Sir Philip Sidney

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Sonnet 39 Sir Philip Sidney

What is the explanation of Sonnets 31 and 39 by Sir Philip Sidney?

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Sonnet 31 addresses the moon in a type of personification called pathetic fallacy. Personification through pathetic fallacy is used only for nature (strict personification is used for nature, objects, like balls and bats, and abstractions, like Love and Death). The sonneteer describes the thus personified moon as being slow, silent and pale, weary and melancholy. He recognizes in the moon the same afflictions as those that exist in himself; he feels the moon and he are kindred spirits. The sonneteer rhetorically asks (rhetorical question: no answer expected) if Cupid--the god of love, "That busy archer"--is active with his painful arrows of love in the realm of heavenly spheres, such as the seat of the moon. He answers his own question about the presence and activity of Cupid in heaven by saying that surely Cupid must attack with "sharp arrows" in heavenly spheres just as on earthly spheres because he sees in the moon's looks the same feelings he has in his own condition of painful, unhappy love: "thy languish'd grace / To me, that feel the like, thy state descries."

Sure, if that long-with-love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel'st a lover's case:
I read it in thy looks; thy languish'd grace
To me, that feel the like, thy state descries.

The sonneteer then confidentially asks whether or not true, constant love is thought to be "want of wit," is thought to be mere stupidity on the part who loves truly and faithfully. Since he feels such a bond of unhappy love with the personified moon, he dares to ask in what opinion the unhappy lover is held since it appears to him that, on the earthly sphere, love that is constant and true is thought of with scorn and derision: "Is constant love deem'd there but want of wit?" He then asks the moon about the qualities of women who love; of women who are loved; of women who reject love. In asking these questions, he indirectly asserts that, in the earthly sphere, women who are loved as beauties are proud; women who are beauties and are the object of a man's love scorn, deride, ridicule, make a joke of the men who love them; women who reject love in the name of keeping their "'virtue'" unsullied are in fact not virtuous but merely vainly ungrateful:

Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be loved, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call "virtue" there--ungratefulness?

Therefore, the simplest explanation of Sidney's Sonnet 31 is that it is a love complaint addressed to the moon through a personifying pathetic fallacy in which the sonneteer laments unreqited love--love that is not returned and therefore not rewarded--and in which he expresses his opinions about the woman who scorned and rejected his love and about the virtuelessness of this loveless woman.

It must be noted that in thinking about the one woman who has broken his heart, the sonneteer generalizes her qualities and makes them universal qualities of women at large. This may be to hide the true nature of his heartache from the intently listening moon--who is addressed in an apostrophe, "O Moon"--or to make a universalized statement about Sidney's observations of women. If the later is the case and Sidney was making a universalized statement about beautiful women, he might be said to have gone a bit too far in his universalization and generalization about heartlessness and virtuelessness of beautiful women.

Sidney's sonnet is structured as an octet of eight lines abbaabba with triple couplets (bb, aa, bb) followed by a sestet of six lines cdcdee ending with a couplet (ee): the overall rhyme scheme is abbaabba cdcdee. The paradox in the last line resolves the problem presented in the setet by defining the good quality of virtue in terms of the bad quality of ungratefulness....

(The entire section contains 2 answers and 1,289 words.)

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