A summary of a classic poem
Michael Drayton was a contemporary of William Shakespeare – he was born a year before Shakespeare, in 1563 – and, like the Bard, he was a Warwickshire lad. But although he wrote a great number of poems – including a long verse travelogue about England – Drayton’s poetry is not read much now. That is, with the notable exception of this one sonnet, beginning ‘Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part’, which is widely anthologised and reasonably well-known. The poem is deft enough to make a little closer analysis of its language rewarding and useful.
Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part.
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me;
And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of Love’s latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies;
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes—
Now, if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou might’st him yet recover!
‘Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part’ was not originally a standalone sonnet, but the 61st poem in a sonnet sequence, Idea’s Mirror, published in 1594, around the time that Shakespeare may have been composing his Sonnets. Drayton’s sequence of sonnets are about his attempts to woo a lady, who was probably his patron’s daughter, Anne Goodere. But sonnet sequences were often written for patrons or as intellectual exercises to share among friends: whether Sir Philip Sidney really loved Penelope Rich, and whether Shakespeare was really romantically involved with the Fair Youth, remain tantalising questions without clear answers.
As the opening line and valedictory tone suggest, ‘Since there’s no help’ comes towards the end of the cycle known as Idea’s Mirror, by which point Drayton has lost hope of ever winning his lady. This is clear from the argument in the sonnet, which we might summarise or paraphrase as follows: ‘It’s no good, so let’s split up. I’m glad, actually – no, really, I am – to be out of this relationship. Let’s shake hands and forget everything we once promised each other; and when we meet in the future, let’s agree not to show the other any sign that we still love one another. Now, as our love for each other dies for ever, as we realise that we cannot entertain any further hope that we can make this work – now, if you wanted to, you could reawaken my dying love for you, and bring it back to life.’
In other words, then, ‘Since there’s no help’ is a break-up poem that ends, in the final couplet, with a sudden turn – indeed, not just a turn (a common feature of the sonnet) but a turnaround, whereby Drayton effectively says that all of this could be reversed if the lover wished. But this shift has also begun with that ‘Now’ which begins the ninth line, ushering in the sestet or final six lines. And it is marked by the change from imperative mood (‘Shake hands’, ‘cancel’, ‘Be it not’) to the subjunctive (‘thou wouldst’, ‘thou might’st’).
This is what marks out Drayton’s sonnet as a memorable and striking poem: the way the poet goes from brash confidence that he is happy to be leaving the relationship behind to essentially saying, ‘Look, say the word and I’ll be back with you like a shot.’ One wonders if A. E. Housman had this poem in mind when he penned his ‘Shake hands’ poem about his hopeless love, for Moses Jackson.
But the other thing which makes ‘Since there’s no help’ such a memorable expression of hopeless love is the directness of the language: it’s bluff, virile, and to the point. This makes the poem easy to understand, but also makes the undermining of the poet’s over-confidence in the latter section of the sonnet all the more affecting.
Image: Portrait of Michael Drayton by Sylvester Harding, via Wikimedia Commons.