Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 24

Rich fools there be, whose base and filthy heart
Lies hatching still the goods wherein they flow,
And damning their own selves to Tantal’s smart,
Wealth breeding want, more blest, more wretched grow.
Yet to those fools heaven such wit doth impart,
As what their hands do hold, their heads do know,
And knowing, love, and loving, lay apart
As sacred things, far from all danger’s show.
But that rich fool, who by blind fortune’s lot
The richest gem of love and life enjoys,
And can with foul abuse such beauties blot,
Let him, deprived of sweet but unfelt joys,
Exiled for aye from those high treasures which
He knows not, grow in only folly rich!

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.

Insofar as Astrophil and Stella is a sort of roman à clef, this sonnet is one of the clefs, punning a little too obviously on the title of Lord Rich, the man to whom Penelope Devereux was married, presumably for his better financial prospects.

The first two lines appear to be a multiple mixed metaphor, only partially extenuated by the facts that “hearts” can “hatch” things such as ideas, and the sense of the verb “flow” here is “to be affluent in.” Nevertheless, the basic idea of the first quatrain is clear enough: for these “rich fools,” the heart is set only on getting still richer, which leads them (lines 3 and 4) to the fate of Tantalus, never being able to reach as much as they want, and thus growing more “wretched” even as they grow richer (“more blest”).

And yet (second quatrain) such fools can be capable of love, if only love of material things (presumably gems and such) which they hide away for themselves. This quatrain seems to point toward the idea that Lord Rich is keeping “Stella” (Penelope) away from the poet/speaker. But the sestet goes still another way: this particular “rich fool” (Lord Rich), who, “by blind fortune’s lot” (Dame Fortune was sometimes depicted as blindfolded while turning her randomizing wheel) has gotten the speaker’s girl, might be too stupid to know what sort of “gem” he has in his own possession, and that is the fate the speaker wishes for him (“Let him . . .”), so that he (Rich) will grow only in folly, not in love.

(What follows is my first reading:)

The pun on Lord Rich’s name, in addition to limiting the poem’s vocabulary, makes the personal nature of the sonnet a little too obvious, and the tightness of the logic or the conceit suffers as a result. Granted, the fate envisioned for the “rich fool” at the end of the poem relates reasonably well to the folly described in the first quatrain—a “heart” that can focus only on increasing wealth, and thus is doomed to frustration—but the path between the two is wandering and obscure. Sidney seems to want to explore a second possibility, that even a rich fool whose heart is set on wealth can recognize the value of a rare gem, and keep it in a safe place, and that such possessiveness could be a (presumably debased) form of love. This implies a frustration on the speaker’s (and Sidney’s) part that he is denied access to the woman he loves by a jealous husband.

But this implication is at least partly misleading, because the real point turns out to be an irony: even rich fools have enough sense to know when they have a gem, but Lord Rich is perhaps not even that smart. It’s a big “perhaps,” though. The second quatrain has already conceded the possibility that he does know, and therefore the final three lines express a wish, rather than a certainty. Reality is muddying the clear waters of poetry here.

(Now, on returning to the sonnet many months later, I am struck with the possibility that I, too, have missed the worth of the gem I have before me. Following my principle that poetry is written to make sense, let me try again:)

The sonnet is best understood by the “innocent” reader who does not realize that a person named Rich is Stella’s husband until reaching the end. The “Rich fools” named in the opening line and discussed in the octave are an entirely different, generic, set of people, first described by their folly (first quatrain), and then (second quatrain) by their one slightly redeeming bit of intelligence. If the speaker has been led to the topic by his rival’s name, he is, for this much of the poem, simply saying “If he is a typical rich fool, this is what he’s supposed to be like.”

It is only with the words “that rich fool” and the perfectly clear relative clause that describes him in lines 9-11, that we are talking specifically about Stella’s husband, and, as discussed above, he lacks even the slight redeeming grace of knowing the worth of what he’s got.

Next time (weekend of June 14): Sonnet 25

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 23

The curious wits, seeing dull pensiveness
Bewray itself in my long settled eyes,
Whence those same fumes of melancholy rise
With idle pains, and missing aim, do guess.
Some, that know how my spring I did address,
Deem that my Muse some fruit of knowledge plies;
Others, because the Prince my service tries,
Think that I think state errors to redress.
But harder judges judge ambition’s rage,
Scourge of itself, still climbing slippery place,
Holds my young brain captived in golden cage.
O fools, or over-wise: alas, the race
Of all my thoughts hath neither stop nor start,
But only Stella’s eyes and Stella’s heart.

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.

A central concern of Hamlet had been a standard component of poetry and drama for years before: the difficulty of explaining a young man’s melancholy when he is young, healthy, and gifted. While our own age considers depression to be a commonplace of minor mental impairment, its Medieval/Renaissance equivalent engendered a sort of awe and mystery, even though (or perhaps because?) there is clearly no place for melancholy within a life governed by reason. In 1621, Robert Burton would publish a monumental and detailed study titled The Anatomy of Melancholy, and he had a plethora of literary sources for his examples.

So here the “curious wits”—perhaps the very same friends who have been criticizing and counseling the speaker in many of these sonnets—find themselves in roughly the same position as Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, trying to explain the speaker’s strange melancholy and the “dull pensiveness” that has, of late, crept into his “long settled eyes”; that is, something has changed, and the “wits” are no better than those characters in Hamlet at diagnosing what it is. With “idle pains” (efforts) and a “missing aim,” they merely “guess.”

So now (lines 5-11), predictably, we’re going to hear what their wrong guesses are: basically, three in number, they occupy two, two, and three lines respectively. First (5-6) they guess that since the speaker was devoted to poetry in youth (“spring”), he is preoccupied with his Muse, or pondering a poem (this one actually has a bit of indirect truth in it). Second (7-8), that, as trusted ambassador, he has been given some thorny diplomatic problem to solve.  The third guess (9-11), offered by “harder judges,” is considerably less flattering to the speaker: like so many young noblemen in Elizabeth’s reign, he is deemed to be too ambitious for his own good, and is plotting some Machiavellian way to advance himself. Brooding melancholy is indeed the period’s stereotype for plotting or revenge, as in Hieronymo in The Spanish Tragedy, or Caesar’s view of Cassius, or Edmund, Aaron, Don John, or other villains in Shakespeare’s plays. But such ambition is aptly described in the 10th line, even as it is brought up: “Scourge of itself, still climbing slippery place.”

The poem’s fulcrum comes after the eleventh line. Having given free rein to all these opinions, the speaker now dismisses the wits as “fools, or overwise” (i.e., the second possibility is that they are over-analyzing a very simple case).  That which preoccupies the speaker (“the race of all my thoughts”) begins and ends with Stella. Or, to complicate that simple truth with a chiasmic structure, it “starts” with Stella’s eyes and “stops” with her heart. Complicate it, indeed: there are three possibilities for that simple idea:

  1. Neutral, or innocent: Stella is first and last, beginning and end, of the speaker’s preoccupations.
  2. Optimistic: his quest of Stella began with (the flash of) her eyes (see Sonnets 17 and 20) and its end or goal will be the conquest of her heart.
  3. Pessimistic: (cf. Sonnets 11 and 12) the quest of Stella started with her eyes, but will be stopped short by her heart.

Next time (weekend of May 31): Sonnet 24

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 22

In highest way of heaven the Sun did ride,
Progressing then from fair twins’ golden place:
Having no scarf of clouds before his face,
But shining forth of heat in his chief pride,
When some fair ladies, by hard promise tied,
On horseback met him in his furious race;
Yet each prepared with fan’s well-shading grace,
From that foe’s wounds their tender skins to hide.
Stella alone with face unarmed marched.
Either to do like him which open shone,
Or careless of the wealth because her own:
Yet were the hid and meaner beauties parched,
Her daintiest bare went free. The cause was this:
The Sun, which others burned, did her but kiss.

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: Line 9: “unarmèd” is three syllables, while “marched” is one.

A change of pace from many of the sonnets surrounding it, as this one again focuses entirely on the glory that is Stella, instead of on the speaker’s folly in loving her. This is a charming little tale, which is definitely allegorical, but also reads as if it might be based on a real incident.  The opening quatrain sets the scene as mid-day (the sun is at the “highest way of heaven”) in the hottest time of year (late June or July, when the sun is in Gemini) and with no clouds in the sky.

In other words, it is a terrible time for ladies who are concerned about their complexions to be traveling out of doors; but this particular group of ladies (Stella among them) are committed (“by hard promise tied”) to an outing on horseback, despite the adverse sunshine. As the octave ends, we learn that “each” lady has brought a fan with which to shield her face . . .

. . . except for Stella, we learn in the sestet, after the fulcrum. She marches “unarmed” into what we might now call a face-off with the sun; she faces the sun down because she shines just as bright, and the sun’s “wealth” is actually her own.

So several ladies protected by sun-screens, Stella recklessly uncovered, and what is the outcome? The other ladies were sun-burned, while Stella was not. And why? Even the sun is drawn to Stella’s brightness, and can only meekly “kiss” her, despite his power.

Next time (week of May 27): Sonnet 23

(The timing of these posts has been altered slightly by my trip to England)

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