Sonnet 31

 Overview

Boo hoo! People just love to moan don’t they?

This is another poem about an unsuccessful love affair with one party feeling hard done by. Here the poet finds an unlikely friend in the Moon whose pale complexion makes the poet recognise his own emotions and state of melancholy. Then we get a bunch of questions for Moon about love and whether the heavens also seem to enjoy mocking those whose love is true and constant and praising those who scorn affection.

The Moon does not reply… the git!

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies!
How silently, and with how wan a face!
What, may it be that even in heavenly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?
Sure, if that long-with-love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case,
I read it in thy looks; thy languished grace,
To me that feel the like, thy state descries.
Then, even of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deemed there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be loved, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86)

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

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Really important stuff here in relation to the poem.

Sidney was a member of Elizabeth I’s court and met a thirteen year old girl (he was twenty-one) called Penelope Devereux on a visit to her family home accompanying the Queen. Her family and his shared many connections and the two must’ve spent a lot of time together and her dad was keen on arranging a marriage. However, her father decided to stop breathing and the marriage was off! She ended up marrying elsewhere in 1581 to become Penelope Rich.

That didn’t stop Sidney writing a series of sonnets with Penelope as his inspiration.  108 sonnets and 11 songs are contained within the collection called Astrophela and Stella – that’s a lot of obsessing over someone else’s wife. The title of the collection translates from Greek as Starlover and Star with Penelope cast as the star and Sidney as the starlover. In the collection Stella marries another man and continues with her being pursued by Astrophel relentlessly, but refusing to break her marriage vows despite feeling affection for him.

The sequence of sonnets clearly mirrors their relationship prior to her marriage and once she is married, although the later sonnets about her in some way returning his love may have been fantasy. Sonnet 31 is thought to have been written at a time when Sidney first discovered that Penelope was due to be married to someone else and thus we can understand his fraught emotions.

Also, it may be useful for your understanding of I Grieve, and Dare Not Show My Discontent to know that Sidney sent a strongly worded letter to Elizabeth I advising her against marrying the Duke of Anjou. She may have heeded his advice and that of others, but his letter was considered to be too forward and he was banished from court for his troubles.

 

 Themes

The biggest one here is obviously love, but again the darker side of it and what happens when it is lost or unrequited. There is also a strong link to nature through the comparison of human emotions to those of the moon.

 Content

The whole poem revolves around the poetic voice recognising his own emotions and feelings in the look and actions of the inanimate object that is the Moon. The idea that the Moon is lovesick is not unique to Sidney and it has long been considered to be the miserable pursuer of an affair with the radiating beauty that is the Sun.

First he details the Moon’s rising in the sky as being ‘sad steps’ presumably because it moves so slowly. He interprets its silence and pale colour as being the result of misery as it would be seen in a human.

Then he questions whether Cupid plays the same games in the heavens as on earth. Why heavens? Well, the sky and stars are often associated with being heavenly and it has long been custom for any object in space visible in earth is referred to as a heavenly body.

He continues to build the connection between the Moon and a miserable lover, but also recognises the Moon as something of an expert. When he says it has ‘long-with-love-acquainted eyes’ he is referring to the fact that the Moon has been present in the sky forever and so has seen every romance come and go.

Once he has established that the Moon shares his feelings, but has more experience than him, he begins with his questioning. Obviously the Moon can give no answer so these questions are rhetorical and guide our understanding of the poetic voice’s situation. As he is asking the Moon whether the same things are true in heaven, we understand that this is what he think of what is happening on earth.

His questions indicate that he thinks his true love/loyal devotion is something which others consider to demonstrate his idiocy; that the girl in question is aloof and unmoved by his affection;  that the girl enjoys attention, but scorns him at the same time; and finally she seems to think it is her duty as a virtuous lady to be ungrateful and cruel to him and his devotion.

 

 Language and techniques

Let’s start with the personification of the Moon. The purpose of this is to reflect his own emotions. Anything he associates with the Moon’s state is clearly how he feels as he talks about his ‘fellowship’ with it.

It’s slow pace as it moves through the sky is captured with the phrase ‘how sad steps’ – ‘how’ acting as a modifier of the sadness, making it more intense. We are reading emotion in the actions of something inanimate, but also seeing in it the reflection of our poet. He clearly feels sluggish and weak as a result of the pain or rejection – if this poem was a response to finding out about Penelope’s marriage plans then the extremity of this physical reaction would make sense.

Similarly the fact the Moon moves ‘silently’ reflect this emotion akin to grief and the ‘wan’ face of the Moon is just its white glow, but for him represents a draining of blood and emotion from his face. However, a lovely phrase to comment on would be ‘languished grace’, which indicates the Moon’s lovesickness shrouds its beauty and worth in sadness and sloth.

If you want to sound very knowledgeable you could talk about the long standing association the Moon has with being a woman or a controller of women’s moods and its unrequited love for the Sun.

You may also want to mention the personification of love as Cupid firing his arrows. This presents the emotion as something that cannot be controlled by the poet and he has no influence as to how he feels now – shifting the blame for his pain. Notice his arrows are ‘sharp’, which implies that love can be painful and cause intense suffering.

I’d also comment on the contrary ideas put forward in four rhetorical questions at the end of the poem. Normally one would deem ‘constant love’ to be something valuable and beautiful, but the poets feels it marks him out as ‘want[ing of wit’ or brains. Similarly being ungrateful would be considered a sin rather than the ‘virtue’ or something to be appreciated in someone. The other questions raise similar ideas that are contradictory to common sense.

You could also talk about the individual words ‘scorn’ and ‘ungratefulness’ that suggest that the poetic voice feels like he has been mocked by events and has been treated unfairly by this girl.

 

 Structure

Again, we have an example of a sonnet that is a traditional expression of love, but dealing with the misery that unrequited love can cause. This is an example of a Petrarchan sonnet and Sidney is casting himself as the archetypal Petrarchan lover who is never quite able to get what he wants.

Notice the caesuras in the opening line that mirror the slow climb of the Moon by starting the poem at a very slow pace, contemplating the Moon’s misery; this continues more or less throughout the poem.

The only exception to this comes with the enjambment used across the third and fourth and then twelfth and thirteenth lines. The first example increases the pace as Sidney is snapping with anger about the pain Cupid has inflicted upon both him and his new buddy. The second is again his misery flipping to anger as he thinks about how this girl has made a fool of him.

I’d also mention the fact he has used rhetorical questions. I’ve already mentioned the meaning of these questions, but you could talk about their use as suggesting his frustration as his whole understanding of what the world values, what this girl wants and how he should act seem to have been rocked by her attitude towards him.

 

 Tone

This is a thoroughly miserable man and he seeks solace in someone similarly afflicted. The only time the tone changes is when he really focuses on how much he has been hurt either by the overwhelming power of love as an emotion or by Stella‘s attitude towards him.

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.

11 thoughts on “Sonnet 31”

  1. I lost my wits at “decided to stop breathing”.
    Hahaha, your analyses always help me and your sense of humor keeps it interesting!
    Thank you so much, Mr. Sir!

  2. Hey first of all thank you for all these great articles! I was just wondering if we’re actually meant to use contextual knowledge when answering questions

    1. Are you meant to use it? No, not necessarily, but with certain poems it really does helps us to understand the poet’s viewpoint. I’d include it where it is pertinent and relevant to what you are discussing, but keep your analysis focused upon the language of the poem itself.

      Interpreting a poem can be done in isolation from its context, but this can sometimes miss the initial intention of the poem. However, as soon as a writer publishes a piece of work they lose control over its meaning and its interpretation, which is one of the reasons I love literature and the ideas and discussions it generates.

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