Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 11

In truth, O Love, with what a boyish kind
Thou dost proceed in thy most serious ways:
That when the heaven to thee his best displays,
Yet of that best thou leav’st the best behind.
For, like a child that some fair book doth find,
With gilded leaves or colored vellum plays,
Or at the most, on some fine picture stays,
But never heeds the fruit of writer’s mind:
So when thou saw’st, in Nature’s cabinet,
Stella, thou straight look’st babies in her eyes,
In her cheek’s pit thou didst thy pit-fold set,
And in her breast bo-peep or couching lies,
Playing and shining in each outward part:
But, fool, seek’st not to get into her heart.

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 is a playful sonnet, which extends the common image of Cupid (or “Love”) as a child, a small boy. What Cupid is about, of course, is not at all child’s play, and thus the poem’s conceit of a boy who gets in over his head. This is the first of a trio of Cupid sonnets (or third in a set of five if we ignore Sonnet 10) and, despite Sidney’s characteristic playfulness with the theme, all these sonnets reflect rather darkly on Stella, or at least on the speaker’s prospects with her.

After the abstract generalization, in the first quatrain, that children typically overlook the “best” or most “serious” part of anything for the more entertaining or eye-catching part, the second quatrain introduces the conceit, actually in the form of an epic simile.* The “like” part is a child’s reaction to, perhaps, one of the geographic or proto-scientific tomes being published in Sidney’s time—fascination with the beautiful pictures but obliviousness to the writer’s deep ideas.

In the “so” part, the poet doubles down on poetic figures, comparing his simile to yet another metaphor appropriate to the age of exploration: the “cabinet” in which the cognoscenti displayed the curiosities of science or travel. In this case the cabinet belongs to no less a personage than Nature herself, and Stella is displayed there as a rarity in Nature’s collection. But of course the childish Cupid is drawn to her only as a toy. He sees “babies” (i.e., a child’s dolls) in her eyes. The dimples (“pits”) of her cheeks seem good only for bird-trapping (the customary form of hunting for the very young, and the sense is compounded by the rather obvious fact that setting “traps” is one of Cupid’s favorite games; see line 2 of sonnet 12); “pitfold” is a pitfall, or trap.

The final example of this obtuseness is extended over two lines and thus—inSidney’s characteristic division of the sestet into 3 and 3—more closely related to the poem’s final line. It is also more challenging to a modern reader: why “bo-peep” (uncapitalized)?; and what exactly does “bo-peep or couching lies” mean?

Before bo-peep became a name in a nursery rhyme, it described the baby game probably best known to moderns as peek-a-boo. The sense of “or” here is definitely obscure, but it was a common form of “ere,” which, among various other possibilities in the unstressed, “throwaway” position, could mean “now.” In the context of Cupid finding only childish things in Stella’s features, I think the phrase is best understood as either “now couching lies” or, perhaps better, “e’er [ever] couching lies.” In any case, the verbal phrase after the questionable word is a brilliant ambiguity, since “lies” can either be the innocent verb of which “bo-peep” is the subject, or, more damningly, it can be a noun, the direct object of “couching.” Either way, the overall sense is that the visible (“outward”) part of Stella’s breasts, “playing and shining,” plays a game of peek-a-boo with the observer, presumably the speaker himself. In both the erotic and the emotional senses, the speaker wants to see more, the latter because the exposed part of the breasts is the outward part of the body closest to the heart.

Which brings us to the late fulcrum, at the start of the poem’s bottom line, which reveals that all of these rarities of Nature are but “bo-peep” or “lies” after all, since there is no opening for Love in Stella’s heart. “Fool” is ostensibly addressed to Cupid, and consistent with the tone and theme of the rest of the poem; but we can’t help but recall the last line of Sonnet 1, where the muse used that word for the speaker/poet. SurelySidneyis thinking of his own folly and frustration here.

*an extended “like” or “as” phrase, followed by an extended “so,” characteristic of epic poetry or imitations; e.g. “As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly,/When they meet with an obstacle, up to the sky,/So up to the housetop his coursers they flew . . . etc.”

Next time (weekend of December 14): Sonnet 12

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


Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 9

Queen Virtue’s court, which some call Stella’s face,
Prepared by Nature’s choicest furniture,
Hath his front built of alabaster pure;
Gold is the covering of that stately place.
The door, by which, sometimes, comes forth her grace,
Red porphyr is, which lock of pearl makes sure;
Whose porches rich (which name of ‘cheeks’ endure)
Marble, mixed red and white, do interlace.
The windows now, through which this heavenly guest
Looks o’er the world, and can find nothing such
Which dare claim from those lights the name of ‘best,’
Of touch they are, that without touch doth touch,
Which Cupid’s self, from Beauty’s mind did draw:
Of touch they are, and poor I am their straw.

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.

Another conceit poem, and one that eventually rings all the changes of Sidney’s wit and verbal dexterity.  Insofar as we can trust the clichés of Petrarchan love poetry—which, we know from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun . . .”), is not much—we get something of a physical description of Stella (in fact, a very abbreviated blazon,* starting with the hair and not reaching the chin) in the palace of Queen Virtue: golden hair (“covering”), alabaster forehead (“front”), fiery red lips (“door”), pearl teeth (“lock”), and damasked (“mixed red and white”) cheeks (“porches,” and these alone are explicitly identified, perhaps to make sure we have not missed the whole point of the conceit).

All of this is conventional flattery, but unconventionally, Stella’s distinctive eyes are black (“touch”=touchstone, a type of black basalt), and the entire sestet is devoted to a careful and clever analysis of them.

First, we have already been introduced, in line 1 and again in line 5, to this exalted personage “Queen Virtue,” who lives here. Line 5 tells us that “her grace” steps out the front door (i.e., passes through Stella’s lips) “sometimes.” “Sometimes” is hardly a romantic or poetic adverb, and it is a significant qualifier of all this flattery.  In the real world of the poet, “her grace” refers simply to any kind or encouraging words Stella might bestow on him.  Within the trope, “her grace” is an appropriate form of address for a royal personage, but on yet another level of meaning it suggests divinity.  Line 9 picks up on that hint with a reference to Queen Virtue as a “heavenly guest,” thus identifying her with the soul (a temporary visitor to mortal flesh), or with the soul’s alter ego, Reason.  And we know already (see earlier discussion of sonnets 4 and 10) that the speaker does not like to play on the same team as Reason.  Critical Virtue/Reason/Soul, looking out through the windows of the eyes (which, as we know, are paradoxically dark and bright), cannot find anyone qualified to be “best” in show.  This is a two-edged dig at Stella: first, simply that she is too aloof and will not acknowledge and return the speaker’s love; but also, if we assume she spends more of her time with the man to whom she is betrothed (Lord Rich, in the case of Penelope Devereux), that her eyes are not usually seeing the “best” man for her!

The sonnet wraps up with a flurry of fairly esoteric word-play.  The eyes are of touchstone, which, as the colloquial name implies, must definitely be touched in order to perform its function (testing the purity of precious metals).  But paradoxically, these touchstone eyes touch others (specifically, the speaker, in the second, emotional, sense of the verb touch) without allowing themselves to be touched (in either the physical or emotional sense).  Further, the touchstone was mined by no less a personage than Cupid himself (who, as miner, seems to be sinking ever lower on the social scale!**), from the highest Platonic place of ideal forms: the “mind” (a pun with “mine”) of Beauty; i.e., Beauty herself cannot imagine anything more perfect than Stella’s touchstone eyes.  But this perfect, aloof, spiritual, divine beauty has the decidedly imperfect effect of enflaming the speaker’s all too fleshly passions.  “Touch” is not only short for touchstone, but also for touchwood, the light kindling with which it is quite easy to start a fire—especially if what’s above it is made of nothing more substantial than straw.

* I feel conflicted about the spelling of this word. Some literature handbooks have used blason for the poetic device, to distinguish between that and the heraldic description which is the original sense of blazon. But the words have the same etymology, and common or dictionary usage makes no such distinction, so I’ll go along with that.

**See the footnote to the blog on Sonnet 8.

Next time (weekend of November 30): Sonnet 11 (Sonnet 10 covered already in earlier blog.)

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 8

Love, born in Greece, of late fled from his native place,
Forced by a tedious proof that Turkish hardened heart
Is no fit mark to pierce with his fine pointed dart;
And, pleased with our soft peace, stayed here his flying race.
But, finding these north climes too coldly him embrace,
Not used to frozen clips, he strave to find some part
Where with most ease and warmth he might employ his art.
At length he perched himself in Stella’s joyful face,
Whose fair skin, beamy eyes, like morning sun on snow,
Deceived the quaking boy, who thought, from so pure light
Effects of lively heat must needs in nature grow:
But she, most fair, most cold, made him thence take his flight
To my close heart; where, while some firebrands he did lay,
He burnt unwares his wings, and cannot fly away.

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 hexameters here reflect the “transfer” of a Greek figure (various ancient Greek poets wrote in hexameters) to an alien clime.  This poem makes quite a complex conceit from that fairly simple idea, and also makes explicit for the first time in the sequence its central tragic fact: that Stella is “cold” to the speaker’s love.

The poem’s conceit is that Greece, having lately fallen under control of the Ottoman Empire, is no longer hospitable to the god of love, Eros (Cupid, to Sidney, and often simply called “Love” in Renaissance verse), whose arrows can no longer pierce the Turk-hardened hearts. The word “proof” in the second line is the word we use in “fire-proof” or that Romeo uses when he says he is “proof” against his enemies if he is armed merely be Juliet’s smiles. And the word “heart” there is the first of two puns on that word (or even three, if you want to press the case that Cupid in line 7 was also employing his “heart” (“art”) when he sought out Stella, so that his own case is parallel to the speaker’s), since the hart (deer) was the most common game animal for gentlemen hunters.

So Cupid has relocated to England, a more peaceful place—but also a chilly climate for a Greek who doesn’t wear much! Sidney is again foreshadowing the metaphysical rhetoric of John Donne, in which a seemingly trivial detail of one trope opens up a whole new idea of even greater interest than the last (think of moth to a flame–>phoenix–>”die and rise again”–>canonization).  Here the (seemingly trivial) cold climate drives Cupid to seek warmth in Stella’s “beamy eyes” (those eyes again!), but alas they turn out to be “like morning sun on snow”—i.e., all bright light and no heat. For the first time in the sonnet sequence, the essential Stella is described: “most fair, most cold.”  This coldness is, from her perspective, her “virtue” or the dictate of Reason, while, from the speaker’s perspective, it is both ingratitude and folly—and of course (with just a few happy interruptions) constantly frustrating.

I should pause to point out a metrical rarity: you can almost count on one hand (there are six) the sonnets in A & S that do not have a strong stop after the eighth line, and this is one (the others being 79, 86, 89, 98, and 108). The effect is a “clipped” stay—lines 5-7, rather than the whole quatrain—in the cold (the word “clips” in line 6 has multiple meanings; the most direct is “hugs,” referring back to “embrace,” but in context it also evokes clips that might be on Cupid’s hunting weapons or on his tunic, or the blow of cold winds) and an elongated one—lines 8-11—in the promised heat of Stella’s eyes. Lines 5-11, almost always in Sidney divided 4-3, are here divided 3-4 by punctuation, despite the rhyme.

But we are back on familiar ground with a strong break and a fulcrum after the eleventh line. That line (content-wise) brings us to what we might have expected was the “end” of any previous sonnet in the sequence, and the end of Cupid’s journey: yes, of course, Love comes to reside in Stella’s beautiful face, as who wouldn’t?

But the fulcrum is a “but” (as fulcrums so often are; sonnets tend to turn on their buts), and in the remaining three lines we get yet another twist in Cupid’s strange eventful history: naturally he finds a more receptive place in the heart* of the speaker, but in laying on the fire there, he accidentally (like a “fly” with a “taper,” as Donne might say) burns his wings, and thus has to settle in permanently.  The “trembling voice” that undercut the speaker’s bold, blunt words in the last line of Sonnet 6 has now been fully embodied in that most pathetic of figures: the Petrarchan lover whose unremitting love is also unrequited.

* The word-play in and around the simple phrase “close heart” is so delicious I need extra space to talk about it. At the simplest level, his heart is “close” because it is always with Stella, but “close” (=closet) also means a small sitting room, and “heart” is clearly intended to suggest “hearth.”  Thus we are set up for the final image of Cupid clumsily piling logs on a fire.  But how the mighty have fallen, from the heart-pun in the second line to the heart-pun in the second-to-last line!  In the former he was a lord hunting in his own deer-park, perhaps; in the latter he is an unattended shivering boy in a small, cold room, trying to get a fire going.  Stella has reduced him too.

Next time (weekend of November 16): Sonnet 9

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