The Foolishness of Writing in the Poetry of Sir Philip Sidney and John Donne.

August 17, 2022 by Essay Writer

Stating that poetry should ‘teach, delight, and move men to take that goodness in hand’[1], it becomes clear why both Philip Sidney in ‘Sonnet 90’ and John Donne’s ‘Triple Fool’ suggest that writing in regards to love is foolish. The poems contain nothing but a lover’s melancholy for their beloved and does not ‘move men to take’ action, in fact one could say that the opposite occurs, as both poets are so critical of themselves the reader almost expects them to give up writing. Arguably, their sense of foolishness comes from the ‘shame’[2] of being rejected, as this appears to be the recurring theme in their poems, especially as other poems such as ‘Sonnet 63’ by Sidney put up an argument for the positive aspects of writing. Sonnet 90 highlights a sense of foolishness for writing about love, the alternate rhyme of ‘fame’ and shame in lines one and four inextricably link the two together implying that Astrophil is shameful of the popularity he is seemingly getting from his poems. Furthermore the lines ‘I wish not there should be graved in mine epitaph a poet’s name’ (90, l. 7-8) suggest a desire to renounce his name as a poet, and also imply the failure he has received so far from writing poetry.

However despite his apparent hopelessness at poetry, he still attempts to proclaim his love to Stella with the line ‘who seek, who hope, who love, who live but thee’(90, l.2), the stress on ‘thee’ emphasises his complete devotion to Stella whilst the use of hypermetrics ensures that Stella is thing in the poem he thinks of the most. However despite this foolishness they both feel about writing poetry to loved ones, once could argue that the sense of shame in both Sidney’s and Donne’s poetry is not just from their writing but also due to the very real rejection of their love interest. This can be seen in ‘The Triple Fool’ in which the irregularity of the meter and rhyme scheme have connotations of an inconstant love. Similarly the use of ‘if’ in the line ‘if she would deny’ (Donne, l. 5) highlights his doubt at the beloved’s words filling the poem with uncertainty. Therefore as they cannot blame the one they love for causing them pain, they turn inwards and begin to blame themselves and their work. Ironically, they turn to the very thing they are blaming to slight it. In this way, they can be seen as conforming to the idea of cynicism, which Zizek calls ‘negation of the negation’. It suggests that both Donne and Sidney are aware of their foolishness however do not renounce it because the image of a love stricken poet is their social identity. By practicing cynicism in their work, it allows both the poets to momentarily break free from the constraint of being a male lover and express there true feeling about their given identity. The simultaneous acknowledgment that it is foolish and a necessity to write arguably just make them seem more foolish to the reader.

In contradiction to this, ‘Sonnet 63’ of Astrophil and Stella, Astrophil uses ‘Grammar rules’[3] in an attempt to further his relationship with Stella. The use of anaphora on the word ‘grammar’ highlights his erratic behaviour and obvious distress towards Stella who ‘twice said, No, No.’ (63, l. 8) to his love. The end stop on this line suggests to the reader a very definite rejection; the stressing of the second ‘No’ further accentuates the strength of Stella’s refusal. In juxtaposition with this is Astrophil’s warped sense of ‘two negatives affirm’, which shows him, trying to bend language to fit his own intentions. This is specifically seen in the final quatrain of the sonnet in which the speaker manages to repeated ‘grammar’ four times, hence, following his own negation rule, changing both of Stella’s ‘No’s thus creating a physical enactment of ‘two Negatives affirm[ing]’(l. 14). This clever twisting of words that leaves the poet ‘high triumphing’ is an example of writing being successful, the word ‘triumph’ implying that Astrophil does not feel foolish because the poem achieved what it was supposed to. Therefore, this poem also highlights that the real reason for Sidney and in turn, Donne’s melancholy is actually there failure in love not feeling foolish in writing. Whereas Philip Sidney seems to be capable of Lynette McGrath aptly states that Donne ‘talks of descending to express him in verse’ implying an incapability to write poetry that expresses his love without simplification. His embarrassment at being a ‘fool’[4] becomes clear when he calls his work ‘In whining Poetry.’ (Donne, l. 3) suggesting a dissatisfaction with the poetry and its approach to love. The repetition of ‘grief’ (Donne, l. 10) and ‘fool’ (Donne, l. 21) throughout the poem also highlight his complete condemnation of his self and writing poetry whilst in love. However, it should be acknowledged in other poems such as ‘The Flea’, Donne shows an amazing display of rhetoric using the conceit of ‘one flea’[5]

Ultimately, both poets use literary techniques of repetition to convey their cynical view on poetry and writing poems for love. However, despite this cynicism and their ‘self-deprecatory’ [6]view of themselves the fact that both still continue to write shows an inability to stop working and being a poet; as Zizek famously states, ‘They know very well what they are doing, but still they are doing it’[7]. Both poets show that they are aware of the stereotypical model of the male poet yet their refusal to renounce this model shows that it is not the writing they find ‘foolish’ but the subject of love itself, which has shamed them both respectfully.


[1] Lynette McGrath, ‘John Donne’s Apology for Poetry’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 20, (1980), pp. 73-89. (p. 76)

[2] Sir Philip Sidney, ‘Sonnet 90’ in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. by Ferguson, Margaret and others, 5th edn (London: W.W Norton, 2005), pp. 220, (l. 4). Further references to this text will be given after quotations.

[3] Ibid, ‘Sonnet 63’, pp. 217, (l. 1). Further references to this text will be given after quotations.

[4] John Donne, ‘The Triple Fool’, (l. 1), last accessed, 21 May 2015. Further references to this text will be given after quotations.

[5] John Donne, ‘The Flea’, in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. by Ferguson, Margaret and others, 5th edn (London: W.W Norton, 2005), pp. 310, (l. 10).

[6] McGrath, p. 77 [7] Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso ,1989), p.717


Ferguson, Margaret and others, ed., The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 5th edn (London: W.W Norton, 2005)

McGrath, Lynette, ‘John Donne’s Apology for Poetry’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 20, (1980), pp. 73-89

Zizek, Slavoj, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso ,1989)

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