Sonnet 11

Overview

‘This girl is sad about a guy’ – a response from one of my Year 12s on initial reading of the poem. I responded with some form of abusive shouting, I really should have gone further and resorted to some form of medieval torture. Understatement of all understatements.

The poetic voice is distraught and on the verge of suicide as feels tortured by the loss of her love. She is blaming a personified ‘Love’ for her woes and pleading for an end to her heartache and otherwise threatening to end it all herself.

  

You endless torments that my rest oppress,
            How long will you delight in my sad pain?
            Will never Love your favour more express?
            Shall I still live, and ever feel disdain?
Alas, now stay, and let my grief obtain
            Some end; feed not my heart with sharp distress.
            Let me once see my cruel fortunes gain
            At least release, and long-felt woes redress.
Let not the blame of cruelty disgrace
            The honoured title of your godhead Love;
            Give not just cause for me to say a place
            Is found for rage alone on me to move.
O quickly end, and do not long debate
My needful aid, lest help do come too late.

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

I love Lady Mary Wroth and I think there is a pretty clear link between her life and the poem, but I’ll get to that in a second.

She lived between 1587-1651/3 (hard to tell in those days) and was from a distinguished literary family and was one of the first women to be recognised as a literary talent. Her reputation was a bit hard for her husband to take and apparently the marriage wasn’t the happiest. However, he died – thankfully – and she did find love with her cousin, Earl William Herbert (quite a powerful and rich guy). It wasn’t easy for her though, as Herbert was also one of the favourites of Queen Anne and she moved him around court to be with her in a tussle with Wroth.

This poem is from a sonnet sequence in her book Countess of Montgomery’s Urania called Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. The sequence is about a girl expressing her feelings after her lover has been unfaithful. However, I think the strength of the expression of these extreme emotions indicate that she has experienced this kind of emotional destruction personally.

I think this poem is directly about her anger and misery at Queen Anne making her love impossible, depriving her of her man. You are perfectly free to disagree with me though!

 

Themes

Again we’re looking at love, but very specifically at the dark side of the emotion and how it can rip someone apart and appear merciless and cruel.

Content

It’s easy to be put off by this type of poem – extreme depression breeds extreme depression, so why bother. However, this is one of the richest and there is a huge amount to comment on.

Divided into four sections within a sonnet (see structure below), we are taken through the poetic voice’s evolving emotions. It opens with an expression of a state of torture (‘endless torments’) that she feels now she can’t have her lover and quickly descended to bitter rhetorical questioning to her torturer – again, a kind of personified Love – about why he ‘delight[s]‘ in her suffering. She even questions whether she can live with the pain in the fourth line as she feels that this pain with last forever.

I see the second four lines as her anger subsiding into pathetic sobs. She actually begs her love to ‘now stay’ and wants to avoid the ‘sharp distress’ of a sudden and unexpected ending. It’s a little odd, as if she is asking for a gradual break-up just so it doesn’t feel like a sudden wounding. She wants to avoid that sting of hearing “it’s over”.

Next, she seems to be threatening ‘Love’ with ruining his reputation by associating him with ‘cruelty’ and blaming him/the emotion for her ‘rage’.

In the final two lines, it is open to interpretation whether she is pleading to Love or to the reader to help her. ‘O quickly end’ means she is begging for immediate help and the last phrase – ‘lest help do come too late’ – implies that if she is not helped soon she will die; this sounds like a threat that she will commit suicide to rid her of the pain if no one can help.

 

Language and techniques

Throughout your discussion of the content of this poem, you should be referring to the powerful vocabulary used to express the poetic voice’s suffering.

Wroth uses ‘endless torments’, ‘sharp distress’, ‘cruelty’ and ‘rage’ to associate the emotions of the poem with acute suffering and torture brought on by the loss of love. She contrasts this with the feeling of ‘delight’ from Love as if the emotion enjoys its power to destroy its victims.

I’d also refer to the initial use of rhetorical questions. Repeated, bitter questioning of Love’s motives and actions show her anger and an almost helpless lashing out. The third of these contains the implied threat of suicide if she continues to have to deal with these feelings.

You could also bring in the fact that the poetic voice still seems to respect Love, as having an ‘honoured title’, which could indicate that she appreciates the happiness of being in love alongside the devastation of being deprived of love. Her suffering throughout the poem could be a tribute to the power and magnitude of the emotion.

 

Structure

Okay, so I’ve mentioned already that this is divided into four distinction sections of the poetic voice’s emotional state.

1-4 Depression/Anger

5-8 Plea for relief

9-12 Threatening

13-14 Plea for help/Suicide note

Each quatrain acting as an exploration of one emotional response to the loss of love and the final couplet… well, that’s just miserable. Poor Wroth, if this was about her and Herbert.

It is also significant that this is written in the sonnet form. Traditionally sonnets are associated with expressions of love/infatuation/longing, but this completely turns the form on its head by showing the darker side of love.

If you really want to impress and you can articulate the idea clearly, you could talk about how she uses vocabulary with harsh/stressed sounding consonant opening syllables to mirror the suffering – ‘pain’, ‘disdain’, ‘distress’, ‘disgrace’. If this doesn’t make sense, don’t talk about it because you’ll sound unconvincing.

 

Tone

It’s fairly scathing or aggressive at most points, with the poetic voice blaming and threatening Love. However, there is also an undertone of depression as this anger is based on utter heartbreak and misery, which is captured by her expressions of longing to go back in the second quatrain. 

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.

21 thoughts on “Sonnet 11”

  1. Please i have a question…sorry for disturbing …But this whole poem who can i say it is directed to …as in who is she talking to…husband who died ?Her crush who is not loving her back or who ??

    1. Hi Kaybest,

      By all accounts Wroth had an interesting love life, so it could possibly have been one of a few different chap or simply an artistic invention. The ‘you’ is actually her address the lovesickness that is engulfing her and basically asking it when it will ease up and go a bit easier on her.

      Hope this helps,

      Mr Sir

  2. IIn the second part, I actually think Mary Wroth meant that the endless torments should stay. I see it as a theme of resolution. I actually do not see it as a love poem at all, but we have our different views. I think that she already lost hope of getting rid of her torments, reason why she called them endless. She then asks the torments to end quickly if possible. She knew that help would come but she was scared of help coming too late

    1. I don’t agree with you, but it is an interesting view. I see it more as she has lost hope of her torment ended rather than that she wants them to stay (if I take your point correctly).

      Thanks for commenting,

      Mr Sir

  3. I think perhaps you have your queens muddled. Queen Anne was the queen at the time Lady Mary Wroth was in a relationship with Herbert. Elizabeth I died in 1603 and LMW was married to her fist husband in 1604.

  4. One more thing, I have a different understanding to the last two lines so I want to ask if that makes sense or not. It’s like she is asking her life to ‘quickly end’ without any further ‘debate’ if the ‘aid’ which she badly needs (‘needful’) ‘comes too late’. Kindly tell me if my interpretation can be considered as correct otherwise correct me please!

    1. Interesting! However, I think the key word that undoes your idea is ‘lest’. Basically this means ‘in case’ and therefore I’d be fairly sure she wants to be ‘saved’ or have her heart mended. However, the fact I disagree doesn’t necessarily mean your point is invalid and if you’d be confident dealing with your idea analytically then do it!

  5. This is an amazing effort. Life seriously became easier. However I can not get a few things like firstly what does she mean by “my rest oppress” in the first line. Then what is she trying to say when she writes ” Let me once see my cruel fortunes gain
    At least release, ……….” and similarly here
    “Give not just cause for me to say a place
    Is found for rage alone on me to move.” Like I can not make sense out of these lines even after reading your notes, it’s like I can’t transform these poetic lines in prose form, which I am able to do with the rest. If you have time, please help me out here!

    1. Okay, I’m going to start with your last problem and work backwards as its easier to explain.

      ‘Give not just cause’ is basically her threatening Love/Cupid that she will blame her anger and madness on him if he doesn’t stop her love-related pain. The equivalent of ‘Don’t give me a reason to slag you off and blame you for my fury.’

      Next ‘Let me once see my cruel fortunes gain at least release’ she is pleading for an end to the sharp pain that has been caused by her separation. Closely linked to the idea in the two lines prior.

      Finally, ‘my rest oppress’ needs to be understood in the context of the whole line. Her rest is her sleep and it is being oppressed or persecuted because of her ‘endless torments’. We know these relate to her shattered heart, so basically she can’t sleep because she is so upset about her break up.

      Hope this helps!

      1. Thank you very much. It really helped a lot except that I am still stuck over the line ‘Is found for rage alone on me to move’…I am just unable to understand what EXACTLY is meant by this line and I am really sorry for that too.
        Secondly for those last two lines even when I try to go with your interpretation, I always get confused that if she is asking her pains to ‘quickly end’ then what is this this plead intended for: “do not long debate”. Is this for the aid which she needs and if so what is the last clause, ‘lest help do come too late’, linked with?
        So at the end what i can think of is join the first clause of first line with the second clause of the second line like this “O quickly end, lest help do come too late” i.e. “Oh my life quickly end IN CASE help comes too late” and join the second clause of first line with the first clause of second line like this “and do not long debate my needful aid” i.e. “she is addressing the aid that take no more time to come since i need you so much”. Please now tell me if this makes sense:)!!

      2. I’ve had to read that about ten times over and I’m still a little confused :\

        The ‘is found for rage alone on me to move’ means Love’s attitude (causing her all this pain) is a the only reason she can find for her rage and anger. Well, that’s her threat, she’ll tell people Love is the bastard who caused this.

        The last bit in my view simple means ‘Come quickly or else your help will be too late and this pain will have killed me.’ Hope this makes sense, can’t really think of a simpler way to phrase it, but if you’ve got a different interpretation go with what sounds right to you.

      3. Alright thank you so very much and I am sorry for frying your brain so much but my problem is I just can’t move over to the next bit until I am clear about the first one. And I get your interpretation now after you just put it in that simple phrase, now it makes sense. And I know mine was really not that mature and logical, only I wanted to find a way out of it:). If you don’t mind, may I please ask what grade you got in Literature in your AS and A level?

      4. Well I’m a teacher! I got an A (before A* was possible) and didn’t drop a mark on my poetry papers. However, I studied History at University. Glad it is a bit clearer and let me know if there are any other bits you get stuck with.

      5. This is very kind of you and wow you got an A….this is more than amazing. I only wish you could do something about the stories of ourselves as well since I am already studying ‘a midsummer night’s dream’ from your notes and I really consider my self as one of the luckiest people on Earth to have found your website. So although I know it’s really hard for you to manage all this (from other comments:), I still wish you could do something about it before my exams in May:). Thank you so much once again for all this time!

  6. i will never understand these poems.. they are like puzzles to me. i dont know why im just doing this subject as a principle one..

    1. That sounds like exam nerves. Keep calm, try to focus on the poems you feel confident about and mould the exam question to them if possible. Good luck! (Also, don’t worry that other people understand these poems naturally, it is like learning a new language, but gradually you crack it and the puzzles become nice little sudokus that you actually enjoy cracking).

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