An Analysis of the 49th Sonnet of Sir Philip Sidney
A Narrator's Human Flaw of Love and His Ultimate Submission to its Power
Philip Sidney's 49th sonnet, describing the journey of the narrator upon horseback, is one which follows the form of the Italian sonnet in the first two quatrains but breaks away from convention and ends in a rhyming couplet instead of the standard sestet, emphasizing its unanticipated ending. The steady rhythmic structure of the poem suggests a horses' gallop, which is emphasized through structured repetitions in the beginning quatrain which becomes less pronounced by the second quatrain, as the narrator is initially portrayed as more horse-like and then more humane. The beat of the horse's gallop exists throughout the entire poem due to its iambic form. The gallop consists of two beats, two sounds sharing the first beat and only one taking place during the second; thereby emphasizing the second long sound, much like iambic pentameter where only the second longer syllable in each meter is stressed. All of these structural elements combine to imitate the hurried rhythm of a galloping horse and to underscore the eager journey of a man on horseback, traveling in hot pursuit of the one he loves and experiencing a mirage of accompanying emotions along the way, all which affect his perspective on love.
In the first line of his sonnet, Sir Philip Sidney appears to be mimicking the "clippity clop" of horses' hooves with his patterns of ‘I' followed by ‘o' sounds in the beginning phrase "I on my horse." The unstressed syllables followed by the longer stressed syllables is a form similar to the pattern of a horse's gallop and continues throughout the poem, but in this phrase specifically, the ‘I" sounds of "I" and "my" are directly followed by the "o" sounds of "on" and "horse" in a "clippity clop" type structure commonly associated with a horse's gait, and is particularly appropriate in the first phrase at it serves to introduce the concept of the horse. This first line combines with the second to describe the narrator as sitting astride his horse and being sat upon by Love: "I on my horse, and Love on me, doth try/Our horsemanships." In this section the further repeated ‘I' and ‘o' sounds, in addition to the ‘m' sound in "my," "me," and "horsemanships," the ‘a' sound in "and" and "horsemanships," and the repetition in "on my" and "on me," contribute a rhythmic pattern of sounds which further the concept of a gallop This is appropriate as the poet uses these devices while describing both the narrator and his horse as being ridden.
Furthermore, due to the similarity between the phrases "on my" and "on me," describing first the narrator and then Love, the narrator has in effect linked the two together and connected them through repeated sounds. This likeness is extended as the narrator describes both he and Love sharing the skills associated with a rider, this sharing signaled by the pronoun "our." Both the narrator and Love are described as riders, Love of the narrator and the narrator of his horse, and both "doth try" their horsemanships, and are thereby linked further in an endeavor to attempt to control the entity which each rides. The narrator elaborates upon his situation of both riding and being ridden: "while by strange work I prove/A horseman to my horse, a horse to Love." The phrase "while by strange" stands out from the rest of the poem so far, as it is the place where the ‘o' sound does not come directly in between all other vowel sounds, with the exception of the vowel sounds ‘a' and ‘I' consecutively contained within the preceding word "horsemanships." Although the phase "while by strange" still stands out as the longest string of uninterrupted vowel sounds, more attention is directed to the phrase through its furthering the two consecutive uninterrupted vowel sounds in the preceding word "horsemanships," creating a total of five consecutive syllables of vowel sounds not separated by the vowel sound ‘o.'
The continuation of the sentence: "I prove/A horseman to my horse, a horse to Love," again reverts back to the previous pattern of ‘o' sounds coming in between all other vowel sounds, which emphasizes just how strange the "strange work" of the narrator being both a horseman and a horse is, as the wording used to describe it stands out as irregular in comparison to the rest of the poem thus far, both in lines preceding and in lines directly following. In addition, the repetition of "horse" three times in this section, "to" twice, and "a" twice, all contribute to a steady repeated rhythm. In this phrase the narrator elaborates that he does not just ride and direct his horse while Love rides and directs him, he goes further as to call himself "a horse to Love," equating himself with an animal at the will of its rider. Here the similarities of both he and Love end, and their difference is revealed: Love attempts to control him whereas he has little power over Love itself, being merely equated to the animal of which Love is the master. By extension, the power the narrator holds over his horse is irrelevant as all his urgings upon the animal are consequences of Love's control over his own actions.
This concept is furthered in the next line, in which the narrator describes himself as a "poor beast," or horse with little will of its own: "And now man's wrongs in me, poor beast, descry." Again this section contains numerous repeating ‘o' sounds in "now," "wrongs," and "poor," as well as repeating ‘a' sounds in "and" and "man's," and repeating ‘e' sounds in "me" and "beast," creating a distinct rhythm. Here the narrator seems to be addressing his audience directly, telling the reader to discern his "man's wrongs," which he elaborates upon in the following quatrain, and hints at future elaboration of his more human or "manly" characteristics in favor of his beast-like ones which are the emphasis of this entire first quatrain. In this line the narrator, through referring to himself as a "poor beast," suggests to the reader that he may view his faults as pitiable and that they therefore render him a "poor" creature, and reminds the reader that his faults are in effect not his own as he is a "beast," and as such has little control over the actions his more powerful rider, in this case Love, forces him to undertake. He appears to carry his horse-like image yet further in the following lines, describing in detail the different harnesses and restraining devices that Love subjects him to in metaphorical terms, simultaneously equating these devices with his emotions and thereby concurrently bringing out his humanity.
The narrator begins this process with the first three lines of the second quatrain: "The reins wherewith my rider doth me tie/Are humbled thoughts, which bit of reverence move,/Curbed in with fear." Literally the narrator describes Love's control upon him as that of a rider upon his horse, with reins and bit and the ability to thereby hasten and restrain his direction and movement. However, each of those elements directly represents his emotions of humility, reverence, and fear. Concurrent with the shift from viewing himself as a mere beast-like "horse to Love" as stated in the third line of the poem, thereby emphasizing his similarities to a horse while downplaying his human-like qualities, there is now a direct shift in his representation of himself, signaled in the fourth line in which the narrator requests the reader to now determine his "man's wrongs," and which is carried forth here in the second stanza. This progression to his humanity at the end of this first quatrain also signals an end to the previous pattern of alternating ‘o' sounds which underscored the sound of a moving horse in favor of a form without such patterns, when the narrator as a horse becomes less emphasized and his thoughts and desires are expanded upon.
For example, in this section the reins by which Love has tied the narrator are his own "humbled thoughts," suggesting possible rejection from the object of his desire or perhaps his own realization of his inferiority in his attempts at love, both thoughts that would cause him humility. The fact that love has "tied" him with the reins of his "humbled thoughts" suggests that he feels trapped in his fruitless situation by Love, which literally holds the reins, a situation in which he may have experienced rejection that has "humbled" him. The reins are attached to the bit of the harness, and the reins of Love are moved by the narrator's "bit of reverence." Because these movements are caused by his bit of reverence, this reverence allows, even inspires, Love to gain control of the narrator and dictate his speed. The strong emotion surrounding his thoughts of reverence also comes to light through an alteration of form in this line in the poem, which breaks away from the pattern of previous lines by the addition of an extra syllable, making it a line of eleven instead of ten syllables. This brings attention to the ending of this line where the extra syllable is inserted, during the phrase "reverence move," which suggests emotion that cannot be contained in the steady calculated rhythm and structure previously used in the poem. The next line goes on to describe the narrator's fear, yet the strength of his fear either appears to be less than his reverence or else to dampen the strength of it, for this line reverts back to the previously structured form of the poem.
Perhaps in connection with his thoughts of "humility" previously mentioned, the narrator experiences the similarly negative emotion of fear in regards to his love. This is introduced in the next two lines: "Curbed in with fear, but with gilt boss above/Of hope, which makes it seem fair to the eye." His fear "curbs" his passions, signaled by the reversion to a structured ten syllables per line at the mentioning of fear, which creates intense negative emotions that lessen the intense positive emotions surrounding his previous reverence. However, the narrator goes on to say that despite this fear curbing his passions, much like the bit's intended purpose to curb a horse's progress, its beautiful adornments give it a "seemingly fair" appearance, at least on a superficial level. As he is describing the bit both as the element which creates movement of his reins and speeds him upon his journey and as the element which simultaneously curbs that same progress due to alternating feelings of reverence and fear, it appears the narrator is in great emotional turmoil concerning his love and lacks any definite way of interpreting his situation. Perhaps this reflects his inclinations in conflict with the reality of his situation, as he is inclined to journey to the person whom he reveres, yet has perhaps been previously unsuccessful and his love is now tainted with realistic humbled thoughts and fear. However, he is obviously still in love as that is the predominant force leading him along, and therefore fulfilling his love, the object of whom must be beautiful in his eyes much like the "gilded" bit, seems to him a tempting prospect in theory, much as the gilded bit is "seemingly fair to the eye" when glanced at only momentarily and its surrounding circumstances, such as its purpose of restraint, are excused in favor of superficial appreciation.
In addition to his desire to attain his love conflicting with the reality of his likely failure, the beginning of the ninth line introduces the turn as the narrator's feelings of desire are shown to ultimately prevail, and his will to act upon his desire despite his previous reservations becomes supreme: "The wand is will; thou, fancy, saddle art,/Girt fast by memory; and while I spur/My horse, he spurs with sharp desire my heart." The narrator describes his wand as his "will" which allows his "fancy" at being astride his horse with the inclination to reach his love become a reality, as his will forces motion. He is fastened upon the saddle by memories, which have been shown to suggest fear or rejection and therefore would most likely result in indecision as to whether or not to perform his journey. Sitting upon his horse and merely desiring his love in such a fashion would bring no results, but through the use of his whip which urges his horse forward, he moves away from only a potential journey he would otherwise only have imagined or "fancied" to an actual one brought about literally by his "will" and metaphorically by his whip. Again the narrator draws connections and similarities between himself and Love, as he spurs his horse onwards and Love spurs his heart onwards. However, unlike previously in the poem the narrator and Love are not equated, as previously when both rode a horse, the narrator being "a horse to Love" himself. Now the narrator spurs on his horse and Love spurs his heart, continuing the distinction introduced at the beginning of the second quatrain emphasizing the narrator's humanity, epitomized by the reference to the "sharp desire [in his] heart."
The following three lines conclude the poem: "He sits me fast, however I do stir;/And now hath made me to his hand so right/That in the manage myself takes delight." The first line in this section describes the narrator's inability to shake off Love, and Love's immobile attachment to the narrator and the great strength of that attachment. The fact that he sits unmoved upon the narrator "however [he] [does] stir" leads the reader at first to interpret the narrator's movements as attempts to dislodge Love, especially as he follows his description of Love's fastness with the word "however" which functions the same as "despite," as to describe Love's sitting upon him despite his varied movements. Therefore the ending couplet, emphasized through direct consecutive end rhyme which exists nowhere else in the poem, comes as a shock as it describes the narrator "delighted" to be completely at the mercy of Love's hand and management. Delight has intensely positive connotations with no hint of reservation or fear, and this is the first time in the poem that the narrator addresses how he feels upon being under complete control as he previously described first that he was controlled and later how, but now he claims his reaction to his situation: that he feels "delight" at being ridden upon by Love.
Sir Philip Sidney mimics the gallop of a horse throughout his 49th sonnet due to the rhythm of repeated iambic pentameter. However, he emphasizes this effect at the beginning of this work with alternating vowel sounds separated by ‘o' sounds in a "clippity clop" pattern to underscore the narrators horse-like qualities, and then follows a less pronounced form from the second quatrain on, in conjunction with exploring the humane characteristics of the narrator and abandoning the concept of him as a mere beast of burden. Metaphors occur throughout the poem to describe the narrator's conflicting emotions in horsemanship terms and to continue the extended metaphor of Love urging him on and directing his actions similarly to how a rider urges and directs his horse over which he has complete mastery.