Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 102

Where be those roses gone, which sweetened so our eyes?
Where those red cheeks, which oft with fair increase did frame
The height of honour in the kindly badge of shame?
Who hath the crimson weeds stol’n from my morning skies?
How doth the colour vade of those vermilion dyes,
Which nature’s self did make, and self engrained the same?
I would know by what right this paleness overcame
That hue, whose force my heart still unto thraldom ties.
Galen’s adoptive sons, who by a beaten way
Their judgments hackney on, the fault on sickness lay,
But feeling proof makes me say they mistake it far:
It is but love, which makes his paper perfect white
To write therein more fresh the story of delight,
While beauty’s reddest ink Venus for him doth stir.

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: “vade” in line 5 is simply an archaic form of “fade,” used presumably for the pleasing chiasmic alliteration of “doth . . . vade . . . vermilion . . . dies.”

Still on the subject of Stella’s illness, this is the last of six hexameter sonnets in the sequence. As if to dwell further on the number six, there is a sort of six-line “stanza” opening the poem, with alternating one- and two-line questions. And, as usual, the answer comes in the sestet at the other end. The unattached two lines in the middle state the thesis of the poem: in what is definitely not Sidney’s finest poetry, he wonders for twenty-four rather awkward syllables why the paleness of disease has been permitted to take away Stella’s customary color (color which enslaves the speaker’s heart).

Having said that, I must admit that the first six lines, the four questions which could be paraphrased “Where have all the flowers gone?” are neither witty nor melodic as poetry either. Is it possible that, this near the end of a long set of sonnets, Sidney has run out of fresh ways to compliment his would-be mistress? Or is he deliberately trying to be to poetry what Stella’s physicians are to medicine, in line 10; i.e., “hackney[ed].” Stella’s cheeks have lost their “roses,” or “crimson weeds” or “vermilion dyes”; where redness of the cheeks often indicates shame, Stella’s color is “engrained” by Nature herself and is therefore the “height of honour.”

The imaginative part of the sonnet, relatively speaking, comes in the sestet, where the speaker ventures an answer to his own questions. The phrase “Galen’s adoptive sons,” meaning the doctors (the implication of “adoptive” being “quacks”), recalls various disparaging remarks about derivative poets (e.g., “Pindar’s apes”) in early sonnets such as 3 and 15. Like those poets, these physicians “take wrong ways” (Sonnet 15) by sticking to the “beaten way” of medical practice and laying the blame for Stella’s paleness on—surprise!—her sickness. But with no medical training, the speaker by instinct (“feeling proof”) knows what the actual answer must be, and gives it in the final three lines. It is perhaps not the cleverest or most plausible sort of poetic trick, but it does at last and at least provide a positive spin for the illness. Love (Cupid or Eros) needed a fresh, white sheet of paper on which to write anew his “story of delight” with a fresh supply of “reddest ink” provided by his mother Venus.

Next time (weekend of June 10): Sonnet 103
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 101

Stella is sick, and in that sickbed lies
Sweetness, that breathes and pants as oft as she;
And grace, sick too, such fine conclusions tries
That sickness brags itself best graced to be.
Beauty is sick, but sick in so fair guise
That in that paleness beauty’s white we see;
And joy, which is inseparate from those eyes,
Stella now learns (strange case!) to weep in thee.
Love moves thy pain, and like a faithful page,
As thy looks stir, runs up and down to make
All folks pressed at thy will thy pain to assuage;
Nature with care sweats for her darling’s sake,
Knowing worlds pass, ere she enough can find
Of such heaven stuff, to clothe so heavenly mind.

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.

The poem opens with a plain factual statement, suggesting this is a situational sonnet. But Stella’s sickness, as we might expect, is adapted to the purpose of singing her praise. Her weakened body embodies the qualities of sweetness, grace*, beauty (in perhaps the most telling example of the technique, the natural pallor of ill health becomes the “white” or fair complexion of conventional Renaissance beauty), and joy—which Stella is strangely compelled to weep in, because her flashing eyes are unable to do otherwise. This exercise fills the octave.

The sestet shifts the perspective from these abstract qualities of the patient to two abstract attendants—divided between the two tercets—love and nature. The first clause in line nine is best understood as an inverted structure; i.e., in “frontwards” English it means “Thy pain moves love,” and thus metaphorically love is a very busy and attentive nurse, or more literally, love is inspired in everyone who sees Stella’s distress, so that they are “pressed” into duty caring for her.

Nature is of course the progenitor of all that is beautiful, and thus it follows that Stella is her favorite child, and not only favorite but irreplaceable. If she should lose this one, “worlds [will] pass” before she’ll have the right combination of materials to make such another. “Heaven stuff” presumably means either “heavenly stuff” or the “stuff of heaven,” and this is requisite to make such a soul (“mind”) as Stella’s. So Stella is bound to receive the most careful of care from both friends and nature, since she is simply too valuable to lose.

* There is some obscure language in lines 3 and 4, but the general point is the same: to “try conclusions” is to enter into a contest or test of skill; Stella’s grace, encountering sickness with her, gets the better of sickness, so that sickness itself can brag of being “graced”; i.e., endowed with grace.

Next time (weekend of May 27): Sonnet 102
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 100

O tears, no tears, but rain from beauty’s skies,
Making those lilies and those roses grow,
Which aye most fair, now more than most fair show,
While graceful pity beauty beautifies:
O honeyed sighs, which from that breast do rise,
Whose pants do make unspilling cream to flow,
Winged with whose breath, so pleasing zephyrs blow,
As can refresh the hell where my soul fries:
O plaints, conserved in such a sugared phrase
That eloquence itself envies your praise,
While sobbed-out words a perfect music give:
Such tears, sighs, plaints, no sorrow is but joy;
Or if such heavenly signs must prove annoy,
All mirth farewell, let me in sorrow live.

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.

The focus shifts abruptly to Stella, in what Shakespeare’s Rosalind would call a “more coming-on disposition”—or at least in visible sorrow at the plight that separates her from the speaker’s love. Her tears, sighs, and plaints (subjects of first quatrain, second quatrain, and first half of sestet, respectively) are all hyperbolized, and imagined as promising signs of her hidden love.

The first quatrain manages a “super-superlative” in three of its four lines (1,3, and 4). The tears are more than tears, a “rain” from Plato’s realm of “beauty” watering the red and white flowers of Stella’s cheeks. Those flowers are always (“aye”) “most fair,” but now (in defiance of the meaning of “most”) become “more than most fair,” and in a typical Sidney antanaclasis, this show of “pity” by a “beauty” makes beauty still more beautiful.

Though we move on from super-superlatives, the conceit of the second quatrain is even more over the top. Sighs, of course, rise from the lungs, which means from the “breast” of a beautiful woman. Thus they represent both “cream” and such cool breezes (“so pleasing zephyrs”) that the speaker is “refresh[ed].” But wait—let me state that as extremely as I can: the speaker’s “soul” which “fries” in “hell” is refreshed. This may be over the top, but it is also the crux of the poem. The previous sonnets have made clear how tormented the speaker’s thoughts are, and a small indication of sympathy or pity from Stella can go a long way in relief.

Lines 9-11 return to a more conventional hyperbole in covering the “plaints,” i.e., the actual words Stella uses to express sympathy. These are eloquent beyond eloquence, and (again evoking Platonic ideals) “perfect music.”

The final tercet is, predictably, a summing up and a mild paradoxical twist. Such clear signs of sorrow on Stella’s part bring joy to the speaker; OR, if they must be regarded negatively (“prove annoy”), then the speaker will foreswear “all mirth” to bask in such sorrow.

Next time (weekend of May 13): Sonnet 101
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.