The fact is that we have been corrupted by Shakespeare and the Romantic poets into thinking that early modern poems are artistic forms for emotion and personal expression rather than entries in an erudition contest meant to express neo-Platonic humanist commonplaces in as intricate a way as possible. Shakespeare is to blame because his sonnets can be read as if they were Romantic or Modernist or whatever you want – they really are extraordinary – but anyone who has turned to his “Venus and Adonis” or “The Phoenix and the Turtle” know that he had submitted some poems to the prestige competition, too.
Samuel Daniel was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, a member of the circle of Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. His 1592 sonnet sequence, fifty poems long, modeled on Petrarch’s Canzoniere, is titled Delia. If Maurice Scève’s Délie is also L’Idée then Delia is also Ideal. There is some speculation that Daniel’s poems are addressed to Mary Sidney, herself a fine poet, but, come on, “Ideal,” we know how this game is played.
All of this of course takes place during the Great English Sonnet Craze inspired by Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, two hundred years after Petrarch had died. England was a backwater.
Care- charmer sleepe, sonne of the Sable night,
Brother to death, in silent darknes borne:
Relieue my languish, and restore the light,
With darke forgetting of my cares returne.
And let the day be time enough to morne,
The shipwrack of my ill-aduentred youth:
Let waking eyes suffice to wayle theyr scorne,
Without the torment of the nights vnturth.
Cease dreames, th’ymagery of our day desires,
To modell foorth the passions of the morrow:
Neuer let rysing Sunne approue you lyers,
To adde more griefe to aggrauat my sorrow.
Still let me sleepe, imbracing clowdes in vaine;
And never wake, to feele the dayes disdayne.
Delia is in the background here, the cause of the poet’s sorrow. The call for sleep as a relief from suffering, and the congruity between sleep and death, are ancient ideas, hackneyed even. I am not sure that there is a single original idea in Daniel. He is, rather, an expert at poetic adornment. He is likely as much read now for the 1603 essay A Defence of Ryme, an argument for ornament, constraint, and form: “Ryme is no impediment to his conceit, but rather giues him wings to mount and carries him, not out of his course, but as it were beyond his power to a farre happier flight” (138). Our imagination is “an vnformed Chaos without fashion, without day.” Poetry extracts beauty from chaos.
So if I find little in this poem besides the musical pleasure of “Relieve my languish and restore the light” or the last couplet, where the dream imagery becomes more interesting (“embracing clouds”), I have found plenty.
In a poem titled “To the Reader,” Daniel makes the usual claim for immortality:
I know I shalbe read, among the rest
So long as men speake english, and so long
As verse and vertue shalbe in request
Or grace to honest industry belong (4, ll. 59-63)
He did not predict he would be read a lot.
I have been using the old University of Chicago Press edition of Poems and A Defence of Ryme, ed. Arthur Colby Sprague, as my text. Who knows what hideous errors I have introduced in my transcription. In Defence of Standard Spelling, Daniel should have written that essay, too.