Mars so tame,

That Balance weigh’d what Sword did late obtain.

Nor that he made the Floure-deluce so ‘fraid,

Though strongly hedged of bloody Lions’ paws

That witty Lewis to him a tribute paid.

Nor this, nor that, nor any such small cause —

But only, for this worthy knight durst prove

To lose his crown rather than fail his love.

xi

O happy Thames, that didst my STELLA bear,

I saw thyself, with many a smiling line

Upon thy cheerful face, Joy’s livery wear,

While those fair planets on thy streams did shine;

The boat for joy could not to dance forbear,

While wanton winds, with beauty so divine

Ravish’d, stay’d not, till in her golden hair

They did themselves (O sweetest prison) twine.

And fain those Æol’s youth there would their stay

Have made; but, forced by nature still to fly,

First did with puffing kiss those locks display.

She, so dishevell’d, blush’d; from window I

With sight thereof cried out, O fair disgrace,

Let honour’s self to thee grant highest place!

xii

Highway, since you my chief Parnassus be;

And that my Muse, to some ears not unsweet,

Tempers her words to trampling horses’ feet,

More soft than to a chamber melody —

Now blessed You bear onward blessed Me

To Her, where I my heart safe left shall meet,

My Muse and I must you of duty greet

With thanks and wishes, wishing thankfully.

Be you still fair, honour’d by public heed,

By no encroachment wrong’d, nor time forgot;

Nor blam’d for blood, nor shamed for sinful deed.

And that you know, I envy you no lot

Of highest wish, I wish you so much bliss,

Hundreds of years you STELLA’S feet may kiss.

19 Press.

Of the foregoing, the first, the second, and the last sonnet, are my favourites. But the general beauty of them all is, that they are so perfectly characteristical. The spirit of “learning and of chivalry,”— of which union, Spenser has entitled Sydney to have been the “president,”— shines through them. I confess I can see nothing of the “jejune” or “frigid” in them; much less of the “stiff” and “cumbrous”— which I have sometimes heard objected to the Arcadia. The verse runs off swiftly and gallantly. It might have been tuned to the trumpet; or tempered (as himself expresses it) to “trampling horses’ feet.” They abound in felicitous phrases —

O heav’nly Fool, thy most kiss-worthy face —

8th Sonnet.

— Sweet pillows, sweetest bed;

A chamber deaf to noise, and blind to light;

A rosy garland, and a weary head.

2nd Sonnet.

— That sweet enemy — France —

5th Sonnet.

But they are not rich in words only, in vague and unlocalised feelings — the failing too much of some poetry of the present day — they are full, material, and circumstantiated. Time and place appropriates every one of them. It is not a fever of passion wasting itself upon a thin diet of dainty words, but a transcendent passion pervading and illuminating action, pursuits, studies, feats of arms, the opinions of contemporaries and his judgment of them. An historical thread runs through them, which almost affixes a date to them; marks the when and where they were written.

I have dwelt the longer upon what I conceive the merit of these poems, because I have been hurt by the wantonness (I wish I could treat it by a gentler name) with which W.H. takes every occasion of insulting the memory of Sir Philip Sydney. But the decisions of the Author of Table Talk, &c., (most profound and subtle where they are, as for the most part, just) are more safely to be relied upon, on subjects and authors he has a partiality for, than on such as he has conceived an accidental prejudice against. Milton wrote Sonnets, and was a king-hater; and it was congenial perhaps to sacrifice a courtier to a patriot. But I was unwilling to lose a fine idea from my mind. The noble images, passions, sentiments, and poetical delicacies of character, scattered all over the Arcadia (spite of some stiffness and encumberment), justify to me the character which his contemporaries have left us of the writer. I cannot think with the Critic, that Sir Philip Sydney was that opprobrious thing which a foolish nobleman in his insolent hostility chose to term him. I call to mind the epitaph made on him, to guide me to juster thoughts of him; and I repose upon the beautiful lines in the “Friend’s Passion for his Astrophel,” printed with the Elegies of Spenser and others.

You knew — who knew not Astrophel?

(That I should live to say I knew,

And have not in possession still!)—

Things known permit me to renew —

Of him you know his merit such,

I cannot say — you hear — too much.

Within these woods of Arcady

He chief delight and pleasure took;

And on the mountain Partheny.

Upon the crystal liquid brook,

The Muses met him every day,

That taught him sing, to write, and say.

When he descended down the mount,

His personage seemed most divine:

A thousand graces one might count

Upon his lovely chearful eyne.

To hear him speak, and sweetly smile,

You were in Paradise the while,

A sweet attractive kind of grace;

A full assurance given by looks;

Continual comfort in a face,

The lineaments of Gospel books —

I trow that count’nance cannot lye,

Whose thoughts are legible in the eye.


Above all others this is he,

Which erst approved in his song,

That love and honour might agree,

And that pure love will do no wrong.

Sweet saints, it is no sin or blame

To love a man of virtuous name.

Did never Love so sweetly breathe

In any mortal breast before:

Did never Muse inspire beneath

A Poet’s brain with finer store.

He wrote of Love with high conceit,

And beauty rear’d above her height.

Or let any one read the deeper sorrows (grief running into rage) in the Poem — the last in the collection accompanying the above — which from internal testimony I believe to be Lord Brooke’s — beginning with “Silence augmenteth grief,”— and then seriously ask himself, whether the subject of such absorbing and confounding regrets could have been that thing which Lord Oxford termed him.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lamb/charles/elia/book2.17.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38