Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 14

Alas, have I not pain enough, my friend,
Upon whose breast a fiercer gripe doth tire
Than did on him who first stole down the fire,
While Love on me doth all his quiver spend,
But with your rhubarb words you must contend
To grieve me worse, in saying that desire
Doth plunge my well-formed soul even in the mire
Of sinful thoughts, which do in ruin end?
If that be sin, which doth the manners frame,
Well stayed with truth in word, and faith of deed,
Ready of wit, and fearing nought but shame:
If that be sin which in fixed hearts doth breed
A loathing of all loose unchastity,
Then love is sin, and let me sinful be.

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.

Duncan-Jones says of this: “First of many sonnets showing Astrophil with an uncomprehending or disapproving friend; cf. 20, 21, 23, 27, 51, 88, 92, and 104.”  Again, Donne’s pugilistic “For God’s sake, hold thy tongue” comes to mind, but of that lengthy list, only 21 and 51 suggest such a direct confrontation as we have here—unless, when the speaker argues with “Reason” (e.g., 10 and 18), he has an actual person in mind as the voice of reason. The other sonnets in the list refer more generally to an uncomprehending circle of friends (no direct confrontation is pictured, and they are not necessarily disapproving) or, in the case of sonnet 92, to a friend who has seen Stella but, like Juliet’s nurse, is too balky in giving news about her.

The first quatrain is an “innie” (ABBA) that focuses on the speaker’s existing pain, independent of the new wrinkle of the friend’s interference. The love-pain is compared to (and deemed “fiercer” than) that of Prometheus, whose punishment for giving fire to mortals was to have his liver eaten out by a vulture daily, forever. The word chosen for vulture, “gripe,” is rich in additional meaning, starting with “clutch” or “grasp” (suggesting the clutches of Love), but also a severe inner-body pain, such as liver-pain (and we moderns need to remind ourselves that for Elizabethans the liver was the seat of the emotions; cf. “This wins him, liver and all” in Twelfth Night); and finally, to make a subtle link between the parallel annoyances in the two quatrains, a “gripe” is a covetous or envious person.

So he’s got this gut-wrenching pain already, and “Is that not enough?,” he suggests, “but [second quatrain] you have to add insult to injury?” “Rhubarb” is an appropriately ambiguous answer to “gripe,” since rhubarb was famous as a cure for liver illness, but also synonymous with bitterness (and modern readers can add a sense not known to Sidney, since “rhubarb words” can now mean “nonsense words,” such as those muttered by extras in a crowd scene). With such words the friend seems to be very much on the side of Virtue (sonnet 4) and Reason (sonnet 10), arguing that appetite (“desire”) can drag the speaker’s soul down into sin and damnation (“ruin”).

Each of the tercets in the sestet opens with an “If” argument, the first occupying all three lines, the second two, with the “then” answer to both coming in the final line. The gist of both “If” arguments is that the speaker’s love for Stella actually ennobles him in every way: (1) makes him a better gentleman, more truthful, faithful, wise, and discreet; and (2) (more to the point, but with pointed irony) in his single-minded devotion, makes him “[loathe] all loose unchastity.”  This is the key to the black-is-white, up-is-down argument that ends the poem.  The love he envisions with Stella is of course sinful by any conventional view, the very opposite of faithfulness, truth, and chastity. But by his reasoning, because Stella is the “fixed star” of his devotion, and he will give his love to no other, sin and virtue have switched places.

Next time (weekend of January 25): Sonnet 15

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

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