Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 56

Fie, school of Patience, fie! Your lesson is
Far, far too long to learn it without book:
What, a whole week without one piece of look,
And think I should not your large precepts miss?
When I might read those letters fair of bliss,
Which in her face teach virtue, I could brook
Somewhat thy leaden counsels, which I took
As of a friend that meant not much amiss:
But now that I, alas, do want her sight,
What, dost thou think that I can ever take
In thy cold stuff a phlegmatic delight?
No, Patience, if thou wilt my good, then make
Her come, and hear with patience my desire,
And then with patience bid me bear my 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: “What,” at the start of lines 3 and 10 is the Elizabethan common interjection, not the start of a question, so the comma must be observed.  And “phlegmatic” in line 11 (originally “phlegmatique”) has an unusual pronunciation in which the third syllable is stressed, rather than the second, for the sake of the meter.

Apparently a week away from Stella is an unusually long time, and the poem sort of captures the tedium of such a lonely week, by its several repetitions of words (fie, far, and patience, and matching (in structure and general meaning) two-line sets at 3-4 and 10-11, giving that vaguely Godot-like feeling of just going in circles.

As in the following sonnet, we meet a new personification here, Patience. Patience is a counselor and teacher but, like Polonius, a rather dull, sententious, and tedious one. She gives “long lessons,” “large precepts,” and “leaden counsels”—in short, “cold stuff,” like a cold shower for the speaker’s passions.

The metaphorical scene that the poem creates has the speaker as a restless schoolboy in a classroom where the teacher’s lesson has taken on new urgency, but the teacher has lost her chief teaching aid, the textbook, which in the conceit is Stella herself. Imagine trying to master a complex subject by listening to lectures alone, with no recourse to printed explanations, illustrations, charts, and so forth; on top of that, imagine trying to do it when one’s mind is constantly elsewhere. In the octave, the speaker argues that he tried to be a good student of Patience as long as Stella herself was contributing to the lesson; with the consolation of her sight, he could “brook” those endless, tedious lectures.

“But now” (the fulcrum comes on cue, in the most predictable place) the lecture by (and on) Patience stands alone. If the point of poetry (as Sidney argues elsewhere) is both to teach and to delight, the lectures of Patience are decidedly unpoetic, offering instruction only, without the other half. How could he possibly be expected to keep paying attention?

So the final tercet offers an alternative course of action that is both appropriate and complex. If Patience wants the speaker to be patient, and has his best interests at heart (“wilt my good”), she should exert some influence over Stella also, and make her come back and listen patiently while the speaker lays out his claim for her love. The verb “bid” in the final line is deliberately and deliciously ambiguous. In a more neutral and somewhat less interesting reading it parallels “make,” and simply returns to the idea (running through the whole poem) of Patience trying to get the speaker to “chill out.” But if the subject of this verb is “Her” (Stella), and it parallels “come” and “hear,” then the line becomes a challenge: let’s just see if she can still bid me to contain the heat of my passion (“bear my fire”) when I have had a fair opportunity to present my case. For the sake of the strong ending of this sonnet, let’s just pretend, for the moment, that we don’t know the answer to that dare!

Next time (weekend of September 5): Sonnet 57
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 55

Muses, I oft invoked your holy aid,
With choicest flowers my speech to engarland so
That it, despised in true but naked show,
Might win some grace in your sweet grace arrayed;
And oft whole troops of saddest words I stayed,
Striving abroad a-foraging to go,
Until by your inspiring I might know
How their black banner might be best displayed.
But now I mean no more your help to try,
Nor other sugaring of my speech to prove,
But on her name incessantly to cry;
For let me but name her whom I do love,
So sweet sounds straight mine ear and heart do hit,
That I well find no eloquence like it. 

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: “to engarland” in line 2 is elided “”t’engarland”; “sugaring” in line 10 is two syllables; and the “So” that begins line 13 is the adverb meaning “such,” not the conjunctive “so.”

It seems unlikely that Sidney knew while writing how many sonnets he would end up with, but this one that starts the second half of the sequence is strikingly complementary with the start of the first half: in Sonnet 1, the muse came unbidden to urge the poet to “look in thy heart, and write,” while here the poet dismisses his muses because Stella is the only inspiration he needs. In other words, the story line is more or less reversed, but the point remains exactly the same!

The octave describes metaphorically a poetic process: since his own unvarnished protestations of love would surely be “despised,” he has, in the past, depended on the muses to “engarland” or decorate his words. Similarly (second quatrain), like a military general, he has kept his restless “troops” (the words) from venturing out before they have been properly “inspired” by the muses—lest (again) they be caught unprepared (as if while “foraging,” the classic time for unarmed troops to be ambushed) and shot down.

That was “then,” or the entire half-sequence already written. “But now” signals the obvious fulcrum and transition into the “answer” of the sestet, the poet’s declaration of independence. He will no longer rely on the muses to decorate his sad overtures; Stella’s name alone will be enough. As I said above, this is arriving by the opposite direction at essentially the same message in Sonnet 1; and with 53 more sonnets to go, we can be sure that it is a blatant falsehood!

Next time (weekend of August 22): Sonnet 56
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.