Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 50

Stella, the fullness of my thoughts of thee
Cannot be stayed within my panting breast,
But they do swell and struggle forth of me,
Till that in words thy figure be expressed.
And yet, as soon as they so formed be,
According to my Lord Love’s own behest,
With sad eyes I their weak proportion see,
To portrait that which in this world is best;
So that I cannot choose but write my mind,
And cannot choose but put out what I write,
While these poor babes their death in birth do find:
And now my pen these lines had dashed quite,
But that they stopped his fury from the same,
Because their forefront bare sweet Stella’s name.

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: “formed” in line 5 and “dashed” in line 12 both have two syllables.

If my gentle reader is starting to complain that Sidney’s preoccupation with unrequited love grows tiresome and tedious, I reply, Yes, but doesn’t he have a bottomless grab-bag of varied poetic devices and gizmos?  Here we encounter meta-poetry, a poem that is about the writing of itself!  Or, to put that another way, a poem in which the speaker carries on a conversation, as it were, with the very words he is writing, as he writes them.

That is, when he writes

Stella, the fullness of my thoughts of thee
Cannot be stayed within my panting breast,
But they do swell and struggle forth of me,
Till that in words thy figure be expressed.

what he describes is literally happening as he writes that quatrain. In the poet’s passion (“panting breast”) his overcharged thoughts force their way out into words that express “thy figure”—a term with multiple senses. Most literally, it refers simply to Stella’s bodily shape, frame, or appearance; but in ascending levels of abstraction, it also refers to the image or likeness of that shape, an imaginary artistic expression of it (as in “figure drawing”), and, most pertinent to the context, the figurative language of poetry, giving the human form both image and meaning in a “figure of speech.”

In the second quatrain, the words have now been “formed,” at the “behest” of his ruler Love, but as he reads what he has written he realizes how pathetic a portrait (“their weak proportion”) they are, compared to the real thing—“that which in this world is best.”

The “So that” at the start of the sestet is equivalent to “Thus,” meaning that what follows is a review of the conundrum he has just described in the octave, and its futile implications: he must write what he thinks (“my mind”), and then read what he writes, at which point the words are like still-born children—an echo, perhaps, of the “labor pains” connected with poetic creation near the end of Sonnet 1.

So, in the final tercet, his impulse is to strike out (“had dashed”) the words he has just written—i.e., this very sonnet—but he is prevented from doing so by the very first word (“their forefront”), Stella’s name.* The sonnet has very neatly come full circle and ended with its beginning.

* As Duncan-Jones notes, this is similar to a little piece of comic action in Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (I.2), when Julia tears up a note she has just written to her love Proteus, but then finds his name in the scraps, and cannot continue throwing them away.

Next time (weekend of June 13): Sonnet 51
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 49

I on my horse, and Love on me, doth try
Our horsemanships, while by strange work I prove
A horseman to my horse, a horse to Love;
And now man’s wrongs in me, poor beast, descry.
The reins wherewith my rider doth me tie,
Are humbled thoughts, which bit of reverence move,
Curbed in with fear, but with gilt boss above
Of hope, which makes it seem fair to the eye.
The wand is will; thou, fancy, saddle art,
Girt fast by memory; and while I spur
My horse, he spurs with sharp desire my heart;
He sits me fast, however I do stir;
And now hath made me to his hand so right,
That in the manage myself takes delight.

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.

Sidney was of course a skilled horseman, and there is an echo here of Sonnet 41, and his day of triumph. But within the first three lines, the speaker has turned himself “by strange work” into a monster: horse and rider at the same time (because Love, or Cupid, rides him at the same time he rides his horse). And after a transition in Line 4, the remainder of the sonnet develops this conceit in terms of the speaker’s new-found empathy with his own “poor beast” for the treatment he suffers. The poem bears comparison with Wyatt’s “My Galley, Charged with Forgetfulness,” in which different parts of the speaker’s mental process become either parts of a ship or aspects of the storm that troubles it. The abstract qualities here—thoughts, reverence, fear, hope, will, fancy, memory, and desire—are similarly matched up with the physical aspects of horsemanship:

Thoughts = the reins
Reverence = the bit
Fear = the “curbs” on the bit
Hope = the ornamental gilt boss on the side of the bridle
Will = the “wand” or whip
Fancy = the saddle
Memory = the saddle-girth (which thus keeps fancy in control)
Desire = the spurs

I needn’t say too much more, I hope, about how all this works, except to point out that (as explicitly stated in Wyatt’s poem) Reason is nowhere in sight, and the speaker is being entirely “ridden” by Fancy, Desire, and so on.

As we would expect from Sidney, the conceit turns out to be particularly apt, since the final tercet describes the ideal horse-rider relationship that any horseman will recognize: horse and rider become as one (line 12) so that no superfluous movements break that unity; and (lines 13-14) the rider’s control is so complete that the horse actually “takes delight” in perfectly following orders. The speaker recognizes that he, likewise, finds a sort of self-destructive joy in being the utterly compliant slave to Love. An idea briefly alluded to in lines 7-8 of Sonnet 28 is given more elaborated treatment in this sonnet.

Next time (weekend of June 6): Sonnet 50
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 48

Soul’s joy, bend not those morning stars from me,
Where virtue is made strong by beauty’s might,
Where love is chasteness, pain doth learn delight,
And humbleness grows one with majesty.
Whatever may ensue, O let me be
Co-partner of the riches of that sight;
Let not mine eyes be hell-driven from that light;
O look, O shine, O let me die and see.
For though I oft myself of them bemoan,
That through my heart their beamy darts be gone,
Whose cureless wounds even now most freshly bleed;
Yet since my death-wound is already got,
Dear killer, spare not thy sweet cruel shot:
A kind of grace it is to kill with speed.

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: “driven” in line 7 and “even” in line 11 are one-syllable each, while “cruel” in line 13 is two.

After Stella’s eyes “Sent forth the beams” that inspired the speaker’s jousting triumph at the end of Sonnet 41, he seemed to become preoccupied with her facial physiognomy—and especially the eyes—for several sonnets more, and particularly the eyes in Sonnets 42 and this one, which could be read as a companion pair. Both sonnets are pleas to Stella to continue to “shine” those dark and flashing eyes on the speaker, even if it kills him; this is the plea of the hyper-poetic opening line here, where the “Soul’s joy” is Stella, and the “morning stars” are her eyes.

The next three lines are tightly paradoxical, with the overall point being that the speaker is ennobled by Stella’s sight, even for the suffering that it causes him. The first thought might be that Stella’s own virtue is made still stronger by her extreme beauty (i.e., there’s no particular virtue in chastity if one is ugly), since the word has mostly until now been associated with her; but in context the point seems to be that her extreme beauty makes the speaker’s virtue in keeping his distance still stronger. Similarly, since love of her must remain chaste, he must “delight” (cf. the final line of Sonnet 50) in his pain, and find only humility in the “majesty” of his aspiration.

In the second quatrain, it is hard to see any other meaning in “Co-partner of the riches of that sight” than a desire or willingness to be a second man in Stella’s life, and if Sidney were a Nashville song writer, the “Whatever may ensue” might cover the very forward suggestion of adultery. But given the context of what follows, not to mention the poet’s gallantry, it presumably refers only to his own humiliation and suffering. The middle two lines of the sonnet (7-8) parallel its first and last lines respectively. Line 7 repeats the plea not to be denied the light of her eyes; “hell” is used here in the Miltonic sense of the absence of God’s light. Line 8 prefigures the poem’s “bottom line” of staying within shot of those beams even if it kills him, and features a hysteron-proteron (loosely, “cart before the horse”) in “O let me die and see” as a way of stressing this determination.

The entire sestet then elaborates on this idea with a combat metaphor, indeed the metaphor contained in the French term coup de grace: since you “kill” me in any case, he says, there is a kind of mercy if you aim for the heart and do it swiftly. But of course when we return from the metaphor to the reality under discussion, the speaker is simply begging that Stella not deny him her presence; and since whatever “death” that might bring is far from literal, the actual result of that would be (and will be) merely prolonged suffering.

Next time (weekend of May 23): Sonnet 49
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.