Ring out your bells

by Sir Philip Sidney

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Themes and Meanings

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“Ring out your bells” is a poem about the subject of love. However, it is the hidden driving force of desire behind the various forms of love that Sidney explores through the filter of his own experiences and feelings. Sidney’s personal world included the political arena in Queen Elizabeth I’s court. There, he and others sought the monarch’s royal favor, which could give them government employment, financial rewards, or honors testifying to their worldly worth and virtue. Additionally, these courtiers courted noble patrons who could help arrange aristocratic marriages for them or help support their political, military, or literary endeavors. Sidney had direct experience with frustrated desires in his attempts to solicit more than temporary governmental or military appointments from Queen Elizabeth.

The flattering compliments of Petrarchan love sonnets aimed at courting a lady’s favors arise from the same ambitious urges of desire as the hyperboles (conscious exaggerations) used to court a queen or a noble. There is little difference between practices. Furthermore, when the Platonic lover suffers and rages about his mistress’s scorn and rejection of his worth and faithfulness, his misery underlines the desire behind his egoistic self-love. Feelings of worth, honor, and personal identity grow from the self-validation gained from recognition or reward for deeds accomplished. Human courtiers such as Sidney felt equally discouraged and frustrated when their valiant efforts were rejected.

Sidney’s literary world evidences another of his own literary desires, an altruistic wish found in his great love for poetry. At the heart of Sidney’s book The Defence of Poesy (1595) are his defense and definition of what poetry is, what it can or should do, and how to write it to accomplish this lofty goal. Moreover, when he viewed the poetry of his own time, Sidney was not happy with the poetic abuses he saw. As Ringler observes in his introduction to The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, Sidney “set out to be a Daedalus to his countrymen, to teach them rules of right writing, and to provide them with models to follow.” This idealistic aim underwrites his effort to achieve an example of good poetry with a deeper level of meaning. In “Ring out your bells,” Sidney works within the traditions and conventions of love poetry. However, he rejuvenates them by showing what a few changes can do to hackneyed concepts and images. His double vision, the extended metaphoric comparison of love’s trivialities with the solemnity of death, transforms the Petrarchan/Platonic single-vision lyric into a brief model of a mock-heroic romance. This second point of view indirectly points out the comical exaggerations, trivialities, stupidities, and abuses. Ironically, the final prayer might well express the poet’s own desire: “Good lord, deliver us” from poets who abuse poetry.

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