Poem of the week

Ring Out Your Belles … by Sir Philip Sidney

The Elizabethan soldier-poet deserves more recognition for the variety and originality of his verse

Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney charmed earlier generations of readers, not least through his personal qualities: his courtesy and soldierly valour. He was also among the most highly esteemed English poets. In the 17th century his collected works ran into nine editions (Shakespeare mustered only four). Relegated to second division these days, Sidney deserves more attention. His poetry is not mere charm, but richly varied and highly original.

Sidney was an innovator, little influenced by the poets of his day. In his rigorously argued Defence of Poetry he claimed that the only works with “poeticall sinewes” were those of Chaucer and Surrey. He said of himself that he was “no pick-purse of another’s wit”: perhaps, like all the best poets, he picked numerous purses, assimilating a range of techniques both from his wide reading of the classics, and from the Italian and Spanish poets with whom he became acquainted during his travels.

His major works are Arcadia and the sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella. Certain Sonnets, the collection containing this week’s poem, Ring Out Your Belles … , is less well-known, but it contains much to remind us that the young Sidney was full of new ideas.

It includes, in fact, the first examples of regular accentual trochaic meter in English: “This you heare is not my tongue/ Which once said what I conceaved,/ For it was of use bereaved,/ With a cruel answer strong.”

There are translations in the traditional sense of the word, and also poems which are, in a sense, translations from music into poetry, and headed “To the tune of … ” The song in question is usually Spanish or Neapolitan. Of course, the term “sonnet” is used loosely, to denote any song-like poem.

I’ve chosen Ring Out Your Belles … for its fire and originality. Although the meter is conventionally iambic, the variation of line-length is refreshing: pentameter in line one, dimeter for the little refrain of line two, followed by eight trimeters that sustain the energy by alternating patterns of feminine and masculine endings, and an ABAB, AABB rhyme scheme.

The last four lines of each stanza form the chief refrain, and an angry and misogynistic one it seems, with that “femall franzie” (“female frenzy”). The concluding line, “Good Lord deliver us,” is hardly prayer-like. It might recall, rather, the exasperated, mock-comic curses of young men getting together to have a grumble about the unfair sex. But the thought develops into something subtler than that. Deliverance is sought not only from “them that use men thus” but from Love itself. It’s the fantasies and disappointment aroused in him which the speaker ultimately curses – and feminises. Love, he seems to suggest, has made a woman of him.

The first three stanzas present a complete and chronological torrent of funerary images: chiming “belles”; weeping neighbours; Trentalls (prayers for souls in Purgatory); the mistress’s “hart” itself transformed into a tomb. What’s original here is the lavishness and gusto the poet brings to a conventional trope. The tone is invigorating in its lack of self-pity.
And then comes the startling volte-face: “Alas, I lie: rage hath this errour bred,/ Love is not dead.” Now the marble-hearted mistress is praised for her “unmatched mind” and her discretion in keeping Love’s counsel. The refrain needs only a little alteration to suit its new context.

What could have been merely a clever rhetorical device delivers a poetic charge, thanks to the consistent pace and flow of the rhythms, and the frankness of the tone. We trust the transformation to joy as much as the earlier rage, because of the absolute conviction the poem brings to both, epitomising the “all-or-nothing” moods of love. The logic has been revised, and the poet’s attitude to his mistress reversed, by some off-stage flourish of erotic magic. How could he ever have called “such wit a franzie” – and only moments ago? It was evidently all just a lovers’ tiff.

From Certain Sonnets, No 30, Ring Out Your Belles …

Ring out your belles, let mourning shewes be spread,
For love is dead:
All Love is dead, infected
With plague of deepe disdaine:
Worth as naught worth rejected,
And Faith faire scorne doth gaine.
From so ungratefull fancie,
From such a femall franzie,
From them that use men thus
Good Lord deliver us.

Weepe neighbours, weepe, do you not heare it said,
That Love is dead?
His death-bed peacock’s folly,
His winding-sheet is shame,
His will false-seeming holie,
His sole exec’tour blame.
From so ungratefull fancie,
From such a femall franzie,
From them that use men thus
Good Lord deliver us.

Let Dirge be sung, and Trentalls rightly read,
For Love is dead:
Sir wrong his tomb ordaineth,
My mistresse Marble hart,
Which Epitaph containeth,
‘Her eyes were once his dart’.
From so ungratefull fancie,
From such a femall franzie,
From them that use men thus
Good Lord deliver us.

Alas, I lie: rage hath this errour bred,
Love is not dead.
Love is not dead, but sleepeth
In her unmatched mind:
Where she his counsell keepeth,
Till due desert she find.
Therefore from so vile fancie,
To call such wit a franzie,
Who love can temper thus,
Good Lord deliver us.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/may/17/poetry