Sonnet 19

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Overview

Prepare to be miserable! It’s Lady Mary Wroth again and she is still filled with anguish and misery. This poem explores her emotions through pathetic fallacy as she compares her torment to a late autumnal night as the season slips away to winter.

Some stunning imagery in this one, but it’s not going to make you smile.

Come, darkest night, becoming sorrow best;
            Light, leave thy light, fit for a lightsome soul;
            Darkness doth truly suit with me oppressed,
            Whom absence’ power doth from mirth control:
The very trees with hanging heads condole
            Sweet summer’s parting, and of leaves distressed
            In dying colours make a grief-ful roll,
            So much, alas, to sorrow are they pressed.
Thus of dead leaves her farewell carpet’s made:
            Their fall, their branches, all their mournings prove,
            With leafless, naked bodies, whose hues fade
            From hopeful green, to wither in their love:
If trees and leaves for absence mourners be,
No marvel that I grieve, who like want see.

Lady Mary Wroth (1583-c.1653)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.


ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

If you jump back to Sonnet 11 you can read a bit more about Wroth’s life, but here we’ll focus on the background of this poem.

It’s called Sonnet 19 as it is part of a sequence of sonnets from Countess of  Montgomery’s Urania called Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. Nominally this poem is an expression of Pamphilia’s emotions towards Amphilanthus who has been unfaithful, but there are clear links – in the vividity of her expression of anguish – to Wroth’s own love life and her relationship with the one true love of her life, her cousin, Earl William Herbert.

Themes

The main theme here is again the darker side of love and the overwhelming impact it can have on its victims, but – on the flip side – this is also an acknowledgement of the absolute power and wonder of love as it can evoke this reaction when it is withdrawn.

To communicate the intensity of these emotions, Wroth explores the natural world in autumn/winter and draws clear comparisons to the human state and connects love with the concept of winter and death.

Content

In the opening quatrain of this poem, Wroth beckons darkness to her and shuns the light. She claims that darkness is more befitting her mood of abject misery and that light should save itself for someone who has something to be cheerful about. In line 3 she reiterates that darkness suits her as she is ‘oppressed’ or trapped in her state of perpetual misery. At the end of the quatrain we learn that it is the ‘absence’ of someone that is making her miserable – in the sonnet sequence this would clearly be Amphilanthus, but could it also refer to her relationship with Herbert?

Now she moves us to a late autumnal image, which serves as pathetic fallacy to represent her emotions. In autumn the freshness and life of a tree begins to diminish and the branches sag under the weight of the browning leaves, but Wroth sees this as the trees bowing as if to offer commiserations and conjures in my mind an image of people at a funeral acting as if grieving a death. These trees and their leaves are all symbols for her emotional state. In fact she mentions ‘grief’ and the ‘dying’ leaves, which associate her emotions with death and thus make her suffering and pain seem more intense and serious – love is clearly a matter of life and death. The mention of summer leaving the trees behind could mean that the happiness and joy of her loving relationship, and her prospects of happiness, are fading away.

As the leaves die they become a ‘farewell carpet’ and they represent the fragmentary and colourless memories of her relationship as it is now brought to an end. The loss of the ‘hopeful green’ from the leaves communicates her feeling that all the hopes and joy she found in the relationship now is a miserable reflection of the past. The barren description of the trees also adds to this sense of reflection on what was previously a treasured relationship now seeming in tatters.

If you are being really naughty, you might want to relate this to a sexual relationship as the personified trees are described as having ‘naked bodies’ and the word ‘wither’ may suggest an end to a previously passionate sexual relationship. Alternatively, I might just be a pervert and see sex wherever I turn: you decide.

The sonnet ends with a couplet that reveals that the dying tree is meant to represent her and speaks directly to the reader/listener saying we should not be surprised with this reaction. The last phrase, ‘who like want see’, strikes me as the worst piece of English ever and makes you sound illiterate when you read it. It simply means that we should not be surprised that she reacts in the same way as they dying trees she has just described.

Language and techniques

Quite a lot to talk about here, but if you fail to deal with the pathetic fallacy then I think you’ve not tackled one of the key issues in the poem.

Wroth associates herself (or Pamphilia) with darkness, trees full of browning leaves that then fall to the fall. This is meant to tie in with common connotations of autumn/winter as the approach of death, the best of life or youth being past. Clearly the poetic voice is not on the verge of actual death as this poem is intricately associated with her relationship problems and the comparisons with death show the emotional void that has been left behind by this failed love. She feels like all the joy and colour has been sucked out of her world and communicates this by showing a tree dying and its leaves losing their lustre, green and life.

Similarly, she shuns the light and beckons the night. Autumn and winter in England are typified by waking up to darkness (8am) and being consumed by darkness at around 4pm and so her desire to wallow in the darkness also links with the seasonal death of her trees.

Although it is part of the pathetic fallacy, I would make a clear point about the association of love and death. She intensifies her suffering by comparing it to the loss of her life or really the loss of a crucial part of her life to death. She mentions ‘grief-ful’ and ‘dying’ leaves, has her trees mourning with ‘hanging heads condol[ing]’ and ‘mourning’ her and at the end says she ‘grieves’. Although this at first looks like a criticism of love think about how important it makes love seem – it becomes a life and death issue.

Also look at the intensity of language used to convey her emotion. If the trees are ‘distressed’ this suggests they are so miserable that they almost don’t know what to do, how to react, how to carry on with their lives. She also talks about being ‘oppressed’ by her misery as it seems like there is no hope or way out of her sorrow.

Structure

Right, so it is a sonnet again, which is a bit unusual as we normally associate sonnets with high romance and this is a lamentation of the failure of love.

You could talk about the progression of the imagery through the quatrains as the first talks about the darkness of night approaching, the second sees the decline of joy and the third is a final transition to misery as the love dies and disappears with the trees.

You might also notice that the poem is quite slow to read as there are many caesuras. If you look at the opening line we are forced to linger on the idea of darkness encroaching and its link to sorrow and then on how unsuitable the presence of light is. In the second stanza we have a pause where Wroth interjects with an ‘alas’ in the fourth line and the final quatrain has a slow progression as it lists the dying element of the trees. This slow pace of the poem echoes the emotion of the poetic voice; this is not an angry or bitter poem, but a melancholy acceptance of the death and defeat of her love.

You could argue the regular iambic pentameter and rhyme scheme (ABAB) also indicate a misery of acceptance rather than the one link with rage and anger, which might be communicated with more passionate and less controlled ideas.

Tone

 I’d categorise this as melancholy. It is not a sadness linked to anger or bitterness, but is a misery that is wallowing in loneliness and emptiness and unable to see any resolution to the emotional suffering.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

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