Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 3

Let dainty wits cry on the sisters nine,
That, bravely masked, their fancies may be told;
Or Pindar’s apes flaunt they in phrases fine,
Enam’ling with pied flowers their thoughts of gold;
Or else let them in statelier glory shine,
Ennobling new-found tropes with problems old;
Or with strange similes enrich each line,
Of herbs or beasts, which Ind or Afric hold.
For me, in sooth, no Muse but one I know;
Phrases and problems from my reach do grow,
And strange things cost too dear for my poor sprites.
How then?  even thus: in Stella’s face I read
What love and beauty be; then all my deed
But copying is, what in her Nature writes.

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.

Written in the same vein as Sonnet 1, this poem, like 1, makes use of the poetic fancies that it mocks.  Thus, we read of “sisters nine,” “Enam’ling with pied flowers,” and “herbs or beasts which Ind or Afric hold,” as practices  which (sarcastically) “enrich each line,” while their less-than-original poets are described as “Pindar’s apes” (i.e., imitators).  Lines 5 to 8, while parallel to the first four in describing the third and fourth problematic practices, take us to an opposite extreme from imitation (hence “Or else”), two forms of excessive new-fangledness. The first (lines 5-6) is using fancy rhetorical “tropes” to dress up the same old “problems” (i.e., subject matter), while the second refers to the Euphuean barbarism of drawing strange or forced comparisons with nature.  And as with Sonnet 1 there is irony here that Sidney hopes we won’t notice, since he is guilty of every one of these practices himself—though every artist needs to be aware of the outer limits of the current fashions or trends in his own art.  It is also good to remind ourselves that “artificiality” was considered a good quality by the Elizabethans, and was embraced fulsomely even in the poetic discussion of “natural” passion and sincerity.*

Structurally, the octave is a series of four equal and parallel phrases saying what we are to “let” the lesser poets do—“let” being in this case both the verb “allow” and a conventional way of posing a hypothetical, roughly equivalent to “Let’s say that some poets do this: ______________ etc.” Then the fulcrum comes in the expected place for an Italian sonnet, at the start of the ninth line as the speaker offers the contrast of himself, with the added double-meaning emphasis of “in sooth” (i.e., the mere expletive intensifier on the one hand, but the literal meaning on the other: his writing, unlike theirs, is actually true). In a mere three lines, he strips himself bare of everything it took eight lines to describe before, so sound is admirably imitating sense here, and the poem’s second full end stop further forces that comparison. So now there is a “sub-fulcrum” and line 12 is a perfect echoing response of line 9: “For me, in sooth” = “How then? Even [pronounced e’en] thus”; “no muse but one” = “in Stella’s face” (this of course is the most crucial echo); and, “I know” = “I read.” The final two lines have similar significant parallels, but in a chiasmic**, or crossing, pattern.  The “frontwards” clause “What love and beauty be” is perfectly matched at the other end by the partly inverted clause “what in her nature writes” (again emphasizing that Stella requires no fancy ornamentation), while (focusing on the poet’s job) the “frontwards” “then all my deed” is echoed by the inverted “but copying is.”  We might be reminded here of Keats’s famous dictum: “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body.” The speaker of this poem is professing such Negative Capability and such self-effacement, but of course with considerable irony since Stella would essentially not “exist” at all without the considerable poetic efforts and, yes, the artifice, of Philip Sidney.

* Duncan-Jones’s note on the octave offers help on the actual writers involved in the trends being mocked: imitation of Pindar and other ancients: Ronsard and other Pleiade writers; rhetorical elaboration: Thomas Watson, Hekatompathia (1582); and the exotic similes: of course Lyly, Euphues, in prose, but also employed by Petrarch and all his imitators.  Finally she notes: “Sidney himself uses all four kinds of elaboration in [The Old Arcadia] poems; rhetorical and logical complexity is the only one used persistently in A&S.”

**Chiasmus, named for the Greek letter chi (X), is a pattern of parallel statements or phrases in which the elements are in reverse order (so that if you drew lines connecting the individual elements that were parallel, you would draw an X). So, crudely:
I went to the fair,
Then home came I.
Or more elegantly, by Keats:
Out went the taper
she hurried in.
In theory, you could have a chiasmus based on sound only:
Bam! went the
sea-rent dam.

 Next time (weekend of September 7): Sonnets 4 and 10

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


Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 2

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 2

Not at first sight, nor with a dribbed shot,
Love gave the wound which while I breathe will bleed;
But known worth did in mine of time proceed,
Till by degrees it had full conquest got.
I saw, and liked; I liked, but loved not;
I loved, but straight did not what love decreed;
At length to love’s decrees I, forced, agreed,
Yet with repining at so partial lot.
Now even that footstep of lost liberty
Is gone, and now like slave-born Muscovite
I call it praise to suffer tyranny;
And now employ the remnant of my wit
To make myself believe that all is well,
While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.

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.

This sonnet is, on the one hand, one of the simplest, commonest Petrarchan clichés—love  has forced me to take leave of my wits and reason, but what can I do?—and, on the other, so clever and witty as to run the risk of being downright obscure in its ambiguity.

Let’s start with what is most clear and accessible.  The sonnet’s idea is laid out in a 3-step outline, similar to the way Shakespeare makes a case in three quatrains, except in this Italian sonnet the third section fills the sestet, and is further subdivided 3-3, Sidney’s typical pattern (though, as discussed in my first post, with the “hybrid” couplet again evoking the Shakespearean pattern). The outline reads: 1. General description of the problem; 2. shifting to “I” as the repeated subject of active verbs, a specific and succinct summary of how the speaker got to where he is; and 3. Where he is “now,” subdivided (a) how he is characterized (a slave enamored of his own slavery); and (b) what he does about it (tries to rationalize).

Three of the most striking, yet accessible, devices in the poem:

First, the over-punctuation in the second quatrain (to be fair, some of it introduced by modern editing), forcing a halting rhythm that imitates a man being dragged into something against his will.  Notice, for example, breaks after each of the first three feet in line 5, and then, when the two-syllable “lovèd” starts to make a smoother (and more optimistic) two-foot phrase, it comes crashing to earth with “not.” Or the even more disruptive break in the middle of a would-be iambic foot in line 7: if (by contrast) “I forced” were a simple subject-verb phrase, the line would read simply dĕ crées Ĭ fórced, but in this case, with “forced” as a past-participial postnominal modifier, the break forces a virtual spondee, dĕ crées Í, fórced; reader and speaker are, in effect, both stopped in their tracks at the same time.

Second, the wonderfully quiet-but-dramatic transition from the end of the octave to the start of the sestet. In line 8 the speaker retains some shred of his dignity as he comes to the conclusion of the dragging process: “Yet with repining at so partial lot.”  Imagine here a man being locked in a cell, while still protesting his innocence to his jailer. But apparently, the jailer ignores him, clangs the bars shut, and stalks off down an echoing hallway. The next poignant thought is: “Now even that footstep of lost liberty is gone.” The prisoner is on his own to adjust to the terms of his imprisonment, and typically (like the stereotypical Russian under the Tsars) he will find a way to embrace it. The suddenly concrete image of a footstep following the entirely abstract description of lines 5-8 is poetry at its greatest.

Third, the humorous reference to the “remnant” of the speaker’s wit (line 12), when he has not yet explicitly mentioned losing his wit—an almost homespun joke, but also a clever and understated way to “double” the meaning contained within an otherwise merely functional lead-in to an idea.

So where is the difficulty and the obscurity? Lines 3 and 14. The problems are not closely related, and do not seriously undercut the simple pattern discussed above, so I will just discuss them in isolation:

Line 3: The subject phrase “known worth” is itself a bit of a pauser, and may require the footnote information that this is an autobiographical reference to the fact that Sidney knew a great deal about Penelope Devereux before he considered her a love interest, but even without that knowledge, the phrase is a reasonably clear opposite to love at “first sight” or the “dribbed” (i.e., mistaken or misfired) shot of Cupid’s arrow mentioned in line 1. But the real puzzler is the adverbial phrase in the middle of the verb phrase, “in mine of time.” The first instinct, given all the self-preoccupation here, might be to think “mine” is the possessive meaning “my wound,” as in: “Love breaks some hearts, but has utterly smashed mine.”  But that instinct can be quickly dismissed: looking backward, the “wound” in line 2 was already “mine,” so saying “mine” in a “But” clause would be clumsy; and looking forward, the wound is certainly not the object of “had full conquest got”;  the speaker is, and indeed the wound is the instrument of the speaker’s defeat. The word “conquest,” in fact, is the key clue here. Conquest of a fortified city was as likely to be attempted by “mining” (= tunneling under the wall, hence our modern abstract term “undermining”) as by direct assault, though the latter was certainly more honorable and more likely to be admired. This is part of the point for the dashing soldier Sidney: Love has, in effect, gotten to him by “underhanded,” sneaky means, when he wasn’t properly armed against it.  So the “in mine” part of the phrase has nothing to do with a possessive, but refers to the method by which Love has used “known worth” to gain the “conquest.”  But that still leaves the seemingly simple phrase “of time,” which to me is just as hard to sort out.  Is it connected to “proceed,” meaning something as simple as “in time proceed”? If so, why not say “in time proceed,” since the meter is the same and “of time” is not idiomatic for “in time”?  Is it, alternatively, connected to “mine,” so that time is the entity that is actually being mined? That, too, does not make sense, since time is surely a “winner” not a “loser” in the construction that follows.  So let’s try this: it’s connected to “mine,” but the “of” indicates ownership, so mining is Time’s instrument for furthering the cause of Love; now that makes more sense, does it not?  But it is hardly an intuitive reading!

Line 14: The general sense of the final couplet is a paradox similar to Shakespeare’s “I do believe her though I know she lies,” only here the idea is “I do believe me though I know I’m crazy.”  The somewhat hard part is the apparent paradox-within-a-paradox of “While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.”  I think it is safe to say that “feeling skill” is an oxymoron, reflecting the same clash between passion and personal control that is a running theme of the whole sonnet sequence. But what, exactly, is the speaker doing with his passion-affected intellect?; what does it mean to “paint my hell”? There are at least two distinct possibilities, and in this case I think we do well to accept both, and thus enrich the poem’s meaning through ambiguity; as Benedick says, “There’s a double meaning in that!” Duncan-Jones’s endnote opts for Hamlet’s understanding of “paint” as giving “a false colouring or complexion to,” or in the crude American political vernacular, “putting lipstick on a pig.” So in that sense, the speaker admits to using optimistic descriptions of a love relationship to “pretty up” what is really a hellish state he has gotten into. It could similarly be said that line 5 of Sonnet 1, “I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe” refers to putting false make-up on an ugly face (blackness being equated with ugliness in Renaissance-speak). But just as clearly, that line occurs in the midst of a description of the struggle to create art, so it carries the ambiguity of “paint” as “create art.” The verb is used in this sense in several other sonnets (70, 81, 93, 98), unambiguously so in 81 (for example), where the speaker seeks to “paint” poetically a kiss he has received from Stella. So, the “simple” end of what is already a complex idea—“I am deluding myself and putting a false front on a hellish situation”—is given still more complexity, depth, and meaning with the layered suggestions (extending Sonnet 1’s role as “preface” to a lengthy sonnet sequence) that (1) the hellish situation is about to be turned into a work of art; and (2) (as Marlowe, Milton, and other writers have variously affirmed), “hell” is a place between a pair of human ears, and the “hell” the speaker has described himself as being reluctantly dragged into is in fact a hell of his own making.

Next time (weekend of August 24): Sonnet 3

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


(NOTE: The first two entries in this blog were first posted elsewhere, so I have included them together in my first post on this site.)


Sir Philip Sidney had a short life (1554-1586, 32 years), crowded with incident. He was a very handsome, talented, pedigreed, and well-connected aristocrat and courtier—his uncle was the Earl of Leicester, for example—and even a Member of Parliament at the precocious age of 18. He had the best education the age could afford, having gone first to Shrewsbury School and then to Oxford. He would likely have learned figures of speech as tools of rhetoric, but sonnet-writing would probably not have been an academic discipline. Both at university, though, and in subsequent travels on the continent as soldier and diplomat, he had ample exposure to the poets of the time, and he moved in literary circles; Sonnet 1 of Astrophil and Stella freely acknowledges that he has emulated others in developing his own poetic voice:

Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburnt brain.

In 1575, the Sidney family accompanied Queen Elizabeth on her famous visit to Kenilworth, and the trip afterward included a stop at the home of young Penelope Devereux—13 or 14 at the time—with whom Philip was immediately smitten with a love that lasted the rest of his life. A marriage was arranged, but in a circumstance straight out of renaissance comedy, Penelope’s father died before the deal was completed, and her new guardian arranged a more mercenary marriage, against her will, to Robert, Lord Rich, in 1581. At about the same time, Sidney began the sonnet sequence which was published after his death with the title of Astrophil and Stella. Stella is quite definitely identified with Penelope (there are puns on her husband’s suggestive name), and if the sonnets are autobiographical beyond that (always a tricky assumption), they suggest that Sidney tried to persuade her to become his mistress, and she stoutly refused, in spite of her clear and continuing affection for him. The name Stella has overt symbolic reference to the translation “star.” The name Astrophil (“star-lover”) was inserted in the title after the fact, and only appears in the Eighth and Ninth Songs, which are in the pastoral mode. It is conventional to refer to “the speaker” in discussing a lyric poem, since the speaker and the poet are not necessarily the same.  But in these poems the “speaker” is pretty reliably the Philip Sidney who is in love with Penelope Devereux Rich.

Sidney’s sonnets may lack the depth of thought and emotion captured almost uniquely by Shakespeare in his sonnets, but they are perfect little gems of craft built around fairly conventional ideas. If Shakespeare is Michelangelo,Sidney is Andrea del Sarto; if Shakespeare is Mozart, Sidney is Haydn. Shakespeare is constantly somehow transcending the “received” ideas that are the basis of his poems; Sidney is a perfect textbook of the literary and philosophical conventions of his time, done up with high art.  I like to say that a great sonnet is a small piece of art of great value, but available to anyone to own.  Shakespeare might have more of his sonnets hanging in the Louvre or the Hermitage, but any collector would be proud to have a Sidney in her own collection.

Astrophil and Stella consists of 108 sonnets (the main focus of this blog) interrupted irregularly by eleven “songs” of varying meters. The sonnet sequence seems generally chronological, and has at least some autobiographical reference to Sidney’s futile fascination with Penelope Devereux, initially betrothed, later married, to Lord Rich. She carries the name of Stella in the sequence, with overt symbolic reference to the translation “star.”

Although in earlier collections Sidney had experimented with other forms, the sonnets in Astrophil and Stella are all Italian, which means divided by rhyme scheme (and usually punctuation) into an octave and a sestet (eight lines and six); as opposed to the English (or Shakespearean) sonnet, divided into three quatrains and a couplet. The typical “logic” of an Italian sonnet is: octave = “set up the problem” and sestet = “deal with it,” while the English sonnet allows a sort of cat’s teasing of the “problem” in three different (possibly parallel, possibly contrastive) stabs, followed by a neat and clever wrap-up in the last two lines.

Sidney has two distinctive variations on the Italian pattern:

1. By far his favorite rhyme scheme in the sestet (after whatever combination of A’s and B’s in the octave) is CDCDEE, which he uses in 82 of the 108 sonnets (to which I should add 3 instances of CDDCEE).  This creates, in effect, a “hybrid” sonnet form, in which the reader has both the “logic” of an Italian sonnet and the satisfying “punch line” of a Shakespearean couplet, wrapping things up.

2.  Adding further complexity, upwards of eighty per cent of the time Sidney subdivides his sestet into two three-line ideas, with a “strong” break (semi-colon or stronger) after line eleven. Because he does this so regularly, I will use the term tercet (= three-line stanza) to refer to each half of the sestet, even though by strictest definition a tercet should have a rhyme scheme of its own.  By the same logic, I will often speak of the two quatrains that make up the octave.  Thus the typical Sidney sonnet divides, first, into two parts (octave and sestet), and then again, into four parts (two quatrains and two tercets). There are, of course, exceptions, where either octave or sestet is not divided in the middle by punctuation or logic.

Despite the uniformity of all Italian sonnets (even sonnet 89, which illustrates the repetitive monotony of days and nights passing in Stella’s absence by rhyming only the words “night” and “day,” takes the 8-and-6 structure of  ABBAABBA ABABAB), and some obvious preferences for rhyming in the octave (ABBAABBA 75 times) and the sestet (as mentioned, CDCDEE 82 times), it is rare to have exactly the same full rhyme scheme for more than a few sonnets in a row, and there are actually fifteen different rhyme schemes employed in the sonnets of the sequence. There are also (appropriately) six sonnets in which Sidney uses hexameter lines rather than the conventional pentameters. (These are 1, 6, 8, 76, 77, and 102.)  On the other hand, I don’t think there is ever a feminine rhyme (where an unstressed eleventh syllable is added at the end of the line and both of the last two syllables rhyme; e.g., flý iňg and dý iňg) in the sonnets of Astrophil and Stella —if I discover otherwise, I’ll let you know!

Quatrains, like belly-buttons, can be “innies” or “outies.”  The ABBA scheme, which seems to be circling back on itself, is an “innie.” The ABAB scheme, which keeps moving forward to what follows, is an “outie.” Sidney has a fairly strong preference for the “innie,” using it in more than 70% of his quatrains.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 1

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she (dear she) might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know;
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain;
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburnt brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”

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.

This sonnet is paradoxically the most iconic of all Sidney’s poems (the one more readers are familiar with than any other), and not really a sonnet at all—at least, if you use the definition most of us rely on, “fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter.”  (However, if you use the more liberal and practical definition, “a poem that looks like a box,” it’s just fine—and it is, after all, the first entry in the first English sonnet sequence in history.)  The poem, of course, has 28 extra syllables, an elaborate representation of the pun in line 11, “And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way,” the iambic hexameters being the preferred “alexandrines” of the French poets; and “in my way” having both the neutral sense of “on my road (or journey)” and “stopping me from getting to the love poetry I want to write.”  Line 11 happens to be the final line of the statement of the “problem,” before the 3-line climactic ending, and the fulcrum between it and line 12 is arguably stronger than the more predictable one (for an Italian sonnet) before the “But” that begins line 9.  With the pun on “feet” and the use of alexandrines, the poet announces the arrival of a clever, sophisticated voice; while with the quotation from the muse in the final line, he announces that that voice will be governed by passion, thus illustrating the oxymoronic phrase “feeling skill” in Sonnet 2.

With the luxury of added elbow room in the lines, the poem proceeds by four cumulative and climactic stages containing but one instance of an active verb with the speaker as subject—“I sought” at the start of line 5—and fittingly that one forward motion is not toward, but away from, his actual objective.  Otherwise we are bogged in –ing words that suggest stagnation on the speaker’s part, even as the poem’s logic lurches forward. He is loving, studying, turning (others’ leaves), (his words come) halting, (because they were) wanting, biting (his pen), and beating (himself) without getting anywhere at all, and then the “muse” speaks to him in direct, imperative, monosyllabic language: “Fool . . . look in thy heart, and write”—language that, incidentally, flies in the face of all the contemporary poetic principles (including Sidney’s own) and anticipates English Romanticism by about 200 years.

Each of the quatrains in the octave, plus the first tercet of the sestet, ends in a climactic phrase, but these phrases (and the passages they conclude) grow increasingly lame and frustrated. The first quatrain has an entirely forward-moving, optimistic development; the speaker has a plan, culminating in the heavenly dream of obtaining Stella’s “grace”—a euphemism out of the courtly love tradition, meaning the love-object lady (imagined like God showering blessings on a sinner) actually bends to the suitor’s will. In the second, he seeks to put his plan in action, and there is still a hopefulness about the activity (looking for poetic models to imitate), but basking in the light of others leads only to a “sunburnt brain.”  So the “But” that opens the sestet is not so much a u-turn as a confirmation of doubts already planted, and lines 9-11 are both a verbal picture of a man stumbling badly, and a ringing endorsement of nature and originality over “study,” imitation, and artifice.  And the concluding phrase here has lost even the intensity of “sunburnt brain”; now it is the stalled, hapless “still seemed but strangers in my way.”  The speaker has gone from a positive, reasoned plan of action at the outset to a state aptly named in the following line: helpless (and also, metaphorically, in the last stage of pregnancy and chewing on a pen, but never mind that!)

So the stage is set for perhaps the most effective and best known dangling modifier in all of poetry, as the speaker backs into the dramatic and sudden appearance of the muse, periodic in both the temporal and the grammatical senses. Oddly, for someone who studied so many classical models, the speaker has not invoked the muse, nor even prepared the syntax for her arrival; she comes unbidden and unexpected, and that’s the point, isn’t it?

Other odds and ends:

The use of “leaves” (pages) and “showers” (inspiration) in lines 7 and 8 conditions the reader’s mind for the imagery of refreshment and renewal, so “sunburnt brain” is a particularly harsh and frustrating letdown.

Lines 9-11 may at first appear a mixed metaphor, rather than one continuous conceit, but it is possible to read it as a series of free-association “handoffs.” The image of each new line may not precisely fit with that of the previous line, but it is suggested by it. “Invention’s stay” (the editorial choice to capitalize Sidney’s personifications helps a reader envision the imagery) suggests a crutch (or in the modern world, perhaps a walker), but it could also be a young child leaned on by the “halting” patient; so it is not far-fetched to have that same child, Invention (child of Nature), driven away by the cruel stepmother Study, presumably leaving the patient—the “halting words”—to fall in a heap at the speaker’s feet, the “feet” of others now only getting in his way.

Next time (weekend of August 10): Sonnet 2

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