I cursed thee oft; I pity now thy case,
Blind-hitting boy, since she that thee and me
Rules with a beck, so tyrannizeth thee,
That thou must want or food or dwelling place,
For she protests to banish thee her face.
Her face? O Love, a rogue thou then should’st be,
If Love learn not alone to love and see,
Without desire to feed of further grace.
Alas poor wag, that now a scholar art
To such a schoolmistress, whose lessons new
Thou needs must miss, and so thou needs must smart.
Yet dear, let me his pardon get of you,
So long (though he from book mich to desire)
Till without fuel you can make hot fire.
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: the first “or” in line 4 means “either,” so it is necessary to make a slight lift after “want,” so that “want or food” doesn’t sound like a noun phrase. (To complicate this still further, Sidney clearly intends the “either/or” to mean “both/and,” since Cupid is denied the face where he both lives and “feeds” on grace.)
“Mich” in line 13 is not a typo; it is an archaic verb meaning “to be truant.” Shakespeareans may recognize it from Falstaff’s rhetorical question in 1HenryIV II.4, “Shall the blessed sun of heaven prove a micher and eat blackberries?”
“Fuel” in the last line has two syllables.
The sonnet is addressed to Cupid (“Blind-hitting boy”), or “Love.” It is somewhat oddly divided, in that the first thought runs through five lines and, because of the ABBA quatrains, in effect ends with a couplet.* This allows three three-line thoughts to develop the implications of Cupid’s being “banished” from Stella’s face (has she taken to frowning lately?), so it could be argued that the poem’s fulcrum comes at this atypical spot. (Alternatively, it is signaled by “Alas” in the much more usual location.) “Rules with a beck” simply means that Stella has both Cupid and the speaker at her beck and call, and the modern way of saying “protests to banish” would be “protests by banishing.”
Exiled from Stella’s face, Cupid must needs be a “rogue,” a sort of vagrant deprived of his usual place and purpose, if (lines 7-8) he cannot learn what the speaker already knows, how to remain alone and loving without hope of return.
Cupid’s awkward situation is compared (lines 9-11) to the paradoxical one of a schoolboy with a particularly harsh schoolmarm, who has in effect been suspended from school, but now is whipped (“needs must smart”) for being absent!
The final tercet is tight and slightly difficult. The grammatical crux is the construction “So long . . . till,” which means “Unless and until,” followed by an impossibility; as in “So long till [unless and until] money grows on trees, you must work for a living.” Now to put the poem’s own meaning back in, the speaker is asking Stella (the harsh schoolmistress) to pardon her wayward pupil (though he parenthetically continues to be wayward by turning from his studies to desire the teacher) unless and until she can make a hot fire without fuel; i.e., Cupid needs to be back in place for her to enkindle the “hot fire” of the speaker’s love.
* Duncan-Jones’s editing makes a more conventional sonnet division by making a more abrupt self-interruption. She ends line 4 with a period, and then starts a new thought, which is broken off with a dash at the end of line 5.
Next time (weekend of April 18): Sonnet 47
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.