Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 78

O how the pleasant airs of true love be
Infected by those vapours which arise
From out that noisome gulf, which gaping lies
Between the jaws of hellish jealousy:
A monster, others’ harm, self-misery,
Beauty’s plague, virtue’s scourge, succour of lies;
Who his own joy to his own hurt applies,
And only cherish doth with injury;
Who since he hath, by nature’s special grace,
So piercing paws as spoil when they embrace,
So nimble feet, as stir still, though on thorns;
So many eyes aye seeking their own woe,
So ample ears, as never good news know:
Is it not ill that such a devil wants horns?

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Reading note: “devil” in the final line is elided to a single syllable “de’il,” creating in effect an internal rhyme with “ill.” This is sometimes made more obvious in editing with the use of “evil” instead of “ill,” in which case both words require elided—or at least rushed—pronunciations.

In a “breathless” (literally) opening quatrain, using a metaphor of pleasant or noxious air, the poem establishes that the very opposite of “true love” is “hellish jealousy.” Iago’s “green-eyed monster” comes to mind, and indeed heads the list that starts in line 5, but by the end of the poem it is clear that we are not just talking about an abstract passion, but rather a jealous person. Has Lord Rich perhaps taken some action to keep Penelope out of Sidney’s company? Or has the poet merely projected jealousy onto his rival, as the cause of his own thwarted designs?

Whatever the cause, the process towards ad hominem attack begins in the second quatrain. A list of six short derogatory phrases gives way in line seven and eight—the middle of the poem—to a two-line clause which suddenly uses the personal pronoun “his.” And the sense of this clause is somewhat specific: personified Jealousy is only capable of deriving “hurt” from his love, and “injures” the one he professes to “cherish.” (The ostensibly de-personalized “succour” at the end of line six need not be, as there was a sense of the word that essentially meant “succorer”; i.e., an enabler of duplicity.)

The sestet pushes personification on into beastialization, as the jealous one is endowed by “nature” with “piercing paws,” “nimble [i.e., nervous or pacing?] feet,” the multiple eyes of Argus, and “ample ears.” This is not just a beast but a monster! And the final line—a very clever punch line—makes clear that the personified Jealousy is specifically the jealous husband himself. Such a monster, the line says, has all the devil’s features except horns. So far, he lacks the horns of a cuckold, an “ill” that the speaker would love to redress!

Next time (weekend of July 10): Sonnet 79
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 77

Those looks, whose beams be joy, whose motion is delight;
That face, whose lecture shows what perfect beauty is;
That presence, which doth give dark hearts a living light;
That grace, which Venus weeps that she herself doth miss;
That hand, which without touch holds more than Atlas might:
Those lips, which make death’s pay a mean price for a kiss;
That skin, whose past-praise hue scorns this poor term of ‘white’;
Those words, which do sublime the quintessence of bliss;
That voice, which makes the soul plant himself in the ears:
That conversation sweet, where such high comforts be,
As construed in true speech, the name of heaven it bears,
Makes me in my best thoughts and quiet’st judgment see
That in no more but these I might be fully blessed:
Yet ah, my maiden muse doth blush to tell the rest.

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 11 is (as usual) one syllable, and “quiet’st” in line 12 is two, divided “qui” and “et’st.” Somewhat unusual word senses are “lecture”—meaning “reading”—in line 2, and “sublime”—a transitive verb meaning “distill” or “extract”—in line 8. And given the vagaries of Elizabethan punctuation, the phrase “Atlas might” can be understood two ways: the more obvious is with “might” as an auxiliary verb for an understood “do”; but we can also imagine an apostrophe after “Atlas,” making “might” the noun that means “strength.”

The second of a pair of sonnets in hexameters, the extra length provides spaciousness for an extended blazon, running eleven lines and combining tangible bodily features (face, hands, lips, skin) with intangible actions (looks, words, voice) and abstract qualities (presence, grace, conversation) to make up the entire picture of perfection:

–looks (i.e., from those blazing, darting eyes) that create “joy” and “delight”;
–a face, the reading (“lecture”) of which defines “perfect beauty”;
–a presence which lights up even “dark hearts”;
–a grace envied even by Venus herself;
–a hand that exercises enormous sway even “without touch”;
–lips literally to die for; that is, even death would be a low (“mean”) price to pay for a kiss;
–skin that is fairer than fair (“white”);
–words which distill (“sublime”) the rarest form (“quintessence”) of “bliss”;
–a voice which makes the “soul” (ordinarily the aloof immortal part within the mortal) want to take up residence in the relatively humble place of the ears;
–and conversation (given a two-line description to finish the series) that puts the listener in heaven.

The verb “Makes” at the start of line 12, despite its singularity in modern grammar, clearly has as subjects all the ten features named above, and starts a two-line thought that, by his acquaintance with Stella, the speaker is quite “fully,” quite thoroughly, “blessed.” It is another of Sidney’s sonnets (like 71 and 72) where a perfectly romantic ideal is achieved in thirteen lines, with a “but”—or in this case “Yet”—opening the poem’s final line. All the qualities mentioned are those that can, with honor, be acknowledged by an admirer in public; but the speaker dreams of other “blessings” from Stella, of a kind to make a “maiden muse . . . blush.”

Next time (weekend of June 26): Sonnet 78
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.