This was written a while ago, and is an interpretation I’m still very uncertain of. These are just notes.
No, no! Go from me. I have left her lately.
I will not spoil my sheath with lesser brightness,
For my surrounding air hath a new lightness;
Slight are her arms, yet they have bound me straitly
And left me cloaked as with a gauze of æther;
As with sweet leaves; as with subtle clearness.
Oh, I have picked up magic in her nearness
To sheathe me half in half the things that sheathe her.
No, no! Go from me. I have still the flavour,
Soft as spring wind that’s come from birchen bowers.
Green come the shoots, aye April in the branches,
As winter’s wound with her sleight hand she staunches,
Hath of the trees a likeness of the savour:
As white as their bark, so white this lady’s hours.
A virginal was a small keyboard instrument played by young girls in the 16th & 17th centuries. Consider that, as well as this being a Petrarchan sonnet, and also that our narrator used the word “sheath.” All of those factors conspired to remind this reader of some swashbuckling type dude wearing tights and bright colors and having a sword, which he would use, of course, when his opponent broke into open laughter at his get-up.
I didn’t think of all those “romantic” Renaissance associations the first time I read this poem, though. There seems to be a rather dark sexuality at work here instead.
The word “virginal” has something to do with being a virgin, with purity and innocence. If we take “sheath” not to be part of a sword metaphor, but rather the human sheath, the skin, then what our narrator has is the glow that is emanating from his skin, or maybe his facial expression, at that moment. The “lightness” of the air he breathes, he claims, has caused that. It could be that the narrator is a guy in love, and that’s it. People do feel and look different when they’re in love.
But I feel like I’m describing a person after intercourse as I write this stuff. At the same time, I’m pretty sure his narrator didn’t have sexual intercourse with the girl who has bound him with her “slight arms,” the “magic” in her “nearness,” and the image of spring she evokes.
Actually, I know he didn’t have sex with her. “To sheath me half in half the things that sheathe her” is our first clue: there is no unity of the couple physically, even in metaphor here. He’s picked up “magic” in her “nearness,” that’s all, and hence only “half” of him is sheathed.
Secondly, our narrator is screaming at someone – probably another woman – to go away. How exactly has the virgin girl bound him that he cannot be in the presence of another? She is white like a birch tree, and he sees her “springness” staunching winter – he finds her a spring that actively stops coldness. It is her whiteness which connects her with winter, though, not just the birches. Her hours being white is the part that creeps me out the most; her delicateness and white complexion suggest that she is about to die, that the color of life has drained from her, and that this death is something he loves her for.
After all, her “death” is the loss of her virginity. What is creating the tension in the narrator’s voice throughout the poem is that he is bound to love something pure, but his own love is something less than pure: he’s not going to let her stay pure. She is the “spring” to his winter, after all, and the only way he can transcend his coldness is by residing within that spring. So far, all he’s getting, by his own account, is a whiff of the air – we can perhaps see that greenery and sweet leaves seem to be things that flavor the air, and nothing more.