I’ve been discussing symbols and allegory in poetry for the last few days and thought it would be fun this week to play a little game; it’s called Symbol Or No Symbol. Each poem, I post, I’ll examine for symbols if it, indeed, has one. Not all of them do.
The older poems seem to filled with symbol as if that was standard practice, just as rhyme and meter were. I just read a passage from the Aeneid (Virgil’s ancient Roman epic) where a man wants to visit his father in the Underworld, but he doesn’t want to have to die to do so. The oracle that he speaks to advises him to seek out a tree that has hidden on it a bough of gold and tells him to pluck it from the tree (another immediately grows back as soon that is also golden). If he does this successfully, it will be his ticket to the Underworld, but the catch is he can only take it if he is destined to. If he is meant to take the bough, it will come easily into his hands; if he is not, try as he may no amount of force he uses will take it. The fact that the bough is made of gold only makes it a myth (an abstraction of our reality), but what makes it cross over into symbol are the rules that apply to the bough (plucks it another grows back, you may only cut the bough if you are destined to), particularly the latter rule, because it speaks to large ideas (destiny and immortality). But do all poems of yesteryear contain elaborate symbols, especially those that speak to large ideas?
In the poem “You That With Allegory’s Curious Frame”, line four basically says it all, “I don’t choose to dig so deep” (“I list not dig so deep for brazen fame”). If the poet isn’t digging so deeply into other poems, that’s a slight hint that he might not be doing so here either despite the fact that in line 13 he breathes out flames “which burn within my heart” the poem is only a simple expression of his love of Stella (whoever that is). “Love only reading unto me this art.”
It was written in 1591 when allegory was king, it filled poems and plays and other works. Perhaps the poet is exasperated with them all when he writes, “You that with allegory’s curious frame/Of others’ children changelings use to make,/With me those pains, for God’s sake, do not take.” And when he writes “When I say Stella, I do mean the same/Princess of beauty for whose whose only sake/The reins of love I love, though never slake,” he’s just writing a love poem, not trying to make his love analogous to a quest or search for meaning, or great cosmic event (he even states as much when he says, “Look at my hands for no such quintessence”, a word that means made of or connected to the essence of the heavens). He’s not trying to say that Stella stands for the purity and honesty that all women should strive for or that she is the incarnation of Beauty itself. He’s just saying he loves her and that’s good enough for him.
I’m not certain what to make of the line “And joy therein, though nations count it shame.” If nations care enough to be shamed at his joy, then I’m assuming she was of very high rank (a princess?), but he was not (not high enough for it to be appropriate for them to have an affair). But once again, nations having shame at their affair, might not be symbolizing anything, that’s actually what would happen (they might be the ones reading too much into the affair where Sir Philip is not).
So, despite the metaphor at the end of the poem (and I think that metaphor and symbol are in the same “subtext” category of literature, along with similes and figures of speech), I would have to rate this as a No Symbol poem.
You That With Allegory’s Curious Frame
by Sir Philip Sidney
You that with allegory’s curious frame
Of others’ children changelings use to make,
with me those pains, for God’s sake, do not take;
I list not dig so deep for brazen fame.
When I say Stella, I do mean the same
Princess of beauty for whose only sake
The reins of love I love, though never slake,
And joy therein, though nations count it shame.
I beg no subject to use eloquence,
Not in hid ways do guide philosophy;
Look at my hands for no such quintessence,
But know that I in pure simplicity
Breathe out the flames which burn within my heart,
Love only reading unto me this art.