Certain Sonnets Overview

Philip Sidney (ca. 1581) A self-selected 32-poem collection, most of which was completed by 1581, Certain Sonnets comprises 27 original poems and five translations from Latin, Spanish, and Italian. It is a miscellany of forms such as sapphics (a form using four unrhymed lines with the first three in trochaic pentameter), songs, quantitative verses (meter of Classical Greek and Latin poetry that measures the length of time required to pronounce syllables), quatorzains, and so forth. The collection also includes eight poems based on contemporary tunes (e.g., an English consort song, madrigals, villanelles). In particular, the tune used for Sonnet 23 ("Who hath his fancy pleased") is from the thematically syntactical "Wilhelmus van Nas-souwe," the Dutch national anthem, from which Sir Philip Sidney also borrowed the syllabic structure and rhyme pattern. Sonnet 3 ("The fire to see my wrongs for anger burneth") and Sonnet 4 ("The nightingale, as soon as April bringeth") are both based on the Italian song "Non credo gia che piu infelice amante" (I do not believe there is a more unhappy lover). Sonnet 26 uses the tune and syllabic structure of the madrigal, "No, no, no, no, giammai non cangero" (No, no, no, no, never will I change). Sonnets 12-14 are translations from Horace, Catullus, and Seneca, while Sonnets 28 and 29 are translations from Montemayor's Diana. Sonnet 16a is actually a sonnet by Sidney's friend Edward Dyer (1543-1607).

The first sonnet in this collection presents a series of internally opposed or oxymoronic statements—for example, "since, shunning pain, I ease can never find" (l. 1) or "since heart in chilling fear with ice is warmed" (l. 7)—and ends in the final couplet with a yielding to the pain and servitude of love ("Thou art my lord, and I thy vowed slave," l. 14). The phrasing and movement of the sonnet is Petrarchan. As an opening poem, though, it is formulaic. Sonnet 2 draws out the idea of a capricious and willful Love making an example of his subject, who attempts to resist his (Love's) power while Love "resolved to make me pattern of his might / like foe, whose wits inclined to deadly spite, / would often kill, to breed more feeling pain" (ll. 2-4).

Sonnet 3 ("The fire to see my wrongs for anger bur-neth") is a song Amphialus has performed for the imprisoned Philoclea by pretending to present it for the benefit of Anaxius in the new Arcadia (The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, book 3, chapter 15). The next poem, Sonnet 4, is also written to the same tune; however, this sonnet focuses on the classic subject from Ovid's Metamorphosis of Philomela, metamorphosed into a nightingale, after her rape by her brother-in-law Tereus. The poem equates raping and being raped with "wanting" and "too much having," alleging that being raped is simply having too much love and that the pain of love and desire is sadder than being raped: "But I, who daily craving / Cannot have to content me, / Have


more cause to lament me, / since wanting is more woe than too much having" (ll. 17-20).

A subset of sonnets are included on the subject of "his lady's face in pain": sonnets 8 ("The scourge of life, and death's extreme disgrace"), 9 ("Woe, woe to me, on me return the smart"), 10 ("Thou Pain, the only guest of loathed constraint"), and 11 ("And have I heard her say, 'O cruel Pain!'"). Sonnet 9 is a blazon of his beloved: "Her eyes, whom chance doth never move" (l. 5), "Her breath, which makes a sour answer sweet" (l. 6), "Her milken breasts" (l. 7), and "her aye well-stepping feet" (l. 8).

The popular song, Sonnet 30, begins in glee that Love is dead—"Ring out your bells, let mourning shows be spread, / For love is dead" (ll. 1-2) and "From them that use men thus: / Good lord, deliver us" (ll. 9-10)—only to end with anger: "Alas, I live: rage hath this error bred; / Love is not dead, but sleepeth / In her unmatched mind, / Where she his counsel keepeth / Till due desert she find" (ll. 31-36), moving from pleased to saddened to angered to the final plea of "Good lord deliver us."

The collection ends on a resigned note: rejecting love and desiring to move the mind (ll. 1-4) to higher things; rejecting love's enslavement but seeing a kind of death (ll. 13-14) in that and yet opening up to an eternal love that will not rust or fade. The final poem is followed by the Latin inscription Splendidis longum valedico nugis (I bid a long farewell to splendid trifles [his poems]). Fortunately, Sidney did not completely abandon such trifles.

See also Astrophil and Stella (overview); Herbert, Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke; Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet; sonnet sequence.

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