Henry Constable Essay - Critical Essays


In his courtly sonnets, collected in Diana, Henry Constable used the traditional conventions of the Petrarchan sonnet. He was also influenced by the French and Italian sonnets of his contemporaries, particularly Philippe Desportes. The title Diana is borrowed from Desportes’s chief sonnet sequence, and the Italian headlines in the work (sonnetto primo and so on) reveal the Italian influence.

Joan Grundy, one of Constable’s editors, considers the Todd manuscript of this work to be the closest thing to an authoritative text, having been assembled before Constable’s departure from England from poems that had been written over a period of time. There is an elaborate framework divided into three parts; these parts are then further divided into groups of seven sonnets. Constable provided explanatory titles, some notes on numerical symbolism, and the disclaimer that the sonnets are “vayne poems.” In all his sonnets, Constable used the Petrarchan sonnet form abba abba cde cde, with variations.


Many of the sonnets in Diana are love poems. In the sonnet “To his Mistrisse,” which begins, “Grace full of grace,” he declares that although these verses include love complaints to others, he now loves only her. The last three lines play on the word “grace” again, vowing that he flies to God for grace that he may live in delight or never love again. Grace was a theological concept with varying interpretations, as well as being part of a noble address and a woman’s name. Louise Imogen Guiney in Recusant Poets (1939) speculated that the “Grace” might be Grace Talbot, youngest daughter of George Talbot, sixth earl of Shrewsbury. The last sonnet in the manuscript is “To the diuine protection of the Ladie Arbella the author commendeth both his Graces honoure and his Muses aeternitye.” Arabella Stuart was the granddaughter of the countess of Shrewsbury. Constable’s sonnet “To the Countesse of Shrewsburye vpon occasion of his dear Mistrisse whoe liu’d vnder her gouer[n]ment” (part 3, group 3, sonnet 2), indicates that he loved someone in her company. It is not even certain, however, whether the sonnet was written to the countess or to the dowager countess. The countess has also been suggested as a candidate for Constable’s Diana, and even Mary, Queen of Scots, has been mentioned because she was in the custody of the dowager countess at one time. Another possibility is Penelope Rich. The Harrington manuscript consists of twenty-one sonnets appearing under the title “Mr. Henry Constable’s sonetes to the Lady Ritche, 1589.” Penelope Rich had requested Constable in a letter to Hotman “qu’il ne soit plus amoureux.” This lady was Philip Sidney’s Stella, and she was involved in political intrigue with Constable.

In part 1, group 1, sonnet 3, which deals with the “variable affections” of love, Constable uses repetition to great effect, combining it with antithesis. The first, fifth, and ninth lines begin, “Thyne eye,” and the second, sixth, and tenth lines begin, “Myne eye.” Her eye, he declares, is the mirror in which he sees his heart, and his eye is a window through which her eye may see his heart; there, he says, she may see herself painted in bloody colors. Her eye is the “pyle” or pointed tip of a dart, and his eye is the aiming-point she uses to hit his heart. “Myne eye thus helpes thyne eye to work my smarte.” Her eye is a fire and his eye a river of tears, but the water cannot extinguish the flames, nor can the fire dry up the streams from his eye. Constable’s technique in this poem is to proceed by a series of parallel and antithetical metaphors. Some of them are traditional, but “thine eye the pyle” is presumably original, at least in English, since the Oxford English Dictionary cites this poem as the earliest example of the word’s usage. Shakespeare is thought to have imitated lines 1-4 of this poem in his sonnet 24. Constable’s contemporary, Alexander Montgomerie, wrote a Scots version of the sonnet.

In the first sonnet of the second group, “An Exhortation to the reader to come and see his Mistrisse beautie,” Constable combines repetition with hyperbole. He repeats the word “come” twice in both line 1 and line 6, while in the sestet, “millions” becomes the dominant note, being repeated in lines 9, 10, and 12. Here he uses hyperbole ingeniously to praise the subject of the poem, who is a wonder of nature. He exhorts the reader to come and see her in order to write about her so that the next generation will lament being born too late to see her. Everyone should come and write about her, he protests, for the time may be too short and men too few to write the history of her least part, even though they should write constantly and about nothing else. In the sestet, he declares that the millions who write about her are too few to praise one of her features and can only write about one aspect of her eye, her lip, or her hand, such as “the light or blacke the tast or red the soft or white.” This poem was inspired by Petrarch’s sonnet 248.

While the first part of Diana is about the “variable affections of loue,” Constable points out in his “The order of the booke” that the first seven poems are about the beginning of love, the second seven are in praise of his mistress, and the third seven concern specific events in his love experience. In the second sonnet of this third set, “Of his Mistrisse vpon occasion of her walking in a garden,” he personifies some of the flowers, making the roses red because they blush for shame when they see her lips and the lilies white because...

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