A Short Analysis of Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘My True Love Hath My Heart’

‘My true love hath my heart, and I have his’: a summary

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86) was a Renaissance man: an Elizabethan soldier, statesman, and poet, who also wrote one of the first long works of prose fiction (some say one of the first novels) in English literature. But he is chiefly remembered now for his poetry, and ‘My true love hath my heart, and I have his’ is one of his most widely anthologised love poems. What follows is a brief summary and analysis of the poem.

My true love hath my heart, and I have his,
By just exchange one for the other given:
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss;
There never was a bargain better driven.
His heart in me keeps me and him in one;
My heart in him his thoughts and senses guides:
He loves my heart, for once it was his own;
I cherish his because in me it bides.
His heart his wound received from my sight;
My heart was wounded with his wounded heart;
For as from me on him his hurt did light,
So still, methought, in me his hurt did smart:
Both equal hurt, in this change sought our bliss,
My true love hath my heart, and I have his.

‘My true love hath my heart’ is a reminder that, although he is the one most closely associated with it, Shakespeare didn’t actually invent the Shakespearean sonnet: Sidney’s poem, composed before the Bard had begun writing his 154 Sonnets, rhymes the same way as a Shakespearean or English sonnet, namely ababcdcdefefgg. Or almost: the final couplet doesn’t actually offer a new rhyme, but instead returns to the a rhyme (‘his’, ‘miss’) that began the poem, so that the opening line can also form the closing line: ‘My true love hath my heart, and I have his.’ His? Is this one of the first gay poems in the English language, addressed from one man to another? Well, no. The poem is taken Sir Philip Sidneyfrom Sidney’s long prose work the Arcadia, a pastoral narrative which Sidney composed in around 1580, and the speaker of the poem in Book III of the Arcadia is a shepherdess, pledging her love for her betrothed, a shepherd who rests in her lap.

The poem is easy to summarise. The speaker states that she and her lover have pledged their hearts to each other, and it’s the best exchange or ‘bargain’ that could have been contrived. By exchanging their hearts with each other and pledging themselves to the other, the two lovers guide each other and make them two hearts in one. The shepherdess tells her that her lover’s heart was ‘wounded’ when he saw her, because Cupid, the Roman god of love, shot him with his arrow and afflicted him with love for the shepherdess. When the shepherdess saw that her love was wounded with love for her, she fell for him. The next two lines, though, require more careful unpicking and analysis:

For as from me on him his hurt did light,
So still, methought, in me his hurt did smart:

Sidney’s shepherdess is essentially saying (using the word ‘hurt’ to twist ‘heart’ slightly out of shape) that both lovers, seeing the other afflicted with love, were themselves afflicted: in other words, it was mutual attraction from the word go: ‘Just at the moment he was wounded with love for me, so, it seems to me, the very wound of love that afflicted him did then afflict me.’

The word ‘change’ in the penultimate line of the poem means both transformation (they have been transformed, by Cupid, into lovers) and exchange (they have pledged their hearts to one another).

‘My true love hath my heart, and I have his’ is a well-known opening line in the annals of love poetry, but it’s not often that we stop to analyse the context of the poem (i.e. a male poet talking about a male ‘true love’), or, indeed, stop to read the rest of the sonnet to which this acts as opening line. But it’s a fine poem, a perfect Elizabethan love lyric; and it helped to pave the way for Sidney’s greater achievement with the sonnet, his 108-sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella.

Image: Sir Philip Sidney, from 1912 book by Henry Thew Stephenson; Wikimedia Commons.

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