Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 13

Phoebus was judge between Jove, Mars, and Love,
Of those three gods, whose arms the fairest were:
Jove’s golden shield did eagle sables bear,
Whose talons held young Ganymede above:
But in vert field Mars bare a golden spear,
Which through a bleeding heart his point did shove.
Each had his crest: Mars carried Venus’ glove,
Jove on his helm the thunderbolt did rear.
Cupid then smiles, for on his crest there lies
Stella’s fair hair, her face he makes his shield,
Where roses gules are borne in silver field.
Phoebus drew wide the curtains of the skies
To blaze these last, and sware devoutly then,
The first, thus matched, were scarcely gentlemen.

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.

Sonnet 13 is a lesson in Elizabethan heraldry. . .

But before I get to that, let me point out something I did not notice right away, which is that the rhyme scheme of this poem is absolutely unique among the Astrophil and Stella sonnets. Initially I had counted its octave among Sidney’s most common ABBAABBA set. When I needed an illustration of that pattern for a talk I was giving, I pulled this sonnet out almost randomly, and then of course was forced to take a closer look: ABBA . . . BAAB. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and in a rush of self-doubt quickly flipped through all the other sonnets opening ABBA—and not a single one had this second-quatrain flip-flop; only this one.*  Is it just an accident? I can’t rule that out, but carelessness in form is hardly a Sidney trait. Notice that this octave opens with a two-line premise, and closes with a two-line comparison of the crests of Mars and Jupiter (“Jove”). In between are two parallel two-line statements—one for each god—and the unique rhyme-scheme reversal makes these more precisely parallel, the first line being a general description ending in rhyme B:

Jove’s golden shield did eagle sables bear,
But in vert field Mars bare a golden spear,

while the second line is a relative clause adding an active detail and ending in rhyme A:

Whose talons held young Ganymede above:
Which through a bleeding heart his point did shove:

One might reasonably ask why, if this is so carefully structured, he never found opportunity to do this again—but I think it is deliberate.

So, what about the heraldry lesson? The little fable here is that Phoebus Apollo (god of wisdom and enlightenment) has been called on to judge the “arms”—i.e., coats of arms, the symbols of gentility or higher—of the three other gods named. There is an obvious echo here of Paris judging the relative beauty of three goddesses, but thankfully no war hangs on the outcome!

In an Italian sonnet (somewhat as in a joke that begins “three guys walked into a bar”), if the octave is entirely devoted to two of a threesome, we already know that the third will be the “winner.” The curious thing here is that there is an additional tip-off in the coats-of-arms of Jove and Mars: of all the exploits that might have been featured there, both have chosen moments when they have gotten giddy in love—as if paying homage to their opponent before the contest has even begun! On the shields, in the characteristic jargon of heraldry, Jove has a black (“sables”) eagle on a gold field, holding the boy Ganymede with whom Jove was so smitten that he adopted the eagle disguise to kidnap him; Jove’s crest (the device above the shield, originally the plumage or other decoration atop a Knight’s helmet), however, is the more predictable and assertive thunderbolt. Mars, conversely, has a more ambiguous shield depicting a golden spear through a bleeding heart on a green (“vert”) field, but almost comically undercut by the glove of Venus on his crest, at least hinting at the possibility that the pierced heart is actually his own! Carrying the glove of a mistress into battle is a courtly love cliché, but the notion of Venus even wearing gloves seems a bit ridiculous to contemplate.

The contest is no longer in suspense; the sestet opens with the simple statement of the inevitable outcome: “Cupid then smiles.” His coat of arms is simply Stella herself, her hair the crest and her face the shield, described heraldically as “roses gules [red] borne in silver field.”  This is the clincher, so announced by Apollo in the final tercet, where he “blazes” the winner across the skies—a multiple pun. On the simple level, he is (as sun-god) lighting up the sky with the image of Stella. But “blaze” is also what one does when one describes a coat-of-arms with all those funny French words, and such a description is called a blazon, from whence was borrowed the poetic term for a catalog of a lady’s beautiful features. Such a blazon (in miniature) is what the blazon of Cupid’s arms turned out to be.

There is one final put-down for the losing competitors, a sort of chain-of-being trope. It is of course ludicrous, to begin with, that gods would try to prove their worthiness with this form of human vanity, but in this case Jove and Mars have been so badly outclassed that they are “scarcely gentlemen”; i.e., they barely qualify to have coats-of-arms at all!

*Six of the ABAB sonnets, however, flip the second quatrain to give the palindromic ABABBABA.  I have not yet checked Sidney’s sonnets outside A and S for the ABBABAAB pattern. I invite readers to find one, or else we shall conclude Sonnet 13 is unique in his works.

Next time (weekend of January 11): Sonnet 14

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 12

Cupid, because thou shin’st in Stella’s eyes,
That from her locks, thy day-nets, none ‘scapes free,
That those lips swell, so full of thee they be,
That her sweet breath makes oft thy flames to rise,
That in her breast thy pap well sugared lies,
That her grace gracious makes thy wrongs, that she,
What words so e’er she speaks, persuades for thee,
That her clear voice lifts thy fame to the skies;
Thou countest Stella thine, like those whose powers,
Having got up a breach by fighting well,
Cry, “Victory, this fair day all is ours!”
O no, her heart is such a citadel,
So fortified with wit, stored with disdain,
That to win it, is all the skill and pain.

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 just two sentences long, the first stating a premise that takes eleven lines, and the second shooting it down in a mere three. The octave is one dependent clause comprised, in turn, of eight parallel clauses. The word “that” effectively repeats the word “because” each time, so you can either imagine an implied “because that” (proper Elizabethan usage) in the first line, or a one-syllable substitute for “because” at the head of each new clause—whichever makes more sense to you. The eight parallel clauses are basically one line (five feet, ten syllables) each, except that the first is shortened a foot by the opening address to Cupid, and the seventh steals an extra foot from the end of the sixth:

that she,
What words so e’er she speaks, persuades for thee.
The sentence’s main clause takes only the first three-fifths of line nine:

Thou countest Stella thine,

and is followed by an adverbial phrase that stretches to the end of line eleven:

like those whose powers,
Having got up a breach by fighting well,
Cry, “Victory, this fair day all is ours!”

The eight parallel clauses are eight separate reasons why Cupid might assume Stella belongs to him (i.e., is a disciple of love, but we can’t ignore the secondary sense of Cupid’s paramour), all using some form of the thee/her antithesis:

  1. “thou shin’st” : “[her] eyes”
  2. “thy day-nets” : “her locks” (Day-nets are traps, and Stella’s hair functions as Cupid’s trap for the unsuspecting.)
  3. “full of thee” : “her lips” (meant for kissing)
  4. “thy flames” : “her sweet breath” (which fans the flames of passion)
  5. “thy pap” is what “her breast” contains
  6. “thy wrongs” : “her grace” (makes gracious; i.e., her love and devotion makes even Cupid’s sins O.K.)
  7. “for thee” : “[her] words” (persuades)
  8. “thy fame” : “her clear voice” (lifts to the skies, and this line can summarize the implication of all eight: when a man converses with Stella, Cupid immediately comes to his mind, and he falls in love).

These statements about Cupid’s suppositions become, by indirection, a complimentary blazon of Stella’s features, and Cupid is clearly a stand-in here for the speaker’s own amorous desires. A very rough paraphrase of the poem, read that way, might be: (first eleven lines) “Sometimes I fantasize that Stella might be my lover,” (last three lines) “but then I come back to the reality that I’m not even close.”

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. So, we are to understand that Stella is just going on being her lovely, charming, and gracious self and Cupid, like many another egotistical male, assumes it is all for him. After the main clause (“Thou countest Stella thine”) comes a simile which governs the rest of the poem: in Cupid’s confidence, he is like an army which assumes it has won the battle when it has only breached an outer wall. Anyone familiar with medieval fortifications knows that inside the outer wall are progressively stronger lines of defense, the strongest of all being the “keep” or “citadel” in the center, often with walls twenty feet thick. “Such a citadel” is Stella’s heart, and its walls are two of the qualities omitted from the list in the octave: wit and disdain. In the final line, the verb “is” should be understood as “remains;” “skill,” in the military context, would be the strategy or arrangement of forces, and “pain” is effort (as in our modern phrase “take pains to . . .”). So, in short, despite the breach in the wall and shout of victory, practically the whole job remains to be done.

The sonnet implies quite a bit about the relationship between the speaker and Stella. She presumably treats him with charm, grace, and even affection, but is cold to any suggestion that the relationship could be something more.

Next time (weekend of December 28): Sonnet 13

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