Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 36

Stella, whence doth this new assault arise,
A conquered, yelden, ransacked heart to win?
Whereto long since through my long battered eyes,
Whole armies of thy beauties entered in;
And there, long since, Love, thy lieutenant lies;
My forces razed, thy banners raised within.
Of conquest, do not these effects suffice,
But wilt new war upon thine own begin?
With so sweet voice, and by sweet nature so,
In sweetest strength, so sweetly skilled withal,
In all sweet stratagems sweet art can show,
That not my soul, which at thy foot did fall,
Long since, forced by thy beams, but stone nor tree,
By sense’s privilege, can ‘scape from thee.

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.

It is tempting to read an autobiographical moment into the phrases “new assault” in the opening line and “new war” in line 8. Has there been a thaw?  Is Penelope Devereux suddenly showing renewed interest in Philip Sidney?  But there is nothing else in this or the surrounding sonnets to suggest that her behavior has changed in any way, so it makes more sense (insofar as we allow of autobiography at all) to see the phrases subjectively; i.e., that his passion for her seems to have come on with renewed force.

The conceit of the poem is the well-worn one of siege warfare, though it is perhaps a little more typical to picture the male as the besieging army (as in, for example, sonnets 12 and 29).  The male as the “occupied” territory recalls, in particular, Petrarch’s Sonnet 140 (“Amor, che nel penser . . .”) and the very familiar translations of it by Wyatt (“The Long Love”) and Surrey (“Love that Doth Reign”). The speaker’s heart has long since been surrendered (“yelden” is an archaic inflected form of “yielded”), having (in the courtly love tradition) been stormed through the eyes by “armies of thy beauties”—which does not mean a bevy of “Stella’s Angels,” of course, but rather the multiple ways in which she herself is beautiful.  In the second quatrain, the speaker makes the whining appeal that is central to the poem’s message: Why do you set about to re-conquer what you already own?

The sestet departs somewhat from the military conceit. True, it makes a connection by using the word “stratagems,” but these are now enumerated in very non-military language as Stella’s feminine beauty and, particularly her “sweetness”—in another antanaclasis (see previous post), the word is repeated six times in three lines!

The final tercet is one of those “Yes . . . and” bottom lines. It returns to the poem’s opening question—why this new assault?—and suggests it is hardly surprising that the speaker has been “conquered,” since even senseless things (“By sense’s privilege” is a very tight way of saying “by the fact that they are free of sense”) must come under her divine “beams” and her sway. The phrase “not my soul” needs to be understood as “not just my soul,” as well. There may be a sacrilegious echo here of Luke 19:40, where Jesus says during his triumphal entry to Jerusalem that even if his followers were silent, “the stones would shout out”—but let’s not go there.

Next time (weekend of November 29): Sonnet 37
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.