Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 7

When Nature made her chief work, Stella’s eyes,
In color black why wrapped she beams so bright?
Would she in beamy black, like painter wise,
Frame daintiest luster mixed of shades and light?
Or did she else that sober hue devise
In object best to knit and strength our sight,
Lest, if no veil these brave gleams did disguise,
They, sun-like, should more dazzle than delight?
Or would she her miraculous power show,
That, whereas black seems beauty’s contrary,
She even in black doth make all beauties flow?
Both so, and thus: she, minding Love should be
Placed ever there, gave him this mourning weed
To honor all their deaths, who for her bleed.

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: meter is preserved by eliding “mirac’lous” in line 9 and “e’en” in line 11.

Did someone say “heavenly beams, infusing hellish pain”?  The Petrarchan cliché of the previous poem becomes the subject of this one!

Typical of Sidney’s sonnets, this combines standard Italian form with the logic of an English sonnet*: in this case, three blocks (4-4-3 in length) of “questions” and a 3-line “answer.”  To break that down a bit further, it’s one “real” question (basically, “What was Nature up to?”) and then three possible “answers,” in the form of the questions “Is it Answer A?” or “Is it Answer B?” or “Is it Answer C?”  The answer is, first, “All of the above . . . ,” and then, in a final twist, “. . . plus Answer D as well.”  So I will use these brief paraphrases for the labels of my outline below.

The Real Question (lines 1-2).  Stella’s flashing eyes (with which we will become very well acquainted in these sonnets!) are, paradoxically, dark in hue, or in Renaissance parlance, black.  This is all the more paradoxical because darkness is stereotypically disfavored in female features at this time (a stereotype oft honored in the breach, of course), and generally symbolizes evil.  Perhaps this is also the place to mention that female beauty in this time was regarded as a combination of the work of “Nature” and the added work of “Art,” with Nature’s work of course the more highly prized (at least in poetry) of the two.  So why did Nature do this very strange thing?

Answer A (3-4).  Perhaps she has been studying with the Dutch and Italian masters (“painter wise”), and thus understands that to make black shine (“luster”; note that the oldest sense of “dainty” is “excellent” or “precious”), it is necessary to mix light and dark paint in the same space.

Answer B (5-8).  Or perhaps Nature was concerned for the well-being of the rest of us, and needed to support (“knit”) and strengthen our sight in order to prepare it for something that might otherwise overwhelm it; so the darkness in Stella’s flashing eyes is like sunglasses on a particularly bright day, or perhaps the smoked glass by which one’s eyes are fortified to view a solar eclipse.  We can, of course, take “delight” in sunlight if we are properly protected against its power.

Answer C (9-11).  Or could it be that Nature, the artist, is just showing off, like a chess player playing blindfolded, or Mozart playing a long, complex piece from memory that he had heard only once.  In this case the “miraculous” feat is to capture “all beauties” in the very opposite of beauty, blackness.

The real answer: all (“both”) of the above, plus one more. (Note that, until fairly recently, “both” could be used with a series of more than two, as in Coleridge’s “He prayeth well who loveth well, /Both man and bird and beast.”)  The “all of the above” is disposed of in a single poetic foot, and then we get the additional answer, which is that our initial paradox is doubled back on itself: there is indeed an “evil” side to this darkness, even as it is framed in hyperbolic admiration.  Nature wanted the personified Love to take up residence in Stella’s eyes (a direct anticipation of the tale to be told in Sonnet 8), but if he lives there, he must wear black (“mourning weed”), out of respect for all the lovers who have “died” for her (in that age of battles, duels, and executions, “bleed” was a common synecdoche for “die”). This too is a shadow of things to come in the love saga of our speaker.

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

Next time (weekend of November 2): Sonnet 8

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

 

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 6

Some lovers speak, when they their Muses entertain,
Of hopes begot by fear, of wot not what desires,
Of force of heavenly beams, infusing hellish pain,
Of living deaths, dear wounds, fair storms and freezing fires.
Someone his song in Jove, and Jove’s strange tales, attires,
Broidered with bulls and swans, powdered with golden rain;
Another, humbler, wit to shepherd’s pipe retires,
Yet hiding royal blood full oft in rural vein.
To some a sweetest plaint a sweetest style affords,
While tears pour out his ink, and sighs breathe out his words,
His paper pale despair, and pain his pen doth move.
I can speak what I feel, and feel as much as they,
But think that all the map of my state I display,
When trembling voice brings forth that I do 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.

This poem is the second of six in hexameters (or alexandrines) in the sequence, and it shares its full rhyme scheme with only two other sonnets (81 and 87), neither of which is in hexameters; so it could claim structural uniqueness.  Perhaps befitting the subject—as in Sonnet 1, the interplay of the speaker with other poets—its form is “hybridized” in multiple ways:  quite typical of Sidney is the midway break in the sestet, creating the sense of English-sonnet logic in an Italian sonnet; much less typical (it happens in only six sonnets) is a rhyme reversal in the octave whereby two “outie” quatrains become a palindromic “innie” octave:  ABABBABA.

The sonnet parallels the message of Sonnet 1, but with a difference.  Where the speaker had sought to imitate other poets before, he simply catalogs them in a lightly mocking tone now.  And in the final three lines, where he had been “helpless,” and then surprised by the muse, he is now (despite the “trembling voice” reflecting the weakness of his position in the would-be relationship) confident and assertive about what he is doing poetically.

The thrust of the poem—the chronic Sidney paradox of a highly artificial poem decrying artificiality and embracing simplicity—is clear enough, and its parallel examples of overwrought love poetry can no doubt be appreciated without a gloss.  Nevertheless, Duncan-Jones’s notes on the actual poets or poems being mocked are a lagniappe worth enjoying, so I will paraphrase here:  The first quatrain relates to Petrarch and his imitators.  The phrase “wot not what” translates Petrarch’s fondness for “I know not what” constructions introducing hyperboles, and the culminating oxymoron in the series of four in line 4, “freezing fires,” had become a Petrarchan cliché.  (I need hardly add that Sidney himself is, with no intended irony, guilty of everything mentioned in this quatrain at some point in this sequence.)  Ronsard (an early champion of alexandrines) was the most notable of many poets comparing their love to the metamorphoses (bull, swan, shower of gold) of Jove (7-8), while lines 9-10 may reflect the vogue of pastoral poetry both in England(e.g., Spenser) and on the continent.  (Duncan-Jones does not specifically gloss the idea in line 8 of “hiding royal blood . . . in rural vein”—a witty combination of near-miss repetition with royal/rural and the double meaning of “vein”—but this harks back to Virgil’s Eclogues, and may be most familiar to modern readers in plays such as Green’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, or Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Winter’s Tale.)  For lines 9-11 (e.g., “sweetest plaint” and “sweetest style”), Duncan-Jones offers: “Perhaps a reference to the dolce stil nuovo of the Italian poets of the fourteenth century” (358).

This is quite an amalgam of other poets’ (presumably insincere) gambits, replacing the long and frustrating process of attempting to steal from them, described in Sonnet 1. All are of course treated as elaborate ways to avoid a direct statement of a simple truth, rather than what Sidney himself would defend as the purpose of indirection and metaphor in poetry: love is a complex and multi-dimensional emotion, and can stand to be looked at from many angles.  If “I do Stella love” were indeed the entire “map” of Sidney’s “state” (an apt metaphor in that great age of exploration and map-making, as well as a pun on the word “state”*), there would be no place for 108 sonnets and eleven songs on the subject!  The blunt simplicity is but one of many moods.

*Sidney certainly intended the phrase as a metaphor, but he may have here invented the abstract sense of “map” as the plan or layout of one’s mental state; this very line is given as the OED’s first example for that sense.

Next time (weekend of October 19): Sonnet 7

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