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.