A Review of Proportional Form in the Sonnets of the Sidney Circle

This review appeared in The Sixteenth Century Journal: The Journal of Early Modern Studies, 31/1 (2000), 197-200.

Proportional Form in the Sonnets of the Sidney Circle: Loving in Truth. Tom W. N. Parker. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. 259 pp. HB.

'There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, And--every--single--one--of--them--is--right!' Rudyard Kipling, 'In the Neolithic Age'

When A. K. Heiatt and Alexander Dunlop demonstrated that in his Amoretti and Epithalamion Spenser uses numbers and names of months and familiar Christian festivals drawn from the calendar to mark his sequence with the signs of a coherent temporal framework, they performed a useful function. Two simple consistent schemes which a writer could feasibly follow explained the arrangement of groups of verses which had hitherto seemed so complex and therefore at times puzzling. All too often twentieth-century scholars have read such sonnet sequences, whose denotative content typically focuses on the poet-narrator's erotic enthrallment with another individual, as about something else. We are repeatedly told that the poet's use of erotic language and a love story is disingenuous: he or she has really written a series of autobiographical fragments; is really exploring a newly-freed secular self, along remarkably Freudian lines; is really expressing frustrated ambition and disillusionment with the competitive world of court politics; is really making a bid for patronage. The poet is, through irony, really teaching how frivolous, vain, and degrading is earthly love and urging us to obey some version of Christian doctrine. When our attention is drawn to the actual statements about love in the verse as primary, we are told that to understand it, we must turn to exegeses of neoplatonic and mystical tracts by other early modern writers. Heiatt and Dunlop did not ignore or attempt to transform what is in the text by writing an interpretation of it based on something that is not in it.

Unfortunately, many of the Christianising numerological interpretations of early modern poetry that Hieatt and Dunlop's essays have given rise to have drawn diverse calendarical and number schemes from Spenser's Amoretti and Epithalamion -- and thus made Heiatt's and Dunlop's work less persuasive. In Thomas P. Roche's work on Petrarch's Rime sparse, Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella and other English sonnet sequences, Roche has added to a complicated and inconsistent scheme a determined effort to demonstrate that the numbers, calendars, and archetypes he draws from the verse prove the poetry exemplifies dogmatic Christian doctrines which teach that sexual passion is degrading and futile. Tom Parker in his Proportional Form in the Sonnets of the Sidney Circle has gone yet farther than Roche by denying that there needs to be anything readily observable in the poet's use of numbers to prove the numbers are there, in going outside the verses he has studied for his number schemes, and in using intemperately harsh and contemptuous language for the poet-narrators he discusses when he deals with their sexual passion.

Parker's book is not without merit. He has read and quotes from the letters, documentary remains, and verse of many well and lesser-known sixteenth-century English writers, policitians, aristocrats and courtiers. He has examined and describes many of the extant different manuscripts and printed books and theological and critical tracts. Therefore, his dogmatic insistence that the one arrangement which makes his number schemes work out is right in the context of so many scribes, revisions, and contradictory maneuvers can lead us to ask ourselves if these sequences are ordered at all, and if so, how can we discover it? Parker makes us want to be honest with ourselves about the interpretations and unified schemes we have preferred. The texts of the poets Parker has chosen to discuss reveal how for several decades after Sidney's death Astrophil and Stella continued to be remembered in detail. The reductive nature of his commentary on the content of these verses has the effect of throwing into high relief the adult nature and enigmatic complexity of not only the poetry of Sidney and Fulke Greville, but that of poets who have until recently been either unknown, neglected or are still dismissed.

Parker's line of argument begins in Chapter One. There he attempts to demonstrate that Philip Sidney planned and wrote each of the individual poems that make up his Astrophil and Stella and Certaine Sonets to come out in strategical numbers of lines and stanzas arranged in strategical orders. Sidney did this to offer his readers verses which form countable, fixed, and repeating sets of numbers, which by adding, subtracting, dividing, multiplying and performing percentage, ratio and exponential arithmetical calculations can be made to produce variants on the following favored numbers 13, 27 (or 1/4 X 108), 35, 54, 63, 72, 81 (3/4 X 108), 86, and 108. Parker's arithmetic is continually more than a little tortured: 'Not counting the poem by Dyer (Certaine Sonets 16a) that is added to make sense of Sidney's reply (in Certaine Sonets 16), but including the extra couplet added to the final stanza of Certaine Sonets 17 and counting the doubled stanzas of Certaine Sonets 23 as two units each, the unit total of the sequence is 108, matching the sonnet and stanza totals of Astrophil and Stella' (pp. 83-84). In Chapters Two through Six Parker performs further opportunistic arithmetical computations with the numbers of lines, stanzas, and whole poems in various manuscript and printed sequences of verses by Sidney's brother, Robert Sidney; by Robert's daughter and Sidney's niece, Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth; by Sidney's close friend, Fulke Greville; and by Henry Constable, Barnabe Barnes, and Michael Drayton, three men who left manuscript and printed sequences of verses in order to demonstrate that these six poets wrote their verses to produce the same numerical variants. The clue to all this poetry is to be found in Sidney's having decided to end Astrophil and Stella at Sonnet 108. Parker simply asserts Sidney chose 108 from Sidney's reading of Plato and Pythagorus through a perspective drawn from Aristotle which makes 108 a numerical 'condensation' of various musical theories (pictured by Parker as a lambda pattern) and of the 'Platonic construction of the soul of the world' (p. 32).

Parker derives many of his numbers by shifting what is called a unit and choosing part of one manuscript in one case and part of another in another as definitively reflecting the author's intent: 'Three of Greville's fourteen-line sonnets appear . . . as a single block of text, and the remaining thirty-six sonnets . . . are all shown with three divisions on the page, providing a further group of 108 in the Warwick text (3 X 36 = 108)' (p. 102). Parker will also pick just that place in a stanza, poem or given series of poems which he can use to find variants on favored numbers: Drayton's 'Amours 10 and 14 . . . are written in hexameters for their first quatrains, and thereafter are in pentameters' because 'Sidney had used hexameters to mark off ten unit sections of his sequence in an equivalent manner -- Astrophil and Stella 76 and 77, a pair of hexameter sonnets, occur ten units after the beginning of the Second Song, and ten units before the end of the Third Song, and the final hexameter sonnet in Astrophil and Stella (102) is placed ten units after the Tenth Song'. Thus Drayton wrote his Amours 15 and 16 in 18 lines and followed them by an alexandrine Amour because 'the sum of 15 and 16 are 31'. Thirty-one is a number 'between 30 and 33' which numbers Parker finds can be used as multiples in 'a string of 108 units long' in the two Sidneys, Mary Wroth, Barnes, and Constable (pp. 207-8).

Throughout the book Parker works very hard to reveal to us that his numbers demonstrate that his chosen poets' sequences of verse forms have a moral or 'spiritual' design. Parker's survey includes much poetry by Philip Sidney, Fulke Greville and Henry Constable where a religious, self-lacerating, or unworldly impulse has produced moving, intriguing and beautiful verse. Verse by Philip, Robert and Mary Sidney, Constable and Drayton where we find the poet or the idolized female or male struggling with difficulty against sexual passion is read as ironic or an artificial pose. Astrophil is never to be identified with Sidney; Sidney's narrator is simply a vain fool, blatant, callous, selfish and absurd. The reader is never to identify with any of these poet-lovers when they are yielding intensely to love. All the serious poetry of these writers is intended to teach us that we should be dedicating ourselves to spiritual values and celebrating the divine cosmology (revealed by these numbers). Parker feels forced to concede that Barnabe Barnes's verse seems to present sexual longing and gratification unironically. However, Parker labels Barnes 'bizarre', calls the consummation that the sequence works its way towards a 'tasteless rape' meant to be 'distasteful', and also connects Barnes to Gabriel Harvey through correspondence between the two in which they discuss quantitative verse and use words like 'rules' and 'artifice'. When Parker then performs the usual expedient arithmetic upon Barnes's verses, e. g., 'the eighty-sixth poem of the sequence is Sonnet 72 (=2/3 X 108) -- another significant point in Sidney's sequence' (p. 190), he feels licensed to declare that Barnes is 'toying' with the same Sidneian numbers he has found in all the poets he discusses.

Parker disdains those critics who interpret any of this poetry through the poet's autobiography, and those who read one of its sources in an ecstatic erotic vision which the poet has responded to as numinous, beautiful, and fulfilling when accompanied by gratification of the physical appetite. Parker also dismisses any readings which focus on the public events referenced in a poem as superficial. He derides all these ways of reading as unhistoric, and repeatedly sneers at those who have written from such perspectives as so many 'modern minds' influenced by 'Romantic fallacies'. His own book is devoid of any sense that any of this poetry might come from some profound melancholy or bitterness about life which has nothing to do with the order or number of the verses and cannot be explicated through aligning them with any theological or neoplatonic doctrine, public events, or autobiographical experience of love. He seems unaware that a mask and aesthetic playfulness can be a serious expression of the self.

Ellen Moody .................................... George Mason University

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