20 January 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/4

A young prince pleads his case through a serenade to a woman held prisoner in his castle, but she, alas, loves another:

The music was of cornets whereof one answering the other, with a sweet emulation striving for the glory of music, and striking upon the smooth face of the quiet lake, was then delivered up to the castle walls, which with a proud reverberation spreading it into the air, it seemed before the harmony came to the ear that it had enriched itself in travel, the nature of those places adding melody to that melodious instrument. And when a while that instrument had made a brave proclamation to all unpossessed minds of attention, an excellent concert straight followed of five viols and as many voices; which all being but orators of their master's passions, bestowed this song upon her that thought of another matter:

The fire to see my wrongs for anger burneth;
The air in rain for my affliction weepeth:
The sea to ebb for grief his flowing turneth:
The earth with pity dull his centre keepeth.
          Fame is with wonder blazed;
          Time runs away for sorrow:
          Place standeth still amazed
To see my night of evils, which hath no morrow.
          Alas, alonely she no pity taketh
To know my miseries, but chaste and cruel,
          My fall her glory maketh;
Yet still her eyes give to my flames their fuel.

Fire, burn me quite, till sense of burning leave me:
Air, let me draw thy breath no more in anguish:
Sea, drown'd in thee, of tedious life bereave me;
Earth, take this earth wherein my spirits languish.
          Fame, say I was not born:
          Time, haste my dying hour:
          Place, see my grave uptorn:
Fire, air, sea, earth, fame, time, place, show your power.
          Alas from all their helps I am exiled,
For hers am I, and Death fears her displeasure.
          Fie Death thou art beguiled:
Though I be hers, she makes of me no treasure.

Sir Philip Sidney, from The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia

As in some baroque opera arias, the elaborate patterning and repetition here signal not artificiality but rather intensity of emotion. The speaker sees a reflection of his rejected love in the entire world: each of the first four lines is devoted to one of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) that at the time were thought to make up the world. Each of them is doing what it naturally does – fire burns, the air lets loose rain, the sea ebbs and flows, the earth just lies there – but so all-absorbing is his passion that he can only see these elements as reflections of his woe. The same is true of the next three dimensions he mentions (fame, time, and place). Fame (that is, rumor, gossip, reputation, how one is seen by the rest of society) "blazes forth" (that is, spreads, which is what fame does); time runs on, though the speaker personifies it as running away for sorrow; place just stays put, as one might expect, but the speaker personifies it as petrified with astonishment at the sight of his unhappiness.

The stanza ends with praise of his beloved, who is chaste and (therefore) cruel; he feels it adds to the luster of her reputation that she rejects him ("my fall her glory maketh") but he can't help loving her. As often in these poems, it is her eyes that draw him in and make him burn with love (eyes that he sees of course with his own eyes). The unattainable and gloriously perfect loved one is a staple of love poems, going back from Petrarch and Dante to the troubadors.

In the first seven lines of the second stanza, the speaker revisits in order each of the elements mentioned in the first stanza, only this time, instead of simply seeing them sympathizing with his plight, he asks each of them to end it in its appropriate way: the fire to burn him up, the air to suffocate him, the sea to drown him, the earth to bury him (he refers to his body as part of earth, dull and sluggish: "Earth, take this earth": remember, "dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return"), fame to deny his existence, time to hurry on to his death, place to be the location of his grave. In line 8 he calls on each of the seven, again in order, pleading with them to show their power by extinguishing his existence.

The last four lines of the second stanza also echo the first stanza by ending with praise of her: the powerful elements he has called on have no power over him, since he belongs solely to his indifferent beloved, who is such a paragon that even Death is afraid of displeasing her. The speaker ends by chiding Death for cheating himself of a victim, since she is indifferent to him ("she makes of me no treasure") and would not care if Death took him from her.

His devotion is as idealized as her perfection; The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia is more what we would call a romance than a novel. Even so the moods and emotions reflect a psychological reality to a novelistic extent; it is a shifting tale of complicated disguises, deceptions, and very theatrical self-representation and mis-representation (including one young hero who spends a large chunk of the book disguised as a woman, the Amazon warrior Zelmane, and is referred to by the narrator as "she" even though she is really a he. . . .). The linguistic devices here (the use of repetition, citing the elements, personifying Death) and the conceits (in the sense of elaborate metaphors and fanciful thoughts) are typical of poetry during the Renaissance, a period that valued rhetoric, learning, idealization, and exuberance. But I think they also appealed deeply to Sidney personally; I suspect he would have written along these lines even if it weren't the fashion (a fashion which he, as a leading poet of his time, to some extent created). His prose throughout the Arcadia is exuberant, musical, and patterned, "artificial" in a good way: he is constantly working changes on words, aware of how slippery their meaning is (or their meanings are), how much of it is mostly musical. There is a filler section of the Arcadia written by a friend of his after Sidney's untimely death in battle, and it is notably more straightforward and tamer in sound than the sections written by Sidney himself.

The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia has a very convoluted composition and publication history, which isn't really my concern here; I'll just say that the copy I used is the Penguin Classics edition, edited by Maurice Evans.

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