Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 54

Because I breathe not love to everyone,
Nor do not use set colors for to wear,
Nor nourish special locks of vowed hair,
Nor give each speech a full point of a groan,
The courtly nymphs, acquainted with the moan
Of them who in their lips Love’s standard bear,
“What, he!” say they of me; “now I dare swear
He cannot love; no, no, let him alone.”
And think so still, so Stella know my mind!
Profess, indeed, I do not Cupid’s art;
But you, fair maids, at length this true shall find,
That his right badge is worn but in the heart.
Dumb swans, not chattering pies, do lovers prove;
They love indeed, who quake to say they love.

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 note:  “vowed” in line 3 is two syllables

While this is a conventional Italian sonnet, with fulcrum and change of rhyme scheme after the eighth line, it is more “hybridized” with the English sonnet form than most of Sidney’s sonnets. The customary division of the sestet into two tercets is here replaced with a quatrain and a couplet, although this third quatrain (CDCD) changes form from the two in the octave (ABBA).

The understanding of this sonnet is enhanced by a familiarity with Shakespeare’s As You Like It, specifically the several moments when characters describe what the typical lover is supposed to look like:

Rosalind (in disguise, challenging Orlando for lacking any of the “signs” of a lover):

A lean cheek, which you have not; a blue eye and sunken, which you have not; an unquestionable spirit, which you have not; a beard neglected, which you have not . . . . Then your hose should be ungartered, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbuttoned, your shoe untied and everything about you demonstrating a careless desolation; but you are no such man . . . . (3.2.278 ff.)

Silvius (to Corin, arguing that the older man cannot know what love is):

If thou rememb’rest not the slightest folly
That ever love did make thee run into,
Thou hast not loved.
Or if thou hast not sat as I do now,
Wearing thy hearer in thy mistress’ praise,
Thou hast not loved.
Or if thou hast not broke from company
Abruptly, as my passion now makes me,
Thou hast not loved. (2.4.26-34)

Jaques (describing one of the “ages of man”):

And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. (2.7.150-152)

If Rosalind were one of the real ladies of Elizabeth’s court in Sidney’s time—the “courtly nymphs” or “fair maids”—her skepticism, we are told here, would be aimed at the poet himself. The octave humorously describes how these court gossips, versed in such things, have determined that the speaker lacks all the requisite signs of a lover, and have therefore struck him from their lists of eligible bachelors.

This is just fine, he says, as long as Stella knows about his love, since she is the only one he wants. But he cannot resist offering himself as an example and trying to teach these shallow people a little lesson: true love is carried in the heart, not in the mouth. As in an English sonnet, the couplet is a tidy “bottom line” or moral of the story. It is the graceful, silent swans whose mating habits are suggestive of faithful love, not the noisy magpies who are chattering all the time. (Since the women themselves have spoken aloud in the poem, and none too gracefully, this dig is probably aimed back at them.) The word “indeed” in the final line is a pun, heard as “in deed,” the antithesis of “say.”

With Sonnet 54, I have reached the halfway point on my journey through the sonnets of Astrophil and Stella. I can take inventory of the formal features of these sonnets with some numbers. At this point, Sidney has employed 11 of the 15 different rhyme schemes used in the whole sequence. When this is broken down further, it appears that the blend of the familiar with the experimental is roughly the same on both sides of this dividing line:

  • Of the 79 occurrences of the two most common rhyme schemes, 40 have happened in the first half, while of the 8 schemes that appear only once, we have seen 5.
  • Of 23 cases (some arguable) where the sestet does not have the typical two-tercet division, we have seen 11.
  • The six occurrences of hexameter lines are divided 3 and 3.

This would argue for at least formal consistency of purpose over the whole sequence, were it not for a departure we have not seen at all yet: the introduction of “songs,” several with substantial length, in among the sonnets, which starts only after Sonnet 63. There are 11 of these in all, of varying meters and stanza structures, and lengths ranging from 18 to 104 lines. They are found one each after Sonnets 63, 72, 83 and 85, then five in a row after 86 (so it almost seems the sonnets are overwhelmed by other material in the “80s”), and one each after 92 and 104. I have no explanation for this change, and indeed have never really given it much thought, preoccupied as I am with the form and function of individual sonnets. But I will see if any new speculation comes to mind when I encounter the songs in a context of closely analyzing the sonnets that surround them.

As for the content of the 54 poems we have examined to date, I think it’s fair to confess that the Petrarchan fixation on unrequited love, and the Courtly Love tradition of worshipping an unattainable goddess-mistress (usually someone else’s wife) from a distance, are hoary poetic clichés; and that if Sidney were a close friend and these poems truly reflected his daily preoccupations, we would be thoroughly fed up with him! But Sidney’s is an age of artifice; originality of expression, not the uniqueness or confessional truth of the passions expressed, is what is valued in the arts. And Sidney has not ceased to amaze me in the non-repetitive inventiveness of his pen. Like great paintings on the wall of a museum, each of these sonnets offers another little “surprise” each time you walk past. If I have done anything at all to open a reader’s eyes to some of these surprises, I am doing what I set out to do.

Next time (weekend of August 8): Sonnet 55
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 53

In martial sports I had my cunning tried,
And yet to break more staves did me address:
While with the people’s shouts, I must confess,
Youth, luck, and praise, even filled my veins with pride;
When Cupid having me his slave descried,
In Mars’s livery, prancing in the press:
“What now, Sir Fool,” said he; “I would no less.
Look here, I say.” I looked and Stella spied,
Who hard by made a window send forth light.
My heart then quaked, then dazzled were mine eyes;
One hand forgot to rule, th’other to fight;
Nor trumpet’s sound I heard, nor friendly cries;
My foe came on, and beat the air for me,
Till that her blush taught me my shame to see.

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 note: “even” in line 4 is one syllable.

This sonnet gives a small insight into the “trash talk” or (in earlier parlance) “flyting,” or (a bit later) “braving” that immediately precedes an armed combat. Cupid’s taunts in lines 7 and 8 are not different in kind from what a modern street thug or gang member might use to challenge a rival.

The sonnet as a whole tells a charming little tale of a usually-great warrior who in this instance makes a fool of himself because his attention is diverted from the fight, and he offers no opposition at all. In Sidney’s case, there is a remote possibility that some such embarrassment was a real event, but the fact that Cupid is made the actual opponent in the story, and not a third party, suggests that the event here is purely symbolic.

The speaker at the start is feeling pretty cocky about his martial prowess and well-earned celebrity as a jouster; but Cupid, an opponent who has already dominated and “enslaved” him, shows up to challenge and put him in his place. When the speaker turns to look at this new challenger, he sees only Stella, watching from a window and (as is her wont) “send[ing] forth light.” In the presumably real instance when that happened (described in Sonnet 41) Stella’s light inspired him to greatness; but in this symbolic version it merely “dazzles” and disables him, and he very much appears the “fool” that Cupid has called him, offering no opposition so that his opponent fights only “air.”* While Sidney the warrior would likely never be subject to such shame, Astrophil the lover is helpless to resist the power of Cupid in the face of Stella’s beauty, and does not even try.

Approaching this poem steeped as we are in the conventional structure of Sidney’s Italian sonnets (octave plus a sestet divided into two tercets), we can readily appreciate the structural trick that captures the effect of losing one’s concentration and being wrong-footed. The opening quatrain is perfectly solid and predictable, reflecting the speaker’s confidence and smugness. Then, like the laughter on the bridge in Amsterdam for the self-satisfied Clamence in Camus’ The Fall, comes the mocking challenge and the distracting vision of Stella—and, quite uncharacteristically, it takes an extra line to “finish” the octave, as if the speaker lost track of where the break should come. A three-line thought, describing his confusion, follows, but perforce this misses the usual dividing spot, running lines 10-12 instead of 9-11. A couplet at the end brings us out of the daze and into the embarrassing reality; so at start and end the sonnet is structurally on solid ground, but for eight lines in between it is—like its speaker—thrown “off stride.”

* The OED cites 1 Corinthians 9.26 as the source for the phrase “to beat the air,” meaning “to fight to no purpose or against no opposition.”

Next time (weekend of July 25): Sonnet 54
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 52

A strife is grown between Virtue and Love,
While each pretends that Stella must be his:
Her eyes, her lips, her all, saith Love, do this
Since they do wear his badge, most firmly prove.
But Virtue thus that title doth disprove:
That Stella (O dear name) that Stella is
That virtuous soul, sure heir of heavenly bliss,
Not this fair outside, which our hearts doth move;
And therefore, though her beauty and her grace
Be Love’s indeed, in Stella’s self he may
By no pretense claim any manner place.
Well, Love, since this demur our suit doth stay,
Let Virtue have that Stella’s self; yet thus
That Virtue but that body grant to us.

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 note: both “virtuous” and “heavenly” in line 7 are two syllables.

The “strife” that is the topic of this poem was introduced all the way back in Sonnet 4:

Virtue, alas, now let me take some rest;
Thou sett’st a bate between my will and wit;
If vain Love have my simple soul oppressed,
Leave what thou lik’st not, deal not thou with it.

As we noted there, strict conventional virtue keeps Stella, betrothed or married to another man, from loving as (at least in Sidney’s mind) she more naturally would; that is the essential conflict between Virtue and Love. The logic of this poem depends also on an even better-known conflict, conventionally attributed to St. Paul: that between Soul and Body. The first conflict is carried out by means of the second, as the two parties debate whether body or soul represents the essential Stella. Love states his case first, which in sonnet logic means he is going to lose, though a lawyer might say he has established a “basis for appeal.”  His argument is simply that everything observable about Stella (i.e., bodily features) advertises love, so she is clearly on his team. But this argument is easily trumped by the superior understanding that a person’s “self” is identified with her soul, and Stella’s soul is clearly on the side of Virtue. In lines 9-11 Virtue does generously concede that “her beauty and her grace” (i.e., “this fair outside”) belong to Love, but not the “self” that is Stella.

In the final tercet, the speaker, acting as a less-than-disinterested judge in the dispute, humorously divides the prize, suggesting each disputant get the “part” of Stella that belongs to him. At the risk of becoming more serious than the playful sonnet merits, I will point to two implications here: (1) that one’s body can be separated from the “self” (a marvelous liberation from responsibility!); and (2) an admission that the speaker would be grateful for a mere illicit sexual liaison, with no hint of Shakespeare’s “marriage of true minds” or Donne’s “intertwining” of souls. He is more like the lust-minded Angelo in Measure for Measure, who, when Isabella offers to do anything to save her brother’s life that would not endanger her soul, quickly replies, “I talk not of your soul.”

Next time (weekend of July 11): Sonnet 53
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.