Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 27

Because I oft, in dark abstracted guise
Seem most alone in greatest company,
With dearth of words, or answers quite awry,
To them that would make speech of speech arise,
They deem, and of their doom the rumor flies,
That poison foul of bubbling pride doth lie
So in my swelling breast that only I
Fawn on myself, and others do despise.
Yet pride, I think, doth not my soul possess,
Which looks too oft in his unflatt’ring glass;
But one worse fault, ambition, I confess,
That makes me oft my best friends overpass,
Unseen, unheard, while thought to highest place
Bends all his powers, even unto Stella’s grace.

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: in lines 7-8 “only” modifies “Fawn,” not “I”; so there is a slight lift after “only,” followed by “I fawn on myself” as a connected clause.

Both “powers” and “even” in the final line are single-syllable.

Notice also that “company,” “awry,” “lie,” and “I” are all supposed to rhyme, although this is observed only mentally (not vocally) in modern reading. Oddly enough, it is most likely the final sound in “company” that was heard in all four; the Great Vowel Shift was still in process when Sidney was writing.

This sonnet is such a close companion to Sonnet 23—the poem on melancholy—that one could almost be a superseded draft for the other, except there is no clear “winner.”  Instead, we must consider that the particular topic presented Sidney with enough matter for two fine sonnets, not to mention a number of others (e.g., Sonnet 30) in which the speaker’s self-absorption is at least mentioned.

Both 23 and this one depict concerned friends pondering reasons why the speaker seems so aloof and distracted, and get it wrong; and both of course end with the speaker giving the “right” answer. Both sonnets use the whole first quatrain to set the scene, although there is a closer grammatical link between lines 4 and 5 in this one than in the other. The second quatrain begins the list of reasons, but now observe carefully how the poet’s thought process on the same stimulus takes a new direction. In Sonnet 23, there were three reasons offered, with the third, ambition, occupying the first half of the sestet, the fulcrum coming after line 11, and the speaker’s response taking only the final three lines. In Sonnet 27, the sole reason given by the friends, the “poison foul of bubbling pride,” fills the second quatrain, and the speaker uses the entire sestet to respond. In fact, not only is the fulcrum after line 8 (the most typical place for an Italian sonnet), but this is a relatively rare sonnet in which Sidney does not make a strong break after line 11, but runs the whole argument of the sestet together. As in 23, the sestet brings up ambition as an issue, but it’s as if the speaker is saying “Wait a minute—come to think of it, it IS ambition, but not the way you thought.” And the sonnet ends with the customary fixation on Stella, here framed as the speaker’s aiming higher than is his due.

Let’s walk through it more carefully:

Again we are reminded of Hamlet, not just by the speaker’s “dark abstracted guise,” but also by the alternative possibilities of either “dearth of words” or “answers quite awry.” And the friends are described dismissively as “them that would make speech of speech arise”—i.e. people who engage in small talk, and think that when they have said anything, they are owed a response. Surely the speaker’s attitude is an exaggerated description for the polished courtier Sidney, but one can’t help wondering if the poet Sidney shares some of the shyness and introversion of the much later poet John Keats, and that poet’s impatience with clever acquaintances.

The sentence begun in line 1 continues right through the octave, and we do not reach the main clause until line 5, a line with wonderful sound effects: “They deem, and of their doom the rumor flies.” First I should explain that “doom” originally meant simply “judgment” (before it underwent pejoration to mean “condemnation”) so a paraphrase of this line is “They judge, and of their judgment, the popular opinion is formed that starts to spread around.”  But the sounds of the line, by themselves, paint a picture of how rumor departs by steady steps from truth. The steps are (1) “they deem,” connected by alliteration and consonance to (2) “their doom,” which is echoed and weakened in (3) “the rumor” (assonance, or in effect, given the successive stresses on “doom” and “rum-“, an internal rhyme, as if one slightly misheard the first word and repeated it as the second).

What their judgment, and the subsequent rumor, is, of course, is that it is the speaker’s pride and egotism (“that only I/Fawn on myself”) that make him so aloof. But that could hardly be the case, he protests, because his soul sees nothing good when it looks in the mirror. We might interpret that metaphor as meaning he feels some guilt over his misplaced passion, or, alternatively, translating “soul” more loosely as “self,” that his ego takes regular poundings in his encounters with the woman he loves.

And here, as discussed above, he allows of the possibility that the fault really is ambition after all—just not the political sort of ambition that his critics would expect. In his distracted daydreaming, the speaker aspires to the “highest place” imaginable: “Stella’s grace”; i.e., Stella’s showering divine blessings on him figuratively, while literally giving in to his will.

Next time (weekend of July 26): Sonnet 28

Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 15

You that do search for every purling spring
Which from the ribs of old Parnassus flows;
And every flower, not sweet perhaps, which grows
Near thereabouts into your poesy wring;
You that do dictionary’s method bring
Into your rhymes, running in rattling rows;
You that poor Petrarch’s long-deceased woes
With new-born sighs and denizened wit do sing:
You take wrong ways, those far-fet helps be such
As do bewray a want of inward touch,
And sure at length stol’n goods do come to light.
But if (both for your love and skill) your name
You seek to nurse at fullest breasts of fame,
Stella behold, and then begin to endite.

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: “denizened” in line 8 is two syllables (den’zened), and in line 14, “to endite” must be elided (t’endite); and “deceasèd” in line seven has all three syllables.

This sonnet is a piece of cake if one is already acquainted with sonnets 3 and 6.  The tenor is almost precisely the same, and the structure parallels sonnet 3 in particular, where the octave describes various “wrong ways” to do poetry, and the sestet says the only right way is (as the speaker is doing) to contemplate Stella.  The chief structural differences are (1) that sonnet 3 is a “them” vs. “me” discussion, while sonnet 15 is entirely addressed to “you”; and (2) while the sonnet 3 octave uses two “outie” (ABAB) quatrains for a continuous discussion, this one has two parallel “innies” (ABBA), so the discussion “starts over” in line 5.

Just as sonnets 3 and 6 begin with a reference to seeking the help of the classical muses, so too does this one talk about searching for the springs (i.e., the works of ancient poets) that flow from Mount Parnassus, home of the muses. A “purling” spring is simply a bubbling, flowing one, but there is a pun here, since the poets who so search are looking for “pearls” with which to decorate their verse, just as they are squeezing (“wringing”) the no-longer-fresh (“sweet”) flowers for some sad drops of stale perfume.

The second quatrain references somewhat more recent poetic fads, starting with “dictionary’s method.”  At first glance, since he says “into your rhymes,” we might think of the novice poet’s consulting of a rhyming dictionary; but I’m pretty sure such a thing had not been invented yet (thus, Benedick “can think of no rhyme for lady but baby”) and “rhymes” is used in the more general sense of “poems.”  In any case, as line 6 wonderfully illustrates, the method involves choosing as many neighboring words as possible from an alphabetized list; i.e., the fad of excessive alliteration.  And the fad of Petrarchan sonnets (in which, as discussed before, Sidney was very much a participant) closes this list, with the clever suggestion that the emotion may be home-grown (“new-born sighs”) but the method (“wit”) is imported (“denizened,” meaning naturalized or immigrant).

As in earlier poems (1, line 14, 3, line 9, and 6, line12), the rebuke, when it comes, is blunt and monosyllabic: “You take wrong ways.”  The rest of the first tercet is also quite plain and uncomplicated.  Likewise, the remedy in the final three lines is the same as in all the previous sonnets on this theme, but with a new and striking image: instead of nursing at the springs of now-skeletal (because ancient) Parnassus for inspiration, the would-be poet should “seek to nurse at fullest breasts of fame,” a synecdoche for Stella that is erotic—thus aspirational on Sidney’s part—as well as inspirational.

Next time (weekend of February 8): Sonnet 16

Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnets 4 and 10 (considered together)

Virtue, alas, now let me take some rest;
Thou sett’st a bate between my will and wit;
If vain Love have my simple soul oppressed,
Leave what thou lik’st not, deal not thou with it.
Thy scepter use in some old Cato’s breast,
Churches or schools are for thy seat more fit:
I do confess—pardon a fault confessed—
My mouth too tender is for thy hard bit.
But if that needs thou wilt usurping be
The little reason that is left in me,
And still th’ effect of thy persuasions prove:
I swear, my heart such one shall show to thee,
That shrines in flesh so true a deity,
That, Virtue, thou thy self shalt be in love.

Reason, in faith thou art well served, that still
Would’st brabbling be with sense and love in me.
I rather wished thee climb the muses’ hill,
Or reach the fruit of Nature’s choicest tree,
Or seek heaven’s course, or heaven’s inside, to see:
Why should’st thou toil our thorny soil to till?
Leave sense, and those which sense’s objects be:
Deal thou with powers of thoughts, leave love to will.
But thou would’st needs fight both with love and sense,
With sword of wit giving wounds of dispraise,
Till downright blows did foil thy cunning fence:
For soon as they strake thee with Stella’s rays,
Reason, thou kneeled’st, and offered’st straight to prove
By reason good, good reason her to love.

I suggest you click here to open the sonnets in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to them as you read on through the analysis.

Given that a sonnet is already among the more formulaic forms of poetry, this pair suggests a formula within the formula, for this particular progression of ideas.  To understand the parallels, one must first understand some basic Renaissance vocabulary.

For Sidney and his contemporaries, the human brain had a 3-part structure, (1) Reason, (2) Will, and (3) Appetite, corresponding neatly to angels, humans, and beasts on the Great Chain of Being, or, adjectivally, to the spiritual, mental, and physical parts of our decision-making process.  The will is where the decisions are actually made, and ideally the will is governed by Reason, the part of the human make-up which is led by the will of God (hence, a phrase such as Donne’s “Reason, God’s viceroy in me”).  But the will is constantly under rebellious assault by the appetite, physical passions and desires—what Freud would later label the id.  Other common synonyms for appetite are “sense” and “fancy,” while it should also be clear from this scheme that “Reason” and “Virtue” are effectively synonyms.

So, to describe the pattern piece by piece:  both poems open as if we have walked in in the middle of a quarrel; the speaker chastises Virtue/Reason for intervening in his life, and (in lines 3 and4 inboth cases) asks V/R to go away.  In 4.2 “wit” means wisdom and “bate” is a bar or obstacle, so apparently Virtue has been arguing that the speaker’s will is not acting wisely, and line 3 suggests (in a subjunctive “if” clause) why: “vain love” (the product of sense or appetite) has triumphed over “my simple soul” (weakly developed reason).  As if to illustrate the simple soul and weak wit, line 4 has ten single-syllable words, arranged awkwardly with a childlike petulance: “Leave what thou lik’st not, deal not thou with it.”

Lines 5 and 6 in sonnet 4 and 3 through 6 in sonnet 10 have to remind us of Donne (a few decades later), arguing with the sun in a very similar way in “Sun Rising”:

Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late schoolboys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the King will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices . . .

In all three cases—Donne with the physical image of the sun and Sidney with the abstract personifications Virtue and Reason—the speaker querulously suggests that his antagonist go meddle in something more appropriate to the antagonist’s essential purpose.  Virtue is more at home with old judges (Cato) or the discipline of churches and schools; Reason in the more refined air of Mount Helicon (line 3), the Garden of Eden (4), or again (5) in piety (“heaven’s course”), with which is partnered a precious form of “go hang yourself”—i.e., the implication of “seeing” Heaven’s “inside” by departing this world of the flesh.

In sonnet 4, the “bottom line” of the octave is the speaker’s confession that he is simply too weak for the life of virtue, and in line 7 he throws himself on the mercy of the stern judge.  Sonnet 10 is less defensive, turning the quarrel with Reason into the more general indictment, in lines 6-8, that begins with the brilliant line:

Why shouldst thou toil our thorny soil to till?

This is a poetry teacher’s gold mine, using alliteration, assonance, consonance, internal rhyme, and an almost unpronounceable sequence of four distinct consonants at the juncture of “should’st” and “thou,” to create a tongue-twister that verbally acts out the toil of tilling thorny soil.  The point of the three lines together is that love belongs to the realm of passion (“sense”), while Reason should strictly deal with “thoughts” only; revealingly, the speaker’s “will,” which in theory is constantly torn between the two, ends up squarely on the side of love and “sense.”

As we would expect in an Italian sonnet, the sestet (taken as a whole) is the “answer” or “reversal” of the problem in the octave; but in both cases the speaker uses the clever fighting gambit of seeming to surrender before springing the trap (“Well, I can see I’m not going to change your mind, so . . . I’ll tell ya what . . .”).  The first three lines in each sestet contain both the surrender and the set-up.  In sonnet 4, it’s all governed by an “if” (which promises that the other shoe will drop) leading up to the challenge to “prove” Virtue’s arguments—i.e., put them to the test. In sonnet 10, we move more directly to a brash prediction of Reason’s defeat in line 11.

The final three lines of these two sonnets are so similar and formulaic that they could almost trade locations, with the requisite name-swap.  To start with 4, for Virtue this is the ultimate subversion.  Virtue represents the spirit of God governing human flesh through the heart, but this “heart” has established such a fleshly “deity” that, so to speak, “God” himself will worship a false god!  The precisely parallel inversion in sonnet 10 has the added twist in the double meaning of “reason”: (1) “Capital R” Reason, the voice that is supposed to speak for God and control our decisions, and (2) “small r” reason, the specific explanation we give for any particular decision we make.  Again the point is that Stella’s fleshly beauty is of such power that it even subverts the spiritual realm and becomes (as in sonnet 4) a fleshly deity.

Thus—in a way that very much anticipates John Donne—we have moved quickly and logically from petulant quarrel to the hyperbolic compliment of a lady’s beauty that is fairly standard fare for love sonnets; but also (perhaps less predictably) to an almost cosmic rationalization for being governed by one’s passions rather than “by the book.”

Next time (weekend of September 21): Sonnet 5

 Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.