In night when colors all to black are cast,
Distinction lost, or gone down with the light;
The eye a watch to inward senses placed,
Not seeing, yet still having powers of sight,
Gives vain alarums to the inward sense,
Where fear stirred up with witty tyranny,
Confounds all powers, and thorough self-offense,
Doth forge and raise impossibility:
Such as in thick depriving darknesses,
Proper reflections of the error be,
And images of self-confusednesses,
Which hurt imaginations only see;
And from this nothing seen, tells news of devils,
Which but expressions be of inward evils.
Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (1554-1628), author of this somber performance, was a minister to Elizabeth and James I and friend to and biographer of Sir Philip Sidney. His elegy on Sidney’s death is well worth reading. (This text is inferior but it’s the only link I can find. The poem ends “Salute the stones, that keep the limbs, that held so good a mind” — “keep the bones” jingles.) Greville died one of the richest men in England, stabbed by a servant who believed, mistakenly, that he was to be cheated of a bequest. He was also one of the greatest poets of one of the greatest eras in English poetry.
I have expostulated on tenor and vehicle in poetry, but this sonnet makes me doubt that the distinction is as simple as I made it out. It operates at three levels at least. At the literal level, night is simply night and the eye the eye. By “witty tyranny” Greville means tyranny of the wit, or the imagination. Anyone who has been startled by a shadow on a deserted street at night will understand “forge and raise impossibility.” The precision of those two verbs characterizes all of Greville’s verse.
The first quatrain contains a miniature treatise on epistemology. True perception, for Greville, requires both an external reality to perceive and an observer to do the perceiving. At night “distinction” (external reality) only appears to be lost; it has “gone down with the light” but remains, though hidden. Similarly the eye’s powers are unabated, but with “distinction” hidden they are useless, in fact worse than useless, for the perceiver turns them inward, projecting his own doubts, fears, and errors on a world he can no longer see.
Greville here begins to write at a second level, somewhere between tenor and vehicle. He has in mind much more than mere sight. Everyone, especially writers, who spend so much time cloistered with their own thoughts, knows how easy it is to promote a fancy to a theory, a preference to a dictum. (Of course I’m talking about the rest of you. I never do that.) Greville speaks of “proper reflections of the error” and in another poem of “the error’s ugly infinite impression,” the way it mirrors or ripples outward indefinitely. In his introduction to Greville’s poems, Thom Gunn remarks acutely that “the vowel-alliteration [of ‘ugly infinite impression’] makes it easy to say quickly; the error’s ‘impression’ spreads, similarly, with the ease and speed of a stain on water.”
Finally, as we ascend to the tenor, the poem is theological. The “evils” and “devils” of the closing couplet belong to Christian vocabulary, along with, less obviously, “depriving” and “error.” Gunn identifies night, at this level, with Hell. More precisely, it is man’s state deprived of divine Grace — “thick depriving darknesses.” Here reality is God. Life on earth is vanity, “self-confusednesses,” “self-offense,” and error, from which there is no escape but Grace. Whether the reader objects to the sentiment is beside the point. Greville knows perfectly well that the human mind can “distinguish” on its own, in some circumstances, and says so, in the same poem, and in the same words. The poem shows a great mind wrestling with an impossible intellectual situation.
To a modern sensibility Greville has no obvious appeal. The verse movement in Campion and Morley is sprightly: in Greville it is stately, even ponderous. Ralegh despairs cynically: Greville hopes, but realistically. Donne imposes and dramatizes his personality: Greville submerges his. Spenser rhapsodizes: Greville analyzes. Sidney was a dashing soldier who died young on the battlefield: Greville rendered greater service to the state by surviving to old age. His poetry was obscure in his own time, and its qualities guarantee its continued obscurity. He is only the subtlest, most precise intellect of all the Elizabethan poets. Intellect was not popular then, and it is less popular now.
(Update: Here is a portrait of Greville in which he looks very like what he was.)