Sidney and Spenser: Examining Love in Motion

I chose to look at similarities and dissimilarities between an Edmund Spenser sonnet, and one by Sir Phillip Sidney. The latter is taken from Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, and the Spenser sonnet from his collection Amoretti.

First, it is important to identify main themes, or motifs that underpin each sonnet. They will both be distinctly different. It can be said that both writers are influenced by the amor courtois that gave life to so much of their work. In Spenser’s “Sonnet I” taken from Amoretti I choose to focus on the vowel sounds and verbal characteristics that make up the sonnet. Lines one and three end with soft “a” tones, while two, four and five end in long ‘I” tones. The soft “a” used here creates a line balance; he not only uses this tone at the end of the line, but to begin it as well. This creates a sense of balance that gives the poem forward momentum. This assonance also provides the future ability to create striking vowel sound disparities or discontinuities that should stand out more strongly.

The second stanza contains more assonance using the same vowel sounds, but there is the introduction of long “e” in the words “read” “tears”. I am not sure what label to pin on this affect of adding a vowel sounds as a stanza progresses, but again, it serves the assonance in the first four lines, in that it creates contrast within the piece that the reader will pick up on.
Stanza three utilizes more “oo” sounds such as” look”, “book” that were used in the second stanza. Throughout the piece, I notice what I might like to call an enjambment of vowel sounds. By sending the rhyme futher than it’s predetermined border, which in this case, would be the end of the stanza containing that rhyming integer, the poem is giving a sense of forward motion, or downhill progress. Much like a running back uses his weight to turn the ball downfield, Spenser has used his vowel sounds to enjamb the entire piece. So, in result, an overlap occurs and sends the poem into what seems like a downhill motion. In attempt to link form and content, one could say that this forward motion of the piece gives the reader his or her fashion for reading the piece. Perhaps Spenser wished his readers to “fall upon” the poem, or read it in a manner that allows a quick, easy interpretation of the text. The piece is the opening to his long cycle of sonnets dedicated to a love. This opening piece calls the subject into action, the beloved is being asked to allow the author to continue his loving and simultaneously, he is declaring his long lasting love for the beloved. In the last couplet, the words “Leaves, lines, and rhymes, seek her to please alone,” suggest that the poem will not end here. This means he will attempt to please her in the future and what he has accomplished now is not enough.

In contrast, I look at sonnet 93 from Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella and attempt to show contrasts in verbal motion, and similarities in content. First, it is worth pointing out the rhyme schemes and comparing them. Sidney, in “93”, uses the following scheme: abba, abba, cdcd, ee/dd. I use a slash to separate two possible rhyme options for the end couplet. The rhymes in “d” and “e” are so similar, it is hard to distinguish them. Meanwhile, Spenser’s convention is as follows: abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee.

Getting back to Sidney’s sonnet we notice immediately the use of alliteration and consonance already in the first line, “O fate, O fault, O Curse, child of my bliss,” Next, we find a good example of using cadence to enhance content. In this second line, “What sobs can give words grace my grief to show?” This line employs a different use of motion than Spenser’s, but creates the same effect. The end of the second line is stopped by a question mark, but the feeling of the line carries into the third line. Also, the first two lines can be called opposite in their musicality; the first is broken and jumpy, suggesting a state of inner-dialogue that is too fresh to be full-wrought in its verbal construction, much like a nervous or wretched person whose words are “there” but too volatile or distraught to be worded gracefully. In the second line the author conversely exhibits a supreme ability to wield words. This is exemplary of one who has dwelt long in the dark harbors of thought that love/misery induces. He speaks with knowledge. This technique continues throughout the poem, line 12 is a good example. “Only with pains my pains thus eased be,” The uneven movement of this line may be something that I as a modern reader find interesting, but I will venture to say that contemporary to Sidney, this line would have been good subject for examination under the microscope of music and verbal quality. I find this line interesting in its want to alliterate, while simultaneously creating an un-ease of motion. Sidney uses this effect well. The poem goes on to set up the “sobbing” for a love which has obviously gone wrong, a stark contrast from Spenser’s initiation poem to Amoretti, which is steeped in blind love and a sense of eternal passion for the beloved.

Without connotation to the rest of Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, one would say that these two poems stand apart from each other in the sense that Sidney, is trying to make up for lost love, whether within himself, or on the pages of the book. Secondly, Spenser is creating a work that will hopefully be received with open, loving eyes.

The comparison of these two poems proves fruitful in the outcome of understanding the techniques used and forms implemented. The rhyme scheme plays a larger role than one might have thought at first. In Spenser, the rhyme is there to be toyed with, twisted and morphed so that the poem moves along at its own pace, and not that of the rhyme and meter. He uses the forms as guidelines, and subsequently breaks the rules of structure. Sidney, on the other hand, while adhering to his own rhyme scheme, seems to use it as a tool to create emotion through motion, or a lack thereof. This is evident in the last line of 93, “I cry thy sighs, my dear, thy tears I bleed.”

Two sharply different writers of the English Sonnet in contrast to one another, provide excellent opportunity for the unveiling of technique, form and personal voice. While both writers seem to be barking up a similar tree (love), they are barking up different versions of it, each one with its own need for explanation.

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