You Gote-heard Gods
You Gote-heard Gods
Sir Philippe Sidnei, The Covntesse of Pembrokes Arcadia (London: William Ponsonbie, 1590): 95v-96v. Facsimile edited by H. Oskar Sommer (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1891).
state: stateliness, impressiveness. Back to Line
Commentary by Ian Lancashire
Sir Philip Sidney's dramatic dialogue and double sestina, "You Gote-heard Gods," belongs to the opening of his Old Arcadia, a macaronic (prose and verse) narrative finished in 1581. Strephon and Klaius, two shepherds in Arcadia, a pastoral utopia in the Peloponnese in ancient Greece, open Chapter 1 by complaining about the absence of their beloved shepherdess Urania, who has gone to the near-by island, Cithera. By framing their complaint within an Arcadian romance, Sidney distances its subject matter, unrequited love, from contemporary Elizabethan England in both space and time. His readers must have experienced some of the same strange formality that we find in this poem today, centuries later. These long dead shepherds, belonging to a pagan society lost before Christianity was born, describe a particularly intense despondency that can have little practical import for Sidney's readers. The poem's opening three words announce its archaic neo-classical frame: only eccentrics worship gods that make a living on earth by herding goats.
Both Strephon and Klaius take a long time to explain why they are so melancholy. Their theme at first seems to be, self-referentially, just their song itself. Strephon pleads with goat-herd gods, nymphs, and satyrs, and Klaius with the heavenly bodies Mercury, the Moon, and Venus, to "Vouchsafe your silent eares to playning musique" (4, 11). To judge by how the shepherds go on to describe their music, it makes a fearful cacaphony. Strephon grows "a shrich-owle" (18; cf. 40) with his "deadly Swannish musique" (25). Klaius utters "cries" (24), "strange exclaiming musique" (32), and can only think of "The dreadfull cries of murdred men" when he hears "sweete musique" (47-48). Strephon curses music-makers (51) and Klaius stops his ears, lest he go crazy (60). Only in stanzas 11-12 do they get to the point, that "she" (that is, Urania, as we learn from the prose narrative) has left Arcadia. Worse still, she has taken with her "perfect musique" (61), especially the music of spheres, a harmony that ancient philosophers and theologians attributed to the planets' need to worship their creator. What is left is a music that makes the mountains, valleys, and forests of Arcadia "wretched," from "morning hymne" to "song at euening" (73-75). Ending is like beginning. In their invocations of the pagan gods and planets, Strephon and Klaius promised nothing but "dolor" (6).
The gutteral alliteration in the poem's opening line foreshadows how the shepherds' musical motifs and phrases -- like repeating initial consonants -- echo, almost numbingly. Two types of repetition occur: terminal and initial. First, Sidney selects the ideal poetic form, the sestina, and then doubles its length, to reflect the two lovers' manic iteration of despair. This form conventionally has six six-line stanzas and a final three-line envoy. Each six-line stanza ends with the same six words, although in a different order each time. The last word in any one six-line stanza's last line becomes the last word of the first line of the next stanza. The pattern of repeating final words is
i 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6
ii 6 | 1 | 5 | 2 | 4 | 3
iii 3 | 6 | 4 | 1 | 2 | 5
iv 5 | 3 | 2 | 6 | 1 | 4
v 4 | 5 | 1 | 3 | 6 | 2
vi 2 | 4 | 6 | 5 | 3 | 1
vii 1 2 | 3 4 | 5 6 |
Sidney imposes this cycle first at lines 1-36 and then repeats it at lines 37-72. The six terminal words, "mountaines," "vallies," "forests," "musique," "morning," and "evening" occur terminally 13 times each (that is, 78 occasions) and three times medially (21, 54, 58). The second kind of repetition operates initially, line-wise, both within stanzas and between pairs of stanzas. For example, Strephon opens three lines with "You," and Klaius three lines with "O"; and then Klaius also repeats Strephon's 4th line as his fifth line. Stanzas 3-4 repeat "I that was once" initially, as stanzas 5-6 repeat "Long since," stanzas 7-8 "Me seemes I", and so on.
Readers, driven near "mad with Musicke" (60), as Klaius describes himself, become "witnesse" and co-partaker, with Arcadia's mountains, valleys, and forests, of the unrelenting sameness of the misery that the shepherds feel. This wretchedness builds from stanza to stanza. Early "woes" become "huge despair" (17), and "playning musique" turns into "cries" (24) and then "dreadfull cries of murdred men" (48), until both shepherds "curse" their own songs (51, 55) and "hate" the mountains or themselves (52, 59). The longer the complaint goes on, the more self-destructive and frenetic it is. Only the memory of Urania the beloved in stanzas 11-12 brings some closure for the "darke vallies" (66), the "spoyled forrests" (71), and the mountains whose "grassy" (1) slopes are deserts (72). At the mention of her "perfect musique" (61) and beauty (62), the shepherds' energy seems to flag. The three-line closing stanza is simple, clear, and almost calm, in comparison. Passion is spent.
The poem formally imitates its content, the music echoing the feelings, but readers not only admire Sidney's technical mastery of the sestina form but make sympathetic witnesses to the shepherds' plight. Love-sickness, after all, characterizes the youth of present-day urban sprawl no less than it does pastoral archetypes. Personal devastation, obsession, and self-loathing succeed one another in the mind of the suddenly abandoned lover-new-to-love, no matter the era. Sidney's "Astrophel and Stella" sonnet sequence depicts his own love agony. Chaucer's Troilus, Shakespeare's Orsino, Keats' knight at arms, Janis Joplin, and the unmarried woman in Fatal Attraction turn love-sickness into art across 600 years. Even cognitive psychology increasingly stresses the role of emotions in enabling us to survive, or leading us to fail.
Uniformly, obsessive love-sickness projects the sufferer's misery on the entire world. It makes the mental and the physical the same thing. This distortion, termed anthropomorphization or the Romantic fallacy, lends human attributes to nature. Strephon's mountains "Of huge despaire," his valleys of "foule afflictions" (17), his "ioyes come to their euening" (29), and his "thoughts more desert ... then forrests" (35) extrapolate his feelings so that they characterize the three landscapes. Likewise, Klaius's thoughts are "beasts in forrests" (35). Their obsession breaks down rational distinctions between the self and its environment. Mania results; in the sufferers' imaginations, sheer impossibilities become facts. Mole hills resemble high mountains (23), mountains turn into low valleys (38), nightingales sings like owls (40), flowers smell putrid (45), lovely music sounds like murdered men's cries (47-48), and beasts hunt the hunter (35). Love-sickness transforms Arcadia, the pastoral utopia, into a nightmare world. Hatred of its landscapes goes hand in hand with self-hatred (59).
Love satisfied, with the beloved present in memory, has a similar effect on the shepherds' perception as love unrequited does. Urania is a universe in herself; her eyes are two suns (66). The shepherdess has the power of God or the first mover in that she can cause the spheres to imitate her beauty by singing (68). Urania's presence also distorts images of the world. She makes the Alps appear like valleys (67; cf. 38); and she brings on morning in the evening (69; cf. 41-42). By leaving, she also converts mountains into deserts (72).Back to Line