Poem of the Week

Today’s poem is a great example of how, while culture and custom and language may change over time, human feelings remain the same. Love is the same. Pain is the same. Longing is the same. It was written four hundred years ago, but now, as you read the words Philip Sidney wrote, it’s like you’ve time-travelled back inside his mind. You need to read it twice, at least, before his densely patterned thoughts begin to become clear.

 

‘If I could think how these my thoughts to leave’

If I could think how these my thoughts to leave,
Or thinking still, my thoughts might have good end;
If rebel sense would reason’s law receive,
Or reason foiled would not in vain contend;
     Then might I think what thoughts were best to think:
     Then might I wisely swim or gladly sink.

If either you would change your cruel heart,
Or cruel (still) time did your beauty stain;
If from my soul this love would once depart,
Or for my love some love I might obtain;
     Then might I hope a change or ease of mind,
     By your good help, or in myself to find.

But since my thoughts in thinking still are spent,
With reason’s strife, by senses overthrown;
You fairer still, and still more cruel bent,
I loving still a love that loveth none;
     I yield and strive, I kiss and curse the pain:
     Thought, reason, sense, time, you, and I, maintain.

Philip Sidney

 

There’s a war going on. On the one side, the speaker in the poem knows that his feelings for ‘you’ (the girl, we imagine) are only giving him pain and misery, and that he’d be better off if he could ‘leave’ these thoughts, this part of his brain, and forget about her. On the other side, he loves her. It’s the age-old battle between ‘reason’s law’ (i.e. you know this isn’t working, she doesn’t want you, it’s not worth it) and ‘rebel sense’ (i.e. yes, I know all that, but I can’t alter how I feel). Our speaker is caught in his own crossfire, getting hit from both sides.

The three stanzas can be summarized like this:

If I … or … if … or … then might then might

If either … or … if … or … then might

BUT.

One of the most powerful and depressing words in the language: but. But those first two stanzas were just wishful thinking: here’s how it really is. I can’t think how to leave my thoughts, my thoughts don’t have good end, rebel sense won’t listen to reason, yet reason does keep on fighting, you won’t change your cruel heart, time hasn’t stained your beauty – in fact you’re ‘fairer still’ and still won’t give me even ‘some’ love in return for all of mine.

So… what? So nothing, that’s what. For all his yielding and striving and kissing and cursing, and despite this poem he’s crafted his deepest thoughts and feelings into, there’s nothing to be done but carry on, ‘maintain’. The last line sadly separates all of the pieces that simply won’t fit together, and how painfully that comma separates ‘you’, ‘and I’. Not we. You, comma, and I.

Dense, a bit difficult, but do read it again. I hope it means something to you, or makes you feel something. That’s what poetry’s for, isn’t it?

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