Literary Connections: making the right connections with literature

Sad Steps: moon-struck poems

Literary connections in poems by Sidney, Jonson, Wordsworth and Larkin

'Sad Steps' from Larkin's High Windows refers in title and subject matter to a sonnet by the Elizabethan poet and courtier Sir Philp Sidney. It is from Astrophel and Stella, which includes 108 sonnets and 11 songs, the first of the Elizabethan sonnet cycles. Most of the sonnets are Petrarchan in form.

Astrophel and Stella: XXXI

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies!
How silently, and with how wan a face!
What, may it be that even in heav'nly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?
Sure, if that long-with-love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel'st a lover's case,
I read it in thy looks: thy languish'd grace,
To me, that feel the like, thy state descries.
Then, ev'n of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deem'd there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be lov'd, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call 'virtue' there ungratefulness?

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)

  • The complete Astrophel and Stella can be found at Renascence Editions from the University of Oregon.
  • You can find out more about Sidney, and read more of his works, at the Luminarium.
Larkin was not the first to imitate this poem, either. Here is another poet, who did accept the Laureateship, lifting the first two lines and sticking to the sonnet form:
With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the sky,
"How silently, and with how wan a face!"
Where art thou? Thou so often seen on high
Running among the clouds a Wood-nymph's race!
Unhappy Nuns, whose common breath's a sigh
Which they would stifle, move at such a pace!
The northern Wind, to call thee to the chase,
Must blow to-night his bugle horn. Had I
The power of Merlin, Goddess! this should be:
And all the stars, fast as the clouds were riven,
Should sally forth, to keep thee company,
Hurrying and sparkling through the clear blue heaven.
But, Cynthia! should to thee the palm be given,
Queen both for beauty and for majesty.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Who is Cynthia in Wordsworth's poem? She is virgin-goddess of the moon - and that provides a link to another famous invocation of the moon, in Ben Jonson's early play Cynthia's Revels, first printed in 1601.
Queen, and huntress, chaste and fair,
Now the sun is laid to sleep,
Seated in thy silver chair,
State in wonted manner keep:
    Hesperus entreats thy light,
    Goddess excellently bright.

Earth, let not thy envious shade
Dare itself to interpose;
Cynthia's shining orb was made
Heaven to clear when day did close:
    Bless us then with wishèd sight,
    Goddess excellently bright.

Lay thy bow of pearl apart,
And thy crystal shining quiver;
Give unto the flying hart
Space to breathe, how short soever:
    Thou that mak'st a day of night,
    Goddess excellently bright.

Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

The reference to 'Queen, and huntress, chaste and fair' in line 1 is a reminder that Queen Elizabeth was often addressed in literature as Cynthia, so the song is almost certainly a form of royal flattery as well. It is sung in the play by Hesperus (line 5), god of the evening star.
Larkin is less respectful, though the artistic treatments of the moon as 'Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!' that are the subject of his mockery are in fact neither Sidney's nor Wordsworth's - and the term 'immensements' may even be a Larkin coinage.