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.

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