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.              

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