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.