Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 41

Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance,
Guided so well, that I obtained the prize,
Both by the judgment of the English eyes
And of some sent from that sweet enemy, France;
Horsemen my skill in horsemanship advance,
Town-folks my strength;  a daintier judge applies
His praise to sleight, which from good use doth rise;
Some lucky wits impute it but to chance;
Others, because of both sides I do take
My blood from them who did excel in this,
Think Nature me a man of arms did make.
How far they shoot awry!  The true cause is,
Stella looked on, and from her heavenly face
Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.

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Reading note: in line 4 “enemy” is two syllables: en’my.

This sonnet has an 11-3 division, with one complex sentence occupying the first 11 lines, and then, following the fulcrum, a simpler response in the final three. Or, to break it down a bit more specifically, the first four lines form a dependent phrase, establishing the speaker’s success in a jousting tournament (and, like the last three lines of Sonnet 1, demonstrating that the “dangling modifier” was an unknown error to Sidney and his age); the next seven form the main sentence, a compound series which, like the last three feet of line 1, is an asyndeton in that it lacks a conjunction; it gives a series of explanations, of varying lengths, that other people have given for this success; and the final three reject all these explanations, and give the “true cause.”

Duncan-Jones’s note on this sonnet suggests that the real event referred to in Sidney’s life was probably a tournament at Whitehall on May 15 and 16, 1581, at which 500 French courtiers were in attendance, because of ongoing negotiations to arrange a marriage between Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Alençon—a marriage which Sidney opposed, and delicately demonstrated against in the pageantry of symbolic flattery that accompanied the tournament; thus, perhaps, the reference to France as a “sweet enemy” in line 4 (though admittedly there were many historical and religious reasons to continue to see France as “enemy” even while entertaining its court as guests). An eyewitness account may be found in Duncan-Jones’s appendices, pages 299-311.

To explicate the “explanations”: fellow competitors who are chiefly “horsemen” maintain (“advance”) that his superior horsemanship was responsible—to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail—while the simple townsfolk who are spectators think it’s brute strength. These groups focus on what they can understand, while the “daintier,” or more refined, judge appreciates the finer points of the sport, the deftness (“sleight”) with lance that comes from practice (“good use”). The word “lucky” in line 8 seems to refer not so much to being fortunate as, more generally, to living by a philosophy that emphasizes luck more than skill or work; i.e., these “wits” are probably gamblers who attribute all wins and losses merely to “chance.” The final explanation forms the first half of the sestet, and is a specific autobiographical reference: Sidney’s father and grandfather were both tilters, as were his maternal uncles; so these “others” are attributing his victory to his pedigree on “both sides.”

The final tercet begins with an apt metaphor, converting these various theories to arrows that have missed their target. The true inspiration was of course that Stella looked on and, in keeping with her name, cast celestial light on his “race” or jousting contest.

Next time (weekend of February 7): Sonnet 42
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 40

As good to write, as for to lie and groan,
O Stella dear, how much thy power hath wrought,
That hast my mind, none of the basest, brought,
My still-kept course, while others sleep, to moan.
Alas, if from the height of Virtue’s throne
Thou canst vouchsafe the influence of a thought
Upon a wretch that long thy grace hath sought,
Weigh then how I by thee am overthrown;
And then think thus—although thy beauty be
Made manifest by such a victory,
Yet noblest conquerors do wrecks avoid.
Since then thou hast so far subdued me,
That in my heart I offer still to thee,
O, do not let thy temple be destroyed.

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: “power” in line 2 is one syllable, while “subduëd” in line 12 has three.

Now we have Part III of this triptych of bed-time reflections. Sonnet 38 began promisingly with a very life-like dream of Stella, which sadly destroyed itself and chased sleep away for the speaker. In Sonnet 39 he appealed, apparently without success, to Sleep to return, so now he turns his thoughts straight to Stella herself, since it is clearly her fault that he lies awake. I might as well write a sonnet, he says, as lie here groaning. Line 3 suggests the speaker is not ordinarily slave or subject to anyone, but a proud man in most circumstances. But Stella has the singular “power” to make him “moan” his “still-kept course”—i.e., his constant obsession. In other words, he is lamenting not just the lack or loss of the woman he loves, but also the way in which his passion has reduced him.

The second quatrain takes the same abject position toward Stella, high on “Virtue’s throne” (cf. Sonnets 4, 9, 25, 31, 52, etc.), as the same portion of the previous sonnet had taken toward Sleep. As Sleep was a conquering emperor who could cause civil wars to cease, Stella is a proud conqueror who has “overthrown” the speaker, and clearly has the power to destroy him.

In the sestet, where the previous sonnet offered forms of “tribute” to the conqueror, this one offers a simple plea: do not destroy what you have conquered. Obviously tyrants can make a demonstration of power by laying waste the lands they conquer, but the “noblest conquerors” recognize that their own glory is enhanced by the grandeur of the states and structures within their sway. The speaker is a “temple” to his own love and Stella’s beauty, and that temple should not be destroyed. Handel wrote a wonderful oratorio—“Alexander’s Feast”—on the counter-example of Alexander the Great unwisely destroying the great city of Persepolis after celebrating his great victory there. This plea to the “conqueror” is an idea that Sidney will reprise—with essentially the same intent—at the start of Sonnet 67.
Next time (weekend of January 24): Sonnet 41
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.