Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 108

When Sorrow, using mine own fire’s might,
Melts down his lead into my boiling breast,
Through that dark furnace to my heart oppressed
There shines a joy from thee, my only light;
But soon as thought of thee breeds my delight,
And my young soul flutters to thee, his nest;
Most rude despair, my daily unbidden guest,
Clips straight my wings, straight wraps me in his night,
And makes me then bow down my head and say:
‘Ah, what doth Phoebus’ gold that wretch avail
Whom iron doors do keep from use of day?’
So strangely, alas, thy works in me prevail,
That in my woes for thee thou art my joy,
And in my joys for thee my only annoy.

I suggest you click here to open the sonnet in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to it as you read on through the analysis.

Reading note:  The final y in “daily” (line 7), “strangely” (line 12) and “only” (line 14) becomes an apostrophe, or elided syllable, in the reading: “dail’ unbidden,” “strangel’, alas,” and “onl’ annoy”.

This is the final sonnet in the sequence, and like (or together with) Sonnet 107, it can be read as a summary of the whole poetic courtship, although without changing a word it could have been placed earlier and reflected only a momentary vicissitude. The bottom line is that Stella presents the impossible paradox of offering the only “joyful” reason to endure such agony, and the only agony that stands in the way of the speaker’s highest joy.

Appropriately the final sonnet, like the first and many others, is highly artificial and figurative. A complex set of images depict a back-and-forth struggle between sorrow and despair, on one side, and “thee” on the other. “Thee” offers the possibility of “gold” and “light,” while sorrow/despair brings only molten lead, “iron doors,” and “night.” But this summary simplifies the actual story line. To begin, the speaker’s heart is on fire with his passion for Stella. Since a “leaden heart” is a conventional image of melancholy, personified sorrow brings lead and melts it down on those same flames (thus passion creates melancholy) which in turn creates a “dark furnace” through which Stella’s “only light” (quickly identified as a “thought of thee”) may shine.

As the speaker’s “young soul” responds in the second quatrain, there is an abrupt change in imagery. The soul is now a young bird and “thee” has become the bird’s “nest” of safety and comfort—if only he can get there. But now sorrow’s alter-ego despair intervenes and, in line 8, brings the two metaphors together by both clipping the wings and “wrap[ping] me in his night.” This juxtaposition might be more awkward were it not for the oblique reference to the very popular sport of falconry: two of the most common training methods were clipping (or otherwise altering) wings and “hooding” or “scarfing” a bird (covering its eyes) to force it to find its prey in total darkness.

As the first sonnet built suspense with a series of dangling modifiers and a periodic sentence, this one keeps us in suspense by uncharacteristically stretching the octave into the ninth line before introducing the speaker’s final speech and then final thought, the speech metaphoric and the thought direct. “Phoebus’ gold” is sunshine, so the metaphoric expression of the paradox could be paraphrased: what good is a sunny day to the “wretch” locked up in an iron prison? In the final tercet, “thy works” most directly refers to Stella’s effects on the speaker, but “thy works” can also mean “all of these poems and songs I have written for thee,” and this is the summary of the result of both:

That in my woes for thee thou art my joy,
And in my joys for thee my only annoy.

This blog now comes to an end with this post, its 108th. I invite you to explore the sonnets of Philip Sidney in any of my earlier posts, I welcome your comments, questions, or alternative readings, and I wish you well. JCS

Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 107

Stella, since thou so right a princess art
Of all the powers which life bestows on me,
That ere by them aught undertaken be
They first resort unto that sovereign part;
Sweet, for a while give respite to my heart,
Which pants as though it still should leap to thee;
And on my thoughts give thy lieutenancy
To this great cause, which needs both use and art;
And as a queen, who from her presence sends
Whom she employs, dismiss from thee my wit,
Till it have wrought what thy own will attends.
On servant’s shame oft master’s blame doth sit;
O let not fools in me thy works reprove,
And scorning say, ‘See what it is to love.’

I suggest you click here to open the sonnet in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to it as you read on through the analysis.

Did Sidney arrive at the intended end of his sonnet sequence, or did he just give up and stop? Neither of the final two sonnets by itself seems to reach the clear resolution of an intended end. But of course the intended end in the love relationship—expressed from Sonnet 1 onward—has not and will not come about; and these two sonnets, read together, do form a sort of “summing up” of where this failure has left the speaker/the poet/possibly Sidney himself.* This one, specifically, rather plaintively asks Stella to sanction, or at least acknowledge, the passions and poetic efforts of the speaker, lest all this poetry be dismissed as the ravings of a madman.

Needless to say, this is a delicate request to pose to the woman who has dismissed all overtures of love. How is she to remain true to herself while acknowledging, and in some sense sanctioning, the poetic efforts for which these final sonnets serve as an envoi?

The speaker approaches the task with great care. The basis of Stella’s objection throughout the sequence (see especially Sonnets 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 18 etc.) is that she stands for Reason, and the opening quatrain addresses her in this light: she is the “princess” of all his powers (i.e., including will and appetite, the senses, etc.), but she represents “that sovereign part” which properly governs all these powers, i.e., the soul as directed by reason.

Having acknowledged this sovereignty, he turns back to his lesser “powers”—passions, lustful “thoughts,” a “heart” which “pants”—and says, in effect, don’t sovereigns find employment for lesser beings? Do they not send them out as servants, lieutenants, emissaries? And, line 12 suggests, the sovereign might remain perfect, and yet share in the blame for the follies of the servants. So if Stella has now “dismissed” the speaker and all his romantic pretensions—as it appears she has—could it not be with at least an acknowledgement that these “servants”—i.e., the sonnets—are working to please her will?

There is a certain amount of desperation in this carefully-worded plea, as the more bluntly stated final couplet makes clear. If the dismissal does not have this qualified blessing, then all of these sonnets represent only folly, the ravings of a love-sick lunatic, exposed to the scorn even of fools, rather than high art with a noble intent.

*Though as we come to the end of this journey and resurface from our suspended disbelief, we should remember the caveat that the “story lines” of renaissance sonnets can be entirely artificial and fictional.

Next time (weekend of August 19): Sonnet 108
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 106

O absent presence, Stella is not here;
False flattering hope, that with so fair a face
Bare me in hand, that in this orphan place,
Stella, I say my Stella, should appear:
What say’st thou now? Where is that dainty cheer
Thou told’st mine eyes should help their famished case?
But thou art gone, now that self-felt disgrace
Doth make me most to wish thy comfort near.
But here I do store of fair ladies meet,
Who may with charm of conversation sweet
Make in my heavy mould new thoughts to grow:
Sure they prevail as much with me, as he
That bade his friend, but then new maimed, to be
Merry with him, and not think of his woe.

I suggest you click here to open the sonnet in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to it as you read on through the analysis.

Reading note: “flattering” in line 2 is elided to two syllables.

And now she is gone—in body, at least, as the opening oxymoron reminds us that she is ever present in the speaker’s thoughts. The octave is addressed to a personified hope, who raised the possibility that Stella would in fact still be there, where she is not (“in this orphan [i.e., abandoned] place”). The speaker chides “hope” in lines 5 and 6, but then realizes the futility of this exercise, because hope, too, has abandoned him when he most needs its comfort; “disgrace,” at the end of line 7, has its older, more literal sense of being deprived of a grace one once had. In more conventional poetry, lines 7 and 8 might have been addressed to one’s lost love, but here they are addressed to hope.

In the sestet the speaker turns his attention to all the “fair ladies” still surrounding him, who surely promise to turn his mind away from the love he has lost. But in the final tercet he dismisses this possibility, with what is presumably a battle image: a hale and hearty soldier expecting his newly wounded comrade to be “merry” and “not think of his woe.”

Had this same sonnet appeared much earlier in the sequence, we might have read it as a temporary “down” in the see-saw fortunes and spirits of the speaker. But coming at this late point, and given the sense of the two final sonnets that follow, we must interpret this abandonment by “hope” as literal and past recovery. The physical departure by Stella in Sonnet 105 signified more than a change of location.

Next time (weekend of August 5): Sonnet 107
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 105

Unhappy sight, and hath she vanished by,
So near, in so good time, so free a place?
Dead glass, dost thou thy object so embrace
As what my heart still sees, thou canst not spy?
I swear by her I love and lack, that I
Was not in fault, who bent thy dazzling race
Only unto the heaven of Stella’s face,
Counting but dust what in the way did lie.
But cease, mine eyes, your tears do witness well
That you, guiltless thereof, your nectar missed.
Cursed be the page from whom the bad torch fell,
Cursed be the night which did your strife resist,
Cursed be the coachman which did drive so fast,
With no worse curse than absence makes me taste.

I suggest you click here to open the sonnet in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to it as you read on through the analysis.

Reading notes: “heaven” in line 7 is one syllable.

Stella has left the speaker at night, and this poem laments the speed with which she “vanished” from sight though still nearby. Adding to the frustration, the second line suggests, is that she leaves at the very time, and in the very place, where the speaker’s fortunes in love might have advanced. Because of some vague word choices (glass, race) and the obscurity of lines 3 and 4, the poem’s exact story line has been disputed over the years, though its overall message is clear enough.

The “dead glass,” different readers have argued, could be a mirror, a telescope, or a lantern. I could make a case for the speaker trying to extend his view of Stella with a telescope, except that I have seen no evidence that the telescope existed that early! If Shakespeare’s use of “glass” could be helpful, apart from when he refers to the brittle substance itself, the noun most commonly refers to a mirror, with a drinking vessel or an hour-glass (or metaphorically, an hour) as other possibilities. But King Lear, in his madness (IV.6), has a line more useful to us here; speaking to blind Gloucester, he says: “Get thee glass eyes,/And like a scurvy politician seem/To see the things thou dost not.” The OED cites this line as the first use of “glass eyes” to mean spectacles, and the Arden editor follows that reading, noting that the use of “glass eye” to mean a fake, or prosthetic, eyeball does not appear in English until later in the century. But the glass eyeball itself was being manufactured in Venice by the time of Sidney and Shakespeare, so how can we be sure that Shakespeare—and by extension, Sidney—was not referring to it? Admittedly Lear is mad, so he might speak nonsense, but seeming to see things one doesn’t is more easily done by a man with fake eyes than by one with glasses over empty eye sockets! So in both the Lear line and Sidney’s sonnet, a better reading results from assuming these authors were aware of Venetian glass eye-balls. Such an assumption is not far-fetched, given the range of knowledge in both cases, but if it can be proven false, the “Plan B” in the interpretation that follows would be to treat “dead glass” as referring to spectacles.

Back to the sonnet: a cursory first reading is likely to understand “Unhappy sight” as referring to a scene which makes the viewer unhappy. But essential to understanding the sonnet is to grasp that it opens with an apostrophe to the speaker’s own sense of sight, which has failed him at this crucial moment. His eyeballs are no better than “dead glass” (i.e., glass eyes), and “dost thou thy object so embrace” is said ironically, i.e., is that the best you can do at your only job? To underscore this failure of function, line 4 points out that the speaker’s heart can still see Stella, so why not the eyes? The second quatrain continues this attack by insisting that the speaker himself was not to blame, having done everything he could to train the “race” of sight—i.e., the family, i.e., eyes, with “dazzling” continuing the sarcasm—onto the object of his love. The point is further emphasized by the Platonic insistence that he had trained his sight on the eternal (“Heaven”) rather than the mortal distractions (“dust”) that get in the way.

But if our subtitle here is “A Dialogue between a Lover and his own Sense of Sight,” we may imagine that it is time for the sense of sight to speak up in protest; and that is more or less what happens in lines 9 and 10. Having paused from his rebuke of “unhappy sight,” the speaker realizes that his eyes, in response, have filled up with tears, so he says, in effect, say no more (“But cease”), I can see you’re hurting too. The eyes have missed their “nectar” just as the speaker has lost his “heaven.”

All is forgiven between the speaker and his sight, but someone must be blamed, and it turns out there was a rather comical cast of culprits in the rapid disappearance of Stella*–the boy who dropped the torch, the coachman who drove too fast, the dark night itself—all defeating the efforts (“your strife”) of the sense of sight. All must be “cursed,” but no curse can be found stronger than what the speaker feels at the loss of Stella’s company.

*I am reminded of Grumio’s report of what he will “not” tell Curtis in Taming of the Shrew IV.1: “But had thou not crossed me, thou shouldst have heard how her horse fell and she under her horse; thou shouldst have heard in how miry a place, how she was bemoiled . . . etc.”

Next time (weekend of July 22): Sonnet 106
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 104 and Eleventh Song

Envious wits, what hath been mine offence,
That with such poisonous care my looks you mark,
That to each word, nay, sigh, of mine you hark,
As grudging me my sorrow’s eloquence?
Ah, is it not enough that I am thence,
Thence, so far thence, that scarcely any spark
Of comfort dare come to this dungeon dark,
Where rigor’s exile locks up all my sense?
But if I by a happy window pass,
If I but stars upon mine armor bear;
Sick, thirsty, glad, though but of empty glass;
Your moral notes straight my hid meaning tear
From out my ribs, and puffing prove that I
Do Stella love.   Fools, who doth it deny?

I suggest you click here to open the sonnet in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to it as you read on through the analysis.

Reading notes: The first word of the poem (somewhat unusually in Sidney’s poetry) requires all three syllables, while “poisonous” in the second line has the more usual two.

It has become apparent, near the end of the sequence, that Sidney’s sonnets to Stella are being more widely read, and have inevitably become subject to carping criticism. The phrase “Envious wits” suggests not merely the censorious friends of Sonnets 14, 20, 21, 23, 27, etc., but perhaps rival poets who envy the success of the poetry and therefore seize on the immoral subject matter and “hid meaning” as something to criticize.

The octave consists of two four-line questions, more or less parallel: (1) Why do you carp at me?; and (2) Especially when I am unhappy or unfortunate to begin with? The speaker/poet’s “eloquence” springs from “sorrow,” and this sorrow comes from being “thence,” i.e., separated from Stella and thus denied physically (“sense”) what the poetry muses upon.

The sestet complains of the critics’ tendency to “read into” every gesture of the speaker—even such trivialities as being glad to have quenched his thirst, or having stars on his armor*—some hidden expression of his love for Stella. The irony of this, and bottom line of the poem, is that they are falling all over themselves to prove an accusation that the speaker would never deny.

* Duncan-Jones offers evidence that Sidney did indeed display stars on his armor, with no connection to Stella.

Eleventh Song

“Who is it that this dark night
Underneath my window plaineth?”
It is one who from thy sight
Being, ah, exiled, disdaineth
Every other vulgar light.
 
‘Why, alas, and are you he?
Be not yet those fancies changed?’
Dear, when you find change in me,
Though from me you be estranged,
Let my change to ruin be.
 
‘Well, in absence this will die.
Leave to see, and leave to wonder.’
Absence sure will help, if I
Can learn how myself to sunder
From what in my heart doth lie.
 
‘But time will these thoughts remove;
Time doth work what no man knoweth.’
Time doth as the subject prove;
With time still the affection growth
In the faithful turtledove.
 
‘What if you new beauties see?
Will they not stir new affection?’
I will think they pictures be,
Image-like of saint’s perfection,
Poorly counterfeiting thee.
 
‘But your reason’s purest light
Bids you leave such minds to nourish.’
Dear, do reason no such spite;
Never doth thy beauty flourish
More than in my reason’s sight.

‘But the wrongs love bears will make
Love at length leave undertaking.’
No, the more fools it do shake,
In a ground of so firm making
Deeper still they drive the stake.
 
‘Peace, I think that some give ear;
Come no more, lest I get anger.’
Bliss, I will my bliss forbear,
Fearing, sweet, you to endanger,
But my soul shall harbour there.
 
‘Well, be gone, be gone, I say,
Lest that Argus’ eyes perceive you.’
O unjust is fortune’s sway,
Which can make me thus to leave you,
And from louts to run away!

Reading notes: Consistent with the feminine rhymes in other stanzas, the –ed syllable in “changed” and “exchanged” in the second stanza is pronounced; in the fourth stanza, “the affection” is elided to three syllables, i.e., “th’affection.”

See my previous metrical notes on Songs, especially the Fourth, Eighth, and Ninth, after Sonnets 85 and 86. This most resembles the Ninth Song, with a five-line stanza containing one feminine rhyme which dictates a trochaic rhythm throughout, even in the lines that are one syllable “short.” Here the rhyme scheme changes from ABABB (in the Ninth Song) to ABABA, the effect being that the speaker of the last three lines “matches” the challenge of the first two lines, and then is able to “top” it with one additional line.

Like most of the songs, the format allows a looser, more open-ended version of the constant debate between Stalla—the self-styled voice of reason—and her impatient and importunate lover. This particular version seems to foreshadow Romeo beneath Juliet’s window, drawn to the “light” that shines there; except that this Juliet is never going to let her lover in. The debate whips back and forth rapidly, with Stella posing question or challenge in the first two lines of each stanza, and the speaker giving his come-back in the final three.

Absence, she says in Stanza 3, should surely make him forget her; only if he is separated from his own heart, he replies. To her thought that the passage of time will help him forget, he gives a Rosalind-like answer that time works differently with different beings (“Time doth in the subject prove”); with the turtledove, for example, affection only grows with time. If his eye is caught by new beauties? Shadow versus substance; other beauties are but the poor shadows of Stella’s ideal form. The old trump card reason? As we have heard many times, reason itself must acknowledge Stella’s beauty. Somewhat in contradiction of that stanza, the one that follows acknowledges the speaker’s folly, anticipating the modern definition of madness as repeating the same exercise over and over while expecting a different result: fools, on the “ground” of the “wrongs” brought by their love, just keep driving the “stake” deeper.

This game could theoretically go on all night, if not broken off by some practical concern. And so, in the penultimate stanza, Stella either senses or pretends to sense that they are being overheard (“some give ear”). This must be by her husband, since he would be the only one from whom she could “get anger.” The speaker agrees to withdraw rather than endanger her, but neither (at least in Sidney’s view) can resist taking one last dig at Lord Rich, as our final song comes to an end. Stella describes him as the odious see-all guard Argus, while the speaker laments the unjust fortune that forces a brave soldier like himself to flee from “louts.”

Next time (weekend of July 8): Sonnet 105
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 103

O happy Thames, that didst my Stella bear!
I saw thyself, with many a smiling line
Upon thy cheerful face, joy’s livery wear,
While those fair planets on thy streams did shine.
The boat for joy could not to dance forbear,
While wanton winds, with beauties so divine
Ravished, stayed not, till in her golden hair
They did themselves (O sweetest prison!) twine.
And fain those Aeol’s youths there would their stay
Have made; but, forced by Nature still to fly,
First did with puffing kiss those locks display.
She, so disheveled, blushed; from window I
With sight thereof cried out ‘O fair disgrace;
Let Honour’s self to thee grant highest place.’

I suggest you click here to open the sonnet in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to it as you read on through the analysis.

Again we have a sonnet that appears to be based on a biographical event, a moment in which Penelope Devereux (“Stella”) was traveling on the Thames—presumably on one of the festive barges popular with royalty and nobility in Tudor times—and Sidney (the speaker in the poem) watched her departure from a window on shore. It appears to be a nice London day (why would one make such a trip if not?), with sunshine and playful breezes.

The opening quatrain is an apostrophe to the river, whose “many a smiling line” suggests the play of sunshine on the ripples in the water. But not alone sunshine: the fourth line has the double meaning that the astrological alignment is propitious for such a river trip, or that “those fair planets,” Stella’s eyes, are casting their light on the scene.

The remainder of the poem deals with the breezes that play with Stella’s hair, probably stirred up as the boat “dances” into motion. These winds (“Aeol’s youth”*) are made “wanton” as they are “ravished” by Stella’s beauty, and cannot resist being “twined” in the “sweetest prison” of her hair. (The parenthetical phrase in line 8 is a “misplaced” appositive by the modern rules of grammar, to which Sidney was not bound.) There they would gladly stay, but it is in the “nature” of winds to keep moving, and so, with a final “puffing kiss” that disarranges Stella’s hair, they move on.

The final view of Stella thus finds her slightly “disheveled,” and therefore blushing a bit; and this is turned into a charming little candid snapshot of her beauty. The final idea, that this small “disgrace” honors her more than honor itself, is in the spirit of “Honi soit qui mal y pense” (the motto of the Order of the Garter), or of a charming later poem by Robert Herrick, “Delight in Disorder”:

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthralls the crimson stomacher:
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly:
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoestring, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.

Both poems celebrate the human departure from “perfection” which only makes a beautiful woman more desirable.

*i.e., the children or minions of Aeolus, god of the winds

Next time (weekend of June 24): Sonnet 104
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 102

Where be those roses gone, which sweetened so our eyes?
Where those red cheeks, which oft with fair increase did frame
The height of honour in the kindly badge of shame?
Who hath the crimson weeds stol’n from my morning skies?
How doth the colour vade of those vermilion dyes,
Which nature’s self did make, and self engrained the same?
I would know by what right this paleness overcame
That hue, whose force my heart still unto thraldom ties.
Galen’s adoptive sons, who by a beaten way
Their judgments hackney on, the fault on sickness lay,
But feeling proof makes me say they mistake it far:
It is but love, which makes his paper perfect white
To write therein more fresh the story of delight,
While beauty’s reddest ink Venus for him doth stir.

I suggest you click here to open the sonnet in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to it as you read on through the analysis.

Reading note: “vade” in line 5 is simply an archaic form of “fade,” used presumably for the pleasing chiasmic alliteration of “doth . . . vade . . . vermilion . . . dies.”

Still on the subject of Stella’s illness, this is the last of six hexameter sonnets in the sequence. As if to dwell further on the number six, there is a sort of six-line “stanza” opening the poem, with alternating one- and two-line questions. And, as usual, the answer comes in the sestet at the other end. The unattached two lines in the middle state the thesis of the poem: in what is definitely not Sidney’s finest poetry, he wonders for twenty-four rather awkward syllables why the paleness of disease has been permitted to take away Stella’s customary color (color which enslaves the speaker’s heart).

Having said that, I must admit that the first six lines, the four questions which could be paraphrased “Where have all the flowers gone?” are neither witty nor melodic as poetry either. Is it possible that, this near the end of a long set of sonnets, Sidney has run out of fresh ways to compliment his would-be mistress? Or is he deliberately trying to be to poetry what Stella’s physicians are to medicine, in line 10; i.e., “hackney[ed].” Stella’s cheeks have lost their “roses,” or “crimson weeds” or “vermilion dyes”; where redness of the cheeks often indicates shame, Stella’s color is “engrained” by Nature herself and is therefore the “height of honour.”

The imaginative part of the sonnet, relatively speaking, comes in the sestet, where the speaker ventures an answer to his own questions. The phrase “Galen’s adoptive sons,” meaning the doctors (the implication of “adoptive” being “quacks”), recalls various disparaging remarks about derivative poets (e.g., “Pindar’s apes”) in early sonnets such as 3 and 15. Like those poets, these physicians “take wrong ways” (Sonnet 15) by sticking to the “beaten way” of medical practice and laying the blame for Stella’s paleness on—surprise!—her sickness. But with no medical training, the speaker by instinct (“feeling proof”) knows what the actual answer must be, and gives it in the final three lines. It is perhaps not the cleveresr or most plausible sort of poetic trick, but it does at last and at least provide a positive spin for the illness. Love (Cupid or Eros) needed a fresh, white sheet of paper on which to write anew his “story of delight” with a fresh supply of “reddest ink” provided by his mother Venus.

Next time (weekend of June 10): Sonnet 103
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 101

Stella is sick, and in that sickbed lies
Sweetness, that breathes and pants as oft as she;
And grace, sick too, such fine conclusions tries
That sickness brags itself best graced to be.
Beauty is sick, but sick in so fair guise
That in that paleness beauty’s white we see;
And joy, which is inseparate from those eyes,
Stella now learns (strange case!) to weep in thee.
Love moves thy pain, and like a faithful page,
As thy looks stir, runs up and down to make
All folks pressed at thy will thy pain to assuage;
Nature with care sweats for her darling’s sake,
Knowing worlds pass, ere she enough can find
Of such heaven stuff, to clothe so heavenly mind.

I suggest you click here to open the sonnet in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to it as you read on through the analysis.

The poem opens with a plain factual statement, suggesting this is a situational sonnet. But Stella’s sickness, as we might expect, is adapted to the purpose of singing her praise. Her weakened body embodies the qualities of sweetness, grace*, beauty (in perhaps the most telling example of the technique, the natural pallor of ill health becomes the “white” or fair complexion of conventional Renaissance beauty), and joy—which Stella is strangely compelled to weep in, because her flashing eyes are unable to do otherwise. This exercise fills the octave.

The sestet shifts the perspective from these abstract qualities of the patient to two abstract attendants—divided between the two tercets—love and nature. The first clause in line nine is best understood as an inverted structure; i.e., in “frontwards” English it means “Thy pain moves love,” and thus metaphorically love is a very busy and attentive nurse, or more literally, love is inspired in everyone who sees Stella’s distress, so that they are “pressed” into duty caring for her.

Nature is of course the progenitor of all that is beautiful, and thus it follows that Stella is her favorite child, and not only favorite but irreplaceable. If she should lose this one, “worlds [will] pass” before she’ll have the right combination of materials to make such another. “Heaven stuff” presumably means either “heavenly stuff” or the “stuff of heaven,” and this is requisite to make such a soul (“mind”) as Stella’s. So Stella is bound to receive the most careful of care from both friends and nature, since she is simply too valuable to lose.

* There is some obscure language in lines 3 and 4, but the general point is the same: to “try conclusions” is to enter into a contest or test of skill; Stella’s grace, encountering sickness with her, gets the better of sickness, so that sickness itself can brag of being “graced”; i.e., endowed with grace.

Next time (weekend of May 27): Sonnet 102
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 100

O tears, no tears, but rain from beauty’s skies,
Making those lilies and those roses grow,
Which aye most fair, now more than most fair show,
While graceful pity beauty beautifies:
O honeyed sighs, which from that breast do rise,
Whose pants do make unspilling cream to flow,
Winged with whose breath, so pleasing zephyrs blow,
As can refresh the hell where my soul fries:
O plaints, conserved in such a sugared phrase
That eloquence itself envies your praise,
While sobbed-out words a perfect music give:
Such tears, sighs, plaints, no sorrow is but joy;
Or if such heavenly signs must prove annoy,
All mirth farewell, let me in sorrow live.

I suggest you click here to open the sonnet in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to it as you read on through the analysis.

The focus shifts abruptly to Stella, in what Shakespeare’s Rosalind would call a “more coming-on disposition”—or at least in visible sorrow at the plight that separates her from the speaker’s love. Her tears, sighs, and plaints (subjects of first quatrain, second quatrain, and first half of sestet, respectively) are all hyperbolized, and imagined as promising signs of her hidden love.

The first quatrain manages a “super-superlative” in three of its four lines (1,3, and 4). The tears are more than tears, a “rain” from Plato’s realm of “beauty” watering the red and white flowers of Stella’s cheeks. Those flowers are always (“aye”) “most fair,” but now (in defiance of the meaning of “most”) become “more than most fair,” and in a typical Sidney antanaclasis, this show of “pity” by a “beauty” makes beauty still more beautiful.

Though we move on from super-superlatives, the conceit of the second quatrain is even more over the top. Sighs, of course, rise from the lungs, which means from the “breast” of a beautiful woman. Thus they represent both “cream” and such cool breezes (“so pleasing zephyrs”) that the speaker is “refresh[ed].” But wait—let me state that as extremely as I can: the speaker’s “soul” which “fries” in “hell” is refreshed. This may be over the top, but it is also the crux of the poem. The previous sonnets have made clear how tormented the speaker’s thoughts are, and a small indication of sympathy or pity from Stella can go a long way in relief.

Lines 9-11 return to a more conventional hyperbole in covering the “plaints,” i.e., the actual words Stella uses to express sympathy. These are eloquent beyond eloquence, and (again evoking Platonic ideals) “perfect music.”

The final tercet is, predictably, a summing up and a mild paradoxical twist. Such clear signs of sorrow on Stella’s part bring joy to the speaker; OR, if they must be regarded negatively (“prove annoy”), then the speaker will foreswear “all mirth” to bask in such sorrow.

Next time (weekend of May 13): Sonnet 101
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 99

When far spent night persuades each mortal eye,
To whom nor art nor nature granteth light,
To lay his then mark-wanting shafts of sight,
Closed with their quivers, in sleep’s armoury;
With windows ope then most my mind doth lie,
Viewing the shape of darkness and delight,
Takes in that sad hue, which with the inward night
Of his mazed powers keeps perfect harmony.
But when birds charm, and that sweet air, which is
Morn’s messenger, with rose-enameled skies,
Calls each wight to salute the flower of bliss:
In tomb of lids then buried are mine eyes,
Forced by their lord, who is ashamed to find
Such light in sense, with such a darkened mind.

I suggest you click here to open the sonnet in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to it as you read on through the analysis.

Reading note: in the phrase “mazed powers” (line 8) each word is a single syllable, and since “mazed” is a bit of a mouthful for an unstressed syllable, we should slow down for a spondee in that foot.

This poem is an elaboration on the final three lines of the previous one, with night and dawn here more neatly and evenly divided between octave and sestet. In the octave the conceit of “darting” eyes—eyes as arrows—so often applied to Stella in this sonnet sequence, is used more generically for all mortals looking about. Since these arrows (“shafts”) lack a target (“want” a “mark”) when all is dark, they should be locked up in the “armoury” of sleep. But, as he said in the previous sonnet, the speaker has got it backwards. His eyes are “windows” rather than arrows, and he keeps them open to the night because its darkness is in “perfect harmony” with his own “inward night” of melancholic thoughts. The “mazeful solitariness” of Sonnet 96 returns as “mazed powers” here, with the same double meaning.

With the fulcrum—in the conventional place, after the octave—dawn comes, and again the speaker has it backwards, as he indicated in the final lines of the previous sonnet. In a more leisurely full sestet, he spells out for three lines the “normal” response to the dawn (“each wight” is called “to salute the flower of bliss”); and for the final three lines, his own perverse behavior: to at last close his eyes, blocking the light to his “darkened mind.” (In the final line, “sense,” as in the sense of sight, is the antithesis of “mind.”) Thus ends what we might understand as a single night of misery spread out over the last four sonnets.

Next time (weekend of April 29): Sonnet 100
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.