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 ababcdcd efefgg form, which indicates that, later in Astrophel and Stella, Sidney went back to the Italian type—more difficult to do in English because rhymes do not come so easily as in Italian. The organization of the content also reflects the English form, for each of the three cross-rhymed quatrains reiterates with different imagery the speaker’s disgust with earthly love and his determination to focus on “higher things.”
In the first quatrain, the rhyme on “dust” and “rust” characterizes the love that fades. In the second, images of seeing and light develop the notion of the superiority of heavenly “beams,” while in the third the speaker seeks to “take fast hold” of divine love and reject the evil that might cause him to “slide” away from his heavenly destination. The final couplet is a “farewell” to the world and a final entreaty to “eternal love” to uphold him. If not Sidney’s last thoughts on love, this sonnet states eloquently the conviction that the greatest of earthly pleasures pale in the light of eternity.