Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 60

When my good angel guides me to the place
Where all my good I do in Stella see,
That heaven of joys throws only down on me
Thundered disdains and lightnings of disgrace:
But when the ruggedest step of fortune’s race
Makes me fall from her sight, then sweetly she
With words, wherein the muses’ treasures be,
Shows love and pity to my absent case.
Now I, wit-beaten long by hardest fate,
So dull am, that I cannot look into
The ground of this fierce love and lovely hate:
Then some good body tell me how I do,
Whose presence absence, absence presence is;
Blest in my curse, and cursed in my bliss.

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: “heaven” in line 3 is one syllable; “ruggedest” is elided as two (“rugg’dest”); and “cursed” in line 14 has two.

The visit with Stella is turning out to be a decidedly mixed blessing, since the speaker’s advances are met with “disdains” and “disgrace” that are compared metaphorically to a stormy day. On the other hand, when he has the misfortune (“the ruggedest step of fortune’s race”) to be separated from her, she apparently writes sweet letters of “pity” and “love” (from the security of distance, we may surmise) that he takes to be much more encouraging, as they contain “the muses’ treasures”—the stuff of poetic inspiration.

In the first tercet of the sestet, he is being driven crazy by this confusing pattern! He is “wit-beaten” and has become so stupid (“dull”) that he cannot fathom the background (“ground,” a term from heraldry or embroidery) of “this fierce love and lovely hate”; i.e., he is being made moronic by her oxymoronic behavior!

“Tell me how I do” can be understood as “try to explain this strange state of being I am in”; and, in a marvelous chiasmus that ends the poem, he restates the paradox as downright existential: when he is “present,” he is actually (to her) “absent,” and vice versa. The “curse” of separation from Stella is actually a blessing, and the “bliss” of her presence is a curse. He’s living in a very strange twilight zone.

Next time (weekend of October 31): Sonnet 61
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 59

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 59

Dear, why make you more of a dog than me?
If he do love, I burn, I burn in love;
If he wait well, I never thence would move;
If he be fair, yet but a dog can be.
Little he is, so little worth is he;
He barks, my songs thine own voice oft doth prove:
Bidden, perhaps, he fetcheth thee a glove,
But I unbid, fetch even my soul to thee.
Yet while I languish, him that bosom clips,
That lap doth lap, nay lets in spite of spite
This sour-breathed mate taste of those sugared lips.
Alas, if you grant only such delight
To witless things, then love I hope (since wit
Becomes a clog) will soon ease me of 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 note: “even” in line 8 is the customary one-syllable elision.

Apparently the speaker has the pleasure of an extended visit with Stella. But she has gone from the delightful highlight of reading his poetry (previous sonnet) to now showering more affection on the family dog than on him. So, demeaning as it might seem, he spends 11 of his 14 lines comparing himself favorably to a dog. We might think of a rough paraphrase of Shakespeare’s much better known Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”):

Shall I compare me to a mangy mutt?
I am more lovely and more temperate. . .

After an opening-line question gives the premise of the poem, the remainder of the first quatrain is three parallel “If” statements, seeking to “one-up” three of the dog’s virtues, his loving, his “wait[ing] well,” and his beauty, respectively. In the second quatrain, he sharpens the criticism and tries to heighten the contrast to his own benefit: the dog’s small size matches its “worth”; the dog barks, the speaker provides Stella with songs; and in a two-line culmination of the octave, the dog can “perhaps” fetch a trivial object such as a glove, while the speaker fetches his very “soul” to Stella.

The “Yet” at the start of line 9 announces that we will now get the full indignity of the injustice being committed, described in just three very tight, antithetical lines. The dog has everything the speaker lacks: Stella’s “bosom” embraces (the oldest meaning of “clips”) it; her “lap” enfolds (“laps”) it; and without necessarily even enjoying it (“in spite of spite”—line 10 is a brilliant double-antanaclasis), the “sour-breathed” pooch receives the sweet kisses the speaker long has craved.

In the final three lines, this little home-spun anecdote turns into a reflection—albeit a jesting one—on the Chain of Being. What separates the speaker from the beast, ultimately is his human gift of reason, which, we have seen in other contexts (e.g., Sonnet 10) also happens to be what keeps Stella and him apart. So now reason (or “wit”) has become an obstacle (“clog”) in another sense; if he lacked it, and were a mere beast like the dog, Stella could safely pour out all that affection on him. Not to worry, he jokes: through the force of love, he will very soon lose whatever reason he has left!

Next time (weekend of October 17): Sonnet 60
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.