Friday, April 25, 2008


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 languisht grace
To me that feel the like, thy state descries.
Then, even of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deemed 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?
-- Sir Philip Sidney

If you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose just one, I'd choose this as my favorite sonnet. The opening line is clearly written by someone who was in complete control of his language, and I can still remember double taking the first time I read that line, and then reading it a couple of more times before reading the rest of the poem -- it's arresting, you instantly get a sense -- but not too much of one -- of what the poem is going to be about, it has a nice feel to it, and then there is the mastery of poetic language and words, the heavy spondees forcing you to slow down as you read, setting the somber mood for the rest of the poem. The final couplet is also perfect: plaintive, accusatory, a little whiny -- it packs the wallop that the rest of the poem builds to, a requirement of this form. As I recall, I was in a difficult relationship when I read the poem for the first time, which is one of the reasons it resonated so strongly with me then, and that last couplet captured perfectly the way I felt.

I've read Shakespeare's sonnets so many times I know some of them by heart, Donne, Milton, Drayton, the later bastardizations of the form by Owen and others, but this one, one of the very first written in English, stands out to me not just because it's great in itself, but because it demonstrates the possibilities of the form, captures the tautness of expression forced on the poet by the rhyme scheme and 14 line requirement. If Sidney had not written this one poem (I confess I'm not too enamored of the rest of Astrophel and Stella), would the sonnet have become as important as it did in the English language? Would Shakespeare have written his own sonnets, let alone written the plays by which most people know him, and which have probably done their part in shaping history since his time in ways we can't even begin to understand?