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.