I’m very partial to a sonnet and was delighted, when teaching a course on Renaissance literature some years ago, to have the chance to indulge in some of my favourites. Marking the end-of-course essays, though, I was more dismayed than I can tell you when confronted with the datum that “Orsino puts Olivia on a pedal stool”. In at the ears and out at the pen without having passed through the brain… Think about pedal stools, then, as you read today’s poem, Astrophil and Stella I or ‘Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show‘ by Philip Sidney.
This poem sits squarely in the courtly love literary tradition of the late 16th/early 17th centuries, wherein the man was the helpless, inferior, helplessly inferior being who hoped by means of his deft verse (or other achievements) to persuade the Fair One to condescend and bestow her affections. He could never hope to “deserve” the Beloved, but she might take pity on him and love him anyway; and we see this hoped-for sequence in the first quatrain of this sonnet, where the poet maps out the desired route between ‘pleasure… knowledge…pity [and] grace’. It’s a splendidly deft summation of a tradition, but I also love it as an evocation of what it’s like trying to persuade yourself of something; trying to rationalise or manage your anxiety by means of CBT-type Logical Thinking.
I also like ‘Loving in truth’ as a poem about writing poetry: how ‘turning others’ leaves’ and scanning ‘others’ feet’ can get in the way, serving only to heighten the inadequacy and paralysis rather than free and inspire. What a fantastic image of how ‘Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows’. Been there. Sol Saks (best known as the screenwriter for Bewitched) may remind all writers that ‘the worst thing you write is better than the best thing you didn’t write’; but it’s hard to remember that when you’re grappling with your Inner Critic.
More than all of this, though, I love the Sidney for its reminder of how hard it can be to say something simple—indeed, anything at all—when a lot hangs for us on the outcome: the more it matters, the more prone we may be to “overthinking”. In that wonderful final line the Muse sounds like she’s got rather tired of all the faffing; but of course she doesn’t acknowledge how terrifying it can be to expose your heart. No: it is the poem as a whole which does that, witnessing the fear and vulnerability which are never directly expressed.
Ain’t that great?