Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 42

O eyes, which do the spheres of beauty move,
Whose beams be joys, whose joys all virtues be,
Who, while they make Love conquer, conquer Love,
The schools where Venus hath learned chastity;
O eyes, whose humble looks most glorious prove
Only loved tyrants, just in cruelty,
Do not, O do not from poor me remove;
Keep still my zenith, ever shine on me.
For though I never see them, but straightways
My life forgets to nourish languished sprites;
Yet still on me, O eyes, dart down your rays;
And if from majesty of sacred lights,
Oppressing mortal sense, my death proceed,
Wracks triumphs be, which Love (high set) doth breed.

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.

This sonnet is of course addressed to Stella’s now-famous (or infamous) eyes, and all of their symbolic complexity is reflected in the poem’s tight and thorny figurative language. The octave at first glance appears to be two parallel ABAB quatrains, similar to an English sonnet, because of the repeated apostrophe “O eyes”; but in fact, while six of the eight lines do modify “eyes,” the last two shift into the sentence’s main clause, making a plea to the subject.  The first six lines are broken down as follows:

  1. A relative clause implying that the eyes are Prime Movers in some sort of parallel Platonic universe, where the customary planetary spheres of the Ptolemaic universe are replaced by the figurative “spheres of beauty.”
  2. A pair of parallel relative clauses, using auxesis to get the required and uncomplicated compliments out of the way in a hurry.
  3. Another relative clause with an extremely tight chiasmus (or epanados) compressing an idea which takes many more words to explain: Stella’s eyes make a conquest of the men who fall in love with them, but simultaneously quash that same love.
  4. An appositive whose paradox (Venus herself learns chastity in the “schools” of these eyes) elaborates on the paradox of the previous line.
  5. and 6. After the repeated apostrophe, one more relative clause, enjambed over the two lines. The word “prove” at the end of line 5 means “turn out to be” (tyrants), and “Only” in line 6 can mean either “merely” or (attached more closely to “lov’d”) “solely” or “singularly.” The set ends with two more paradoxes, tyrants that are loved, and cruelty that is just.

The plea to the eyes in lines 7 and 8 is simply to stay where they are, a constancy reflected first metrically by five strong stresses in a row in line 7 (“do not from poor me”) and then by the image in line 8: the “zenith” is the high point in the sky, so “still” is here an adverb modifying “keep”; i.e., stay constantly the high point of my sky. The image is akin to the North Star as the “star to every wandering bark” in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, and obviously returns us to the symbolism of Stella’s name.

The sestet explains why the speaker wants the eyes to “ever shine on me,” despite their decidedly mixed benefits. The first tercet may be paraphrased: For although whenever I see those eyes, I immediately lose my spirit, yet still . . . (and the plea is repeated). And then at the end, the crowning paradox: even if those “sacred lights” sap so much of my strength that they kill me, I will have died triumphant if I died for love.

Next time (weekend of February 21): Sonnet 43
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *