Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 31

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies;
How silently, and with how wan a face.
What, may it be that even in heav’nly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?
Sure, if that long-with-love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case;
I read it in thy looks; thy languished grace
To me, that feel the like, thy state descries.
Then even of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deemed there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be loved, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?

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: “Even” in both lines 3 and 9 is one syllable.

“What” at the start of line 3 is an expletive (common in Renaissance verse); resist the urge to ignore the comma and read “What may it be . . .”

“Above” in line 12 modifies “they,” and should therefore be followed by a slight lift before reading on; this also adds emphasis to the bevy of rhymes right there.

The inversion in the final line will be discussed below.

This is one of the best-known, oft-anthologized Sidney poems, and for good reason—although reading it outside the context of the whole sequence, or following only other popular ones such as Sonnets 1 and 10, might make a reader wonder why the speaker has “suddenly” taken such a dim view of Stella. Those of us who have been carefully following the whole sonnet sequence, of course, are right at home with these complaints.

Personifying the moon is a cliché of poetry and song, and Sidney was by no means the first to focus on paleness as the moon’s most noticeable feature. But this poem is a world apart from “Shine on, harvest moon” or even “Blue moon, you saw me standing alone,” in the closeness it achieves with the personified object. With the phrase “even of fellowship,” we realize we are looking at two guys who find themselves otherwise alone, in the pub on a Friday night, when everyone else has a date. The shared confidence between strangers, the immediate assumption that the other guy’s “case” is precisely the same as yours—this is the realism in the midst of utter fantasy that makes this one of the greatest poems in the language.

Structurally, the poem is as typical a model of Sidney’s sonnets as there could be: his favorite octave, sestet, and whole rhyme scheme; a fulcrum after line 8 (though not with a u-turn, just a “new departure” in the conversation); and a quiet division of the sestet, indicated simply by having each tercet start with a two-line question, and follow with a one-line question. The poem is a structural equivalent of a little black dress, simple and understated but elegant and classic.

The opening line establishes a literal scene, but also subtly indicates the speaker’s lonely condition and state of mind: is this a slow evening, or what? (Watching a moon rise, when you remove the poetry, must be akin to watching grass grow or paint dry.) The “wan face” is, from old, stereotypical for a courtly lover, so the mental association immediately bumps the speaker away from natural observation to the mythology of love, specifically his favorite tormentor, Cupid.

As a lover’s acquaintances are all too apt to do, the speaker leaps at once (“Sure”) to the answer to his own question, and the assumption that the moon must suffer the same affliction as himself. “If that” means “if it be that,” or simply “if,” so the unstressed “that” is barely a hiccup in the reading. The hyphens in the phrase that follows are crucial to the reading. Strictly speaking, we use one-word modifiers before nouns in English, and multi-word modifiers (such as prepositional phrases or relative clauses) after; so hyphens are crucial to turn many words into one. If you don’t believe me, take the hyphens out (as some editors, alas, do) and put the poem in front of a class of first-time viewers, and see how this line turns out! “Eyes” is of course a conventional synecdoche* for the speaker himself, who feels he is precisely the fellow-sufferer who can best judge the moon’s symptoms: just like him, the moon “feelst a lover’s case.”  This is a metaphysical claim, and like most such claims (in poetry, at least) it is both preposterous and totally convincing (slow steps, wan face . . .) at the same time.

Readers of the whole sequence to this point know that the speaker has been getting precious little sympathy or empathy from his friends. In catch-phrases from the world of 20th-century entertainment, while he “can’t get no satisfaction” in his love-life, he also “can’t get no respect” from those who know him best. So his recognition of a fellow-sufferer on whom he can disburden himself (albeit indirectly, through more questions) is heart-felt. The four questions to the moon in the sestet reveal the deep bitterness he feels at Stella’s response to his love, and at least his view of the complexity or hypocrisy of that response. She could, after all, just tell him to drop dead, and put an end to all this foolishness. Instead, she just questions his sanity (“wit”); instead, she “loves to be loved,” and appears to take pride in both the attention and her virtuous rejection of it.

The final line almost certainly needs to be read as a tortured inversion meaning (in normal order) “Do they call ungratefulness virtue there?” I say “almost” because a case might be made that the speaker has shifted to a comparison with himself, and might be admitting that he refers to Stella’s “virtue” as “ungratefulness.” But such a reading disrupts a consistent pattern, established in the sestet, of describing the attitudes of “proud” beauties, by implication the attitude of Stella. And the most logical extension, in particular, of lines 12 and 13, is that Stella takes mere ingratitude and dresses it up with the name of “virtue.”

So the poem has moved seamlessly from natural description to fanciful conversation to a set of questions that reveal more than they ask.

* the poetic figure in which a part stands for a whole, and quite often taking the form of part of the body representing the whole person.

Next time (weekend of September 20): Sonnet 32

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

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