Sir Philip Sidney

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Explanation of Sir Philip Sidney's Sonnets 31, 37, and 39


In Sonnet 31, Sir Philip Sidney reflects on the moon's sadness as a metaphor for unrequited love. Sonnet 37 criticizes those who scorn true love, highlighting the speaker's disdain for insincerity. Sonnet 39 praises sleep as a refuge from the pain of love, offering solace and escape from heartache. Each sonnet explores different facets of love and emotional turmoil.

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Can someone explain Sir Philip Sidney's "Sonnet 37"?

I think I'll have a go at looks like an interesting poem.  You're right, though, it isn't an easy one to find analysis of:

stanza 1

My mouth doth water, and my breast doth swell,
My tongue doth itch, my thoughts in labour be;
Listen then, lordings, with good ear to me,
For of my life I must a riddle tell.

Mouth watering is usually a sign of desire, and when one's "breast doth swell" it is commonly a sign of being prideful.  The itchy tongue thing could be a sign of being thirsty, but in context with the earlier line that his mouth is watering I would believe this means he is "itching to say something."

"My thoughts in labor be" could mean that his thoughts are coming difficultly (laboriously) but I think it means that he is about to "give birth" to some of his thoughts; i.e. he is about to start speaking his mind.

The speaker asks some gentlemen to listen to what his about to say and to listen well...he intends to tell a riddle about his life.

stanza 2

Towards Aurora's court a nymph doth dwell,
Rich in all beauties which man's eye can see;
Beauties so far from reach of words, that we
Abase her praise, saying she doth excel;

Aurora, mythologically, is the Roman goddess of dawn.  She is the one that makes the sun come up and the sun go down.  A nymph is a female spirit that is usually attached to a certain location.  In this context, a female spirit "lives" near where Aurora holds court.  She is "superhot." Words can describe how beautiful she is.  "Abase" means to "bring down or reduce," so the poet is saying that she is so gorgeous that men can't find the words to describe her and are stuck saying that she "excels."

stanza 3

Rich in the treasure of deserved renown;
Rich in the riches of a royal heart;
Rich in those gifts which give the eternal crown;

She is very well known and well thought of, "deserved renown." She is also very majestic in a "royal" way, holding herself regally. In short, she has many "treasures" beyond cash...she is a "larger than life" person with the attitudes of a great woman.

stanza 4
Who though most rich in these, and every part

Which make the patents of true worldly bliss,

Hath no misfortune, but that Rich she is.

All of these wonderful personality gifts make her world a "worldly bliss."  She has a good existence.  She has no real bad luck, other than the fact that "Rich she is."   I find it interesting that the word "rich" is capitalized in mid-sentence.  That implies that it is a proper noun, but I can't find any meaning of the word other than to have lots of money.

It seems to imply that being "Rich" in all these gifts is both a blessing and a curse for the nymph.  It almost feels like there should be something more to this sonnet...some explanation of why she is both rich and poor for having these gifts, but that doesn't seem to be evident here.

It is also possible I am missing some huge piece of this puzzle...some implication that I don't understand or some piece of the much longer book that explains more about this sonnet. I wasn't able to find #38 in order to compare it with this one and see if the theme continues.

I hope this gives you a little direction to head.  Good luck to you!

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

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. Thus the paradoxical solution to the problem of defining the qualities of women who are loved is to expose--through questions posed to the moon--their good virtue as bad "ungratefulness."

In Sonnet 39 the sonneteer describes sleep's qualities as being the place of "peace" "wit" "balm" "wealth" and "release." The sonneteer addresses personified Sleep in the apostrophe "Sleep, O Sleep!" An apostrophe address something or someone who is not there, very often something that is personified, like "Sleep" and "Moon."

In the octet (first eight lines) the sonneteer begs sleep, the "indifferent judge" who visits the "high and Low" equally with sleep and oblivion, to shield him from "civil war" between virtue and vice, good and evil. In a biblical allusion to Ephesians 6:16, "Withstand the devil’s darts with the shield of faith," the sonneteer compares the shield of sleep to the shield of faith that protects from "fierce darts of despair."

With shield of proof shield me from out the prease [prease: onslaught, press]
of those fierce darts despair at me doth throw:

The sonneteer promises to Sleep ample payment, ample "tribute," for the service of shielding him from despair by granting the oblivion of sleep's forgetfulness; the tribute will be given in token of gratitude for providing the shield of safety from the fierce darts of despair. The sestet (last six lines) provides details of what the "tribute" is to be.

The tribute promised to Sleep comprises articles that are pleasing to Sleep as "being thine by right." The sonneteer promises pillows, a bed, a quiet room darkened to light, a garland woven of roses and a head, the sonneteer's own head, wearied by both despair and sleeplessness. he calls upon Sleep's "heavy grace," or mercy, to be moved on his behalf (in other words, to grant him the repose of sleep) or share in his own wretched fate.  

Take thou of me smooth pillows, sweetest bed,
A chamber deaf to noise and blind to light,
A rosy garland, and a weary head:
And if these things, as being thine by right,
Move not thy heavy grace,...

In despair, the sonneteer says that if Sleep isn't moved by his praise, pleas, and tribute, then Sleep will share the wretched fate--a fate causing the sonneteer his deep despair--of witnessing the lively scene of Stella's image dancing, as it were, in the sonneteer's mind's eye, and Stella's image, emblazoned in his mind in a vision "Livelier than elsewhere," is anethema--the opposite, the poison--to sleep, since sleep is balm, peace, wealth, release and safety from inner wars of despair.

And if these things, as being thine by right,
Move not thy heavy grace, thou shalt in me,
Livelier than elsewhere, Stella's image see.

This sonnet by Sidney is structured as an octet followed by as sestet. The octet has an abababab rhyme scheme, while the sestet has a cdcdee rhyme scheme: abababab cdcdee. It is interesting to note that while the sestet (ending six lines) rhyme scheme in another popular Sidney sonnet, Sonnet 31, is the same cdcdee scheme, the octet has a different rhyme scheme, which is abbaabba dramatized with three couplets ((bb, aa, bb), while Sonnet 39 has only one couplet at the end of the sestet (ee).

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

Sonnet 31 uses a poetic conceit to reflect on love. The narrator asks the moon if it is sad, and says that it must be. He then goes on to discuss love in both realms (heavenly and earthly), communicating bitterness and disappointment and suggesting a lack of recognition and appreciation on the part of the beloved.

Sonnet 39 addresses sleep directly, asking it to come and give the speaker peace. It goes on for some time about the pains he's suffering, and how sleep would be a relief, and closes by giving the reason: he (one assumes) is longing for Stella, so much so that he's sure he'll be dreaming of her.

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