The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Sonnet LVI,” reflecting Fulke Greville’s peculiarly complex mind, is many things at once. As the title suggests, it is a lyrical “sonnet” (although that term had a much less rigid definition in Greville’s day than it does now) on the subject of romantic, erotic love; in this way, it recalls some of the love poems in the sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella (literally, “Star Lover and Star”), written by Sir Philip Sidney, Greville’s contemporary and great friend. “Sonnet LVI” is also a satire, however, poking fun at certain key assumptions underlying courtly love poems, including many of Sidney’s. Finally, Greville’s poem is a kind of waking dream vision, one in which the philosophical, first-person narrator achieves an overblown, grandiose notion of his lover’s beauty and of his own importance, only to have his illusions come crashing down around him, frustrating his romantic desires.

Indeed, the narrator is deluded from the very beginning. As the poem opens, he sees himself as a glittering knight, right out of the pages of King Arthur, setting forth on a noble, chivalric quest. This quest, however, turns out to involve sin, vanity, and hypocrisy more than nobility, in that the narrator seeks not for the Holy Grail but for “Cynthia,” a married woman with whom the narrator is infatuated and longs to have an adulterous affair. Just at the point of achieving his questionable boon, the narrator is overcome by the...

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Sonnet LVI Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Central to Greville’s intentions in the poem is his use of situational irony: The poem is informed from first to last by a sense of the yawning gap between illusion and reality, between expectation and fulfillment. Greville’s narrator is a megalomaniac, seeing all the universe as witnessing and applauding his erotic pursuits. Ravished by Cynthia’s loveliness, he rashly calls himself “a God,” variously identifying himself with Mars (the classical god of war), with Apollo (the patron god of poetry), and with Phaeton (a sun god who once nearly set all the world aflame).

He is none of these exalted figures; he is merely a quite ordinary man intent on conquering an ordinary, if attractive, woman. The narrator, like many people, insists upon elevating both his erotic impulses and his love object into the realm of the spiritual, the heavenly, the mythic. In doing so, he unconsciously reveals that his pursuit of the lady is actually no more than an exercise in exaggerated self-love, and she rightly abandons him. Here, then, lies the central irony of the poem’s action: In mistaking earthly delights for spiritual ones and in looking up at the inaccessible heavens instead of down at the available woman, the narrator loses out on the lovemaking he has sought so arduously.

Also notable in the poem is Greville’s facility with metaphor, a talent which has led critics to compare him favorably with the better-known John Donne (1572-1631). When the lady flees from him, for instance, the narrator successively compares himself to a riverbed deserted by its river, to the “Articke pole” abandoned by the sun, and finally to a condemned criminal confessing his sins at the site of his execution. These startling, unexpected metaphors have real power and contribute much to the disillusioned tone of the poem’s conclusion.