Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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“I know the world, and believe in God,” Greville once remarked, thereby revealing the deep fissure that ran through both his public and private lives. As a counselor to three successive English monarchs, the poet assuredly did “know the world,” most notably the fractious, artificial world of the royal court. For many decades he was able to survive and even to flourish in this often treacherous environment. Greville was also a staunch Protestant of Calvinist persuasions, quick to pass flinty moral judgments on the same courtly life in which he participated so adroitly.

In the love poetry of the Renaissance English court—all aspiring courtiers sought to become adept at versifying—love is seen as an ennobling passion, the pursued lady as an object of extravagant worship, and the conventions of courtship as semireligious rituals. Furthermore, while the ultimate (and expected) object of the romantic chase is sexual consummation, the lady is nonetheless venerated not simply as an ideal of physical beauty but as an image or reflection of an ideal of spiritual beauty as well.

In some of its important aspects, this courtly love tradition owed much to the fourteenth century Italian poet Petrarch, many of whose sonnets lavishly praise his beloved “Laura” in this fashion. The Petrarchan mode was much imitated by sixteenth century Englishmen; indeed, the Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence of Greville’s friend Sidney (himself much imitated) is profoundly indebted to the Italian poet—to the point that Sidney was often referred to as “the English Petrarch” by his own contemporaries.

Greville was well aware of the philosophical underpinnings of such courtly love poetry, and he even toys with Petrarchan norms in the early poems of his Caelica collection. Given his Christian convictions, however, he must finally reject and mock these conventions, as he decidedly does in “Sonnet LVI.” For the Calvinist Greville, the earth and the men and women who inhabit it are in a condition of steady moral decline, and they have been since humanity’s fall from the Garden of Eden. In such a state, even an emotion as potentially noble as love has inevitably devolved into mere carnal lust. Accordingly, the Petrarchan lover, in mistaking his erotic impulse for something fine and spiritual, commits more than a blunder: He commits outright heresy.

The narrator of “Sonnet LVI” is clearly one such benighted courtly lover, intent on deifying both his love object and his own pursuit of her. Thus he likens the lady to the goddess Venus and sees in her earthly beauty a direct analogue to all things heavenly, including the Milky Way constellation. Similarly, he sees himself as godlike (“Surely I Apollo am”) and, in a vision, seeks to ascend into the heavenly regions (“I stept forth to touch the skye”). However, at precisely this climactic moment his earthbound mistress, understandably irritated by the narrator’s insistent, ego-ridden spiritualizing, deserts him (“Cynthia who did naked lye,/ Runnes away like silver streames”), thereby frustrating his erotic aims.

Deserted now, the narrator can only lament his loss and curse the romantic illusions that have thwarted his conquest. At no little cost, and quite to his surprise, he has learned that human love is a decidedly secular, not spiritual, matter. “Love is onely Natures art,” he sorrowfully concludes, “Wonder hinders Love and Hate.” In other words—in the words of Greville editor Geoffrey Bullough—human love “is a purely natural business, in which action is all and mute adoration a hindrance.” Or as the poet and critic Yvor Winters bluntly puts it, this poem “states that love is physical and no more and that he who is distracted by spiritual concerns [in love’s pursuit] is a fool.” All that the narrator of “Sonnet LVI” ultimately has to show for his romantic quest is this hard-won, humiliating truth.