Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 71

Who will in fairest book of Nature know
How virtue may best lodged in beauty be,
Let him but learn of love to read in thee,
Stella, those fair lines which true goodness show.
There shall he find all vices’ overthrow,
Not by rude force, but sweetest sovereignty
Of reason, from whose light those night-birds fly;
That inward sun in thine eyes shineth so.
And not content to be perfection’s heir
Thyself, dost strive all minds that way to move,
Who mark in thee what is in thee most fair;
So while thy beauty draws the heart to love,
As fast thy virtue bends that love to good.
But, ah, Desire still cries: “Give me some food.”  

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This sonnet continues discussion of the Platonic idea most recently brought up in Sonnet 69 (but also in 61 and 62, and earlier on in 5, 9, 21, and 25), that beauty is meant to draw us “upward” toward virtue. The opening is an answer to the understood question, “What’s the best source for understanding how virtue and beauty may be found together?” A “book of Nature” is a book created or “authored” by Nature, rather than a human author.

The answer, of course, is Stella, and here she is praised for the very quality the speaker usually resents, her reason and virtue. He is, for the moment, trying to live up to the challenge she gave him in Sonnet 69, where she gave him sovereignty of her heart so long as he behaved virtuously. So those familiar flashes from Stella’s eyes, which have heretofore mostly excited passion, here come from her “inward sun” (i.e., soul) and are employed in chasing away the “night-birds” which are metaphors for “all vices.”

The first five lines of the sestet continue in the same vein, extending the general thought with the more immediately pertinent idea that she is not only perfect in herself, but a teacher of virtue to others, by that Platonic process of beauty “drawing” us to become better.

As a thirteen-line sonnet, this would pass muster at a revival meeting; but the speaker has been a good boy for just about as long as he can stand. The fourteenth line undoes all the rest, saying, in effect: “Get serious! I’m a man with an appetite! And this virtue stuff is pretty thin broth!”

Next time (weekend of April 3): Sonnet 72
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 70

My muse may well grudge at my heavenly joy,
If still I force her in sad rhymes to creep;
She oft hath drunk my tears, now hopes to enjoy
Nectar of mirth, since I Jove’s cup do keep.
Sonnets be not bound prentice to annoy;
Trebles sing high, as well as basses deep:
Grief but Love’s winter livery is, the boy
Hath cheeks to smile, as well as eyes to weep.
Come then, my muse, show thou height of delight
In well-raised notes; my pen the best it may
Shall paint out joy, though but in black and white.
Cease, eager muse; peace, pen, for my sake stay;
I give you here my hand for truth of this:
Wise silence is best music unto 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 note: “heavenly” in line 1 is two syllables, and “to enjoy” in line 3 must be elided to “t’enjoy.”

This sonnet seeks to hold on to the blissful moment of the previous one, with a more modest and quiet reflection. It resumes the on-and-off conversation with the muse that started in Sonnet 1, and opens with the assumption that this long-suffering muse will be expecting some happy poetry now, for a change. The somewhat obscure reference in line 4 to keeping “Jove’s cup” may be a footnote reference to Sidney’s honorary office of cupbearer to the Queen, but since this was neither new nor the source of his bliss, the more important symbolism is the suggestion of his finding favor with a deity.

The second quatrain comments on the range or versatility of the sonnet, and could be read as a rebuke of the cult of Petrarch—of which Sidney himself is a prominent member—for its single-minded focus on unrequited love. “Annoy” at the end of line 5 is a noun, meaning grief, and a “bound prentice” is an apprentice who has been signed over (by a parent or guardian) to a master for a period of time in return for learning a trade. So the sense of the line is that sonnets do not just serve to express grief or disappointment. They have “high” notes as well as low (line 6); they wear different clothing (“livery”) for different seasons (7); Cupid (“Love,” or “the boy”) can smile as well as weep (8).

Lines 9-11 make a rather tentative effort to put this new poetic principle into practice, looking a bit like the ever-sober prude Malvolio at the moment when the planted letter instructs him to smile. The very first thing the muse is told to show is “height of delight,” a comical internal rhyme, with a “reverse” foot (trochee) paired with a normal one—like an unsure person trying to buck himself up for a new direction. And it doesn’t go so well: “my pen the best it may/Shall paint out joy . . .” hardly inspires confidence!

By the end of this very halting and hesitant invocation, the speaker has abruptly changed his mind, and the final tercet suggests that perhaps sonnets should be “bound prentice to annoy.”  After all, the successful lover should not boast of his triumph (such as it is); wisely, he should just enjoy his “bliss” in silence.

Next time (weekend of March 20): Sonnet 71
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 69

O joy, too high for my low style to show!
O bliss, fit for a nobler state than me!
Envy, put out thine eyes, lest thou do see
What oceans of delight in me do flow!
My friend, that oft saw through all masks my woe,
Come, come, and let me pour myself on thee.
Gone is the winter of my misery,
My spring appears; O see what here doth grow!
For Stella hath, with words where faith doth shine,
Of her high heart giv’n me the monarchy;
I, I, O I may say that she is mine!
And though she give but thus conditionally
This realm of bliss, while virtuous course I take,
No kings be crowned but they some covenants make.

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: in the final three lines, “conditionally,” “virtuous,” and “covenants” all need to be shortened by one syllable.

As I once heard on a radio comedy in my childhood, “What the big print giveth, the little print taketh away.” For eleven full lines of fever-pitch excitement, it sounds as if we have reached the long-deferred climax of Stella’s consenting to requite the speaker’s love. The poem seems to be spoken to a close friend, one in whom the speaker has perhaps confided, or at least (we are told in line 5), one who could see his pain whether it was confided or not. The second quatrain is addressed directly to this person, but it is no more specific than the first in bubbling over with the speaker’s joy. Only with the first tercet of the sestet do we get any form of explanation. The claim that Stella has quite sincerely (“words where faith doth shine”) given the “monarchy” of her “high heart” (the modifier tips us off that this is the Platonic soul, not related in any way to physical passion) is so exciting that our polished sonneteer becomes downright inarticulate for half a line: “I, I, O I may say . . . .”

That was the “big print.”  The “little print” is the mere segment of line 13 that says “while virtuous course I take”; i.e., she will make him monarch of her heart, so long as he does nothing about it!  The final tercet argues rather meekly and bleakly that all monarchs operate “conditionally,” or at least they all enter into “covenants” that govern their behavior.

Next time (weekend of March 6): Sonnet 70
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.