Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 26

Though dusty wits dare scorn astrology,
And, fools, can think those lamps of purest light,
Whose numbers, ways, greatness, eternity,
Promising wonders, wonder do invite,
To have for no cause birthright in the sky,
But for to spangle the black weeds of night;
Or for some brawl, which in that chamber high
They should still dance, to please a gazer’s sight:
For me, I do Nature unidle know,
And know great causes great effects procure,
And know those bodies high reign on the low.
And if these rules did fail, proof makes me sure,
Who oft fore-judge my after-following race,
By only those two stars in Stella’s face.

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.

The rhyme scheme is used for the third sonnet in a row here, though it is otherwise not used a lot—nineteen times, total—in the sequence. But unlike Sonnet 25, this one has a strong fulcrum and change of direction after line 8.

At first glance (and especially if the first two commas in line 2 are omitted), the poem seems to offer a debate between the “dusty wits” (pedantic scholars?) and the “fools,” on the subject of the influence of the stars on humans. But the whole octave (which runs continuously, without a break in the middle) reaches a single conclusion—the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Cassius and Edmund, that we cannot attribute our fortunes to the stars—and the word “fools” in the second line is a sort of delayed appositive for the “dusty wits” themselves. Having tried out two other possibilities, I find this the reading that best fits the grammar, in particular in lines 4-5. So it parses thus: these dusty wits or fools think the stars (“lamps”)—and here we insert 2.4 lines of modification on how awesome the stars are (in part with words that would also apply to the “two stars in Stella’s face,” especially line 4)—to have (picking up again in line 5) no particular reason for being there, other than (1) to decorate the clothing (“black weeds”) of night, or (2) to dance in a “brawl” for our edification.* In short, according to the “dusty wits,” Nature is “idle” or random in its arrangement of the heavens, and beyond any recognizable or explicable purpose.

After line 8 comes the fulcrum and the “other side of the story”; the reason, so to speak, that the speaker can dismiss the best scientific minds of his age as “dusty wits” and “fools.”  The speaker comes down foursquare (albeit with irony, of course) on the side of purposeful stars dictating the fates of men (which would be an old-fashioned, outmoded view in the realm of Renaissance science, and no doubt one that a man of Sidney’s intellect would “in real life” scorn).  And why?  Because the “stars” (= eyes) in Stella’s face are so clearly dictating his own fate (“fore-judge[ing] my after-following race”). Just as in Sonnet 25, discussion of an ostensibly serious topic has ended, deliberately and cleverly, with a self-mocking jest.

* This option is not quite as riotous as it sounds to our ears. According to the OED, a “brawl” is a “kind of French dance resembling a cotillion,” and Sidney himself is cited for an example from The Arcadia which can be found on p. 43 of Duncan-Jones.

 Next time (weekend of July 12): Sonnet 27

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 25

The wisest scholar of the wight most wise,
By Phoebus’ doom, with sugared sentence says,
That virtue, if it once met with our eyes,
Strange flames of love it in our souls would raise;
But for that man with pain his truth descries,
While he each thing in sense’s balance weighs,
And so nor will, nor can, behold those skies
Which inward sun to heroic mind displays:
Virtue of late, with virtuous care to stir
Love of herself, takes Stella’s shape, that she
To mortal eyes might sweetly shine in her.
It is most true, for since I her did see,
Virtue’s great beauty in that face I prove,
And find the effect, for I do burn in love.

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 notes:  the third and fourth feet of the eighth line require elision, and I think the best course is to join the word “to” with the first syllable of “heroic”; and similarly, the second foot of the final line is an elided “th’effect.”

Structurally, the entire poem has “outie” (ABAB) rhymes and weak fulcrums (primarily after line 11, secondarily after line 8) with no real change of direction in the argument; the (quite deliberate) result is something that roughly parallels a dialogue of Plato, moving inexorably toward a logical conclusion. This impression is of course undercut by the humor and irony of the poem’s “punch line.”

As Duncan-Jones’s note on the poem details, the first line refers to Plato, the “scholar” of Socrates, the wisest man (“wight”) in the view of the Delphic Oracle, i.e., the priestess of Phoebus Apollo (who, by the way, is god of both the sun and wisdom).  Lines 3 and 4 (gently mocked as “sugared sentence”) express the well-known Platonic idea from The Apology,* that the soul is drawn toward its own good by falling in love with virtue, when drawn to it by its beauty.

The second quatrain is a generalization about “mankind” (“his truth” could arguably refer back to Plato, but on reflection, it makes more sense that it refers to the generic “man” earlier in line 5) which obviously applies to the speaker himself: since “sense” (= appetite, or the life of the senses) filters everything, it is very difficult (“pain”) to get at the soul’s “truth,” or the “skies/Which inward sun [the soul, connected back to Apollo by this metaphor] to heroic mind [i.e., the mind that can overrule “sense”] displays.”

That whole idea, in turn, is contained within a “because” clause (introduced by “for that,” which idiomatically means “because”), which is answered in the first half of the sestet; thus, to paraphrase: Because an ordinary man (like the speaker) has trouble grasping wisdom or virtue, Virtue herself (personified) tries to take more visible form by assuming “Stella’s shape.”  As a result, Plato’s point is proved, but only in a joking way. We know already (from previous sonnets) that Stella’s virtue is not at all a quality the speaker admires, and the well-chosen verb “burn in love” (also linked in jest to the earlier sun imagery) is the very opposite of the Platonic wisdom it is superficially claiming to illustrate.

* Duncan-Jones suggests that Sidney may actually have received the idea second-hand, from Cicero.

Next time (weekend of June 28): Sonnet 26

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