Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 37

My mouth doth water, and my breast doth swell,
My tongue doth itch, my thoughts in labor be;
Listen then, lordings, with good ear to me,
For of my life I must a riddle tell.
Towards Aurora’s court a nymph doth dwell,
Rich in all beauties which man’s eye can see;
Beauties so far from reach of words, that we
Abase her praise, saying she doth excel;
Rich in the treasure of deserved renown;
Rich in the riches of a royal heart;
Rich in those gifts which give the eternal crown;
Who though most rich in these, and every part
Which make the patents of true worldly bliss,
Hath no misfortune, but that Rich she is.

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: In line 11, “the eternal” must be elided: “th’eternal.”

Like sonnets 24 and 35 (and possibly 9), this one makes a direct real-life connection to Penelope Devereux by punning on her married name, Rich. As I mentioned with the previous sonnet, the speaker is in a three-sonnet stretch of renewed passion and strong emotion. I don’t know if there’s a long tradition of telling riddles at such moments of emotion, and especially frustration, but there is a slightly later parallel in Middleton and Dekker’s 1611 play, The Roaring Girl, when the greedy father, Sir Alexander, who disapproves of his son’s chosen bride, begins a lengthy riddling tale to his peers this way:

Last day I met
An aged man, upon whose head was scored
A debt of just so many years as these
Which I owe to my grave: the man you all know.

When his friends ask for the “aged man’s” name, he responds:

Nay, you shall pardon me:
But when he saw me, with a sigh that brake,
Or seemed to break, his heart-strings, thus he spake:
O my good knight, says he (and then his eyes
Were richer even by that which made them poor,
They’d spent so many tears they had no more). . .

and goes on to tell the story of an aging father with a disobedient son, obviously using the riddle to describe himself in a state of high dudgeon.

The word “lordings” in line three suggests the speaker is talking with close friends, possibly the same group as those who are by turns critical or mystified by his infatuation in sonnets 14, 18, 20, 21, and 27. The word can be a mildly contemptuous diminutive, but can also simply demonstrate intimacy and mutual regard. The clause “my thoughts in labor be,” at the end of the second line, recalls the same metaphor near the end of Sonnet 1, but there the emphasis was on the frustrated hopefulness of labor, and here it is clearly on the pain.

Since the first quatrain serves as introduction to the riddle, the riddle itself has the somewhat unusual form of ten lines, divided 4-3-3. The first seven of these lines establish the presence of a “rich” nymph living toward the east (Aurora being Homer’s “rosy-fingered” goddess of dawn; I’ll assume Lord Rich’s home is to the east of Sidney’s until I can confirm that.)  She is chiefly rich, as Sidney’s readers are so often told, in “beauties,” and the quatrain dwells fully on that idea, with a hyperbole similar to those in sonnet 36: by seeking to praise Stella, we only (as Regan says of Goneril) “come too short,” in our mortal fallibility. Having established this chief way in which Stella is “rich” in four lines, the speaker now grabs the word itself and offers three other ways she is rich, in each line of the first tercet. These too are idealistic, carefully skirting the more obvious material sense of the word. They are, in turn, fame (“renown”), and greatness of “heart” and soul (that which aspires to “the eternal crown”).

So far the sonnet, despite the introduction of the hated married name, could take its place with others that are steadfast in their praise of Stella—but we haven’t really gotten to the enigmatic part of the riddle. The word “though” in line 12 tips us off that a change of direction is coming, and the word “but” in the bottom line confirms it. While being fortunate in every conceivable way (the word “patents” suggests unique models; i.e., Plato’s ideal forms), Stella’s one misfortune is to bear the name Rich; she has (of course) married the wrong man.

Next time (weekend of December 13): Sonnet 38
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

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