Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 95

Yet sighs, dear sighs, indeed true friends you are,
That do not leave your least friend at the worst;
But as you with my breast I oft have nursed,
So grateful now you wait upon my care.
Faint coward joy no longer tarry dare,
Seeing hope yield when this woe strake him first;
Delight protests he is not for the accurst,
Though oft himself my mate-in-arms he sware.
Nay, sorrow comes with such main rage, that he
Kills his own children, tears, finding that they
By love were made apt to consort with me.
Only, true sighs, you do not go away;
Thank may you have for such a thankful part,
Thank-worthiest yet, when you shall break my heart.

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: “the accurst” in line 7 is elided to “th’accurst,” and “worthiest” in line 14 is elided to two syllables.

This song is a nearly perfect antithesis to Shakespeare’s song “Sigh no More” in Much Ado About Nothing, as here it is argued that sighing is the only appropriate response left to the grieving speaker. A sigh comes from the depths, in physical terms from the diaphragm upward; thus it is fair to say it is “nursed” at the “breast,” which of course also implies that it comes from the heart. And sighs alone have been faithful to the speaker in his abandonment.

The second quatrain deals with the more obvious emotions of a promising love-life that have long since departed: joy, hope, and delight. More interestingly, in the first half of the sestet, we learn that sorrow has even “killed his own children, tears,” as these were too associated with a love that does not actually exist. Wordsworth’s phrasing comes to mind: “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

So, at the end, we return to the simple message of the start, that sighs are the only “friends” that remain. The speaker is quite simply grateful for this, but must add the twist in the final clause that he will be still more grateful for the final “sigh” that puts him out of his misery.

Next time (weekend of March 4): Sonnet 96
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 94

Grief, find the words; for thou hast made my brain
So dark with misty vapours, which arise
From out thy heavy mould, that inbent eyes
Can scarce discern the shape of mine own pain.
Do thou then (for thou canst), do thou complain
For my poor soul, which now that sickness tries,
Which even to sense, sense of itself denies,
Though harbingers of death lodge there his train.
Or if thy love of plaint yet mine forbears,
As of a caitiff, worthy so to die;
Yet wail thyself, and wail with causeful tears,
That though in wretchedness thy life doth lie,
Yet growest more wretched than thy nature bears,
By being placed in such a wretch as I.

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: “even” in line 7 and “growest” in line 13 are pronounced with one syllable. For the second straight sonnet, the speaker refers to himself as a “caitiff” (line 10), a criminal wretch beneath contempt.

The speaker is in an extremely dark mood, and, ever the instinctive (or opportunistic) poet, he personifies his grief and turns it into a sort of muse for his poetry, asking it to “find the words” that he himself cannot, because of the darkness in his brain. This internal struggle of grief, self, and brain is already a bit mind-bending after one quatrain, but simple in comparison to the welter of nouns and pronouns that interact in the rest.

The second quatrain is especially thorny, though the general meaning is just that “Grief” is being asked to “complain” on behalf of the speaker’s soul. In line 6, the relative pronoun “which” is surely an object, rather than a subject, meaning that the sickness of grief, or melancholy, “tries” (as in tests, challenges, or pesters) the soul, which otherwise ordinarily dwells in a state of denial: the soul—the highest, and immortal, part of the mental makeup—denies to sense—the lowest, and mortal, part—awareness (“sense,” a typical Sidney antanaclasis) of its own mortality, even though the evidence of that (“harbingers of death”) is obvious. The implication, then, is that Grief might speak up for a soul that is unwilling or unable to speak up for itself.

But now, in the sestet, the speaker faces a paradox: if it is in the nature of Grief to mope and complain, then Grief might be relatively happy in present circumstances! Or at least it will “forbear” the speaker’s complaining, as we tend to be more tolerant of a condemned prisoner’s sobs as he heads to the gallows (“a caitiff, worthy so to die”). This will not do; the paradox must be met with another: the one way to assure that Grief lives up to its name is to argue that it now inhabits someone—the speaker—who is more wretched than Grief itself! Thus Grief can become more wretched, thus . . . Oh, never mind; this is reductio ad absurdum.

Next time (weekend of February 19): Sonnet 95
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.