Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 91

Stella, while now by honour’s cruel might,
I am from you, light of my life, misled,
And that fair you, my sun, thus overspread
With absence’ veil, I live in sorrow’s night;
If this dark place yet show, like candle light
Some beauty’s piece, as amber-coloured head,
Milk hands, rose cheeks, or lips more sweet, more red,
Or seeing jets, black, but in blackness bright;
They please, I do confess, they please mine eyes.
But why? Because of you they models be,
Models such be wood globes of glistering skies.
Dear, therefore be not jealous over me;
If you hear that they seem my heart to move,
Not them, O no, but you in them I love.

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Reading note: “glistering” in line 11 is elided to two syllables.

This sonnet resumes the “absence” theme that began in Sonnet 87, and the opening quatrain indicates that “honour” is to blame—presumably either some diplomatic or military assignment for Philip Sidney, or simply Stella’s “honour” as a married woman, necessitating distance. As usual, Stella is associated with light for her worshipper, and thus her absence with “sorrow’s night.”

The second quatrain is a mini-blazon (head, hands, cheeks, lips, eyes) albeit indirectly applied to Stella herself. The hypothetical condition (the “If . . .”) is that her features would somehow be replicated by another or others in her absence (hinting at the heresy that other women might share Stella’s beauty) and thus draw the speaker’s eye. This dangerous situation for a would-be faithful lover is freely confessed in line 9: “They please, I do confess, they please mine eyes.” And as we would expect, the man who has made this confession needs to start paddling furiously to stay afloat. The rest of the first half of the sestet (in Sidney’s customary two-tercet division) uses the conventional Renaissance shadow/substance dichotomy, in which—following Plato’s concept of ideal forms—lesser entities are seen as shadows or “models” of the real thing. The other attractive women are seen as wooden “globes”—not the more familiar models of the earth, but a sort of spherical planetarium model of the skies,* while Stella’s star quality is the real thing.

The final tercet makes a direct appeal to Stella to be understanding and forgiving if she hears rumors of a roving eye. The rumors presumably have some basis in reality—suggesting the long-frustrated speaker might be hedging his bets—but he somewhat lamely pleads that this is yet another sign of his devotion to her.

* The meaning of “globe” as a spherical map of the world did not come into common use until the seventeenth century, though the object itself existed earlier; indeed, both types of “globe” are well illustrated in Hans Holbein’s famous 1553 painting “The Ambassadors,” which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Next time (weekend of January 8): Sonnet 92
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 89

Now that of absence the most irksome night,
With darkest shade doth overcome my day;
Since Stella’s eyes, wont to give me my day,
Leaving my hemisphere, leave me in night;
Each day seems long, and longs for long-stayed night;
The night as tedious, woos the approach of day;
Tired with the dusty toils of busy day,
Languished with horrors of the silent night,
Suffering the ills both of the day and night,
While no night is more dark than is my day,
Nor no day hath less quiet than my night;
With such bad mixture of my night and day,
That living thus in blackest winter night,
I feel the flames of hottest summer day.

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: “tedious” in line 6 and “suffering” in line 9 are both two syllables; and “the approach” in line 6 is elided to “th’approach.”

The third of three “absence” sonnets, this one is unique among Sidney’s rhyme schemes in that only two words, “night” and “day,” are rhymed throughout. This is a characteristic merging of sound and sense because the poem is about the tiresome repetition of nights and days passing without Stella.

The idea of “absence” as something that obscures the light for which Stella is named—mentioned briefly in line 6 of the previous sonnet—here moves into a full discussion of day vs. night. The first quatrain picks up the theme of Sonnet 88, and it sounds as if we might still just be discussing the “night” of absence, but the main clause has been suspended until line 5: “Each day seems long, and longs for long-stayed night.” With one of his classic antanaclases, Sidney changes direction, suggesting the night is actually something to be desired. But quickly, within another line, we learn that no, neither is desirable, as each is just the tedious waiting for the other; time just needs to pass for the solitary lover.

At this point, just six lines in, all sense of Italian sonnet structure is gone—“the numbers altered,” as Malvolio would say. A new complex sentence begins in line 7, and does not reach its main clause until line 14; and it is just a repetitive and deliberately uninteresting alternation between the woes of day and those of night. It culminates in the final two lines by suggesting the speaker has the worst of each: a “winter night” (when nights are coldest and darkest) and a “summer day” (when days are hottest), each of course being when nights and days are longest, the real point of the poem.

Next time (weekend of December 11): Sonnet 90
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 87

When I was forced from Stella, ever dear,
Stella, food of my thoughts, heart of my heart,
Stella, whose eyes make all my tempests clear,
By iron laws of duty to depart;
Alas, I found that she with me did smart,
I saw that tears did in her eyes appear;
I saw that sighs her sweetest lips did part,
And her sad words my saddened sense did hear.
For me, I wept, to see pearls scattered so;
I sighed her sighs, and wailed for her woe;
Yet swam in joy, such love in her was seen.
Thus, while th’effect most bitter was to me,
And nothing than the cause more sweet could be,
I had been vexed, if vexed I had not been.

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: “wailed” in line 10 is two syllables.

The situation now indicated is that the visit has ended and we have a set of three “absence” sonnets (similar to Shakespeare’s pair at 97 and 98). It is a hoary cliché that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but in Sidney’s case it seems to actually work that way because the purely imagined “Stella” is far less provoking than the real Penelope who continues to reject his advances.

This sonnet is a single sentence on the shared emotions of parting, with the octave mostly focused on Stella, and the sestet on the speaker. The small exception to that is that lines 1 and 4 form the premise that it is the speaker’s own “iron duty” that has forced him to break off the visit, while lines 2 and 3 interrupt with an explosive and flattering appositive on Stella, once she has been named. The second quatrain comes to the heart of the “story” for this sonnet: on parting, Stella seemed as sad and hurt (“did smart”) as he was.

The final line of the octave makes the transition back to the speaker’s feelings: apparently his “saddest sense” (for some reason) is hearing, though other senses seem equally engaged in responding sympathetically to Stella’s pain, in lines 9 and 10. But, since these are in the form of a couplet, the sestet is “upside down,” ending with an ABBA quatrain. The effect of this arrangement, by contrast to Sidney’s typical two-tercet equal division, is that the speaker seems to give “short shrift” to his sympathetic sadness, and “race ahead” (one line “early,” in line 11) to his overwhelming “joy” to see such signs of love. The bottom line is a characteristic paradox: he would have been more “vexed” if there had been less drama, less to be “vexed” about.

Next time (weekend of November 13): Sonnet 88
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.