Sonnet 32, beginning “Leave me, O Love, which reachest but to dust” appears at the end of the Certaine Sonnets, which the countess of Pembroke published in 1598, a dozen years after her brother’s death. The sentiment of the poem, together with its position in this rather miscellaneous group of poems, has led commentators over the centuries to regard it as Sidney’s “last word” on the subject of love and even to think of it as a coda to Astrophel and Stella, rejecting love of the sort that Astrophel professes. Its cry of “farewell, world” in its next-to-last line has even suggested the possibility of its being a deathbed effort.

Manuscript evidence, however, has nearly established that this fine sonnet was written before Sidney even began his sonnet sequence. He probably wrote it in 1581, at the age of twenty-seven, when he had no reason to suppose that he would be leaving this world soon. It may seem contradictory that Sidney, after composing a poem of this sort, should then probe so elaborately into the kind of love “which reachest but to dust,” but his imagination was versatile and his approach to his art flexible. He may have sincerely believed what he says in this sonnet and still have been able to plunge energetically into an imaginative investigation of what it was like to be Astrophel—and, to repeat, there was certainly some Astrophel in Sidney.

Interestingly, this sonnet takes the Shakespearean...

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