Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 80

Sweet swelling lip, well may’st thou swell in pride,
Since best wits think it wit thee to admire;
Nature’s praise, virtue’s stall, Cupid’s cold fire,
Whence words, not words but heavenly graces slide;
The new Parnassus, where the Muses bide,
Sweetener of music, wisdom’s beautifier;
Breather of life, and fastener of desire,
Where beauty’s blush in honour’s grain is dyed.
Thus much my heart compelled my mouth to say,
But now, spite of my heart, my mouth will stay,
Loathing all lies, doubting this flattery is,
And no spur can his resty race renew,
Without how far this praise is short of you,
Sweet lip, you teach my mouth with one sweet kiss.

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: “heavenly” in line 4, “Sweetener” in line 6, and “fastener” in line 7 are all elided to two syllables; “doubting” in line 11 has the normal renaissance usage (i.e., “fearing that”) which makes the whole phrase sound to a modern ear the opposite of what it actually means; “resty” in line 12 means “restive” or “restless” (two words which paradoxically mean the same thing); and “Without” in line 13 is best understood as “Except.”

After a sonnet in praise of a single kiss, the poet’s “camera” now zooms in still further, to praise the lip that received it. Three of the first four lines use repeated words in antanaclasis, while line 3 slows us down emphatically with a “backwards” rhythm similar to line 6 of Sonnet 78*; all this in hyperbolic praise of Stella’s “swelling lip,” on which the speaker has focused for several sonnets now, since the stolen kiss of the Second Song.

But this is a sonnet of very mixed, or even confused, feelings. The oxymoronic “cold fire” of Cupid, and the intrusion of “virtue” and “honour” upon the more romantic themes of beauty and desire, temper the more conventional praise sprinkled through the octave; e.g., that even the wise (“best wits”) find it wise to admire Stella’s lips, her words are “heavenly graces,” her lips entertain the muses, sweeten music, speak wisdom, and so on.

Then, as if to further confuse us, in the sestet the speaker takes it all back! . . . sort of. First he suggests that his heart had “compelled” his mouth to say what he just said (so his heart was in it, but the mouth that spoke the actual words was not), and now his mouth will shut up (“stay”), rather than speak more “lies” or “flattery.”

Now he has dug himself into a pretty deep hole, and attempts to redeem himself in the final tercet. Nothing will make the praise resume, he says, except (“Without”) a kiss from that lip to teach him how far short of the truth his praise actually falls. It is not really clear whether he is acknowledging lessons learned from the “one sweet kiss” he has already had, or offering a sort of bribe for another. It is, in fact, an awkward poem, perhaps by design, reflecting the ambivalent and confused state of the speaker’s mind.

*The two lines are strikingly parallel:
(78.6)        Beauty’s plague, virtue’s scourge, succour of lies;
(80.3)      Nature’s praise, virtue’s stall, Cupid’s cold fire,
Where the normal iambic pentameter rhythm rolls forward da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM, each of these lines creates three separated “valley” shapes: DUM-da-DUM, DUM-da-DUM, DUM-da-da-DUM.

Next time (weekend of August 7): Sonnet 81
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 79

Sweet kiss, thy sweets I fain would sweetly indite,
Which even of sweetness sweetest sweet’ner art:
Pleasing’st consort, where each sense holds a part;
Which, coupling doves, guides Venus’ chariot right;
Best charge, and bravest retreat in Cupid’s fight,
A double key, which opens to the heart,
Most rich, when most his riches it impart;
Nest of young joys, schoolmaster of delight,
Teaching the mean at once to take and give;
The friendly fray, where blows both wound and heal;
The pretty death, while each in other live;
Poor hope’s first wealth, hostage of promised weal,
Breakfast of love: but lo! Lo, where she is:
Cease we to praise; now pray we for a kiss.

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: “even” in line 2 and “bravest” in line 5 are each elided to a single syllable; and the last syllable of “sweetly” in line 1 must be elided with the first syllable of “indite” so that the final foot in the line is “l’indite.”

Although this sonnet has Sidney’s favorite rhyme scheme (ABBAABBACDCDEE, used in 60 of the 108 sonnets), it has an unusual “grammar” or structure for an Italian sonnet. There is no full stop after line 8, and in fact lines 8 and 9 form a 2-line idea, just as lines 1 and 2 do. So, rather than an octave-sestet structure, this one could be described as two parallel and rhyming introductory lines (1 and 8), each followed by a sestet in a standard sestet form, the first (2-7) AABBCC, and the second (9-14) ABABCC.

Perhaps still recalling the stolen kiss of the Second Song (see Sonnet 72), the poet/speaker here spends twelve and a half lines addressing and expounding on that kiss with accelerating poetic exaggeration. There is no conceit tying the whole poem together, but each device or figure tends to connect to the next through some word-play that functions as a “hand-off.”

After an extravagant six-iteration antanaclasis on the word “sweet” (repeating a feat of Sonnet 36), the first metaphoric image is the rich word “consort.” This can mean one’s partner, or the partnership itself, or a pair of yoked animals, or a set of musicians, or the harmony such musicians might produce, or any form of pact or agreement—and all of these senses might be at the front or back of a reader’s mind in the lines that follow. Specifically, “holds a part” in line 3 evokes the musical meaning, while “coupling doves” points to the yoked animals; but the other meanings are raised by discussion of the kiss itself.

The ambiguity continues in line 5. It is Venus’ dove-powered chariot, of course, that is charging and retreating, but “charge” and “retreat” are also trumpet calls, so we still have music in mind as line 6 opens with “A double key.” But this becomes a “hand-off” as this key (“double” because of two lips) turns out to be the kind that unlocks and “opens to the heart,” the citadel where the “riches” of love are held close.

Moving into the second half of the poem, the speaker seems to grow more rambling and random in his leaps from image to image: “nest” in the sense of haven or home for “joys” turns into “schoolmaster” within a delightful kindergarten where sharing is the only lesson. Then we go completely abstract and oxymoronic: “friendly fray,” “pretty death,” “poor hope,” and so on. We can sense this recitation speeding up and becoming less coherent as the speaker needs to wrap it up. The lady herself approaches in the middle of line 13, and in the glow of her presence, after an initial stumble (“but lo! Lo . . .”) he lands on a perfectly structured line with a subtle and sophisticated chiasmus (in which “pray” echoes “praise” and “kiss” echoes “cease): “Cease we to praise, now pray we for a kiss.”

Next time (weekend of July 24): Sonnet 80
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.