A summary of an early English sonnet
Although he gets the credit for it, William Shakespeare didn’t invent the Shakespearean sonnet. That specific poetic form – also known as the English sonnet – was instead the innovation of a Tudor courtier and poet named Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-47), who, as well as making Shakespeare’s Sonnets possible, also invented the verse form that would make Elizabethan drama possible: blank verse. The Bard had a lot to thank Henry Howard for.
‘In Cyprus Springs’ is the short title sometimes attached to the sonnet by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey which begins ‘In Cyprus springs whereas Dame Venus dwelt’. (We’ll come to the punctuation in a moment.) This is a curious poem, an example of the ‘lover’s complaint’, and deserving of closer analysis. First, here is the poem:
In Cyprus, springs (whereas Dame Venus dwelt)
A well so hot, that whoso tastes the same,
Were he of stone, as thawed ice should melt,
And kindled find his breast with fixed flame,
Whose moist poison dissolved hath my hate.
This creeping fire my cold limbs so opprest,
That in the heart that harbour’d freedom late,
Endless despair long thraldom hath imprest.
Another so cold in frozen ice is found,
Whose chilling venom of repugnant kind,
The fervent heat doth quench of Cupid’s wound,
And with the spot of change infects the mind,
Whereof my dear hath tasted, to my pain;
My service thus is grown into disdain.
When ‘In Cyprus Springs’ was first printed, in what was effectively English poetry’s first anthology, Tottel’s Miscellany: Songs and Sonnets of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Others (Penguin Classics, in 1557, it was given the title ‘Complaint of the Lover Disdained’. This provides a clue to how we should read and interpret the poem.
Punctuation can often prove a problem with Renaissance poetry, since it was often circulated, and printed, without any, so it can be difficult to determine where the commas and full stops should go. Depending on where a comma is placed, it can lead to a very different analysis of the poem, and we’re aware that our interpretation of the poem, and our arrangement of the punctuation, may not meet with universal approval. But if we take ‘In Cyprus springs’ as one unit (like, say, ‘Alice Springs’), then ‘springs’ cannot be a verb, and this first sentence is lacking a main verb as a result. For this reason, ‘In Cyprus, [there] springs … a well …’ seems to make more sense as a reading of the poem’s opening.
With this in mind, the sonnet might be paraphrased as follows. First, a long, detailed summary of the sonnet: ‘In Cyprus, springs (because Venus dwelt there) a well that is so hot that whoever tastes its water melts like thawed ice, even if he’s as cold as stone. And, being so kindled by the fire, he would find his breast on fire with a steady and continual flame; and the moist poison of this fire has dissolved my hate. This creeping fire has so oppressed my cold limbs, that in my heart (that, until recently, was free), long slavish devotion has now been imprinted with endless despair. But there is another well, encased in frozen ice, whose chilling venom cures you of the fervent heat of love. To my pain, my beloved has tasted of this well, and my devotion to her meets with disdain.’
There are problems with such a summary, undoubtedly: the last line makes it sound as though Howard’s ‘service’ to his beloved is growing into disdain for her, but this doesn’t make sense in light of the burning passion that flares away in him and the icy coldness in her, nor does it fit with Tottel’s interpretation, present in the appended title in the Miscellany.
Howard’s likely source for this sonnet was Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso, which Sir John Harington – feted inventor of the flush toilet – would later translate into English. Like his friend and fellow poet at the court of King Henry VIII, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard often didn’t write original poems, but rather loosely translated European originals into English, giving them his particular ‘spin’. ‘In Cyprus Springs’ is not as widely known, anthologised, or studied as another of Howard’s sonnets, ‘The Soote Season’, but it certainly repays reading and analysis.
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And the drawing is stunning. Holbein?
It is a Holbein sketch, yes – we agree, it’s wonderful!
Good point about the punctuation.