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The Strange Thing Called Love

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Despite the complexity of the sonnets that William Shakespeare and Sir Philip Sidney create, one is left with a feeling of total admiration for the rich language in each poem that forces its reader to pay very close attention to detail. The sonnets differ in the focus of metaphors for love and how this passion affects the poets; however, both of the poems intrigue their audience through their integration of ornate imagery in their portrayal of beauty and love.

There is perhaps no collection of English poetry more widely known and praised than Shakespeare’s Sonnets. His brilliant ability to create over 150 sonnets, containing a series of related and mutually revealing metaphors has captivated his readers’ minds for centuries. According to Murray Kreiger, “Shakespeare has a method of creating constitutive symbols in one sonnet and, having earned his right to them there, transferring them whole to another sonnet, with their full burden of borrowed meaning, earned elsewhere. Thus a creative symbol in one sonnet becomes a sign, part of the raw materials in another” (73). As it briefly touches on many gripping ideas of love, the opening sonnet serves as a model for setting tone and acquainting the readers with the style of the series to follow, giving the readers a taste of what to expect:

From fairest creature we desire to increase,

That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,

Fairest creatures represent all of those who are considered the most beautiful beings. Shakespeare reminds the man he loves of the need to preserve his beauty through procreation. Shakespeare writes this sonnet for a beautiful man whom he is in love with. He urges this man to follow the principle of reproduction and the improvement of one’s generation, choosing the “fairest”, or the most beautiful mates. Using an agricultural metaphor he refers to an increase in harvest, by which one seed of corn becomes many. “The best stock must always be used in breeding, otherwise there is an overall decline and failure in productivity” (Oxquarry). The beauty’s rose is a symbol of all objects considered aesthetic, therefore implying that reproduction between the most beautiful beings is the only way to preserve one’s beauty. Shakespeare discusses the importance of keeping the beauty alive and places great importance on improving it from generation to generation. The underlying theme of these two lines is the general greatness of immortality of beauty.

But as the riper should by time decease

His tender heir might bear his memory:

The noun “riper” refers to the one who has already matured, someone older who is ready to harvest, or in other words yield more crops. And the phrase “by time decease” means that the riper is going to die at some point and time. This line can also mean that the person has already reached his peak and has “ripened” or matured. Since rotting is the next and final step after something has ripened, this statement implies that the cycle of life is almost finished for that person, foreshadowing one’s demise. Once again this is an agricultural metaphor that is carried on from the previous two lines. The poet reminds his lover of the significance in procreation for the sake of preservation in the next line as he refers to “tender heir”. The phrase signifies young children to be born who will “bear his memory”, in other words the children who will continue the legacy of their predecessors.

But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,

Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,”

Making a famine where abundance lies,

Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel:

The word “contracted” suggests that this individual is obligated to his own beauty, which implies vanity as he only shares this beauty with only his own reflection. The “light’s flame” describes the only source of man-made light in Shakespeare’s days: candles, oil lamps and tapers. Shakespeare refers to these devices and the way they work as a metaphor, inferring that the only way for a source of light to operate is through feeding itself with itself. This is obvious as he mentions the self-substantial fuel that is essential to produce light. Shakespeare uses this contraption of light to depict how one can use oneself up through the journey of life, implying that one will eventually die out, unless they go the right way about it by reproducing.

Subsequently, while “abundance” is an allusion to the rich qualities of being young, “famine” is contrasted to refer to the emptiness that is now created as the fuel runs out. Consequently, the poet feels that the young man owes it to himself to reproduce; and will be acting as an enemy towards himself in his refusal to do so, as this will lead to extinction.

Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament,

And only herald to the gaudy spring,

The poet refers to the man as the principal object that has the ability to remind the world of beauty. He also infers that only an individual who is beautiful and young can bring color into the world. Spring signifies the beginning of life cycle, a rebirth after a long cold winter. These two lines imply that the only factor that can bring brightness into this world is youth and the rebirth of beauty.

Within thine own bud buriest thy content,

And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding

“Content” here means substance, most likely referring to semen, that is wasted as it is used for self-pleasure, rather than pleasure in procreation. The poet refers to the man as the “sweet idiot”, which shows that although he feels that the man is unwise in his vanity, he still thinks him to be sweet. Shakespeare scolds the young man for the misuse of his semen, which is not used properly for means of reproduction. “Niggarding” here means being stingy, as the poet considers this man to be wasting himself away in his failure to procreate, and being miserly in the fact that he denies the world of an offspring.

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,

To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Shakespeare finishes his first sonnet by urging the young man to take pity on the world, which will otherwise be bereft of the man’s beauty. He mentions that the man is going to deprive the whole world of their share of beauty if he does not reproduce since the only way to fight extinction of beauty is through the process of procreation. He will also be considered a “glutton”, if he hoards his beauty all to himself.

In conclusion, the first sonnet is dedicated to urging the young man to procreate in order to preserve his beauty. Shakespeare does this in a very matter-of-fact way, listing reasons why the young man shall reproduce, and projecting an underlying theme of time’s threat to youth, beauty and life itself. He also reminds the young man that the only way to counter this peril is through the replication of a parent’s beauty within his offspring and therefore continuation of the family line. And according to Kenneth Muir, “to refrain from procreating is to be guilty of narcissism, and of cruelty to future generations” (45).

Phillip Sidney’s series of sonnets, Astrophil and Stella, are similar to that of Shakespeare’s as they incorporate strong imagery and are full of metaphors to project the author’s emotional state. Reidhead states, “Sidney’s sonnets are gathered together to provide a glimpse into an intimate portrait of the poet’s inner life, and serve as a mirror to every nuance of his emotional being” (916). In sonnet forty-seven, the poet writes to the woman whom he is in love with:

What, have I thus betrayed my liberty?

Can those black beams such burning marks engrave

In my free side? Or am I born a slave

Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny

The author refers to betrayal of his heart’s liberty as he feels disloyalty to his initial intention of not letting his heart fall for someone. His lovers’ eyes are the black beams described which imprison him through their gaze. As she enslaves him, her looks leave marks of slavery on him, making his heart completely belong to her. He asks her if she has made him give his freedom up to her when fell for her, or if he has always been born as a slave to her, since he feels so easily oppressed by her despotism. The “yoke” is the collar that is put around his neck as the brands of slavery. Sidney uses very powerful imagery in these first four lines, when he refers to what the pain that the brand of slavery has left on him.

Or want I sense to feel my misery?

Or sprite, disdain of such disdain to have?

Who for long faith, though daily help I crave,

May get no alms but scorn of beggary.

In these lines, Sidney questions if he wants to feel this misery and in fact takes pleasure in his own infliction of such desolation, or whether, in actuality, he has no rational ability or “sense” to work through his feelings and may lack the will power, his “sprite” to do it. In the last line, he wonders if he possesses the strength of his will to start hating her as he feels so much hate for himself for loving so intensely. Next, Sidney describes his longing for faith in himself that will help him cease his desires. He is tired of begging for his hearts’ liberty, as inside he only feels contempt for his behavior.

Virtue awake! Beauty but beauty is;

I may, I must, I can, I will, I do

Leave following that which it is gain to miss.

The poet reminds his common sense to wake up, as he states: “virtue awake”. He tries to make himself stop idealizing the one he loves so much and convince himself that beauty is nothing more than just beauty. This is his attempt to see beauty as only being skin deep. In the next line, Sidney shows the progression of self-persuasion to stop following that, which “is gain to miss” or that which is better to let go.

Let her go. Soft, but here she comes. Go to,

Unkind, I love you not. O me, that eye

Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie.

Sidney commands himself to let her go at first, but then he suddenly sees her and urges her to go away. He feels that she is very cruel to him, enslaving him through his love for her. He feels so much suffering that he tries to convince himself that he in fact does not love her. In the last sentence, he refers to her eyes as something that makes him love her so much, and therefore, hurt him so much, which in turn makes him lie to himself and turn to denial. However, anytime that he sees her he realizes that he is just lying to himself, because he does indeed love her. “O me, that eye” can also be a play on words “Own me, that I”; in other words he is reiterating that she owes him, since he has to go as far as lying to himself.

In conclusion, in this poem Philip Sidney is describing in very dramatic images what love is doing to him. Since his love has caused him so much pain, he tries to deny his feelings, attempting to reason his emotions out, making himself believe that he is not in love with her. However, as soon as he sees her, he realizes that he is just lying to himself.

At the first glance, the two sonnets may seem very dissimilar. Shakespeare writes this sonnet directly towards the man he loves, as he gives him advice on how and why it is crucial to preserve his beauty, while Sir Philip Sidney addresses the sonnet to himself. The emotions that the two poets feel, although both are intense, vary in tone. Shakespeare projects his sonnet in very matter-of-fact way. This is visible through his use of agricultural imagery, as he compares the “fairest creatures” and the “riper” to the beauty that this man possesses. This helps the poet to project his feelings for the young man in an emotionally detached way. He also shines with confidence in his ability to guide this man in making the right decision through his advice. However, Sidney shows his vulnerability and distrust towards love as he depicts the torment that his feelings do to him and creates disdain to get over his feelings, trying to make himself believe that he is not in love with her.

The many questions that the poet asks himself in Astrophil and Stella show that Sidney seems lost and bewildered in his sonnet, unsure of how to handle his emotions. Moreover, the reasons behind each sonnet are very different. While Shakespeare is self-sacrificing for the common benefit of the whole world, urging the young man to take his potential to his full use by procreating; Sidney depicts his passion for this woman in a more selfish way. He has fallen in love with her, and since he understands that he cannot be with her, he wants to fall out of love.

However, although the two sonnets are very different in their styles and messages within each, they are similar in that both put beauty on a pedestal. The depiction of beauty by both Shakespeare and Sidney seems to be idealized, almost not real, as both of the poets hold beauty in very high esteem. They are so impressed and taken over by it, that they project their feelings in a very powerful manner. Both poets incorporate very powerful imagery in their sonnets, in their attempts to convey their strong feelings. Words such as: “black beams”,” burning marks”, “yoke of tyranny”, and “bright eyes”, “sweet self”, “fresh ornament” and “gaudy spring ” create extraordinary images in the readers’ minds, and enable the reader to understand the emotions that the poets are trying to project. A reader can understand the intensity of these feelings, as Sidney seems to be losing his head over the one he loves, while Shakespeare believes that the whole world is going to suffer if this one beautiful man does not spread his seed. The powerful imagery of each of the two poems helps both poets achieve their goals in depicting the quintessence of beauty and the emotions that are called out by this idealization.

Works Cited

Kreiger, Murray. A Window to Criticism. Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Modern Poetics. New

Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1964.

Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1979.

Reidhead, Julia. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th Ed. Vol 1. New York: W.W.Norton &

Company 2000.

Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard

University Press, 1997.

Oxquarry Books Ltd. The Amazing Website of Shakespeare’s sSonnets. 25 March 2003.

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