Be your words made, good sir, of Indian ware,
That you allow me them by so small rate?
Or do you cutted Spartans imitate?
Or do you mean my tender ears to spare
That to my questions you so total are?
When I demand of Phoenix Stella’s state,
You say, forsooth, you left her well of late:
O God, think you that satisfies my care?
I would know whether she did sit or walk;
How clothed, how waited on? Sighed she or smiled?
Whereof, with whom, how often did she talk?
With what pastime time’s journey she beguiled?
If her lips deigned to sweeten my poor name?
Say all, and all well said, still say the same.
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.
This sonnet pictures one of Shakespeare’s favorite comic devices, the uncommunicative messenger, such as Biondello in Taming of the Shrew 3.2 or the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet 2.4. The speaker is receiving news of the absent Stella, and the messenger is far from satisfactory, though the sonnet suggests that (like Rosalind with the messenger Celia in As You Like It 3.2) it is the speaker’s own impatience that prevents the tale from being told. This is indicated structurally at the end of the first quatrain, where we might logically expect a pause for reply, and instead we have the quite unusual running on of the idea through line 5. “Indian ware” is extremely rare and pricey, while “cutted Spartans” are a nation known for their terseness in speech. And the messenger being “total” is (contrary to how it may sound) his being extremely brief.
I am stumped as to why the speaker should call the messenger “Phoenix”—and Duncan-Jones offers no explanatory note either. It seems the riddling Sphinx might be more what he had in mind, or perhaps Phoebus Apollo, whose oracle famously gave misinterpreted messages. Donne mentions the “Phoenix riddle,” but he presumably means a paradox rather than “riddle” in the usual sense of withheld information. Can my readers shed any light on this?
In any case, the messenger is guilty of giving the sort of bland report we might expect from any objective observer: he “left her well of late.” But the speaker hardly wants an objective observer; he wants, in effect, a second self in Stella’s presence (like the “thought” he sends to visit her in the song following), studying her in minute, obsessive detail. But beyond that, as he lets slip in line 13, he wants the news to be all “good news” for his romantic quest. Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra in the marvelous comic scenes where she learns of Antony’s marriage (2.5 and 3.3), the speaker will entertain the messenger graciously, and listen all day, if all is “well said”—but not if otherwise.
Or if I myself find not,
After parting, aught forgot,
Nor debarred from beauty’s treasure,
Let no tongue aspire to tell,
In what high joys I shall dwell;
Only thought aims at the pleasure.
Thought, therefore, I will send thee
To take up the place for me;
Long I will not after tarry.
There unseen thou may’st be bold
Those fair wonders to behold
Which in them my hopes do carry.
Thought, see thou no place forbear,
Enter bravely everywhere,
Seize on all to her belonging;
But if thou wouldst guarded be,
Fearing her beams, take with thee
Strength of liking, rage of longing.
Think of that most grateful time
When my leaping heart will climb
In her lips to have his biding:
There those roses for to kiss,
Which do breath a sugared bliss,
Opening rubies, pearls dividing.
Think of my most princely power,
When I blessed shall devour
With my greedy lickerous senses
Beauty, music, sweetness, love,
While she doth against me prove
Her strong darts but weak defenses.
Think, think of those dallyings,
When with dove-like murmurings,
With glad moaning passed anguish,
We change eyes, and heart for heart,
Each to other do impart,
Joying till joy make us languish.
O my thought, my thoughts surcease;
Thy delights my woes increase,
My life melts with too much thinking.
Think no more, but die in me,
Till thou shalt revived be
At her lips my nectar drinking.
Reading notes: in the sixth stanza, “power” in the first line is one syllable, and “lickerous” in the third line is elided to two; “passed” in the third line of the seventh stanza has two syllables, and “revived” in the song’s penultimate line has three.
Another of Sidney’s metrically complicated songs. I refer you to my earlier discussions at the Fourth Song (after Sonnet 85) and the Eighth Song (after Sonnet 86), both of which have the irregular seven syllables in most of their lines. Because, like the Eighth Song, each stanza has a feminine rhyme (in this case the “B” rhyme in an AABCCB structure) we might expect to settle into a trochaic rhythm, but some lines seem naturally iambic (e.g., line 2 is more naturally That + mine eyes/ thine eyes/ may see, than That mine/ eyes thine/ eyes may + see), while others, especially the “B” lines, may be read as four troches or (in those with seven syllables) three troches plus an extra syllable.
The real concern about Stella’s long absence is revealed in the song’s first stanza: the speaker has absolutely no idea whether she misses him, thinks about him at all, or has completely forgotten him. On the other hand, says stanza 2, if it turns out she still thinks favorably of him, he will dwell in “high joys.”
But he can carry on this conversation only in thought, so, at the start of the third stanza, he sends “Thought” as his emissary to Stella, promising to follow quickly in person. And the rest of the stanzas all start with reference to “Thought” as a personification, or the process of thinking. Thought can “enter bravely” places the speaker himself would not dare go. The “liking” and “longing” that put him on thin ice with Stella can actually work to fortify Thought.
So, in stanzas 5-7, the speaker’s thinking carries him through the fantasizing of a sexual encounter, from a kiss to the arousing of “lickerous (i.e., lecherous) senses,” to the “glad moaning” and subsequent “joy [that makes] us languish.”
But just as Orlando can “no longer live by thinking” near the end of As You Like It, our speaker more elegantly concludes “My life melts with too much thinking,” hinting at the weakness of melancholy (as it was termed then) or depression (as we call it now). A man of action can not lose himself in thought (as Hamlet most notably discovers), so the speaker kills off the thinking, and resolves to reach his romantic goal.
Next time (weekend of January 22): Sonnet 93
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.