Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 51

Pardon mine ears, both I and they do pray,
So may your tongue still fluently proceed,
To them that do such entertainment need,
So may you still have somewhat new to say.
On silly me do not the burden lay,
Of all the grave conceits your brain doth breed;
But find some Hercules to bear, in steed
Of Atlas tired, your wisdom’s heavenly sway.
For me, while you discourse of courtly tides,
Of cunning’st fishers in most troubled streams,
Of straying ways, when valiant error guides;
Meanwhile my heart confers with Stella’s beams,
And is even irked that so sweet comedy,
By such unsuited speech should hindered be.

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: “even” in line 13 is one syllable; and “in steed” (line 7) was a 16th and 17th century form of “instead,” whose use here creates a pun.

This is another sonnet (like 14 and 21) in the vein of John Donne’s “Canonization” (“For God’s sake, hold thy tongue, and let me love”), responding with sarcasm to the friends who are carping critics of the speaker’s infatuation. Take note that, with this sonnet, we enter the longest stretch of formal uniformity in the whole sequence: seven sonnets in a row with Sidney’s favorite rhyme scheme and, with exceptions at 53 and 54, his typical 4-4-3-3 structure. We might say, optimistically and artistically, that the poet has found his groove; or, pessimistically and biographically, that the stagnation in the relationship is starting to rub off on his poetry!

The first eleven lines here offer a witty array of parodic or sarcastic techniques. In the first quatrain, the speaker’s ears are turned into victims, so that switches him right away from being the “accused” to being the champion of the oppressed. The friend’s criticisms are sarcastically turned to “entertainment,” and the suggestion that a new audience may give him something new to say is a backhanded way of saying that the friend’s criticisms are growing repetitive and tedious.

The sarcasm takes the form of hyperbole in the second quatrain, with a couple of word-plays triggering the device. In the sixteenth century, “silly” was a word in transition from its medieval meaning of “innocent” to the modern sense “foolish.” The speaker’s friend would clearly think of him in the latter sense, but the speaker presents himself as childishly unable to handle such vast wisdom. Secondly, “grave” means serious, but it is a weight-related term (as in the double meaning of “gravity”), so now we are set up for the hyperbolic contrast between the enormous weight of the friend’s “wisdom” and the childish incapacity of the speaker to bear it. The wordplay is compounded by the classical allusion to Hercules briefly standing in for Atlas in holding up the earth (with the choice of “in steed” for “instead” punningly making him a beast of burden), and this is exaggerated still further by making the weight here not just the earth but “heavenly sway”—a veiled reference also to the understanding of Reason as God’s will (see the entry on Sonnets 4 and 10).

Starting with “courtly tides,” we get subtle reference to the sort of sententious preaching being rejected: the repeated similitudes drawn from nature that are characteristic of the faddish euphuistic prose of the day: the “tides” of courtly opinion, fishing in troubled waters, or choosing “error” for a trail guide. As in line 6 of Sonnet 10, the tenth line here captures the difficulty of the weighty arguments with a tongue-twister, three separate “st” combinations in short space, for instance.

By contrast to those first eleven lines, the final three lines are clear and simple, as if the light of “Stella’s beams” has broken through. By contrast to his ears in line 1, the speaker’s heart is focused solely on his prize; and by contrast to the “entertainment” in line 3, this is “sweet comedy,” obviously in the Dantean sense of a story with a heavenly ending, rather than a trivial reference to amusement. The speaker’s critic is dismissed as a noisome distraction from a constant pursuit.

Next time (weekend of June 27): Sonnet 52
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

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