Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 91

Stella, while now by honour’s cruel might,
I am from you, light of my life, misled,
And that fair you, my sun, thus overspread
With absence’ veil, I live in sorrow’s night;
If this dark place yet show, like candle light
Some beauty’s piece, as amber-coloured head,
Milk hands, rose cheeks, or lips more sweet, more red,
Or seeing jets, black, but in blackness bright;
They please, I do confess, they please mine eyes.
But why? Because of you they models be,
Models such be wood globes of glistering skies.
Dear, therefore be not jealous over me;
If you hear that they seem my heart to move,
Not them, O no, but you in them I love.

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: “glistering” in line 11 is elided to two syllables.

This sonnet resumes the “absence” theme that began in Sonnet 87, and the opening quatrain indicates that “honour” is to blame—presumably either some diplomatic or military assignment for Philip Sidney, or simply Stella’s “honour” as a married woman, necessitating distance. As usual, Stella is associated with light for her worshipper, and thus her absence with “sorrow’s night.”

The second quatrain is a mini-blazon (head, hands, cheeks, lips, eyes) albeit indirectly applied to Stella herself. The hypothetical condition (the “If . . .”) is that her features would somehow be replicated by another or others in her absence (hinting at the heresy that other women might share Stella’s beauty) and thus draw the speaker’s eye. This dangerous situation for a would-be faithful lover is freely confessed in line 9: “They please, I do confess, they please mine eyes.” And as we would expect, the man who has made this confession needs to start paddling furiously to stay afloat. The rest of the first half of the sestet (in Sidney’s customary two-tercet division) uses the conventional Renaissance shadow/substance dichotomy, in which—following Plato’s concept of ideal forms—lesser entities are seen as shadows or “models” of the real thing. The other attractive women are seen as wooden “globes”—not the more familiar models of the earth, but a sort of spherical planetarium model of the skies,* while Stella’s star quality is the real thing.

The final tercet makes a direct appeal to Stella to be understanding and forgiving if she hears rumors of a roving eye. The rumors presumably have some basis in reality—suggesting the long-frustrated speaker might be hedging his bets—but he somewhat lamely pleads that this is yet another sign of his devotion to her.

* The meaning of “globe” as a spherical map of the world did not come into common use until the seventeenth century, though the object itself existed earlier; indeed, both types of “globe” are well illustrated in Hans Holbein’s famous 1553 painting “The Ambassadors,” which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Next time (weekend of January 8): Sonnet 92
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 90

Stella, think not that I by verse seek fame,
Who seek, who hope, who love, who live but thee;
Thine eyes my pride, thy lips mine history;
If thou praise not, all other praise is shame.
Nor so ambitious am I as to frame
A nest for my young praise in laurel tree;
In truth, I swear, I wish not there should be
Graved in mine epitaph a poet’s name.
Ne if I would, could I just title make,
That any laud to me thereof should grow,
Without my plumes from others’ wings I take.
For nothing from my wit or will doth flow,
Since all my words thy beauty doth endite,
And love doth hold my hand, and makes me write.

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: “Ne” at the start of line 9 is pronounced to rhyme with “key,” and since it simply means “nor,” there is no pause after it.

Every once in a while, there is a pause in the “story,” for the poet/speaker to remind us of the premise underlying the entire sonnet sequence. That is the case here, in a very conventional sonnet, following the sequence’s most predictable form: an Italian sonnet rhymed ABBAABBACDCDEE, the most common scheme (60 times) in the sequence. There are full end-stops at the expected places, after line 8 (separating octave from sestet) and line 11 (splitting the sestet into two tercets).

Artifice is valued positively by Renaissance poets, and Sidney is a master of artifice. We have also been told from time to time in the sequence that others read his sonnets and apparently admire them, if not the infatuation that inspires them. So the octave here—in this most artificial of sonnets—dismisses the plausible notion that the poet celebrates Stella only to gain fame for his art. The images of fame are also the most conventional: critical acclaim by readers (the first quatrain maintains that Stella is the only reader who counts), the classical laurel-leaf crown from which the phrase “poet laureate” derives, or the designation of “poet” on one’s gravestone (which anticipates the honor of being recognized in the “Poets’ Corner” of Westminster Abbey, though Chaucer occupied the space in lonely splendor as Sidney wrote).

The fulcrum comes at the predictable spot, and the sestet moves in the direction of what he might be famous for as a poet, and that is that he does not fly on “others’ wings,” i.e., steal from other poets—as he asserted repeatedly in the early sonnets. There is no need for that (the final tercet tells us), but paradoxically he does not rely on his own “wit or will” either. As we have known since the final line of the first sonnet, it is Stella’s beauty and his own love that inspires this poetry and makes it worthy of praise.

Next time (weekend of December 25): Sonnet 91
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.