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Compare and contrast the presentation of virtue in two texts from the period.

Relevant Poems

Sidney Marvell

both: Sonnet 4: Virtue, alas, now let me take A Dialogue between the Soul and Body
virtue vs. some rest… virtue, thou thy self shalt
carnal be in love. A Dialogue, Between the Resolved
desires Soul and Created Pleasure
Sonnet 25: The wisest scholar of the
see (1) wight most wise… That virtue, if it once
met with our eyes,/Strange flames of
love it in our souls would raise

virtue = Sonnet 4 A Dialogue, Between the Resolved


beauty Soul and Created Pleasure
vs. Sonnet 5
virtue vs. The Coronet
beauty Sonnet 9

Sonnet 25

see (2) Sonnet 5: It is most true, that eyes are


formed to serve/The inward light …
True, that true beauty virtue is indeed, /
Whereof this beauty can be but a shade

see (1): Sonnet 25 Eyes and Tears


coexist
vs. Sonnet 4 On a Drop of Dew
choose
one Sonnet 9: Queen Virtue’s court, which vs.
some call Stella’s face
To His Coy Mistress
Sonnet 14: Alas, have I not pain
enough, my friend… Then love is sin,
and let me sinful be.

Virtue: the nobler, higher thing to do


● Virtue vs. temptation, carnal pleasures, desires of the flesh (1) //
● Reason vs. passion (2)
Similarities
1. Both: Virtue as a quality ascribed to the soul that is in constant conflict with the body and
its more earthly impulses. Since Man is composed of both body and spirit, there always exists a
constant struggle between virtue and carnal desires because of their opposing desires.

● Sonnet 4: “Virtue, alas, now let me take some rest/Thou sett’st a bate between my will
and wit” — conflict between will (sense, desire) vs wit (reason, on the side of virtue —
spiritual)
● Sidney presents the familiar battle between passion and reason within Astrophil.
Astrophil allows his “simple soul” to be “oppressed” by “vain love” and willingly gives in to
his base desires to love Stella, dismissively instructing Virtue to “leave what thou lik’st
not, deal not thou with it”. Astrophil has entirely forsaken reason, willing to surrender
even what “little reason that is left in [him]”, and has instead been so totally overcome
with love for Stella that his heart has become a “shrine” for her.
● Sonnet 25: “virtue, if it once met with our eyes,/Strange flames of love it in our souls
would raise”
○ As established in other poems, man experiences the world through his physical
senses, “weigh[ing] each thing in [the] balance” of sense
○ He is both unwilling and unable to appreciate the “inward sun” of Virtue
● A Dialogue Between the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure — Conflict between
the Soul and the temptations of Earth; Dialogue between the Soul and Body —
reflects this conflict within the composite being
○ Both poems built on parallel construction with closely balanced arguments and
stanzas of equal length
○ For instance → Dialogue between the Soul and the Body
■ The Body calls itself a ‘needless frame’ which would have been
happier left unoccupied, but which is tormented by its unwelcome
inhabitant, the Soul. The first image of torture is of a prisoner
“impale[d]’ and hence ‘stretched upright’ to the point of unnatural
elevation, a reference to carnal man yearning upward instead of
sinking down the Great Chain of being. This same idea creates the
next situation, in which the elevated Body is forced to teeter
precariously on its “own precipice”.

1a. Certain qualities are consequently ascribed to virtue:

● The Christian conception of virtue — working within the Christian moral system, Virtue
in the poems thus is depicted as that which aligns with Christian conception of it: e.g.
chastity, rejection of sensual pleasures, repentance, piety. The Christian soul fogoes
earthly temptations, maintaining purity and chastity to yearn towards greater Virtue in the
spiritual realm. (Esp Drop of Dew, Eyes and Tears, Resolved Soul; Sonnet 4 —
“churches”, Sonnet 5 — “church and churchman”)
● This is linked and related to the neoplatonic conception of virtue as that which serves
essential goodness (“true beauty/Whereof this beauty can be but a shade” — Sonnet 5;
““If things of sight such heavens be,/What heavens are those we cannot see?”” —
Dialogue b/w resolved soul and created pleasure) vs the mortal conception of pleasure
○ Thus the concept of heaven and heavenliness is interwoven with, sometimes
even equated to this idea of essential forms, serving as a sort of justification for
Christian moral adherence

● At the same time is there also a ‘platonic’ virtue we are referring to? I.e. A certain
attitude or behaviour of moral adherence (e.g. Sonnet 4 where Churches belong to virtue
instead of vice versa)

2. Our poets diverge in the way that they view the relationship between virtue and beauty.
2a. Sidney presents virtue as synonymous with beauty in some of his poetry, by saying Stella’s
outwardly beauty is a reflection as well as a result of her “inward light”. He goes further to
comment that what is virtuous must be beautiful, in order to promote virtue in others.
● Sonnet 25: Astrophil describes how Virtue makes use of, and becomes, Stella’s
physical, beautiful form (“Virtue of late … took Stella’s shape”) to teach mortal eyes the
extent of virtue (“that she/To mortal eyes might sweetly shine in her”). That virtue if it
once met with out eyes strange flames of love it in our souls would rise. In the lines “But
for that man with pain his truth descries, While he each thing in sense’s balance weighs”,
the poet understands that man requires his physical senses to perceive, and since virtue
cannot be perceived through physical senses, virtue has embodied the most beautiful
form (Stella) to attract men.
● Sonnet 4 &10 :
○ That shrines in flesh so true a deity,/ That, Virtue, thou thy self shalt be in love.”
○ “Reason, thou kneeled’st, and offered’st straight to prove/ By reason good, good
reason her to love.” Though sonnets 4 and 10 both begin by demonstrating the
conflict the poet encounters with his soul/ virtue when struggling with his love for
Stella and the trappings of her beauty, they both eventually end by suggesting
that since Stella is virtue, there is reason/ it is virtuous to be enamoured by her.
● Sonnet 9: The sonnet begins with, “Queen Virtue’s court, which some call Stella’s face”,
by suggesting that Virtue treats Stella’s face as her court immediately conflates the idea
of virtue and beauty. The sonnet goes further to suggest that her skin is made of
alabaster pure”, not only expressing the fairness of her skin but tying it to the idea of
purity as well, implying that the her pureness within is expressed in her outward fairness.
The lines “Gold is the covering of that stately place” and “The door, by which,
sometimes, comes forth her grace,” also suggest her beauty as a reflection of her inward
“grace” and “state”.

2b. Meanwhile, Marvell almost always portrays beauty as an aid of vice, a trap that seeks to
lure the innocent lover or break the resolve of the virtuous soul, thus fundamentally opposing
beauty to virtue, whether Christian or otherwise.
● A Dialogue, between the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure: Here, Pleasure tries
to tempt the Soul to ignore the right path to heaven through presenting it with the
manifold beauties it possesses (“Everything does seem to vie/Which should first attract
thine eye”). However, this external beauty is elided because Pleasure’s argument swiftly
moves on to the Soul’s own beauty (“since none deservesthat grace,/In this crystal view
thy face), shifting the tenor of Pleasure’s argument to an appeal to the Soul’s vanity.
Here, Pleasure’s argument with regards to beauty is twofold - firstly, Pleasure speaks of
external beauty as a temptation, before moving on to, secondly, an appeal to the Soul’s
own beauty as a temptation. Through Pleasure’s twofold use of beauty, Marvell makes
his view on beauty clear - a trap to tempt and break the Soul’s resolve, fundamentally
opposing it to virtue.
● The Coronet: Here, beauty is portrayed as a temptation away from virtue - Marvell
makes use of the Biblical metaphor of the serpent in Eden to represent the temptations
that pull him from worship (“the Serpent old.../About the flowers disguised does fold”).
Given that temptation, here an agent of the Devil, is fundamentally opposed to Christian
virtue, Marvell seems to make the case that beauty is opposed to virtue through its use
by the forces of evil.

3a. Reason and passion are in opposition to each other, as are virtue and carnal love. Given
that virtue and true beauty are so inextricably linked; and given that the Reason-able thing to do
is to worship true beauty, it thus follows that virtuous action involves abiding by Reason.
Therefore, given also that rejecting passion and carnal love is the reasonable action to take,
the virtuous action is to reject them as well.

● Sonnet 5:
○ Sidney’s argument linking virtue with reason and true beauty, and subsequent placing of
it above carnal love is fourfold:
○ In the first quatrain, Sidney establishes that it is a given — “most true” — that his reason
ought to be his superior faculty, and suggests that it is the “heavenly part” and god-
given. Hence, given that our capacity for reason is a gift from god and hence nobler and
more rarefied, it “ought to be king” and should be, like the king at the top of human
hierarchy, be abided by unless one “strive[s] for our own smart”. “Swerv[ing]” from
following our reason, Sidney acknowledges, is akin to being a “rebel to Nature”
○ Next, Sidney explains the hopelessness of prizing carnal love and passion. Worshipping
“what we call Cupid’s dart” — referring to the carnal love that Cupid can inflict — is akin
to an act of hollow, even sinful idolatry. Those who do so are “fools”, and all this false
god does is “make church and churchman starve”; here, the common reference to a
“good god” is meant ironically and serves to further emphasise that rather than blessing
with foison plenty as a proper god should, this foolish worship of passion only leads to
great suffering
→ At this point, the dangers of ignoring our better reason and succumbing to base
instincts can be seen
● Now, Sidney then suggests that virtue is more prized, noble, and a truer depiction of
beauty than physical beauty; “true beauty virtue is indeed”, and carnal love can merely
hollowly imitate virtue, and is but an “image” of what “true beauty” virtue actually is.
Physical beauty is in fact a “shade” of true beauty, and given that it “with mortal mixture
breed”, is no longer rarefied and no “heavenly part”. In opposition to this is virtue and
“true beauty” which those who possess it actually have, thus placing the former at the
top of the hierarchy
● Therefore, as “pilgrims” who seek to move with our souls up to their rightful home — “our
country” away from the mortal “earth” we inhabit, Astrophil argues that we must
acknowledge the superiority of virtue and not give in to our base instincts
→ But Astrophil hits us with a Witty Turn!

3b. While rejecting these fundamentally carnal impulses of the human body is ideal, we
inevitably succumb to our baser instincts despite the own better knowledge of our reason,
leading us to behave in unvirtuous fashion.
● In spite of his better reason, Astrophil hopelessly succumbs to his love for Stella, even
describing as an inescapable “must”. With one simple conjunction “yet”, he
simultaneously acknowledges that it is “true” that he should resist such impulses, and
negates everything in the previous 13 lines as he is unable to resist due to his love for
Stella

- Dialogue between the Soul and Body


- “What but a soul could have the wit/To build me up for sin so fit?”

4. Our poets diverge in the ways they resolve this fundamental conflict inherent in Man.
4ai. On one hand, Marvell accepts this weakness as fundamental human nature, and a
fundamental part of the human experience (in the mortal realm), and in arguing for the value in
sensuous pleasure, presents the rejection of virtue as justified.

● To His Coy Mistress:


○ The mistress’ “quaint honour” and “long-preserved virginity” are undercut by the vulgar
pun on “quaint” and the fact that this “long-preserved” chastity will in fact be tried and
grossly violated shortly after her death
○ Therefore, given that “time’s winged chariot” is harrying the lovers, the obvious choice to
make is to ignore such exalted and abstract notions of virtue in order to obtain the
pleasures of physical love now — before the mistress’ “beauty shall no more be found”
anyway
○ Mocking riff on the idea of virtue as essential beauty — the essential does not
seem to be a huge concern of the mortal speaker here.
○ In this light, Marvell’s persona instead urges his mistress to “sport” with him like
“amorous birds of prey”, forgoing nobler behaviours and instead carnally loving each
other with “willing soul” and the burning passion of “instant fires”, rather than coyly and
chastely “show[ing] [her] heart” only after an “age” of courtship
○ Given that the “slow-chapped power” of time is gradually eroding their virtue anyway, the
obvious choice for both persona and mistress is to “at once [their] time devour”; to
experience sensual and carnal pleasure while they can
○ Marvell ends the poem with a pair of couplets emphasising the importance of seizing the
day and “tear[ing] our pleasures with rough strife”. By joining the lovers in this sensual
and physical act of tearing through the “iron gates of life”, Marvell simultaneously
presents a means of and end to ‘carpe diem’: carnal embrace can allow these lovers to
live fast, and hence end their lives having “devour[ed]” their time and made the most out
of it by making their “sun...run”

- vs. -

Differences
4aii. On the other hand, in his more religiously-centred poems, Marvell argues that man must
reject earthly temptations, in order to achieve Virtue and heavenly reward, which belong to the
spiritual realm. In the same vein, Marvell equates the indulging in love to the loss of virtue.
Thus, Marvell demonstrates that base passions and virtue are not just in a state of struggle
opposed to each other (as in 1), but necessarily mutually exclusive, in line with the Christian
conception of Virtue.
● Eyes and Tears: Only by using her eyes to weep tears “more wise” of sorrow and
repentance — instead of maintaining “captivating eyes” to seduce and incite carnal
desire in men — is Mary Magdalene is able to capture salvation. Her repentant tears,
symbolic of her rejection of temptation and vice, is the “noblest use” of her eyes which
enables her to “fetter her Redeemer’s feet” with the “liquid chains” of her tears; therefore,
after she has given up base desires, she is then able to seek redemption and obtain
Virtue from God.
● On a Drop of Dew:
○ Marvell sets in direct opposition the “dark beneath” of the mortal realm, and
“bright above” — in reference to the heavenly “sphere” the dewdrop has been
rended from
○ To avoid being tainted by the luxury and material comfort that the “blowing roses”
the dewdrop lies on symbolises, the droplet “round in itself incloses”, maintaining
a self-contained, uncorrupted and pure microcosm of heaven on Earth.
Therefore, the dewdrop, having come from a heavenly place where virtue rules,
must remain totally unpolluted by the tempation of opulence which the rose
symbolises to go back home. As it “slight[s]” and is “scarce[ly] touching” earthly
temptations, the droplet is able to maintain its purity and the Virtue associated
with its heavenly, spiritual qualities.
○ The soul is likened to “that drop...within the human flow’r”, and remembers its
“former height”, suggesting a longing to return to heaven and the fact that the
body is an inferior dwelling place; in fact, the “human flow’r” with its luxurious
accents of “sweet leaves and blossoms green” is like these “blowing roses”,
given to tempting the soul off its virtuous course “upwards” to heaven
○ However, the material world is of little value and importance to the soul
compared to heaven, to the point that it “shuns” the tempting physical beauties
and pleasures that the earth can offer, in order to maintain its duty to remain true
and untainted by world desires and journey back to Heaven
○ Therefore, by “disdaining” mortal pleasures on earth and being “in love” with
heavenly virtue, the soul in “every way … turns away” from base passions and
thus totally excludes them; as a result, it is rewarded given that the poem ends
with the dew and the soul “dissolving” and becoming totally rarefied, and going
back “Into the glories of th’ almighty sun”.

4b. Sidney, on the other hand, confronts the dichotomous rigidity of virtue (albeit in a turn of
poetic sophistry) by allowing both virtue and carnality to coexist within his mistress, Stella.
He willingly forgoes heavenly rewards and virtuous reason, instead allowing his desires to
overcome his soul. Yet, Sidney rejects the conventional notion that such desires are base and
carnal and concludes that his desire of Stella is not sinful but virtuous, since Stella herself is
Virtue.
● Sonnet 25: The central conceit is that Virtue is inaccessible. Since Man “each thing in
sense’s balance weighs”, he can only perceive the world through his earthly senses; he
“will” not and “can” not “behold those skies” of Virtue. Virtue thus needs to manifest in a
human form to be accessible by Man. Given that Stella is the most beautiful woman,
worthy of adoration and admiration by men, it is only logical that “Virtue of late...took
Stella’s shape”, equating Stella to Virtue itself. Sidney thus reaches the conclusion that
in order for one to attain Virtue, Astrophil must succumb to his carnal desires and
passionately love Stella, the physical embodiment of Virtue. By juxtaposing Astrophil
“burn[ing] in love” - the typical passionate language of base love - with his acquaintance
with the rarefied “Virtue’s great beauty”, Sidney demonstrates how virtue and carnality
coexists within Stella.
● Sonnet 4: Sidney presents the familiar battle between passion and reason within
Astrophil. Astrophil allows his “simple soul” to be “oppressed” by “vain love” and willingly
gives in to his base desires to love Stella, dismissively instructing Virtue to “leave what
thou lik’st not, deal not thou with it”. Astrophil has entirely forsaken reason, willing to
surrender even what “little reason that is left in [him]”, and has instead been so totally
overcome with love for Stella that his heart has become a “shrine” for her. In his final
line, he concludes that when Virtue encounters “so true a deity”, “virtue” itself “shalt be in
love”, suggesting that mortal Stella’s beauty is of such heavenly standards that it can
subjugate Virtue, which is in the spiritual realm. Thus, Sidney presents no contradiction
between loving Stella and yearning for Virtue, because even Virtue will come to love
Stella.
● Sonnet 9: Like Sonnet 25, this sonnet portrays Stella as the embodiment of virtue itself.
Not only is Stella’s face presented as at the pinnacle of Nature’s creation — as “Nature’s
chiefest furniture”, Stella is the seat of “Queen Virtue’s court” and the blazon that
catalogues the attributes of her physical beauty suggests how virtuous she is
○ “Looks o’er the world. And can find nothing such / Which dare claim from those lights
the name of the ‘best’” → Virtue looks to the world to find the ‘best’ but is unable to do
so as she cannot see Stella precisely because she resides in Stella, virtue as Stella herself.
○ Sonnet 9 goes beyond just saying that Stella = Virtue (like in Sonnet 4 & 25) → Stella as
greater than virtue itself as it resides within her, elevating her to an ultra divine stature.
● Sonnet 14:
● While Astrophil’s friend views love as lustful desire, he himself views love in terms of
what it can accomplish: enlightenment and attainment of a higher plane of emotion. The
love he envisions with Stella is by convention, “sin[ful]”, the very opposite of faithfulness,
truth, and chastity. But by his reasoning, because Stella inspires “fixed hearts” and a
“loathing of all loose unchastity”, sin and virtue have switched places.
○ “If that be sin, which doth the manners frame” → Astrophil’s love for Stella makes him
more noble in manner (idea of courtly love) → improves his character
○ “A loathing of all loose unchastity” → the constancy of his love for stella makes him
faithful, opposed to infidelity → makes him more virtuous

Thus, in hyperbolically exalting his mistress, Sidney demonstrates Stella’s ability to overmaster
Virtue and even equates Virtue to Stella herself to justify his love for Stella. Yet, unlike Sidney,
Marvell suggests that nothing in the mortal sphere can ever conquer Virtue, which is solely
reserved for the spiritual realm.