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.