Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 19

On Cupid’s bow how are my heartstrings bent,
That see my wrack, and yet embrace the same!
When most I glory, then I feel most shame:
I willing run, yet while I run, repent.
My best wits still their own disgrace invent;
My very ink turns straight to Stella’s name;
And yet my words, as them my pen doth frame,
Advise themselves that they are vainly spent.
For though she pass all things, yet what is all
That unto me, who fare like him that both
Looks to the skies, and in a ditch doth fall?
O let me prop my mind, yet in his growth,
And not in Nature, for best fruits unfit:
“Scholar,” saith Love, “bend hitherward your wit.”

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 sonnet describes a sort of growing love-madness in the speaker, as reflected in the disorderly line break between lines 9 and 10—unusually “modern” for Sidney—in which the closely connected noun phrase “all that” is snapped right in the middle, so that even the slight acknowledgement that the end of an enjambed line customarily receives is impossible here; the break after line 10 is only barely more natural, and all three lines of the tercet have caesuras, so, as the soon-to-be-mad Hamlet might observe here, “the time is out of joint.”  As it happens, the simile of that tercet is taken from Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, at the moment when the scholar Nicholas is feigning madness in preparation for his plot to sleep with the Carpenter John’s lovely young wife (a silly story which, for some reason, might be much on Sidney’s mind these days!).  The foolish carpenter, in his sincere concern for his lodger’s obsession with astrology, recalls a similar case:

So ferde another clerk with astromye;
He walked in the feeldes, for to prye
Upon the sterres, what ther sholde befalle,
Til he was in a marle-pit yfalle;
He saugh nat that.

Our “scholar” seems to be relating more to that clerk than to the successful Nicholas.*

While the opening line of the poem seems at first glance to suggest the speaker’s heartstrings are being used to string Cupid’s bow, this clever word-play is misleading. More logically, “bent” here means “inclined toward” or “aimed at,” the same as the verb at the end of line 12 in the previous sonnet. So his “heartstrings” are pulled toward Cupid’s bow, even as he knows that ruin (“wrack”) that way lies. (Compare Shakespeare’s couplet on lust, Sonnet 129: All this the world well knows, yet none knows well/To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.) This paradox is extended with the parallel paradoxes of lines 3 and 4.

Line 5 repeats the idea expressed in lines 10-11 of sonnet 18:

My wit doth strive those passions to defend
Which for reward spoil it with vain annoys.

That is, the speaker’s best thinking is going into a fool’s errand that pays off only negatively. From the second quatrain here, it is now quite obvious that Sidney refers to the writing of the sonnet sequence itself, and the tendency of the sonnets to bring him shame, even as they help him explore both his passion and his shame: “[the words of the poems] Advise themselves that they are vainly spent.”

The first half of the sestet, as discussed above, takes us back to the classic Chaucerian image of star-gazing and embarrassing futility as the only result. But the final tercet returns to the same mulish determination of the speaker to court his own ruin, expressed here in imagery drawn from Renaissance formal gardening: the speaker’s “mind” (and remember, that word encompasses the soul as well as the intellect) is treated as a fruit tree in such a garden; it could have grown naturally, but instead the speaker asks that it be “propped” (i.e., staked) and thus forced to grow in an unnatural direction, for decorative but “fruitless” purposes (my double meaning is quite intentional). Just so the speaker’s “wit” and learning are unnaturally bent toward Love (the repeated verb signals that the poem ends right where it started), with a similarly fruitless result. Notice that the final line of this poem is a faded echo of the final line of Sonnet 1, with most of the drive and optimism already drained out.

* As Duncan-Jones points out, Sidney (and probably Chaucer also) had in mind a commonplace anecdote about Thales of Miletus, an ancient Greek philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer. Sidney makes the same allusion in the Defence of Poesy (Duncan-Jones 219).

Next time (weekend of April 5): Sonnet 20

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 18

With what sharp checks I in myself am shent,
When into Reason’s audit I do go:
And by just counts myself a bankrupt know
Of all those goods, which heaven to me hath lent:
Unable quite to pay even Nature’s rent,
Which unto it by birthright I do owe:
And which is worse, no good excuse can show,
But that my wealth I have most idly spent.
My youth doth waste, my knowledge brings forth toys,
My wit doth strive those passions to defend
Which for reward spoil it with vain annoys.
I see my course to lose myself doth bend:
I see and yet no greater sorrow take,
Than that I lose no more for Stella’s sake.

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: in line 5, “even” is one syllable (“e’en”), and unstressed.

Sonnet 18 is related to the sonnets mentioned at Sonnet 14 in picturing a situation (likely a reality for Sidney) in which “cooler heads” counsel the speaker against his hopeless passion for Stella, though in this case (as in Sonnet 10) it is personified Reason, rather than flesh-and-blood friends, who makes this case.  And here Reason is not only personified, but is specifically an auditor, come to check “the books” in a financial conceit similar to one Shakespeare uses in his Sonnet 4; indeed, Shakespeare almost seems to have Sidney’s sonnet in mind as he writes his first eight lines:

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thy self thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free:
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?

The Shakespearean sonnet diverges greatly in its ultimate message, which is that the speaker’s young friend is wasting his gifts if he does not fall in love, but strictly on the topic of Nature’s “bounteous largesse” and the corresponding bankruptcy of the subject, the two sonnets are quite close.

The audit, needless to say, does not go well. The speaker is “shent” (“shend” being a good old Anglo-Saxon verb meaning to thoroughly disgrace) with sharp rebukes (“checks”) because he has spent or wasted all of his heavenly gifts, which would be chiefly the gifts that separate us from the beasts, such as soul and reason; these the speaker has abandoned.  Further (in the second quatrain), he is not even able to repay Nature’s “rent,” owed by “birthright.”  This has meaning on two quite distinct levels.  On a very basic, biological level, Nature gives us life at birth, and what we “owe” is simply to provide for ourselves the basic necessities to keep living; the speaker in his hopeless passion is barely able to do even this.*  But “Nature” and “birthright” for a Renaissance man in Sidney’s position also invoke the idea of the “natural” place we are born into, and what we “owe” in order to fulfill the demands of one’s pedigree.  The speaker, in his misplaced love, is “letting down the team” by not being all he was born to be.  The “wealth” he has squandered is of course everything but wealth in the conventional sense of the word; it is all the gifts bestowed on him by birth and Nature, including the “youth,” “knowledge,” and “wit” (i.e., wisdom) mentioned in the first half of the sestet. Those same lines (9-11), if we assume the “toys” brought forth by “knowledge” are these very sonnets, spell out the futile process of his poetry, so different from the hopeful one described in Sonnet 1. Now we see that he is left needing to “defend” the passions of the sonnets, with nothing positive offered by way of “reward.”

In short—as line 12 summarizes—his passion has put him on a path to self-destruction.  The charge is suicidal madness; how does the accused plead?  Like Nathan Hale, he regrets he has but one life to throw away in pursuit of his madness.

* Unlike some other modern editors, Duncan-Jones gives the second word of line 5 as “quit,” rather than “quite,” although her gloss (treating the word as an adverb) is then not satisfactory.  “Quite” makes easier sense to a modern ear—just an adverb modifying “unable”—but “quit,” an adjective meaning “freed from an obligation,” creates a subtle paradox: even though the debt we owe Nature costs us nothing at all, the speaker is unable to pay even that.  Think of this reading as: “Unable, quit, to pay even Nature’s rent.”

Next time (weekend of March 22): Sonnet 19

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