Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 84

Highway, since you my chief Parnassus be,
And that my muse, to some ears not unsweet,
Tempers her words to trampling horse’s feet
More oft than to a chamber melody;
Now, blessed you, bear onward blessed me
To her, where I my heart safeliest shall meet.
My muse and I must you of duty greet,
With thanks and wishes, wishing thankfully.
Be you still fair, honoured by public heed,
By no encroachment wronged, nor time forgot;
Nor blamed for blood, nor shamed for sinful deed.
And that you know I envy you no lot
Of highest wish, I wish you so much bliss,
Hundreds of years you Stella’s feet may 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: “blessed” (both times) in line 5 has two syllables; and “safeliest” in line 6 is elided to two.

This sonnet is a gentle hymn to a highway, in the form of a “blessing” with a verse preceding it that describes the occasion for the blessing. I am reminded, for example, of the old McGuire Sisters New Year’s song “May You Always,” that begins “This special time, this special place . . . .” The song goes on for eight lines of recitative establishing the context, before swinging into “May you always walk in sunshine . . .,” the more memorable “aria” part of the blessing. Here, in very conventional sonnet form, the “verse” that sets up the blessing is the octave, and the blessing itself is the sestet.

The poem is ostensibly composed on horseback, the speaker/poet traveling toward Stella (in contrast to Sonnets 87-89, where he is forced to leave her). In the first quatrain he suggests that such propitious travel inspires more of his poetry (including supplying the rhythm of horses’ feet) than does chamber music.

The second quatrain completes the picture by gratefully imagining the journey’s end. The fifth line has a very subtle antanaclasis between “blessed you” (as in “Aren’t you wonderful?”) and “blessed me” (as in “I am so fortunate”). And line 8 similarly has a subtle chiasmus on words rooted in “thank” and “wish.”

The actual blessing starts with line 9. We might think of the familiar Irish Blessing which begins “May the road rise to greet you . . .,” except in this case the recipient of the blessing is the road! A blessing for any road might include the wishes that it be well-maintained (line 9 and the last two feet of line 10) and free of crime (first part of line 10, and line 11). But the final “capper” for this blessing, freely offered in the last three lines by an unenvious lover, is that it may “kiss” Stella’s feet for a hyperpolic “hundreds of years.”

Next time (weekend of October 2): Sonnet 85
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 83 and Third Song

Good brother Philip, I have borne you long;
I was content you should in favour creep,
While craftily you seemed your cut to keep,
As though that soft fair hand did you great wrong.
I bare (with envy) yet I bare your song,
When in her neck you did love ditties peep;
Nay, more fool I,  oft suffered you to sleep
In lilies’ nest, where Love’s self lies along.
What, doth high place ambitious thoughts augment?
Is sauciness reward of courtesy?
Cannot such grace your silly self content,
But you must needs with those lips billing be,
And through those lips drink nectar from that tongue?
Leave that, Sir Phip, lest off your neck be wrung.

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.

Philip (or Phip for short) was for some reason (perhaps onomatopoeia) the cliché name of choice for a pet sparrow, like Fido for a dog or Polly for a parrot in our own time. Sidney surely knew John Skelton’s mock-elegy “Philip Sparrow” (1520), in which a sparrow of that name is cherished downright erotically by the young lady who keeps it. There is an echo here, for example, of Skelton’s lines 115-119:

It was so pretty a fool,
It would sit on a stool,
And learned after my school
For to keep his cut,
With “Philip, keep your cut!”

A “cut” (from drawing straws), is one’s fate or lot in life, so “keep your cut” means “know your place.” The speaker seems to have given Stella a namesake sparrow as a pet and—similar to the very suggestive descriptions in Skelton’s poem—the pet bird has been granted intimacies the speaker himself would never be allowed, such as peeping “love ditties” nestled against her neck, or sleeping “In lilies’ nest, where Love’s self lies along.”

Now (in the sestet) the speaker has come upon Stella and the sparrow exchanging a “kiss,” in which the bird is “billing” her lips and touching the tongue beyond. The envy at this effrontery (and rivalry) overflows, and a blunt and threatening command to stop is the poem’s bottom line.

Third Song

If Orpheus’ voice had force to breathe such music’s love
Through pores of senseless trees, as it could make them move;
If stones good measure danced, the Theban walls to build,
To cadence of the tunes which Amphion’s lyre did yield;
More cause a like effect at leastwise bringeth:
O stones, O trees, learn hearing: Stella singeth.

If love might sweeten so a boy of shepherd brood,
To make a lizard dull to taste love’s dainty food;
If eagle fierce could so in Grecian maid delight,
As his light was her eyes, her death his endless night;
Earth gave that love, heaven I trow love refineth:
O birds, O beasts; look love: lo, Stella shineth.

The birds, beasts, stones and trees feel this, and feeling, love;
And if the trees, nor stones, stir not, the same to prove,
Nor beasts nor birds do come unto this blessed gaze,
Know that small love is quick, and great love doth amaze:
They are amazed, but you with reason armed:
O eyes, O ears of men, how are you charmed!

Reading notes: for the meter, “Orpheus” and “Amphion” in the first stanza must be shortened to two syllables, and “heaven” in line 11 to one; while “blessed,” “armed,” and “charmed” in the third stanza all need to be lengthened to two.

At first glance, this appears an odd format for a song, each stanza made up of four hexameter lines followed by two pentameter lines with feminine endings—not to mention that it sings Stella’s praises while announcing that Stella is singing! But on closer examination, it is not so hard to imagine each stanza as printed actually composing two 4-line stanzas in trimeter, plus a 2-line chorus with a “falling-off” ending. The four lines with a single internal comma (2, 3, 10, and 16) break the line at the halfway point, and it does no violence to sound or sense if all the hexameter lines are split that way for singing.

The effect of Stella singing is compared, in turn, to Orpheus animating trees by singing (lines 1-2), Amphion building Thebes by playing a lyre that moved stones (3-4), Thoas the Arcadian shepherd earning the love of a dragon (7-8), and a young lady of Sestos who so charmed an eagle that he self-immolated on her funeral pyre, in grief (9-10) (see notes in Duncan-Jones).

As with the previous songs, the effect is more a repetitive or parallel flattering comparison than the carefully and cleverly plotted argument of a sonnet. If there is any “twist” at all, it is at the end when we move beyond the trees, the stones, the beasts, and the birds (listed in reverse order as if deliberately walking backward through the song, and then forward again) to say that even reason-endowed humans must be “charmed” in the same way (the word, of course, has double meaning) by Stella’s singing—if not indeed by her very presence.

Next time (weekend of September 18): Sonnet 84
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.