Story, G. M., and Helen Gardner, eds. The Sonnets of William
Alabaster. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.
SONNET 15 ("MY SOUL A WORLD IS BY CONTRACTION") William Alabaster (1597-1598?) Despite critics' negative assessment of some of William Alabaster's work, his Sonnet 15 appeals to aficionados of metaphysical poets and poetry as a prime example of its early form. The sonnet, like the rest of Alabaster's works unpublished in his lifetime, has been placed by scholars among numbers 12-19, labeled the Penitential Sonnets, within his Divine Meditations for their marked tone of regret. In 15 the CoNCEIT of tears is used to represent the cleans ing Christians receive through the sacrament of baptism, with water long a traditional symbol of new life or rebirth. The penitent's tears are compared to "april showers" converted by natural forces to "vapours," suggesting Christ's transformative power in the imagery of water becoming gas. Alabaster cleverly contrasts faith with logic, anticipating the polarization by poets of a later age of religion and science, demonstrating faith's power literally to vaporize rationality.
He opens with a strong metaphysical conceit that establishes his metaphor of physical transformation by writing, "My soul a world is by contraction," suggesting not a miniaturization of the physical world, but rather an expansion of the spiritual soul. His speaker continues, "The heavens therein is my internal sense / Moved by my will as an intelligence," introducing intuition and desire as ways of knowing the world. This contracted world operates in a cosmic manner revolving around God, represented here by the sun and ever-expanding through faith and love:
My heart the element, my love the sun, And as the sun about the earth doth run, And with his beams doth draw thin vapours thence,
Which after in the air do condense
And pour down rain upon the earth anon,
Alabaster skillfully portrays a religious conversion as the extraction of love from man's heart by God's power, which then literally vaporizes that love.
The following line demonstrates what happens to those "thin vapours" as the speaker moves into the sonnet's final six-line response. The sun's heat becomes "an attractive fire" that draws from human love "The purest argument wit can desire." Such suggestion presents another paradox, the derivation of wit, or intelligence, from love, an emotion believed to have no basis in thought or wit. Only then, according to the speaker, can a human develop devotion to God, "Whereby devotion after may arise," with the verb arise recalling the previous imagery of a "vapour." These lines adequately sustain the contraction conceit that began the sonnet.
The concluding couplet offers the sonnet's weakest lines, a common problem with Alabaster's poetry. The penultimate line self-consciously comments on the poet's work when it refers to the metaphorical figure called a conceit, "And these conceits, digest by thoughts' retire," appearing a clever attempt to compare the artist's creativity to the sacred creative act. However, the interest that line arouses is drowned, both literally and figuratively, in the concluding comparison of the conceits to the natural phenomenon of rain: "Are turned into april showers of tears." Alabaster seems to have chosen an easy escape by aligning the nurture of the soul by thought, devotion, and even regret, with that of spring flowers sustained by rain. Perhaps wishing to suggest the simplification often inherent to the process of contraction, he instead offers a summation of heady thoughts in lines reminiscent of a child's verse.
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