Here is another misconception about literature: that it contains messages, hidden or otherwise. Too often people approach literature as though it were all like Aesop’s Fables. Those fables are wonderful: they tell stories, and each story is followed by a moral, such as “Necessity is the mother of invention.” But very little literature works that way. Literature does have a moral dimension, of course, but great works cannot be summed up in pithy moral statements. A person who reads Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and decides that the point of the play is “don’t kill your father and marry your mother” has perhaps followed the action of the play but has missed the important points that the play makes. Of course, anyone who needs to read a play to learn that important lesson probably has other, more serious problems. One basis for such misconceptions is our uncertainty about what a work may be saying, which leads us to the easiest answer we can think of, an answer which is often a cliché or a moral truism. (This tendency is obviously related to our desire to get the one “correct” answer.) Another basis is the tendency among teachers to ask what the “theme” of a work is. This question is one that has often puzzled me because any good work contains multiple themes; when we pretend that a work has a single theme, we are likely to reduce a complex work to a single, aphoristic “message.” Telegrams convey messages, and if authors wanted to communicate such messages, they would send telegrams (or tweets) or write tracts or publish aphorisms. However authors want to convey some of the complexities and contradictions of human existence, and to reduce those qualities to “messages” or even to “main themes” is to do violence to what an author is trying to accomplish.
For example, the theme of most Renaissance love poetry (most of which was written by men) can be reduced to “I love her. She doesn’t love me. Oh rats.” We can find this “theme” in Petrarch, in Shakespeare, in Spenser, in Sidney, even in contemporary country-western music. Frankly it does not need to be said all that often, and if this is really all that those poets were saying, we would be foolish to waste our time reading them. But what they were doing was in fact quite different. They were using this stock situation to explore such aspects of the world as religion, the self, the nature of relationships, and the nature of love itself. Focusing only on their usnrequited love is like buying a bicycle because of its color: the color may be interesting, but a person who decides on the basis of the color has missed the whole point of the bicycle.
Furthermore, a good deal of the enjoyment in such poems comes from the clever ways in which poets use that stock situation for their own purposes, often to mock their own speakers, as Sir Thomas Wyatt does in “They Flee from Me,” or even to be deeply critical of their speakers, as Sir Philip Sidney does in Astrophel and Stella (a point, incidentally, about which many Renaissance scholars might disagree).
The speaker in Wyatt’s poem may lament his beloved’s apparent lack of faithfulness to him, but the words he uses to describe their relationship make it clear why she has abandoned him. He compares her to birds (or perhaps to squirrels—it’s hard to tell), little creatures that come to his window and eat out of his hands. This comparison reveals that he thinks of her as a little domesticated pet, another creature who eats out of his hands; and as the poem continues, he reveals further that he thinks of her only in sexual terms as an object that he can use, not as a real person. Can it be any wonder that she has abandoned him? Part of the fun of this poem comes in watching the doltish speaker reveal himself as a fool while he thinks that he is exposing his lady’s unfaithfulness. At the same time, this speaker is completely mystified because he truly believes himself to be a sincere and faithful lover. Similarly, Sidney’s Astrophel shows himself to be a shallow, if ardent, lover—a young man who knows the rules of the game of love but who seems incapable of realizing that his beloved Stella does not want to play. On the other hand, Edmund Spenser’s lover in the sonnets of the Amoretti learns what it means to be a real lover and, in an extraordinary turn of events for a Renaissance sonnet sequence, actually marries the lady.
Can we take three such different poets, all of them writing in the sixteenth century, and talk about the “theme” of their poems? They are exploring human existence by examining the essential human emotion of love, but they are doing so in distinctly different ways and having fun while they do so.