Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 105

Unhappy sight, and hath she vanished by,
So near, in so good time, so free a place?
Dead glass, dost thou thy object so embrace
As what my heart still sees, thou canst not spy?
I swear by her I love and lack, that I
Was not in fault, who bent thy dazzling race
Only unto the heaven of Stella’s face,
Counting but dust what in the way did lie.
But cease, mine eyes, your tears do witness well
That you, guiltless thereof, your nectar missed.
Cursed be the page from whom the bad torch fell,
Cursed be the night which did your strife resist,
Cursed be the coachman which did drive so fast,
With no worse curse than absence makes me taste.

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: “heaven” in line 7 is one syllable.

Stella has left the speaker at night, and this poem laments the speed with which she “vanished” from sight though still nearby. Adding to the frustration, the second line suggests, is that she leaves at the very time, and in the very place, where the speaker’s fortunes in love might have advanced. Because of some vague word choices (glass, race) and the obscurity of lines 3 and 4, the poem’s exact story line has been disputed over the years, though its overall message is clear enough.

The “dead glass,” different readers have argued, could be a mirror, a telescope, or a lantern. I could make a case for the speaker trying to extend his view of Stella with a telescope, except that I have seen no evidence that the telescope existed that early! If Shakespeare’s use of “glass” could be helpful, apart from when he refers to the brittle substance itself, the noun most commonly refers to a mirror, with a drinking vessel or an hour-glass (or metaphorically, an hour) as other possibilities. But King Lear, in his madness (IV.6), has a line more useful to us here; speaking to blind Gloucester, he says: “Get thee glass eyes,/And like a scurvy politician seem/To see the things thou dost not.” The OED cites this line as the first use of “glass eyes” to mean spectacles, and the Arden editor follows that reading, noting that the use of “glass eye” to mean a fake, or prosthetic, eyeball does not appear in English until later in the century. But the glass eyeball itself was being manufactured in Venice by the time of Sidney and Shakespeare, so how can we be sure that Shakespeare—and by extension, Sidney—was not referring to it? Admittedly Lear is mad, so he might speak nonsense, but seeming to see things one doesn’t is more easily done by a man with fake eyes than by one with glasses over empty eye sockets! So in both the Lear line and Sidney’s sonnet, a better reading results from assuming these authors were aware of Venetian glass eye-balls. Such an assumption is not far-fetched, given the range of knowledge in both cases, but if it can be proven false, the “Plan B” in the interpretation that follows would be to treat “dead glass” as referring to spectacles.

Back to the sonnet: a cursory first reading is likely to understand “Unhappy sight” as referring to a scene which makes the viewer unhappy. But essential to understanding the sonnet is to grasp that it opens with an apostrophe to the speaker’s own sense of sight, which has failed him at this crucial moment. His eyeballs are no better than “dead glass” (i.e., glass eyes), and “dost thou thy object so embrace” is said ironically, i.e., is that the best you can do at your only job? To underscore this failure of function, line 4 points out that the speaker’s heart can still see Stella, so why not the eyes? The second quatrain continues this attack by insisting that the speaker himself was not to blame, having done everything he could to train the “race” of sight—i.e., the family, i.e., eyes, with “dazzling” continuing the sarcasm—onto the object of his love. The point is further emphasized by the Platonic insistence that he had trained his sight on the eternal (“Heaven”) rather than the mortal distractions (“dust”) that get in the way.

But if our subtitle here is “A Dialogue between a Lover and his own Sense of Sight,” we may imagine that it is time for the sense of sight to speak up in protest; and that is more or less what happens in lines 9 and 10. Having paused from his rebuke of “unhappy sight,” the speaker realizes that his eyes, in response, have filled up with tears, so he says, in effect, say no more (“But cease”), I can see you’re hurting too. The eyes have missed their “nectar” just as the speaker has lost his “heaven.”

All is forgiven between the speaker and his sight, but someone must be blamed, and it turns out there was a rather comical cast of culprits in the rapid disappearance of Stella*–the boy who dropped the torch, the coachman who drove too fast, the dark night itself—all defeating the efforts (“your strife”) of the sense of sight. All must be “cursed,” but no curse can be found stronger than what the speaker feels at the loss of Stella’s company.

*I am reminded of Grumio’s report of what he will “not” tell Curtis in Taming of the Shrew IV.1: “But had thou not crossed me, thou shouldst have heard how her horse fell and she under her horse; thou shouldst have heard in how miry a place, how she was bemoiled . . . etc.”

Next time (weekend of July 22): Sonnet 106
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 104 and Eleventh Song

Envious wits, what hath been mine offence,
That with such poisonous care my looks you mark,
That to each word, nay, sigh, of mine you hark,
As grudging me my sorrow’s eloquence?
Ah, is it not enough that I am thence,
Thence, so far thence, that scarcely any spark
Of comfort dare come to this dungeon dark,
Where rigor’s exile locks up all my sense?
But if I by a happy window pass,
If I but stars upon mine armor bear;
Sick, thirsty, glad, though but of empty glass;
Your moral notes straight my hid meaning tear
From out my ribs, and puffing prove that I
Do Stella love.   Fools, who doth it deny?

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 first word of the poem (somewhat unusually in Sidney’s poetry) requires all three syllables, while “poisonous” in the second line has the more usual two.

It has become apparent, near the end of the sequence, that Sidney’s sonnets to Stella are being more widely read, and have inevitably become subject to carping criticism. The phrase “Envious wits” suggests not merely the censorious friends of Sonnets 14, 20, 21, 23, 27, etc., but perhaps rival poets who envy the success of the poetry and therefore seize on the immoral subject matter and “hid meaning” as something to criticize.

The octave consists of two four-line questions, more or less parallel: (1) Why do you carp at me?; and (2) Especially when I am unhappy or unfortunate to begin with? The speaker/poet’s “eloquence” springs from “sorrow,” and this sorrow comes from being “thence,” i.e., separated from Stella and thus denied physically (“sense”) what the poetry muses upon.

The sestet complains of the critics’ tendency to “read into” every gesture of the speaker—even such trivialities as being glad to have quenched his thirst, or having stars on his armor*—some hidden expression of his love for Stella. The irony of this, and bottom line of the poem, is that they are falling all over themselves to prove an accusation that the speaker would never deny.

* Duncan-Jones offers evidence that Sidney did indeed display stars on his armor, with no connection to Stella.

Eleventh Song

“Who is it that this dark night
Underneath my window plaineth?”
It is one who from thy sight
Being, ah, exiled, disdaineth
Every other vulgar light.
‘Why, alas, and are you he?
Be not yet those fancies changed?’
Dear, when you find change in me,
Though from me you be estranged,
Let my change to ruin be.
‘Well, in absence this will die.
Leave to see, and leave to wonder.’
Absence sure will help, if I
Can learn how myself to sunder
From what in my heart doth lie.
‘But time will these thoughts remove;
Time doth work what no man knoweth.’
Time doth as the subject prove;
With time still the affection growth
In the faithful turtledove.
‘What if you new beauties see?
Will they not stir new affection?’
I will think they pictures be,
Image-like of saint’s perfection,
Poorly counterfeiting thee.
‘But your reason’s purest light
Bids you leave such minds to nourish.’
Dear, do reason no such spite;
Never doth thy beauty flourish
More than in my reason’s sight.

‘But the wrongs love bears will make
Love at length leave undertaking.’
No, the more fools it do shake,
In a ground of so firm making
Deeper still they drive the stake.
‘Peace, I think that some give ear;
Come no more, lest I get anger.’
Bliss, I will my bliss forbear,
Fearing, sweet, you to endanger,
But my soul shall harbour there.
‘Well, be gone, be gone, I say,
Lest that Argus’ eyes perceive you.’
O unjust is fortune’s sway,
Which can make me thus to leave you,
And from louts to run away!

Reading notes: Consistent with the feminine rhymes in other stanzas, the –ed syllable in “changed” and “exchanged” in the second stanza is pronounced; in the fourth stanza, “the affection” is elided to three syllables, i.e., “th’affection.”

See my previous metrical notes on Songs, especially the Fourth, Eighth, and Ninth, after Sonnets 85 and 86. This most resembles the Ninth Song, with a five-line stanza containing one feminine rhyme which dictates a trochaic rhythm throughout, even in the lines that are one syllable “short.” Here the rhyme scheme changes from ABABB (in the Ninth Song) to ABABA, the effect being that the speaker of the last three lines “matches” the challenge of the first two lines, and then is able to “top” it with one additional line.

Like most of the songs, the format allows a looser, more open-ended version of the constant debate between Stalla—the self-styled voice of reason—and her impatient and importunate lover. This particular version seems to foreshadow Romeo beneath Juliet’s window, drawn to the “light” that shines there; except that this Juliet is never going to let her lover in. The debate whips back and forth rapidly, with Stella posing question or challenge in the first two lines of each stanza, and the speaker giving his come-back in the final three.

Absence, she says in Stanza 3, should surely make him forget her; only if he is separated from his own heart, he replies. To her thought that the passage of time will help him forget, he gives a Rosalind-like answer that time works differently with different beings (“Time doth in the subject prove”); with the turtledove, for example, affection only grows with time. If his eye is caught by new beauties? Shadow versus substance; other beauties are but the poor shadows of Stella’s ideal form. The old trump card reason? As we have heard many times, reason itself must acknowledge Stella’s beauty. Somewhat in contradiction of that stanza, the one that follows acknowledges the speaker’s folly, anticipating Einstein’s definition of madness as repeating the same exercise over and over while expecting a different result: fools, on the “ground” of the “wrongs” brought by their love, just keep driving the “stake” deeper.

This game could theoretically go on all night, if not broken off by some practical concern. And so, in the penultimate stanza, Stella either senses or pretends to sense that they are being overheard (“some give ear”). This must be by her husband, since he would be the only one from whom she could “get anger.” The speaker agrees to withdraw rather than endanger her, but neither (at least in Sidney’s view) can resist taking one last dig at Lord Rich, as our final song comes to an end. Stella describes him as the odious see-all guard Argus, while the speaker laments the unjust fortune that forces a brave soldier like himself to flee from “louts.”

Next time (weekend of July 8): Sonnet 105
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 103

O happy Thames, that didst my Stella bear!
I saw thyself, with many a smiling line
Upon thy cheerful face, joy’s livery wear,
While those fair planets on thy streams did shine.
The boat for joy could not to dance forbear,
While wanton winds, with beauties so divine
Ravished, stayed not, till in her golden hair
They did themselves (O sweetest prison!) twine.
And fain those Aeol’s youths there would their stay
Have made; but, forced by Nature still to fly,
First did with puffing kiss those locks display.
She, so disheveled, blushed; from window I
With sight thereof cried out ‘O fair disgrace;
Let Honour’s self to thee grant highest place.’

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.

Again we have a sonnet that appears to be based on a biographical event, a moment in which Penelope Devereux (“Stella”) was traveling on the Thames—presumably on one of the festive barges popular with royalty and nobility in Tudor times—and Sidney (the speaker in the poem) watched her departure from a window on shore. It appears to be a nice London day (why would one make such a trip if not?), with sunshine and playful breezes.

The opening quatrain is an apostrophe to the river, whose “many a smiling line” suggests the play of sunshine on the ripples in the water. But not alone sunshine: the fourth line has the double meaning that the astrological alignment is propitious for such a river trip, or that “those fair planets,” Stella’s eyes, are casting their light on the scene.

The remainder of the poem deals with the breezes that play with Stella’s hair, probably stirred up as the boat “dances” into motion. These winds (“Aeol’s youth”*) are made “wanton” as they are “ravished” by Stella’s beauty, and cannot resist being “twined” in the “sweetest prison” of her hair. (The parenthetical phrase in line 8 is a “misplaced” appositive by the modern rules of grammar, to which Sidney was not bound.) There they would gladly stay, but it is in the “nature” of winds to keep moving, and so, with a final “puffing kiss” that disarranges Stella’s hair, they move on.

The final view of Stella thus finds her slightly “disheveled,” and therefore blushing a bit; and this is turned into a charming little candid snapshot of her beauty. The final idea, that this small “disgrace” honors her more than honor itself, is in the spirit of “Honi soit qui mal y pense” (the motto of the Order of the Garter), or of a charming later poem by Robert Herrick, “Delight in Disorder”:

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthralls the crimson stomacher:
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly:
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoestring, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.

Both poems celebrate the human departure from “perfection” which only makes a beautiful woman more desirable.

*i.e., the children or minions of Aeolus, god of the winds

Next time (weekend of June 24): Sonnet 104
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.