Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 98

Ah bed, the field where joy’s peace some do see,
The field where all my thoughts to war be trained,
How is thy grace by my strange fortune stained!
How thy lee shores by my sighs stormed be!
With sweet soft shades thou oft invitest me
To steal some rest; but, wretch, I am constrained
(Spurr’d with love’s spur, though galled and shortly reined
With care’s hard hand) to turn and toss in thee,
While the black horrors of the silent night
Paint woe’s black face so lively to my sight,
That tedious leisure marks each wrinkled line.
But when Aurora leads out Phoebus’ dance,
Mine eyes then only wink, for spite perchance,
That worms should have their sun, and I want mine.

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: “stormed” in line 4 has two syllables; and since “sighs” is almost impossible to read as an unstressed syllable (especially given the rhyme with “my”), the sound here imitates the sense of a buffeting storm, with three straight strong syllables, “my sighs storm-.”

This poem should be compared to Sonnet 39, which it almost echoes. The first line of 39, for example:

Come sleep, O sleep, the certain knot of peace,

comes easily to mind as we read:

Ah bed, the field where joy’s peace some do see . . .

Both poems discuss war and peace, and speak of sleep as the natural refuge of peace. But what a falling off is here! To read the two poems side-by-side is to go from hope to despair, from the speaker’s idealized vision of a future with Stella—when he could entice sleep with a promise that “Stella’s image” would appear there—to the dark tormented thoughts he has been discussing for the past two sonnets.

The hypnotic opening line of Sonnet 39 (quoted above) is developed for a full, leisurely quatrain, adding five parallel phrases to “the certain knot of peace” (“The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe,” etc.). But here, after the word “field” is repeated, the poem turns right away in the opposite direction, stressing that the speaker has got things backwards, and thus is “staining” sleep, or giving it a bad name. The normal “lee shores” of sleep—i.e., the sheltered shores, facing away from the bad weather—are being unaccustomedly buffeted by the speaker’s misery. Like a horse with an incompetent rider, his love spurs him on and “galls,” or checks, him at the same time.

Notice the poetic illustration of “turn and toss” (line 8): the moment where an Italian sonnet customarily comes to rest is right after “in thee” at the end of this line. But this one keeps churning on for another three lines, a “sound” imitation of the “sense” of one being kept up well past one’s bedtime.

The fulcrum comes at the start of line 12, and the fairly pathetic twist on the poem’s main idea is that at dawn (“when Aurora leads out Phoebus’ dance”) he finally nods off (“eyes . . . wink”) as if to spite the whole rest of the natural world—down to even the lowly worms—which welcomes the “sun” (think: son) he cannot have.

Next time (weekend of April 15): Sonnet 99
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 97

Dian, that fain would cheer her friend the night,
Shows her oft at the full her fairest race,
Bringing with her those starry nymphs, whose chase
From heavenly standing hits each mortal wight.
But ah, poor night, in love with Phoebus’ light,
And endlessly despairing of his grace,
Herself (to show no other joy hath place)
Silent and sad, in mourning weeds doth dight:
Even so, alas, a lady, Dian’s peer,
With choice delights and rarest company
Would fain drive clouds from out my heavy cheer.
But woe is me, though joy itself were she,
She could not show my blind brain ways of joy,
While I despair my sun’s sight to enjoy.

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” at the start of line 9 is elided to one syllable.
The last two words of line 3 plus line 4 is a particularly obscure passage. It helps to remember that Diana, goddess of the moon, is a famed huntress, and the “chase” is the groove or furrow of the crossbow, from which the arrows are fired. We also need to remember that these sonnets have often mentioned Stella’s (the “star”) flashing eyes as projectiles which strike the speaker; this suggests the subject of the relative pronoun “whose” is not the nymphs (as we would expect from position) but rather Diana. So the somewhat complicated sense of the passage is that Diana is using the “starry nymphs” as arrows, with which from on high she “hits” every man (“each mortal wight”). This of course parallels the way in which Stella’s flashing eyes subdue every man who sets eyes on her.

This is the second of four “bedtime” sonnets, with the nighttime setting also becoming the subject. Diana, goddess of the moon, has a natural association with Stella, not only for her celestial light, but also (less pleasant for the speaker) her famed chastity.  And both the previous sonnet and the sestet of this one make clear that Diana’s “friend the night” is to be associated or at least paralleled with the speaker, despite the feminine pronoun at the start of line 7. We know from earlier sonnets that Stella frequently offers friendly and well-intended counsel to the speaker, but her calls to reason run counter to the passions she inspires. That is the essential background for the tale told here, though this one has some differences.

In the first quatrain, Diana (“Dian”) tries to cheer “her friend the night” by often showing herself fully (i.e. being a full moon or perhaps any stages close to that). But (says the second quatrain) the night has a hopeless and even paradoxical love for the light of the sun (“Phoebus” is Phoebus Apollo, god of the sun), and so dresses constantly in dark clothing (“mourning weeds”) and is “silent and sad” (i.e., melancholic).

To this point the story makes little sense, to be honest. In what mythical structure would night be in love with the sun, and take no comfort from the moon? That seems entirely backwards. But like some parables that make little sense internally, once we hear what the “real-world” parallels are, it all falls into place. And the sestet of this sonnet makes those connections fairly explicit: Stella (“a lady, Dian’s peer”) is both the moon and, potentially, the speaker’s “star” and “sun” (not to mention would-be mother of the speaker’s son, as that pun is repeated from the previous sonnet). She is always a perfectly good friend, and tries to cheer him “with choice delights and rarest company,” but he cannot be content with reflected light; the star must be his own.

Next time (weekend of April 1): Sonnet 98
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 96

Thought, with good cause thou lik’st so well the night,
Since kind or chance gives both one livery;
Both sadly black, both blackly darkened be,
Night barred from sun, thou from thy own sun’s light.
Silence in both displays his sullen might;
Slow heaviness in both holds one degree;
That full of doubts, thou of perplexity;
Thy tears express night’s native moisture right.
In both a mazeful solitariness:
In night, of sprites the ghastly powers stir,
In thee, or sprites or sprited ghastliness.
But, but, alas, night’s side the odds hath far,
For that at length yet doth invite some rest,
Thou, though still tired, yet still dost it detest.

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: “That” at the start of line 7 is not the relative pronoun, but rather the demonstrative pronoun, referring back to “night,” by contrast to the pronoun “thou,” which refers to “thought.”

Here we begin a series of four bedtime sonnets, similar to the series of three back at 38-40. Probably most of us are familiar with the “dark thoughts” that keep us awake at night, even if by the light of day the same problems might seem perfectly manageable. This dark brooding is magnified for the would-be lover in the speaker’s situation, since bedtime is a time to be reminded of loneliness, a time for undistracted thinking and brooding, and indeed a time to be reminded that the bed itself is not the place of pleasure one has longed for. So almost by definition, a bedtime sonnet is an “ode on melancholy.”

The poem is an apostrophe to the speaker’s own thought, which either by kinship (“kind”) or by chance seems perfectly matched with the night: both are dark, silent, sullen, heavy, and full of “doubts” or “perplexity.” The “native moisture” (dew) of the night parallels the tears that spring from thought. And the night is “barred from sun,” while the thought is frustrated by the lack of its “own sun’s” (i.e., son’s) light. This pun occurs in the first three of this set of four poems, disappearing only as the actual sun approaches in Sonnet 99.

The first half of the sestet invites comparison with Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the recurring discussion there of how night plays tricks with the mind. “Mazeful solitariness” is a state of amazement, but more literally, the perplexity and isolation of being inside a maze. And while the night of folklore (and Dream) is full of the “ghastly powers” of “sprites,” thought is paranoid, and similarly populates itself with demons (“sprites or sprited ghastliness”).

The poem’s fulcrum comes late, at the start of line 12; and where a single “but” is usually all that is required, in the speaker’s muddled state it takes four syllables (“but, but, alas”) to make the turn, and acknowledge the chief way that night is preferable to thought: at some point night invites us to go to sleep, but thought resists it—as any of us who have struggled with night-thoughts know all too well!

Next time (weekend of March 18): Sonnet 97
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.