Friday, November 8, 2013

Samuel Daniel's Delia - beyond his power to a farre happier flight

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.

Sonnet XLV
    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.


  1. My favorite among Daniel's sonnets, because it feels like, as you so rightly put it, an artistic form for emotion and personal expression:

    Let others sing of knights and paladins
    In aged accents, and untimely words;
    Paint shadows in imaginary lines
    Which well the reach of their high wits records;
    But I must sing of thee, and those fair eyes
    Authenticate shall my verse in time to come,
    When yet th’ unborn shall say, "Lo where she lies,
    Whose beauty made him speak that else was dumb."
    These are the arks, the trophies I erect,
    That fortify thy name against old age;
    And these thy sacred virtues must protect
    Against the dark and time’s consuming rage.
    Though th’ error of my youth they shall discover,
    Suffice, they show I lived and was thy lover.

  2. It does seem pretty hackneyed, especially "The shipwrack of my ill-aduentred youth"--but that's the part I like best! I studied Renaissance poetry...I wonder what this says about me. Either my tastes or my misguided choice in grad school pursuits.

  3. Though I do not know enough of Samuel Daniel to have an opinion as to whether he is great or not, I do believe that art can be great even if not so original. Sometimes adornment and form can be enough.

  4. Brian, that is just what I am saying. Originality is a Romantic fetish object.

    Daniel is definitely a second-rater. But he is in the second tier of the greatest period of English literature. Possibly of all literature. So, honestly, good show, Samuel Daniel!

    I think the "shipwrack" line is outstanding, too. That whole quatrain, really. Hackneyed in sentiment, not poetry.

    Cleanthess, I agree that you have picked a plausibly emotional example of Daniel. What I love about the poem is that the woman is an abstraction but poetry is utterly real. He is deeply expressive about his love of poetry.