Nymph of the garden where all beauties be;
Beauties which do in excellency pass
His who till death looked in a watery glass,
Or hers, whom naked the Trojan boy did see;
Sweet garden nymph, which keeps the cherry tree,
Whose fruit doth far th’Hesperian taste surpass;
Most sweet-fair, most fair-sweet, do not, alas,
From coming near those cherries banish me.
For though, full of desire, empty of wit,
Admitted late by your best-graced grace,
I caught at one of them a hungry bit,
Pardon that fault, once more grant me the place,
And I do swear, even by the same delight,
I will but kiss, I never more will bite.
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: “watery” in line 3 and “graced” in line 10 both have two syllables; “th’Hesperian” in line 6 is elided at both ends, for a total of three syllables; and “even” in line 13 is one unstressed syllable.
The conceit of this sonnet is that Stella’s lips—much the focus of attention in this part of the sequence—are the “cherries” in her garden of earthly delights, and she is both the garden itself and the “nymph” who guards it. (Such identification of nymphs with the rivers, forests, and so on that they patrol is common in classical lore.) The octave, in which the speaker begs the nymph not to “banish” him from the garden for his trespass, is a patch of “footnote poetry” referencing three classical tales: (1) Narcissus, who wasted his life away in contemplation of his own image in a “watery glass”; (2) Paris, who stumbled upon the naked Venus; and (3) the golden apples of Atlas’s daughter Hesperides, the capture of which was one of the labors of Hercules.
Such obscurity is set aside as we get down to the crux of the matter in the sestet. The speaker admits he has been stupidly (“empty of wit”) naughty, and is now in a penitent spirit—or at least pretends to be. Since the lips are cherries, the stolen kiss can be described as a “bit” of food, a table scrap stolen by, say, a dog. And as a dog blessed with speech might do, he now promises to behave himself if only he can remain in “place.” But the food conceit allows a twist in the final line, so that in “behaving himself” he would merely repeat the misbehavior!
Next time (weekend of September 4): Sonnet 83
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.