Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 89

Now that of absence the most irksome night,
With darkest shade doth overcome my day;
Since Stella’s eyes, wont to give me my day,
Leaving my hemisphere, leave me in night;
Each day seems long, and longs for long-stayed night;
The night as tedious, woos the approach of day;
Tired with the dusty toils of busy day,
Languished with horrors of the silent night,
Suffering the ills both of the day and night,
While no night is more dark than is my day,
Nor no day hath less quiet than my night;
With such bad mixture of my night and day,
That living thus in blackest winter night,
I feel the flames of hottest summer day.

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: “tedious” in line 6 and “suffering” in line 9 are both two syllables; and “the approach” in line 6 is elided to “th’approach.”

The third of three “absence” sonnets, this one is unique among Sidney’s rhyme schemes in that only two words, “night” and “day,” are rhymed throughout. This is a characteristic merging of sound and sense because the poem is about the tiresome repetition of nights and days passing without Stella.

The idea of “absence” as something that obscures the light for which Stella is named—mentioned briefly in line 6 of the previous sonnet—here moves into a full discussion of day vs. night. The first quatrain picks up the theme of Sonnet 88, and it sounds as if we might still just be discussing the “night” of absence, but the main clause has been suspended until line 5: “Each day seems long, and longs for long-stayed night.” With one of his classic antanaclases, Sidney changes direction, suggesting the night is actually something to be desired. But quickly, within another line, we learn that no, neither is desirable, as each is just the tedious waiting for the other; time just needs to pass for the solitary lover.

At this point, just six lines in, all sense of Italian sonnet structure is gone—“the numbers altered,” as Malvolio would say. A new complex sentence begins in line 7, and does not reach its main clause until line 14; and it is just a repetitive and deliberately uninteresting alternation between the woes of day and those of night. It culminates in the final two lines by suggesting the speaker has the worst of each: a “winter night” (when nights are coldest and darkest) and a “summer day” (when days are hottest), each of course being when nights and days are longest, the real point of the poem.

Next time (weekend of December 11): Sonnet 90
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 88

Out, traitor absence; darest thou counsel me
From my dear captainess to run away,
Because in brave array here marcheth she
That to win me, oft shows a present pay?
Is faith so weak? Or is such force in thee?
When sun is hid, can stars such beams display?
Cannot heaven’s food, once felt, keep stomachs free
From base desire on earthly cates to prey?
Tush, absence; while thy mists eclipse that light,
My orphan sense flies to the inward sight,
Where memory sets forth the beams of love;
That where before heart loved and eyes did see,
In heart both sight and love now coupled be;
United powers make each the stronger prove.

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: “darest” in line 1, “heaven’s” in line seven, and “powers” in line 14 are elided to a single syllable; and it is perhaps worth noting that there is no elision in lines 10 and 11, so we have the full three syllables for “the inward” and “memory.”

The second of three “absence” sonnets, this one has “outie” ABAB quatrains for the octave so that, in spite of grammatical breaks, one continuous idea spills out for that space. The opening metaphor is from military recruiting, often competitive (Farquhar’s great comedy The Recruiting Officer comes to mind). The sense here is that “absence” plants the treacherous seed of an idea that Stella is just playing with the speaker’s emotions, doing things when he is present to keep him interested in her. But the second quatrain asks rhetorically how one (i.e., the speaker himself) could ever be so faithless as to feed on lesser light or food just because the greater is absent.

The treacherous appeal of absence is easily dismissed at the poem’s fulcrum (“Tush”) because of what Wordsworth called the “inward eye/Which is the bliss of solitude.” Memory and imagination keep vivid the “beams of love” in spite of the clouds (“mists”) of absence. The figure in the final tercet suggests the mildly paradoxical idea that absence actually strengthens the speaker’s faith because, while in her presence heart and eyes function separately, now both are one and the same. Where the sonnet began with the somewhat petty image of competing recruiting officers, it now ends with the military ideal of “United powers.”

Next time (weekend of November 27): Sonnet 89
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 87

When I was forced from Stella, ever dear,
Stella, food of my thoughts, heart of my heart,
Stella, whose eyes make all my tempests clear,
By iron laws of duty to depart;
Alas, I found that she with me did smart,
I saw that tears did in her eyes appear;
I saw that sighs her sweetest lips did part,
And her sad words my saddened sense did hear.
For me, I wept, to see pearls scattered so;
I sighed her sighs, and wailed for her woe;
Yet swam in joy, such love in her was seen.
Thus, while th’effect most bitter was to me,
And nothing than the cause more sweet could be,
I had been vexed, if vexed I had not been.

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 note: “wailed” in line 10 is two syllables.

The situation now indicated is that the visit has ended and we have a set of three “absence” sonnets (similar to Shakespeare’s pair at 97 and 98). It is a hoary cliché that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but in Sidney’s case it seems to actually work that way because the purely imagined “Stella” is far less provoking than the real Penelope who continues to reject his advances.

This sonnet is a single sentence on the shared emotions of parting, with the octave mostly focused on Stella, and the sestet on the speaker. The small exception to that is that lines 1 and 4 form the premise that it is the speaker’s own “iron duty” that has forced him to break off the visit, while lines 2 and 3 interrupt with an explosive and flattering appositive on Stella, once she has been named. The second quatrain comes to the heart of the “story” for this sonnet: on parting, Stella seemed as sad and hurt (“did smart”) as he was.

The final line of the octave makes the transition back to the speaker’s feelings: apparently his “saddest sense” (for some reason) is hearing, though other senses seem equally engaged in responding sympathetically to Stella’s pain, in lines 9 and 10. But, since these are in the form of a couplet, the sestet is “upside down,” ending with an ABBA quatrain. The effect of this arrangement, by contrast to Sidney’s typical two-tercet equal division, is that the speaker seems to give “short shrift” to his sympathetic sadness, and “race ahead” (one line “early,” in line 11) to his overwhelming “joy” to see such signs of love. The bottom line is a characteristic paradox: he would have been more “vexed” if there had been less drama, less to be “vexed” about.

Next time (weekend of November 13): Sonnet 88
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.