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Poem of the week: Sonnet 30 by Robert Sidney


A lover's lament to personified 'Absence', the melancholy here is contained by a remarkably elegant rhetorical technique

This week's poem comes from a collection of sonnets, songs, pastorals, elegies and epigrams by the newly-rediscovered Elizabethan poet, Robert Sidney. It's untitled, but numbered "Sonnet 30", and begins, aptly for a re-emergent poet, "Absence, I cannot say thou hid'st my light … "

Sidney's poems, handwritten in a notebook, with a leather binding added in the 19th century, came to notice in the 1960s, when the contents of the library of Warwick Castle were dispersed. The collection had been misattributed, but Sidney's spiky italic handwriting was identified by the Cambridge scholar Peter Croft, who went on to become the poet's first editor. Croft's magnificent edition of The Poems of Robert Sidney is essential reading, not only for students of Elizabethan literature but for anyone generally interested in poetry and poetics.

There must have been a certain amount of sibling rivalry in the Sidney establishment. Philip was Robert's elder brother by nine years: there was also the talented younger sister, Mary, Countess of Pembroke, the dedicatee of Robert's collection. Their achievements might help explain why Robert confined himself to the private circulation of his work. Exhorted constantly by his father to follow Philip's example, he may well have lacked complete confidence in his own writing projects. At court, as well, his career seems to have been overshadowed by the brilliant elder brother.

After Philip was mortally wounded, he was cared for by Robert until his death. Robert succeeded him as Governor of Flushing, a post he seems not to have relished. Melancholy as most of the sonnets are, Robert for many years was happily married to the Welsh heiress, Barbara Gamage. Another distinguished poet was among their children: Mary Wroth.

As Peter Croft's illuminating Introduction makes clear, courtly love was still a potent influence on the Elizabethan poets, and Neoplatonic idealism informs much of Sidney's work. Robert's sonnet-sequence is not the narrative of a love affair, actual or imaginary. The sonnets separately explore different aspects of love and rejection, and the female beauty which is praised may often be more ideal than real.

Sidney's sonnets [PDF] are carefully wrought Petrarchan structures, showing a gift for what I would call "deep embroidery". This is not embroidery in the sense of trivial embellishment, but the delicate stitching of the syntax into various rhetorical patterns. The cross-stitch of chiasmus is particularly favoured in Sonnet 30. These devices, properly used, do so much more than proclaim the author's wit: they sharpen both sense and sentiment.

The thought in the first quatrain is complex. Absence, addressed directly in the opening line, might almost be an allegorical figure rather than an abstract noun. The speaker's claims are deliberately paradoxical. We'd expect a lover's absence from his beloved to hide his light, and prevent his day's dawning. Not so, he says, and yet his sun has set for ever. The fourth line begins to shed a little more illumination on the matter: he is "absent" when present because, although visible, he remains unseen.

"Nothing but I do parallel the night" is an odd construction. Because of the earlier reference to the permanently set sun, I read it as meaning "I resemble nothing other than the night". It's almost as if the tortuous grammar were a mask, keeping self-revelation at bay. The verse continues more artfully, with a play on the meaning of "done" as both "finished" and "accomplished" ("all act of heat and light is done"). "She that did all in me all hath undone" admits, for the first time, the presence of the sadly impossible She. The near-homographic rhyme (done/undone) brings home the entirely negative connotations of "all … undone."

Antithesis reaches its climax in the metaphor of the eighth line: "I was love's cradle once, now love's grave right." Again, the construction is hardly straightforward. It seems possible that "grave" is not simply a noun, the easy antonym of "cradle", but does service as an adjective, whilst "right" becomes a noun: "grave right" or even, to stretch a pun, "grave rite". If "right" is intended simply as an adjective, placed after the noun "grave", perhaps it could be read as a synonym for "rightful".

Polyptoton, the device which repeats the same word in a different grammatical case, continues to enliven the emotional interplay in the sestet. "Absence", once more denoting an addressee, is echoed by "Absent" as an adjective, the subject of which is "I". Similarly, there's the double sense of "care" - a verb with a loving undertone in "all what I care to see" and a plural noun that suggests pain and effort in "my cares avail me not".

This sestet is sharpened by Robert's characteristic division of the six lines into two separate triplets, a structure favoured by Philip Sidney in Astrophil and Stella. Both triplets of Sonnet 30 conclude with a powerful rhyming couplet.

The night remorselessly darkens. Happiness was possible when the end of absence could be anticipated, but now the speaker "cannot say mine" of any "joys". Notice the emotional loss is expressed in a comment about grammatical usage. The annihilation in the last line is total: "Present not hearkened to, absent forgot." The speaker has himself become the absence. Perhaps earlier, when he wasn't seen, he was simply overlooked. Not being heard is surely worse. It implies he has spoken directly to the object of his desire, and has wilfully been ignored. The psychological plight of a younger brother perhaps informs the subconscious feelings here.

As lovers' complaints go, this one is stark but composed: the loss described is so comprehensive it almost negates the loser, but the tone is never exaggerated or self-pitying. There are no showy gestures, simply the quiet, intricate stabbing and looping of that rhetorical needle, and perhaps the glint of a melancholy smile.

Sonnet 30

Absence, I cannot say thou hid'st my light,
Not darkened, but for ay sett is my sun;
No day sees me, not when night's glass is run;
I present, absent am; unseen in sight.

Nothing but I do parallel the night
In whom all act of light and heat is done:
She that did all in me, all hath undone;
I was love's cradle once, now love's grave right.

Absence, I used to make my moan to thee;
When thy clouds stayed, my joys they did not shine;
But now I may say joys, cannot say mine.

Absent, I want all what I care to see,
Present, I see my cares avail me not:
Present not hearkened to, absent forgot.

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