Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 5

It is most true—that eyes are formed to serve
The inward light; and that the heavenly part
Ought to be king; from whose rules, who doth swerve,
Rebels to Nature, strive for their own smart.
It is most true, what we call Cupid’s dart,
An image is, which for ourselves we carve,
And, fools, adore in temple of our heart;
Till that good god make church and churchmen starve.
True, that true beauty Virtue is indeed,
Whereof this beauty can be but a shade,
Which elements with mortal mixture breed;
True, that on earth we are but pilgrims made,
And should in soul up to our country move;
True—and yet true, that I must Stella 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.

For thirteen lines and a word, this poem is a tidy little summary of commonplace wisdom of Sidney’s time—wisdom in which humanistic Christianity is heavily infused with Platonic ideas. The quality of Reason (discussed previously) is synonymous with the soul in St. Paul’s soul/body dichotomy, or with Plato’s eternal spirit of beauty temporarily inhabiting a mortal frame.  In the Platonic paradox, the world that is visible (audible, etc.) to our senses is actually a “shadow” of a permanent ideal form, often referred to as the “substance” related to (and contrasted with) that shadow; thus Dr. Faustus’s ironic line about the false images he is able to conjure, “These are but shadows, not substantial.”  In the Ptolemaic universe, the closest sphere to the central earth, the sphere of the moon, is a key boundary between that which is immortal and immutable—outside the sphere—and that which is mortal and constantly changing, within. Thus, John Donne’s put-down, “dull, sublunary lovers’ love,” for the affection that depends on proximity and the stimulation of the senses.  Ideally we understand that our time on earth is the briefest and least significant part of our existence, so we filter all the stimuli of  our senses through the higher wisdom of our Reason/Soul, and thus stay on the path of eternal bliss.  This is the systematic understanding that informs this poem—and is of course rejected curtly in the final line.

Structurally, the repeated words “It is most true” announce that the two quatrains of the octave are parallel statements of the same idea.  These simple words also carry the ambiguity of meaning both (in Austen’s clause) “It is a truth universally acknowledged” and the phrase “Granted that,” with which a speaker indicates that he will actually take the other side. The sense of the first quatrain (in keeping with the general scheme I described in the previous post) is that the senses (“eyes”) are supposed to be the servants of Reason (the “inward light”) or the soul (the “heavenly part”) which Nature dictates should be in charge. Rebelling (“swerving”) against that rule means one courts his own harm (“smart”).  Repeating the idea with a slightly more specific example, the second quatrain admits that passionate infatuation (“what we call Cupid’s dart”) is but an illusion (“image”) or shadow, and the “image” takes on the second meaning of “idol,” which we first “carve” for ourselves and then worship (“adore”) in the false “temple” of our hearts—again an admission (as in Sonnet 2) that the speaker’s torment and folly are self-inflicted. But this false religion is so pervasive that the “good god” (Cupid, so-called with sarcasm) is putting God (“church and churchmen”) out of business.

The sestet has Sidney’s characteristic three-three division,* and each tercet opens, like the quatrains, with the same phrase, in this case “True, that.”  The first one gives a Platonic rewording to the Christian idea just expressed: that Virtue (Reason’s twin, as discussed in the last entry) is the “true” (i.e., permanent, eternal) “beauty,” as opposed to Stella’s earthly and sublunary beauty, bred by impure “elements with mortal mixture” and thus a mere shadow (“shade”) of that ideal substance.  The second sums up the Platonic-Christian ideal that mortal existence is but a “pilgrimage” in which our souls prepare themselves for the return to the true home.

The little sermon draws near its perfectly symmetrical end; but suddenly, as if an impatient listener can stand it no more, and must get to the “bottom line,” the poem’s bottom line breaks in with one more “True,” when the pattern does not call for it. After the fulcrum phrase “and yet,” the word “true” is repeated one more time (two can play this game!) and the entire counter-sermon, based on no reason, no religion, no philosophy, but raw human passion instead, takes a mere three iambs to state in full: “that I must Stella love.”

* For the typical structure of a Sidney sonnet, see the “Introduction” post.

Next time (weekend of October 5): Sonnet 6

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnets 4 and 10 (considered together)

Virtue, alas, now let me take some rest;
Thou sett’st a bate between my will and wit;
If vain Love have my simple soul oppressed,
Leave what thou lik’st not, deal not thou with it.
Thy scepter use in some old Cato’s breast,
Churches or schools are for thy seat more fit:
I do confess—pardon a fault confessed—
My mouth too tender is for thy hard bit.
But if that needs thou wilt usurping be
The little reason that is left in me,
And still th’ effect of thy persuasions prove:
I swear, my heart such one shall show to thee,
That shrines in flesh so true a deity,
That, Virtue, thou thy self shalt be in love.

Reason, in faith thou art well served, that still
Would’st brabbling be with sense and love in me.
I rather wished thee climb the muses’ hill,
Or reach the fruit of Nature’s choicest tree,
Or seek heaven’s course, or heaven’s inside, to see:
Why should’st thou toil our thorny soil to till?
Leave sense, and those which sense’s objects be:
Deal thou with powers of thoughts, leave love to will.
But thou would’st needs fight both with love and sense,
With sword of wit giving wounds of dispraise,
Till downright blows did foil thy cunning fence:
For soon as they strake thee with Stella’s rays,
Reason, thou kneeled’st, and offered’st straight to prove
By reason good, good reason her to love.

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

Given that a sonnet is already among the more formulaic forms of poetry, this pair suggests a formula within the formula, for this particular progression of ideas.  To understand the parallels, one must first understand some basic Renaissance vocabulary.

For Sidney and his contemporaries, the human brain had a 3-part structure, (1) Reason, (2) Will, and (3) Appetite, corresponding neatly to angels, humans, and beasts on the Great Chain of Being, or, adjectivally, to the spiritual, mental, and physical parts of our decision-making process.  The will is where the decisions are actually made, and ideally the will is governed by Reason, the part of the human make-up which is led by the will of God (hence, a phrase such as Donne’s “Reason, God’s viceroy in me”).  But the will is constantly under rebellious assault by the appetite, physical passions and desires—what Freud would later label the id.  Other common synonyms for appetite are “sense” and “fancy,” while it should also be clear from this scheme that “Reason” and “Virtue” are effectively synonyms.

So, to describe the pattern piece by piece:  both poems open as if we have walked in in the middle of a quarrel; the speaker chastises Virtue/Reason for intervening in his life, and (in lines 3 and4 inboth cases) asks V/R to go away.  In 4.2 “wit” means wisdom and “bate” is a bar or obstacle, so apparently Virtue has been arguing that the speaker’s will is not acting wisely, and line 3 suggests (in a subjunctive “if” clause) why: “vain love” (the product of sense or appetite) has triumphed over “my simple soul” (weakly developed reason).  As if to illustrate the simple soul and weak wit, line 4 has ten single-syllable words, arranged awkwardly with a childlike petulance: “Leave what thou lik’st not, deal not thou with it.”

Lines 5 and 6 in sonnet 4 and 3 through 6 in sonnet 10 have to remind us of Donne (a few decades later), arguing with the sun in a very similar way in “Sun Rising”:

Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late schoolboys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the King will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices . . .

In all three cases—Donne with the physical image of the sun and Sidney with the abstract personifications Virtue and Reason—the speaker querulously suggests that his antagonist go meddle in something more appropriate to the antagonist’s essential purpose.  Virtue is more at home with old judges (Cato) or the discipline of churches and schools; Reason in the more refined air of Mount Helicon (line 3), the Garden of Eden (4), or again (5) in piety (“heaven’s course”), with which is partnered a precious form of “go hang yourself”—i.e., the implication of “seeing” Heaven’s “inside” by departing this world of the flesh.

In sonnet 4, the “bottom line” of the octave is the speaker’s confession that he is simply too weak for the life of virtue, and in line 7 he throws himself on the mercy of the stern judge.  Sonnet 10 is less defensive, turning the quarrel with Reason into the more general indictment, in lines 6-8, that begins with the brilliant line:

Why shouldst thou toil our thorny soil to till?

This is a poetry teacher’s gold mine, using alliteration, assonance, consonance, internal rhyme, and an almost unpronounceable sequence of four distinct consonants at the juncture of “should’st” and “thou,” to create a tongue-twister that verbally acts out the toil of tilling thorny soil.  The point of the three lines together is that love belongs to the realm of passion (“sense”), while Reason should strictly deal with “thoughts” only; revealingly, the speaker’s “will,” which in theory is constantly torn between the two, ends up squarely on the side of love and “sense.”

As we would expect in an Italian sonnet, the sestet (taken as a whole) is the “answer” or “reversal” of the problem in the octave; but in both cases the speaker uses the clever fighting gambit of seeming to surrender before springing the trap (“Well, I can see I’m not going to change your mind, so . . . I’ll tell ya what . . .”).  The first three lines in each sestet contain both the surrender and the set-up.  In sonnet 4, it’s all governed by an “if” (which promises that the other shoe will drop) leading up to the challenge to “prove” Virtue’s arguments—i.e., put them to the test. In sonnet 10, we move more directly to a brash prediction of Reason’s defeat in line 11.

The final three lines of these two sonnets are so similar and formulaic that they could almost trade locations, with the requisite name-swap.  To start with 4, for Virtue this is the ultimate subversion.  Virtue represents the spirit of God governing human flesh through the heart, but this “heart” has established such a fleshly “deity” that, so to speak, “God” himself will worship a false god!  The precisely parallel inversion in sonnet 10 has the added twist in the double meaning of “reason”: (1) “Capital R” Reason, the voice that is supposed to speak for God and control our decisions, and (2) “small r” reason, the specific explanation we give for any particular decision we make.  Again the point is that Stella’s fleshly beauty is of such power that it even subverts the spiritual realm and becomes (as in sonnet 4) a fleshly deity.

Thus—in a way that very much anticipates John Donne—we have moved quickly and logically from petulant quarrel to the hyperbolic compliment of a lady’s beauty that is fairly standard fare for love sonnets; but also (perhaps less predictably) to an almost cosmic rationalization for being governed by one’s passions rather than “by the book.”

Next time (weekend of September 21): Sonnet 5

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