Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Poetic creed and inspiration in ‘Loving in Truth’ by Sir Philip Sidney

Where does creativity come from? Even the greatest artists have no idea. One day it flows, the next it freezes over. Plato spoke of the poet’s “enthu­siasmos,” a religious exultation of such revolutionary frenzy that the dour philosopher banned art from his orderly republic. Yet when the muse fails to descend, the poet is just another bread-queuing proletarian. So what do we do when we want to write but can’t find the words?
For an answer, we can always turn to Sidney’s poem “Loving in Truth,” the first in his sonnet sequence “Astrophel and Stella.” Their names tell us the story of their relationship. “Astro” is from the Greek for “star,” while “phel” or “phil” means love (as in the name “Philadelphia”), so he is literally a “star lover.” He orbits round and round the radiant Stella, whose name is derived from the Latin for star. Together, the poet and his beloved express the Greco-Roman harmony of feeling and form: the classical sensibility revived in the Renaissance.

Like other creative persons of the period, Sidney also came under the influence of sonneteering. Thus a series of sonnets addressed to a single lady, expressing and reflecting on the developing relationship between the poet and his love grew up. Though the story does not have to be literal autobiography and questions of ‘sincerity’ are hardly answered, Sidney’s love for Stella, on the artistic level, has been traced to love-affair of the poet’s own life. Stella is said to be Penelope Devereux, who did not or could not reciprocate the love and married Lord Rich. It is, in fact, owing to the predisposition of the mind created by the Romantic tradition of subjective art that we sometimes relate and interpret the works of other writers of other periods before the Romantics to and in terms of their biographical accounts.

It must be remembered that with Loving in Truth the Astrophil and Stella theme-sequence opens. Significantly the opening sonnet presents the dual theme of how to write good poetry and how to win the favour of a beloved. The poet even implies the question whether it is possible to a good poem aiming at winning the beloved. At the very beginning of the sonnet Sidney makes it clear that he writes the sonnet in order to win Stella. Here he employs the simplest means—which any lover does, namely, the pain-pleasure-knowledge-pity-love method:

“… 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”.

The word ‘pain’ has, however, a double meaning here; in one sense it refer to the pains of love and in another sense it refers to the hardships of creative writing. This implies that poetry is not just inspirational or impulsive, but a long struggle with words, emotions and feelings. Theoretically Sidney was influenced by both Aristotle and Horace. He believed that good poetry must both teach and delight. That is why he thinks that reading well-written love-poems give his beloved pleasure and knowledge of his sincerity and anguish. This would, in turn, make her pity him and pity would give rise to love.

The poet confesses that once decided upon the means he went on to paint “the blackest face of woe/ Studying inventions fine…” Here we come to an outstanding feature of the imagery of Astrophil an Stella—the device of personification, which was, in fact, a medieval practice and influenced the poets till the 17th century. Here the poet also refers to the contemporary practice of imitating the words of other poets. But he comes to the realization that imitation without inspiration is futile. That is why he waits for “some fresh showers upon my sun-burn’d brain”. The image is an instance of Sidney’s innovative imagination. By ‘sun’ he refers to Stella or the source of his love, which has dried up his creative faculty. The poet understands that this forces him to halt. When Sidney says, “Invention, Nature’s child”, he follows Aristotle’s idea that art is an imitation of nature. In accordance with that equation, literary imitation, the product of ‘study’ has a secondary place in creative writing. Thus, literary imitation, “others’ feet” cannot provide the solution to the creation of original poetry. Here Sidney’s comparison of creative writing to giving birth to a child is highly significant and it contains metaphor within metaphor.

At last a miracle seems to happen with him:

“Fool’ said my Muse, “look in thy heart and write”.
He comes to a sudden realization that only spontaneous inspiration can help the poet compose good poetry and win the beloved. When he will look into his heart, he will see the image of Stella, which will provide him with the inspiration and material he needs to write poetry. Thus, the last line of the sonnet turns out to be a direct statement of Sidney’s critical creed that great poetry does not result from imitation of other poets, but from the expression of personal experience and passion. Such views on poetic creation are similar to those of the Romantic poets.

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