To Samarth Chandola, the only one who believes the author is still alive!
Interpretations. Interrogations. Connotations. Analyses. Criticism.
Why? Why do we always have to analyse, critically comment on, discuss with reference to the text every single piece of literature that we come across? Why! Why! WHY!
OK, I know I’m being too passionate, too warm for the cold, rational, balanced critic that I’m supposed to be, that of all of us Literature students are supposed to be. I know I’m letting my emotions unhinge me, that they’re making me narrow minded and with every passing alphabet clouding my judgement. I know too that you, you being the immaculate critic, just smirked maliciously at this and possibly dismissed this as the ravings of a completely deranged lunatic. Yeah, yeah, I know that.
But still, why?
Why can’t we for once let a work, or ‘text’ as we prefer calling it, be? Is it that big a crime to take things at their face value, to dismiss a complex derivation when a simple when will suffice?
“No, that cannot be!”, our critics will cry. It is the critic’s job to dispel illusions, to push back the boundaries of darkness and illumine reality with all its complex paraphernalia of layers and overtones and so on. To accept things as they are will be to give in to mortal temptation- that we cannot do; nay, we must constantly rise above and have nothing but the bare, stark, cold truth.
And when it comes to something as artificial as romantic sonnets, we certainly cannot do with anything else.
The way we critics rave and rant-hold your horses critical reader!-about interpretations and connotations and what not is enough to make me feel sorry for Sir Philip Sidney, the English Petrarch. Poor fellow painstakingly composed a series of 108 sonnets and 11 songs and what does posterity judge him as?
A clever versifier, a shrewd manipulator, an ambitious aristocrat...
Anything but a sorrowful lover.
History tells us that Sidney started writing Astrophil and Stella in 1581, after the marriage of his childhood love Penelope Devereux-whose father’s last wish too had been for her to marry him-to Lord Rich. Is it so very unnatural for a man to lament the marriage of his life-long beloved to another? For him to escape thus into fantasy with his grief and there attempt, as best as he could have, to express all the ramifications of his love in words? Consider the following…
Unto my mind is Stella’s image, wrought
By Love’s own self, but with so curious draught
That she, methinks, not only shines but sings.”
And should in soul up to our country move
True, yet true that I must Stella love.”
Thus write I while I doubt to write and wreak
My harms in ink’s poor loss. Perhaps some find
Stella’s great powers that so confuse so my mind.”
Of lover’s ruin some thrice-sad tragedy
I am not I: pity the tale of me.”
And now employ the remnant of my wit
To make myself believe that all is well,
While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.”
No, it’s all make believe, unreal, with dark, covert purposes. Sidney’s not really in love you know, he’s just pretending. He’s this cunning, foxy player of words, he’s lulling his readers into this fell trap of believing he’s madly and desperately in love- he’s actually projecting his own grand ambitions, he wants to impress everybody but Stella. Stella’s not even a real person- she’s many people: Penelope, the Queen, some unnamed Lady of the Court…in fact, she doesn’t even matter in these sonnets: she’s really more, much much more of an afterthought than a significant presence in the sonnets.
Bosh! If this be the truth, then I would rather believe in lies!
Yet, supposing all this were true, that Stella was just a medium through which Sidney-Astrophil was articulating his desires, his ruthless ambitions, supposing all of this was true, even then I would believe in what the critic decries as base illusions. Do not all of us need some sort of opium, some illusion, maya, to keep on living? Is truth really all that desirable? What would you rather have, a beautiful lie or a tormenting truth? Beauty, it must be remembered, lies in the yes of the beer-holder: not, certainly not, in the eyes of the cold, rational critic.
In any case, there is not value of Sidney’s sonnets today, some 500 years or so after they were composed. Yes, yes, one can glean out lots of socio-cultural stuff out of them, establish the position of women, find out the attitudes towards gender and ascertain a zillion such like fantastic things of topical interest from them. All that can be done, is done- it is the natural province of the insufferable busybody of a critic. To the normal student, the real charm, if any, of a work as artificial as romantic sonnets lies in its aesthetics, in the oh-so-romantic sensibilities which it expresses. Who has not dreamt of the knight in shinning armour, of the damsel in distress? Sure, patriarchy is bad and oppressive, but is one justified for being so when the same is so universal? Is one justified in condemning Sidney for being so when it was the only mode of being in existence?
As good old Mr Kitto said, to understand is not necessarily to forgive completely. Yet, one can still try and understand…