Philip Sidney

First line: “Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show” (Astrophel and Stella I)
Author: Sir Philip Sidney

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,—
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inventions fine her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”

Here is an odd duck, a sonnet written in iambic hexameter rather than iambic pentameter. Such, I suppose, was possible before Shakespeare firmed the form of the English-language sonnet. We must show our gratitude to that interim for making pieces such as this possible.

This is one of only two sonnets by Sidney that I have read (the other is LXXI from Astrophel and Stella, this is I). Both are exploratory: they start from a Petrarchan form and perturb it, feeling out the capacities of the form in English. In particular, both, modify the sestet to a CDCDEE rhyme scheme, bringing into play the closing couplet. In this case, we also see the octave modified from ABBAABBA to ABABABAB. The switch is effective: the octave of this poem steadily escalates in a way that I have not found to occur in English language sonnets that use the fully Petrarchan octave. These maintain a more even keel, in my limited experience: LXXI is a fine example of this.

But I want to focus here primarily on the iambic hexameter. The hexametric line is often thought unsuited to English. We all know, or ought, these masterful lines from Pope:

A needless alexandrine ends the song
That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.

That is indeed the danger, that the lines will drag along, ungainly and unwieldy. It is a testament to Sidney that he avoids this almost entirely. There are no lines that cannot sustain their length, though there are lines that, considered in themselves, might have been better in pentameter. I propose, for example, that the first line would be improved (again, in itself) were it just: “Loving, and fain in verse my love to show.” I do not see that “in truth” adds any meaning to the line, and it even dilutes the power of the opening trochaic substitution, which in the revision is set apart from the rest of the line and so emphasized further.

But this, while something more than a mere quibble, does not too much distract from the overall effect of the poem, and much of that effect turns precisely on its use of hexameter. For the hexameter makes possible a particular substitution pattern that is impossible in pentameter, and that Sidney uses well. Because it consists of an even number of feet, the hexameter line may be easily split into two trimetric halves. In pentameter, trochaic substitutions are common at the start of lines, allowing such lines to open especially boldly. To this substitution, however, hexameter adds the possibility of a mid-line trochaic substitution to open the second set of three feet. Sidney uses this three times in the poem; line three, for instance:

Pleas/ure˘ might˘ cause/ her˘ read/, read/ing˘ might˘ make/ her˘ know/

This has a pleasing symmetry in its dual substitution. It is not, however, an otherwise exceptional line. It serves its purpose in the poem admirably and has no flaw, but it is not heightened as the best poetic lines are. Which brings us to the couplet of the poem, where the true power of this technique is felt:

Bit/ing˘ my˘ tru/ant˘ pen/, beat/ing˘ my˘self/ for˘ spite/
“Fool/,” said˘ my˘ Muse/ to˘ me/, “look/ in˘ thy˘ heart/, and˘ write/

Both lines use it, but the standout is the first, where the double substitution is made all the more potent for falling on such similar words: biting/beating. This gives the line a gorgeous symmetry. Furthermore, the imagery is powerful: biting the pen, beating himself – a succinct and perfect picture of the writer stumbling over what to write. In the last line, the substitutions give extra force to the Muse’s scolding advice, accentuating the insult (“Fool”) and the command (“look”).

To all the difficulties adapting the hexameter to English, this one technique offers a hefty counterweight. We may be glad that Sidney intervened between Petrarch and Shakespeare.