The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Sonnet LVI,” reflecting Fulke Greville’s peculiarly complex mind, is many things at once. As the title suggests, it is a lyrical “sonnet” (although that term had a much less rigid definition in Greville’s day than it does now) on the subject of romantic, erotic love; in this way, it recalls some of the love poems in the sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella (literally, “Star Lover and Star”), written by Sir Philip Sidney, Greville’s contemporary and great friend. “Sonnet LVI” is also a satire, however, poking fun at certain key assumptions underlying courtly love poems, including many of Sidney’s. Finally, Greville’s poem is a kind of waking dream vision, one in which the philosophical, first-person narrator achieves an overblown, grandiose notion of his lover’s beauty and of his own importance, only to have his illusions come crashing down around him, frustrating his romantic desires.

Indeed, the narrator is deluded from the very beginning. As the poem opens, he sees himself as a glittering knight, right out of the pages of King Arthur, setting forth on a noble, chivalric quest. This quest, however, turns out to involve sin, vanity, and hypocrisy more than nobility, in that the narrator seeks not for the Holy Grail but for “Cynthia,” a married woman with whom the narrator is infatuated and longs to have an adulterous affair. Just at the point of achieving his questionable boon, the narrator is overcome by the...

(The entire section is 452 words.)