Controversies, #3 (Fall 1999)

"Love, Desire, the Lyric Poem and the Invention of Literary Personae"

    Past students of English 211 have had many productive discussions in the course's public folder.  This is one I have reproduced because of its enduring importance to the study of literature.  Please feel free to cite these opinions in papers (using proper MLA style!) and to bring up these issues for further discussion in the public folder.  You may make a place for yourself in this discussion for future students to read.  The entries are presented, unedited, in the order in which they were posted.

    Arnie's Note on #3: These early speculations about the identities of persons referred to in lyric poems produced an important distinction between historical documents like letters and poems deliberately circulated among a sophisticated group of courtly readers.  Particpants: Heather Baron, Natasha Gorski, Kathleen McGill, and Arnie.

        From the reading that we had to do over the weekend I found # 72 on page 469 to be quite thought provoking. I liked how Sir Philip Sidey brought up the question of the distinction between love and desire. Upon looking up the two words in the dictionary (just for some clarification- even though we all act as if we know what these two words really mean!) this is what I found: Love-strong affection for another person, a sweetheart; Desire-wish or long for, crave, to ask for/solicit, a sensual feeling

        This would seem to me that the two are Sidney says-"One from the other scarcely can descry [distinguish], While each doth blow the fire upon my heart" yet, still, what is their inseperable relationship? Does one cause the other? If so, which one would come first? Or are they simultaneous actions? It is also interesting that Sidney mentions desire again in his short piece on pg 501. In Thou Blind Man's Mark, desire is clearly cast in a negative where does this leave love? Is it guilty by association? Or is it off the hook? Just some q's to get you thinking on a Sunday night....:) Nikki Frame, 10/3/99

        But isn't love more or less a "cure" for desire? As you defined desire as a longing or craving, isn't true love the acquisition of whatever was longed for? If I'm really craving some Key Lime Pie, once I get it I'm not hungry anymore, right?

        Or we could define love by Plato's definition...or at least somebody could...somebody other than me...but I think it has something to do with a relationship between a man and a woman with the absence of any sexual involvement. See?...I've got a dictionary too.

        But that definition doesn't sound right because it's pretty obvious that Sidney is torn up inside, that he probably wants some sexual involvement. Does he ever. But then again, maybe I'm just reading too much into this, maybe he didn't intend for a double meaning of the line "my Cupid's dart." Maybe I just have a filthy mind. Maybe I don't even know what I'm talking about. I usually don't. -Donald W. Pfeffer, 10/4/99

        It seems to me that Sidney is speaking of a similar love to the one that Hoby professes in The Courtier-- he also seems to link Virtue with surface beauty (71) and thus with Love, but condemns desire, which is not as 'good' as love. He further does this in Thou Blind Man's Mark, but seems to contradict himself in 72, when he says that desire goes along with his pure love, but he must banish it to be worthy. If Sidney was a great courtier, then I assume that he would use Hoby's version of love, from the italian, and link it with beauty and virtue, but not a mere bodily desire. Shana Hellman, 10/4/99

        The thread of this great discussion about desire vs. reason (and desire vs. platonic love) often passes close to an important issue in lyric poetry--when an author takes pains to construct a "persona" for her/himself, however thin, to what degree may we risk identifying the author with the persona's stated views? Were this drama, we'd have little doubt that neither Astrophil nor Stella "speak for" Sir Phillip Sidney. However, lyric poetry sets up an uncanny intimacy between writer/speaker and reader/hearer which encourages a degree of belief in the veracity of what we read/hear.

        In Shana's posting, this question of identity becomes more important because of the question the Norton editors raise by printing "Thou Blind Man's Mark" separately from the Astrophil poems. See the note on p. 500. If this poem might be called "closer to Sidney, the man" than the Astrophil poems, how might it shed light on the liberties Sidney-the-poet takes with his representation of Astrophil's opinions and thought processes? Arnie, 10/4/99

        I was wondering, after reading Sydney's sonnet #9 and Shakespeare's sonnet #130- is it possible that both are examing a "dark lady" through different eyes (Sydney using the Petrarch sonnet view and Shakespeare using an anti-Petriarch) to examine the same idea of a desirious and degrading love interest? In other more clear words, are Shakespeare and Sydney falling for the same type of women but each sees her differently(in the poem that is)? Natasha Gorski, 10/4/99

        I'm not sure if I'm interpreting the question correctly, but thinking about it gives me yet another reason to delay work on other, more pressing assignments. The speaker in "Thou Blind Man's Mark" (whether Sidney or not) seems to have a much better grasp of the rift between desire and virtuous love than Astrophil ever exhibits. Considering Sidney's position as "Super Courtier" (not to mention devout Protestant), it stands to reason that this perception of desire ("Fond fancy's scum....Band of all evils"--at any rate completely removed from love and virtue) would be more attune with his own, personal views on virtuous--namely, Platonic--love.

    Astrophil, on the other hand, cannot manage to separate desire from his love for Stella. He recognizes, in 5, that "true beauty virtue is indeed, / Whereof this beauty can be but a shade" and in 71 explains that Stella's beauty causes minds to move towards perfection, or true goodness: "beauty draws the heart to love, / As fast thy Virtue bends that love to good" It's Platonic love in a nutshell--your mind strives towards beautiful things, and gradually comes to appreciate all beautiful things on earth, then beautiful ideas, and finally ideal Beauty, which is equivalent to Goodness. So Astrophil's got the right idea, except that ""...ah," Desire still cries, "give me some food.""

        In 72 he admits that desire "so oft clings to my pure love, that I / One from the other scarcely can descry." He ends up really pushing his luck in Fourth Song, especially considering his agreement in 69 to take a "virtuous course." When separated from Stella, instead of following Hoby's advice and embracing ideal Beauty, he looks at beautiful women "because of [Stella] they models be" (91). He's not even looking for Platonic love.

        But was he ever? Back in 52 he says, "Let Virtue have that Stella's self; yet thus, / That Virtue but that body grant to us." Hmpf. Virtuous, indeed. Nicole Barnabee, 10/5/00

        Regarding Shakespeare's sonnet 138, pg 821...I found it quite telling and truthful what the big S man states in his last few lines..."love's best habit is in seeming trust...therefore i lie with her and she with me, and in our faults by lies we flattered be." What is trust? Is it something that we inherently give away to those we call our lover's or does it have to be earned? It seems as if S is saying that it might be something a relationship posseses in the beginning, but then fades with time and is not desired anymore because no one wants to face the music and own up to certain "truths". This also made me think of his sonnet 106, pg 817..."for we..have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise"

        What ever happened to paying a compliment? Do we lack these tongues to praise because we fear that they will bring on negative thoughts/truths as well?Most of us tend to love compliments but shy away from criticism... Nikki Frame, 10/10/99

        In the introduction to the Shakespear sonnets, it was mentioned that they were different because they focused on a young handsome man and a conniving deceitful woman rather than the traditional, beautiful, graceful woman. Why, then, does sonnet 130 speak about such a mediocre, rather unexceptional mistress? She obviously does not fit in the role of the woman described in the introduction. Perhaps the intro. is not ment to be applied to all the sonnets as a whole. Beth Allee, 10/11/99

        If the assumptions of the intro (about the Sonnets being written to the Fair Man and the Dark Lady) are correct, I tend to think that Sonnet 130 is addressed to the Dark Lady.... Heather Baron, 10/15/99

        Both Heather and Beth are bravely tackling the issue of the sonnets' addressees, and indirectly they raise the question of whether the Norton introduction is a sufficient warrant to use when asking whether more than one poem addresses the same historical person. I'd like to put you all on interpretive grounds somewhat independent of what the Norton editors say by examining what we know would have been available to Shakespeare from the poetic tradition of the previous ten years when he sat down to compose his poems.      For the full sermon, click here.

        But in brief, most poets were capable of rather startling degrees of pure play when they wrote, and the first stage of that play involved the characterization of the poem's speaking voice, and the assumptions we are invited to make about the personae of entities mentioned or addressed or also speaking in the poem (e.g., Sidney's "Stella" voice, which apparently is far more chaste and virginal than the historical Penelope Rich!). This is not to say that a poem might contain the bare, honest, heart-felt plea of a real writer to a real Beloved, meant only for her/him and merely "overheard" by us, as T.S. Eliot put it. But that type of poem is perhaps rarer in this era of manuscript-circulated poems whose authors knew quite well that our ears were at the keyhole, at least, or even anticipated performing the poems in public with the Beloved sitting among the others. In such a circumstance, the poet's affectation of a persona, literally "mask," allows things to be said that could not ordinarily be said, and the poet's creation of a peraona for the lover addressed in the poem can further distance the poem from its immediate human referents. For more considerations of this type of performance-based issue, see Charley Gibbons' posting on Wyatt, below. Arnie, 10/15/99

        Reading through Wyatt's poetry raised a couple of questions for me. I wonder if he performed any of his poems for the court of Henry VIII, where he served as courtier? If so, which ones might he have chosen? I believe that poems such as 'My Lute, Awake!,' 'Blame Not My Lute,' and 'The Long Love That in My Thought Doth Harbor' may have been heard by the court. More introspective and controversial pieces like 'They Flee From Me' and 'My Own John Poins' would most likely have been kept to Wyatt and very close friends. The second question has to deal with Wyatt's translations of Petrarch's poetry, especially 'Whoso List to Hunt.' When we heard the original version of Petrarch's poem in class, it sounded quite different from Wyatt's interpretation. Could Wyatt have been filtering the original poetry through himself more than striving for a literal translation? Was he commenting on Petrarch's work? Was he simply not careful in the translation? Charles Gibbons, 10/5/99

        Some excellent speculations here, Charlie! The intimate-truthful poem might have some defenses, but it's far less easy to parade before an easily offended court than a more anonymous, general purpose expression of a culture's issues. Translations are important precisely because they amount to a "reading" and an adaptation of the predecessor poet's work. Good poets can make mistakes, but they rarely let them see the light of day. In general, assume the poem's features are intentional until you can prove otherwise, especially in modern published works which have been edited thoroughly before they see print. The older the work, though, the more conceivable it becomes that the author might have had a temporary brain freeze like those which we experience in midst of an exam essay. Arnie, 10/5/99