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.

2 thoughts on “Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 2

  1. Okay, you’ve got me hooked. Went to the OED for “dribbed” which has a specific meaning in archery: a shot that goes wide of the mark, or falls short. So, Love’s shot is NOT mis-aimed, in Sidney’s case, but neither is it sudden. (?) Or, perhaps he’s using “dribbed” as a generic slur against all of Love’s arrows? These sonnets are rewarding to the reader! The “footstep” is haunting, as you say.

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