Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘‘Ye Goatherd Gods’’ is a pastoral poem written impressively as a double sestina. Sidney wrote the poem as part of The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (a long work that includes prose, poetry, and other forms, often shortened to Arcadia), all for the entertainment of his younger sister, with whom he was staying at the time. ‘‘Ye Goatherd Gods’’ is, from a content point of view, fairly straightforward. Two shepherds, Strephon and Klaius, are suffering from heartbreak in being absent from Urania, whom they both love desperately. From a characterization and emotional standpoint, the poem does not stray far from this basic theme of longing.
There are other elements of the poem, however, by which Sidney adds complexity. The form of the poem, to be sure, is very sophisticated and complicated, yet the poem itself does not suffer from the constraints of the form. There are subtle differences in the characterizations of the two shepherds, and a very careful reader will appreciate Sidney’s added complexity here, too. Furthermore, within the vivid, highly emotional imagery used by the shepherds to describe their woe, Sidney adds a dimension to their expression in the way he uses sense imagery. As one-dimensional as Strephon and Klaius themselves may be emotionally, the sense imagery they invoke is multidimensional. Through sound, sight, smell, and touch, Sidney brings his rustic setting to life, allowing the reader to imagine how that setting looks and feels to the shepherds.
The first sense Sidney calls into play is hearing. In the first stanza, Strephon pleads with the gods, nymphs, and satyrs to lend him their ears for his plaintive song of woe. Even before that, he makes subtle reference to sound when he characterizes the forests as silent. This plea prepares the reader for what will be numerous references to sound, and specifically to music, throughout the poem. This poem is an eclogue, a form of pastoral featuring two shepherds in dialogue or in a singing match. Strephon’s mention of a song followed by the shift to a second speaker reinforces the poem’s participation in the rich pastoral tradition that inspired Sidney here.
Strephon is forthright about the fact that his music is of a complaining nature, which also sets the tone for the reader. Armed with this information, the reader knows the emotional situation of the shepherd and can expect the poem to be emotional and somber. Strephon’s plea is immediately followed by Klaius’s plea to the heavens and the gods, and he likewise begs them to hear his song of complaint.
The landscape in ‘‘Ye Goatherd Gods’’ is frequently described in terms of sound. While Strephon alluded to the silence of the forest, Klaius describes the valley as loud, filled with the sound of his woeful voice. To further emphasize the auditory aspect of the setting, Klaius comments that Echo has grown weary from his cries. His cries, according to the fourth stanza, have replaced music; sounds that delight the ear are now gone, and mournful music and cries are there instead. Even more horrific, Klaius later imagines that instead of music coming from the forest, he hears the frightening sounds of men being murdered. In the tristich at the end of the poem, both shepherds speak in unison, saying that their music has made their surroundings wretched. Their perception of the world is so colored by their own intense emotions that they imagine they have the power, through their sounds, to corrupt nature and turn it into something awful and ugly. These descriptive features of the landscape give the unfeeling natural world a strong emotional quality.
Sidney uses birds to bring another layer of sound imagery to the poem. Strephon regards himself as his own screech owl in the morning, an image that contrasts with the expected sounds of pleasant chirping in the morning. Even hearing a nearby rooster would be more pleasant than being one’s own screeching owl. In the seventh stanza, the nightingale, too, learns how to make the owl’s sounds instead of continuing to make its own pleasant music. In the fifth stanza, Strephon refers to his swan song, the song believed to foretell a swan’s death—the last utterance of a beautiful bird knowing it is dying. This, Strephon says, is what he hears every morning. Over and over in the poem, the shepherds twist expectations of music. In the tenth stanza, Strephon must cover his ears so that the music will not make him go insane. Instead of being cheerful, festive, or peaceful, music has become sorrowful and unwelcome. Klaius, in turn, admits in the sixth stanza that his music irritates other people and drives them away from him. Whether at work or at leisure, others do not want his music to interfere with their lives.
Of course, there is one music in the poem that is sweet, delightful, and perfect, and that is the music from Urania. Klaius says that her words bring music into existence.
Another prominent sense used by Sidney to convey the shepherds’ internal reality is sight. All around them, the shepherds see a landscape that is overwhelming or dulled by their broken hearts. Despite having valleys, mountains, and forests around them, they see no beauty but in their memories of Urania. The mountains are intimidating and menacing, described as being savage and monstrous. In the middle of the poem, on the other hand, Strephon declares that he sees the mountains as having been reduced to low valleys. In the next stanza, Klaius describes seeing the dank air of the morning that threatens illness. Two stanzas later, he proclaims that he no longer desires to see the evening again. He would be just as happy not to see the nature that surrounds him because his perception is so changed by his sorrow. He sees nothing but danger and defeat.
The senses of smell and touch are present in the poem but with only one mention each. In the eighth stanza, Klaius notices the sun rising over the mountains, but rather than take in the beautiful and inspiring experience, he senses an offensive smell—that of the flowers on the mountain, opening to the morning sun. To anyone else, this would be a pleasing scent that would only enhance the whole experience. To Klaius, however, the scent is repulsive because everything that was once beautiful is tainted and ruined by the torment of his soul. The sense of touch is important at the end of the seventh stanza, when Strephon describes feeling the deadly serene, which is moist air believed to make people sick. He admits that he once found the evening pleasant and comforting, but now he feels this air on his skin and it threatens instead of comforts.
‘‘Ye Goatherd Gods’’ is interesting on many levels. The emotional state of the shepherds is not something that the poem explores all that deeply, but through the imagery, hyperbole, and sense descriptions, Sidney brings great breadth to those emotional states’ expression. The sense images are relatable to the reader, which makes it easier to feel what the shepherds feel. Seeing through their eyes, hearing through their ears, feeling with their skin, and even smelling through their noses allows the reader the unique opportunity to become the shepherds and participate in their heightened emotional state. Many poets try to achieve this effect by writing about love in a universal way, so that the reader connects with the speaker through the emotion, but Sidney instead accomplishes such a connection through the senses.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Sir Philip Sidney, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009
Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on ‘‘Ye Goatherd Gods,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.