Sunday 17 September 2023

Gascoigne and the English Disease

 This morning, duly eyemasked, I stumbled blindly over to my bedroom bookcase to give Blindfold Poetry Selection another go. This time I discovered that the volume blind fate had selected for me was Don Paterson's excellent anthology of 101 Sonnets (again!), and it had fallen open at this, by the early Elizabethan George Gascoigne,  whom Paterson describes succinctly as 'another great early Renaissance man – the usual mix of politician/soldier of fortune/man of letters'. He might have added translator (of Ariosto), playwright, writer of prose fiction and literary theorist: his 'Certayne Notes of Instruction concerning the making of verse or ryme in English' is the first essay on English versification. Here is the Gascoigne sonnet that Paterson selected:

You must not wonder, though you think it strange,
To see me hold my lowering head so low;
And that mine eyes take no delight to range
About the gleams which on your face do grow.
The mouse which once hath broken out of trap
Is seldom teasèd with the trustless bait,
But lies aloof for fear of more mishap,
And feedeth still in doubt of deep deceit.
The scorchèd fly which once hath 'scap'd the flame
Will hardly come to play again with fire.
Whereby I learn that grievous is the game
Which follows fancy dazzled by desire.
So that I wink or else hold down my head,
Because your blazing eyes my bale have bred.

Well, it is a decent piece of work, elegantly done.  Its glaring weakness, as with so many sonnets in the English form (three quatrains and a couplet), is that all is effectively said and done in the first twelve lines, and the closing couplet is mere restatement. Paterson dubs this the 'English disease', and even Shakespeare, our greatest sonneteer, was not immune to it. However, he had his ways of overcoming this inbuilt weakness of the English form – the ways of genius. As here, in one of his greatest sonnets (and the one Paterson, limited to a single specimen per author, includes in his anthology). It is also appropriate for the time of year, and, for some of us, our time of life...

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
    This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
    To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

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