In many of his sonnets, Sidney personifies concepts such as “Love,” “Desire,” and “Virtue.” What is the effect of personifying these ideas? Does it emphasize the effects of emotions of the speaker? Does it elevate the importance of the concept to that of a universal truth? Or does it shift the source of the emotions from the speaker to an origin outside of the speaker, reducing him to a more passive role?
I think the personification adds power and meaning to otherwise abstract concepts. When people think of love as an idea, they may have characterizations to describe love, but they do not have a clear concrete image of love. When Sidney writes, “Love gave the wound which while I breathe will bleed”, he paints a vivid image of love as a wounding force. Having love do an action unique to personhood makes love come alive in a tangible way for the reader. The reader can picture a man with a sword or a bow and arrow wounding the speaker, and the abstract idea of heartbreak comes to life in a whole new way through the use of personification.
I think you have a really good point with your focus on Sidney’s tangibility in personification. Love is more relatable as a universal truth if the writer presents it as a human construct, rather than relating a tale of unrequited love at court – not every medieval reader would care to hear of every affair of every nobleman that has his heart broken at court. By utilizing and placing importance on Love as the cause of all misfortune, Sidney’s projection of his own heartbreak onto a fictional being arouses anger and frustration into his reader, who might empathize better in this fashion.
“Alas, have I not pain enough; my friend,
Upon whose breast a fiercer gripe doth tire
Than did on him who first stole down the fire,
While Love on me doth all his quiver spend,
But with your rhubarb words ye must contend,”
Here we see the projection, and the reader is invited to a universal experience of Love, as opposed to a private affair.
The effect of personification in Sir Philip Sidney’s poems helps elevate the magnitude of the abstract, but it also portrays it with an element of familiarity that connects these concepts with the audience. He almost portrays them as characters the reader is familiar with in his poetry, well known in their appearance and personality, giving them a role not unlike stock characters in earlier literature and theatre. When he says the line, “Love gave the wound which while I breathe will bleed”, he’s displacing the action on a third party, almost blaming his wound on the attack of another person. He separates the notion from himself through this hostile act, and by portraying this act as something Love is frequently accustomed to doing, he makes his audience see this well known concept in an entirely different way, that of an attacker forcing the narrator into submission. Sidney’s personification of abstract concepts helps cement them in reality and allows his readers to view them in ways they haven’t thought of before.
Sidney’s use of personification does reinforce the familiar aspects of Love and other such concepts, both possitive and negative. The emotions of the speaker are elevated beyond them to extend into a universal truth; the fact that the concepts are personified as familiar characters allows the audience to connect to the concepts on such a level that they are representative of everyone’s experience. Because the emotions of the speaker are so highly elevated, the focus is on the emotions and the concepts as themselves, as separate entities, so the speaker actually is relegated to a more passive role. Love and Desire are the characters or beings that are acting on the speaker; he is merely a recipient of their actions. They are unaffected by him, but he is ruled by them. The concepts are given even more power than they realistically have; they are independent of the speaker and the poet, acting alone, above the reach of humanity in the world.
Using personification amplifies the concepts of love, desire, and virtue in Sidney’s sonnets. When Sidney expresses virtue as a concept he says “Virtue awake, beauty but beauty is… I let her go. Soft but here she comes” (Sonnet 47, line 9). This is expressing virtue in a possibly negative connotation. The mention of Virtue in sonnet 47 is also marks the beginning of a sestet which helps draw change in the poem. Sidney is able to personify the concept of love in Sonnet 2 when he says “Love gave the wound which while I breathe will bleed” (line 2). In this he portrays love as the giver of the wound that he received. The viewers will envision a sword or other weapon as the source of that pain and then relate that to the concept of love. Through the use of personification helps the reader better envision the meaning that Sidney is trying to convey. This also helps the audience interpret the concepts better and allows them to see these concepts of love, desire and virtue in a different way.
I think it’s interesting to look at the personification of “Reason” in Sir Philip Sidney’s eighteenth sonnet because it introduces it as a virtue of importance. This stanza is focused on the speaker’s hopeless love for Stella, and Reason is portrayed as a friend of sorts who is trying to help the speaker rationally decide to move on. Even more than simply a logical being, however, Reason is depicted as an auditor: “When into Reason’s audit I do go, / And by just counts myself a bankrout know” (lines 2-3). The speaker is wasting away his emotional fortune on Stella, unable to pay “even Nature’s rent” (5). Reason is personified to juxtapose the irrationality of the speaker’s love while emphasizing its value as a virtue.
Personifying love as tangible objects creates a creative way to speak about love that maybe others hadn’t said yet, like in sonnets 18 and 31. The sonnets are also more tangible to the reader this way, showing what love is to the poet that maybe the readers wouldn’t have understood as exclamations of love like Sir Thomas Wyatt. Where he just spoke of how much he loved love, or how much he pined for another woman, Sir Philip Sidney shows how much love means to him by comparing it to other things.
In Sonnet 18, Sidney compares his love to being bankrupt (line 3) due to his overwhelming love for Stella. We may not understand the amount of love he feels for that woman, but by comparing it to bankruptcy, we can attest to that feeling through a tangible definition. The man feels like he’s lent more than he can be paid for in love, just like bankruptcy with money.
In Sonnet 31, he compares his love to the Moon, that “climb’st the skies” (line 1). He’s saying that whomever he loves is the Moon itself, a far away beauty that he goes in depth about in the next line. He says the Moon has “wan a face”, a pale face (line 2). This is a common compliment men have paid to their women for being pale and glowing, which the Moon is as well.
Both poems show that the writer used his metaphors to aid his exclamations of love. In writing in general, it behooves the author to create personifications, and metaphors to better reach the reader, translating abstract ideas of love into tangible ones.
The effect of personifying Love desire and virtue gives of the notion that a person could embody these attributes as one’s true self rather than an idea that we perceive when we think of these words. A person could possibly make these words come to life. this elevates the importance of the concept in universal truth because instead of having an idea of what something could be we are given a front row seat of how it could manifest in real life. It is no longer just an idea, it is a reality within the text. For example when it simply stated in Sonnet 1 of From Astrophil and Stella, “Fool,” said my Muse to me, “Look in thy heart and write.” This line exemplifies the ideal of one personifying love as a definite guide in this piece.
In some ways it might shift the writer’s voice to passive but for the most part I read it as him speaking to himself and we get to listen to how he feels and deals with his trials.