On one of Sir Philip Sidney’s great love sonnets
Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnets often shut closed neatly and satisfyingly with a snap. They build towards their conclusion, and although Sidney uses the Petrarchan sonnet form (which doesn’t usually conclude with a rhyming couplet), his last lines tend to have the ring of finality about them, ending his poem with a bang rather than a whimper. ‘Nymph of the garden where all beauties be’, which is the 82nd sonnet in his sequence Astrophil and Stella, is a fine example of how well Sidney took the relatively new sonnet form (in English) and made it his own.
Nymph of the garden where all beauties be,
Beauties which do in excellency pass
His who till death looked in a watery glass,
Or hers whom nak’d the Trojan boy did see;
Sweet garden-nymph, which keeps the cherry-tree
Whose fruit doth far the Hesperian taste surpass,
Most sweet-fair, most fair-sweet, do not, alas,
From coming near those cherries banish me.
For though, full of desire, empty of wit,
Admitted late by your best-gracèd grace,
I caught at one of them, and hungry bit,
Pardon that fault; once more grant me the place;
And I do swear, even by the same delight,
I will but kiss, I never more will bite.
Astrophil and Stella was the first long sonnet sequence to be composed in English (though Sidney was not the first English poet to write a sonnet sequence). Over the course of 108 sonnets and a handful of songs, Sidney charts his realisation that Penelope Rich, the woman he was offered in marriage and turned down, is beautiful and desirable and – now that she has married another – unattainable. It’s a variation on the old courtly love tradition, whereby the male poet admires from afar the unattainable woman. But Astrophil’s worship of Stella is not blind devotion, and Astrophil is no saint: he wrestles with a whole range of emotions throughout the course of Astrophil and Stella.
Sonnet 82 (‘Nymph of the garden where all beauties be’) obviously comes quite late in the sequence, but it still sees ‘Astrophil’ admiring the beauty of ‘Stella’ – and, specifically, the beauty of her lips, which he likens to cherries in a garden. To paraphrase the meaning of the sonnet: ‘Stella, you are like a nymph guarding a beautiful garden, in that you defend your beauty against those who would trespass there. And you are beautiful: more beautiful than Narcissus, who was so attractive he fell in love with his own beauty when gazing upon it in the “watery glass” of the stream; and more beautiful than the Roman goddess Venus, whom the Trojan prince, Paris, saw naked. Your lips are like a beautiful cherry-tree in a garden, and the fruits on that tree are far better than the golden apples of Hesperides in Greek myth. Do not forbid me to come anywhere near those cherry-lips! For though I am lusting stupidly after you, I snatched a kiss of those cherry-lips; please forgive that transgression and let me come close again, and I won’t bite those cherries again: I’ll just kiss you.’
There’s something very playful about this twisting of the poem’s central fruity analogy: ‘I won’t bite your cherry; just kiss your lips!’ As Salvador Dali once observed, the first person to compare the cheeks of a woman to a rose was obviously a poet, while the first to repeat it was probably an idiot. It’s the same with the cherry lips analogy. But in Sonnet 82, Sidney offers a clever twist on this cherry image. Who needs a bite of the cherry when one can have a kiss?
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