Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 21

Your words, my friend, right healthful caustics, blame
My young mind marred, whom love doth windlass so
That mine own writings like bad servants show,
My wits, quick in vain thoughts, in virtue lame;
That Plato I read for nought, but if he tame
Such coltish gyres; that to my birth I owe
Nobler desires, lest else that friendly foe,
Great expectation, wear a train of shame.
For since mad March great promise made of me,
If now the May of my years much decline,
What can be hoped my harvest time will be?
Sure you say well; your wisdom’s golden mine
Dig deep with learning’s spade; now tell me this,
Hath this world aught so fair as Stella is?

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.

Once again we have a sonnet that is very “contextual”; i.e., while it can certainly be understood standing alone, it is also very clearly part of an ongoing conversation, ostensibly between the poet and his skeptical friends, either reflected or invented in several sonnets in this stretch of the sequence. This one parallels Sonnet 18 rather closely, for instance (with the auditor there turning into a medical doctor here), and the reference to reading Plato anticipates Sonnet 25. Every critical argument against the infatuation listed here is found in one or more of the sonnets nearby.

The auditor of Sonnet 18 has turned into a medical doctor here, at least for the first line. The phrase “right healthful caustics” is an oxymoron (indeed, “caustics” is an oxymoronic word by itself) because the effect of caustics is both to heal and to burn, or sting. And that, of course, is the effect of the critical friend’s well-intended words.

The wise friend is described at the end of the poem as well-spoken and a deep mine of wisdom and learning; the complexity of the single sentence that makes up the octave would seem to reflect this description. A rough outline of its dependencies looks like:

Your words . . .blame … my mind
WHOM love doth windlass so
THAT mine own writings . . . show/My wits
QUICK in . . . etc.
THAT Plato I read for nought
BUT IF [i.e., unless] he tame . . . gyres
THAT to my birth . . . Nobler desires
LEST ELSE . . . foe . . . wear . . . shame.
GREAT EXPECTATION

[My apologies that the formatter for this blog will simply not allow me to align these lines as intended to show the dependencies; you are on your own, gentle reader, in determining which part of the previous line each new line “hangs” from!]

The friend’s message, despite the medical start, turns out to be the opposite of a consistent conceit; it is more like a series of varied and interesting “stabs” at some way to get through to the besotted speaker. First, the blunt phrase: “young mind marred.” That’s obviously not enough, and complicated elaboration follows as the friend fishes for an effective approach. The verb “windlass” offers several visual possibilities at once. It was used to refer to any sort of mechanical device, and specifically to (1) the winding mechanism on a cross-bow, (2) a trap or snare used in hunting, or (3) an instrument of torture; so any or all of these are plausible images of what love is doing to the speaker. (And by now we also know well that “love” itself offers the double possibility of the god Cupid or, more abstractly, the emotion.)

In any case (or I should say in all cases, since simultaneous multiple meanings are the stuff of great poetry) the effect of love’s windlassing is that the speaker’s writings—the very sonnets we are reading—are behaving like “bad servants,” who are notorious for giving away their masters’ secrets and foibles. Here these servants, in a wonderfully crafted line, reveal “My wits, [which are] quick in vain thoughts, [to be] in virtue lame.” The line is a compressed, effective version of the usually-clunky parallel structure of Euphuism. The adjectives “quick” and “lame” are opposites, as are the alliterative noun phrases “vain thoughts” and “virtue”; so there is a full chiasmus within 4/5 of a pentameter line. And just incidentally, Sidney is bragging on the art of his own sonnets, while questioning their virtue and wisdom.

The friend renews his attack in the second quatrain, making reference to the speaker’s education (reading Plato), which seems to be wasted, since it is having no practical effect (it is not subjecting “coltish gyres”—the beastly gyrations of appetite—to reason); and to his pedigree and upbringing which should promise better things. Sidney reveals himself in the sonnets to be particularly sensitive to his own image among his highly placed connections; to the “Great expectation” which proves to be a “friendly foe” in that it challenges him to greatness, but also offers a critical measure when he comes up short, not unlike, in fact, the critical friend who is making this argument. A “train of shame” not only echoes “vain” and “lame” (and doubles up the assonance found there) but it is a wonderful image for the way such shame among one’s peers may attach itself like a bad odor and follow one wherever he goes.

The first half of the sestet sticks with this concern about expectations, perhaps making reference (“mad March great promise made of me”) to a specific moment of significant praise in Sidney’s life: as Duncan-Jones’s note suggests, this may be his “embassy to the Holy Roman Emperor in the spring of 1577.”  We shift from a promising March that may be both literal and figurative to a May that is definitely metaphorical; i.e., the speaker is still young, and should be enjoying his great promise. But in his “May,” according to his friends, he is disgracing himself; so how could he possibly have honor in his “harvest time” of later life?

The friend’s argument concludes with line 11, and the speaker uses more than a line and a half of what remains to give the argument its just due as “wisdom’s golden mine [dug] deep with learning’s spade.”* The most immediate meaning of this metaphor, given the word “golden,” is the modern understanding of a “mine” where one would dig for gold. But there is also the subtle undertone of a soldier’s understanding of “mine” as that which is dug to undermine or break open a city’s walls—another obvious way to look at the friend’s argument. Either way, the argument is not getting through to the speaker, of course. With his customary simplicity (or obtuseness, in the eyes of his friends), he counters the entire carefully crafted case with a single line of rhetorical question: “Hath this world aught so fair as Stella is?”

* Grammatically, “Dig deep” is parallel with “say well” in a compound verb phrase; i.e., it’s [Sure you] dig deep your wisdom’s etc.

Next time (week of April 29): Sonnet 22

(The timing for next two posts will be altered slightly by my trip to England)

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

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