Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 79

Sweet kiss, thy sweets I fain would sweetly indite,
Which even of sweetness sweetest sweet’ner art:
Pleasing’st consort, where each sense holds a part;
Which, coupling doves, guides Venus’ chariot right;
Best charge, and bravest retreat in Cupid’s fight,
A double key, which opens to the heart,
Most rich, when most his riches it impart;
Nest of young joys, schoolmaster of delight,
Teaching the mean at once to take and give;
The friendly fray, where blows both wound and heal;
The pretty death, while each in other live;
Poor hope’s first wealth, hostage of promised weal,
Breakfast of love: but lo! Lo, where she is:
Cease we to praise; now pray we for a kiss.

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” in line 2 and “bravest” in line 5 are each elided to a single syllable; and the last syllable of “sweetly” in line 1 must be elided with the first syllable of “indite” so that the final foot in the line is “l’indite.”

Although this sonnet has Sidney’s favorite rhyme scheme (ABBAABBACDCDEE, used in 60 of the 108 sonnets), it has an unusual “grammar” or structure for an Italian sonnet. There is no full stop after line 8, and in fact lines 8 and 9 form a 2-line idea, just as lines 1 and 2 do. So, rather than an octave-sestet structure, this one could be described as two parallel and rhyming introductory lines (1 and 8), each followed by a sestet in a standard sestet form, the first (2-7) AABBCC, and the second (9-14) ABABCC.

Perhaps still recalling the stolen kiss of the Second Song (see Sonnet 72), the poet/speaker here spends twelve and a half lines addressing and expounding on that kiss with accelerating poetic exaggeration. There is no conceit tying the whole poem together, but each device or figure tends to connect to the next through some word-play that functions as a “hand-off.”

After an extravagant six-iteration antanaclasis on the word “sweet” (repeating a feat of Sonnet 36), the first metaphoric image is the rich word “consort.” This can mean one’s partner, or the partnership itself, or a pair of yoked animals, or a set of musicians, or the harmony such musicians might produce, or any form of pact or agreement—and all of these senses might be at the front or back of a reader’s mind in the lines that follow. Specifically, “holds a part” in line 3 evokes the musical meaning, while “coupling doves” points to the yoked animals; but the other meanings are raised by discussion of the kiss itself.

The ambiguity continues in line 5. It is Venus’ dove-powered chariot, of course, that is charging and retreating, but “charge” and “retreat” are also trumpet calls, so we still have music in mind as line 6 opens with “A double key.” But this becomes a “hand-off” as this key (“double” because of two lips) turns out to be the kind that unlocks and “opens to the heart,” the citadel where the “riches” of love are held close.

Moving into the second half of the poem, the speaker seems to grow more rambling and random in his leaps from image to image: “nest” in the sense of haven or home for “joys” turns into “schoolmaster” within a delightful kindergarten where sharing is the only lesson. Then we go completely abstract and oxymoronic: “friendly fray,” “pretty death,” “poor hope,” and so on. We can sense this recitation speeding up and becoming less coherent as the speaker needs to wrap it up. The lady herself approaches in the middle of line 13, and in the glow of her presence, after an initial stumble (“but lo! Lo . . .”) he lands on a perfectly structured line with a subtle and sophisticated chiasmus (in which “pray” echoes “praise” and “kiss” echoes “cease): “Cease we to praise, now pray we for a kiss.”

Next time (weekend of July 24): Sonnet 80
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 66

And do I see some cause a hope to feed,
Or doth the tedious burden of long woe
In weakened minds, quick apprehension breed,
Of every image which may comfort show?
I cannot brag of word, much less of deed;
Fortune wheels still with me in one sort slow:
My wealth no more, and no whit less my need,
Desire still on the stilts of fear doth go.
And yet amid all fears a hope there is
Stol’n to my heart, since last fair night, nay day,
Stella’s eyes sent to me the beams of bliss,
Looking on me, while I looked other way:
But when mine eyes back to their heaven did move,
They fled with blush, which guilty seemed of love.

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: “heaven” in line 13 is one syllable.

For a stretch of twenty sonnets, starting with this one, there is a perceived warming toward the speaker by Stella, with the “high point,” perhaps, being a stolen kiss (while she is asleep) in Sonnet 73. This sonnet considers the perception itself, questioning whether it has any basis. The opening quatrain poses two possibilities: (1) there are indeed signs of hope (line 1); or (2) the speaker is being driven crazy by the long torment of his longing, and is starting to be delusional. “Lovers and madmen,” Theseus tells us in Midsummer Night’s Dream, “have such seething brains” that their “imagination bodies forth/The form of things unknown,” and “if it would but apprehend some joy,/It comprehends some bringer of that joy.” The speaker of our sonnet wonders if he has seen something real, or has suffered the affliction that Theseus describes; and what would-be lover has not wrestled with precisely that doubt at some point?

This sonnet, like the previous one, is in Sidney’s second-favorite form, which closely resembles English sonnet form because the sestet is divided by rhyme into quatrain and couplet—and indeed (unlike 65) this one is even closer to “English” in that it is a rare Sidney sonnet with no strong break after line 11. He uses this structure to explore the two sides of delusion vs. hope in the second quatrain and “quatrain three” of the faux-English form, respectively. The latter finally starts describing the specific moment that has started these musings, and the couplet wraps it up in all its lasting ambiguity.

Quatrain two is a small masterpiece of sonnet writing, perfectly capturing the mental struggle of the whole poem. It begins with the absolute admission that he has nothing (word nor deed) to show for his love-quest so far. The Wheel of Fortune (which classically tends to stay in motion and keep changing the fortunes of people) in this one matter (“one sort”) barely moves. Line seven is a lovely chiasmus with a twist. “Wealth” and “need” in the line are both relative to the prize of Stella, so the sense of the line is that he is just as needy and just as poor as ever in that respect. The chiasmus is between my-wealth-no-more and no-less-my-need, but one more syllable was needed, and “whit” creates yet another sound-play within the alliteration: in one side of line we have an M-W and an N-M; when we cross we get N-W and M-N, with initial sounds in the phrases swapping places. Finally (for this quatrain) we get the payoff image in line 8, where “stilts” must be understood in its renaissance meaning of “crutches”; so desire still stumbles along on the crutches of fear, a perfect and compact image of a hopeful but nervous and still unsuccessful lover. And the line has the added sound effect of a “stumble” in the second foot, where both syllables are unstressed.

And yet, and yet, and yet . . . In the “third quatrain” we get the hope-inducing incident itself, simpler to relate and again perhaps familiar to any hopeful lover. The night before (turned hyperbolic “day” by the rays emanating from Stella’s starry eyes) the speaker sensed, without exactly looking, that Stella was gazing at him. So of course he had to look, and of course, if she was looking at him, she had to look somewhere else, and this seemed to him to reflect the desired combination of interest and guilt on her part . . . . But we’ll have to wait for further evidence.

Next time (weekend of January 23): Sonnet 67
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 5

It is most true—that eyes are formed to serve
The inward light; and that the heavenly part
Ought to be king; from whose rules, who doth swerve,
Rebels to Nature, strive for their own smart.
It is most true, what we call Cupid’s dart,
An image is, which for ourselves we carve,
And, fools, adore in temple of our heart;
Till that good god make church and churchmen starve.
True, that true beauty Virtue is indeed,
Whereof this beauty can be but a shade,
Which elements with mortal mixture breed;
True, that on earth we are but pilgrims made,
And should in soul up to our country move;
True—and yet true, that I must Stella love.

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.

For thirteen lines and a word, this poem is a tidy little summary of commonplace wisdom of Sidney’s time—wisdom in which humanistic Christianity is heavily infused with Platonic ideas. The quality of Reason (discussed previously) is synonymous with the soul in St. Paul’s soul/body dichotomy, or with Plato’s eternal spirit of beauty temporarily inhabiting a mortal frame.  In the Platonic paradox, the world that is visible (audible, etc.) to our senses is actually a “shadow” of a permanent ideal form, often referred to as the “substance” related to (and contrasted with) that shadow; thus Dr. Faustus’s ironic line about the false images he is able to conjure, “These are but shadows, not substantial.”  In the Ptolemaic universe, the closest sphere to the central earth, the sphere of the moon, is a key boundary between that which is immortal and immutable—outside the sphere—and that which is mortal and constantly changing, within. Thus, John Donne’s put-down, “dull, sublunary lovers’ love,” for the affection that depends on proximity and the stimulation of the senses.  Ideally we understand that our time on earth is the briefest and least significant part of our existence, so we filter all the stimuli of  our senses through the higher wisdom of our Reason/Soul, and thus stay on the path of eternal bliss.  This is the systematic understanding that informs this poem—and is of course rejected curtly in the final line.

Structurally, the repeated words “It is most true” announce that the two quatrains of the octave are parallel statements of the same idea.  These simple words also carry the ambiguity of meaning both (in Austen’s clause) “It is a truth universally acknowledged” and the phrase “Granted that,” with which a speaker indicates that he will actually take the other side. The sense of the first quatrain (in keeping with the general scheme I described in the previous post) is that the senses (“eyes”) are supposed to be the servants of Reason (the “inward light”) or the soul (the “heavenly part”) which Nature dictates should be in charge. Rebelling (“swerving”) against that rule means one courts his own harm (“smart”).  Repeating the idea with a slightly more specific example, the second quatrain admits that passionate infatuation (“what we call Cupid’s dart”) is but an illusion (“image”) or shadow, and the “image” takes on the second meaning of “idol,” which we first “carve” for ourselves and then worship (“adore”) in the false “temple” of our hearts—again an admission (as in Sonnet 2) that the speaker’s torment and folly are self-inflicted. But this false religion is so pervasive that the “good god” (Cupid, so-called with sarcasm) is putting God (“church and churchmen”) out of business.

The sestet has Sidney’s characteristic three-three division,* and each tercet opens, like the quatrains, with the same phrase, in this case “True, that.”  The first one gives a Platonic rewording to the Christian idea just expressed: that Virtue (Reason’s twin, as discussed in the last entry) is the “true” (i.e., permanent, eternal) “beauty,” as opposed to Stella’s earthly and sublunary beauty, bred by impure “elements with mortal mixture” and thus a mere shadow (“shade”) of that ideal substance.  The second sums up the Platonic-Christian ideal that mortal existence is but a “pilgrimage” in which our souls prepare themselves for the return to the true home.

The little sermon draws near its perfectly symmetrical end; but suddenly, as if an impatient listener can stand it no more, and must get to the “bottom line,” the poem’s bottom line breaks in with one more “True,” when the pattern does not call for it. After the fulcrum phrase “and yet,” the word “true” is repeated one more time (two can play this game!) and the entire counter-sermon, based on no reason, no religion, no philosophy, but raw human passion instead, takes a mere three iambs to state in full: “that I must Stella love.”

* For the typical structure of a Sidney sonnet, see the “Introduction” post.

Next time (weekend of October 5): Sonnet 6

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 2

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 2

Not at first sight, nor with a dribbed shot,
Love gave the wound which while I breathe will bleed;
But known worth did in mine of time proceed,
Till by degrees it had full conquest got.
I saw, and liked; I liked, but loved not;
I loved, but straight did not what love decreed;
At length to love’s decrees I, forced, agreed,
Yet with repining at so partial lot.
Now even that footstep of lost liberty
Is gone, and now like slave-born Muscovite
I call it praise to suffer tyranny;
And now employ the remnant of my wit
To make myself believe that all is well,
While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.

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.

This sonnet is, on the one hand, one of the simplest, commonest Petrarchan clichés—love  has forced me to take leave of my wits and reason, but what can I do?—and, on the other, so clever and witty as to run the risk of being downright obscure in its ambiguity.

Let’s start with what is most clear and accessible.  The sonnet’s idea is laid out in a 3-step outline, similar to the way Shakespeare makes a case in three quatrains, except in this Italian sonnet the third section fills the sestet, and is further subdivided 3-3, Sidney’s typical pattern (though, as discussed in my first post, with the “hybrid” couplet again evoking the Shakespearean pattern). The outline reads: 1. General description of the problem; 2. shifting to “I” as the repeated subject of active verbs, a specific and succinct summary of how the speaker got to where he is; and 3. Where he is “now,” subdivided (a) how he is characterized (a slave enamored of his own slavery); and (b) what he does about it (tries to rationalize).

Three of the most striking, yet accessible, devices in the poem:

First, the over-punctuation in the second quatrain (to be fair, some of it introduced by modern editing), forcing a halting rhythm that imitates a man being dragged into something against his will.  Notice, for example, breaks after each of the first three feet in line 5, and then, when the two-syllable “lovèd” starts to make a smoother (and more optimistic) two-foot phrase, it comes crashing to earth with “not.” Or the even more disruptive break in the middle of a would-be iambic foot in line 7: if (by contrast) “I forced” were a simple subject-verb phrase, the line would read simply dĕ crées Ĭ fórced, but in this case, with “forced” as a past-participial postnominal modifier, the break forces a virtual spondee, dĕ crées Í, fórced; reader and speaker are, in effect, both stopped in their tracks at the same time.

Second, the wonderfully quiet-but-dramatic transition from the end of the octave to the start of the sestet. In line 8 the speaker retains some shred of his dignity as he comes to the conclusion of the dragging process: “Yet with repining at so partial lot.”  Imagine here a man being locked in a cell, while still protesting his innocence to his jailer. But apparently, the jailer ignores him, clangs the bars shut, and stalks off down an echoing hallway. The next poignant thought is: “Now even that footstep of lost liberty is gone.” The prisoner is on his own to adjust to the terms of his imprisonment, and typically (like the stereotypical Russian under the Tsars) he will find a way to embrace it. The suddenly concrete image of a footstep following the entirely abstract description of lines 5-8 is poetry at its greatest.

Third, the humorous reference to the “remnant” of the speaker’s wit (line 12), when he has not yet explicitly mentioned losing his wit—an almost homespun joke, but also a clever and understated way to “double” the meaning contained within an otherwise merely functional lead-in to an idea.

So where is the difficulty and the obscurity? Lines 3 and 14. The problems are not closely related, and do not seriously undercut the simple pattern discussed above, so I will just discuss them in isolation:

Line 3: The subject phrase “known worth” is itself a bit of a pauser, and may require the footnote information that this is an autobiographical reference to the fact that Sidney knew a great deal about Penelope Devereux before he considered her a love interest, but even without that knowledge, the phrase is a reasonably clear opposite to love at “first sight” or the “dribbed” (i.e., mistaken or misfired) shot of Cupid’s arrow mentioned in line 1. But the real puzzler is the adverbial phrase in the middle of the verb phrase, “in mine of time.” The first instinct, given all the self-preoccupation here, might be to think “mine” is the possessive meaning “my wound,” as in: “Love breaks some hearts, but has utterly smashed mine.”  But that instinct can be quickly dismissed: looking backward, the “wound” in line 2 was already “mine,” so saying “mine” in a “But” clause would be clumsy; and looking forward, the wound is certainly not the object of “had full conquest got”;  the speaker is, and indeed the wound is the instrument of the speaker’s defeat. The word “conquest,” in fact, is the key clue here. Conquest of a fortified city was as likely to be attempted by “mining” (= tunneling under the wall, hence our modern abstract term “undermining”) as by direct assault, though the latter was certainly more honorable and more likely to be admired. This is part of the point for the dashing soldier Sidney: Love has, in effect, gotten to him by “underhanded,” sneaky means, when he wasn’t properly armed against it.  So the “in mine” part of the phrase has nothing to do with a possessive, but refers to the method by which Love has used “known worth” to gain the “conquest.”  But that still leaves the seemingly simple phrase “of time,” which to me is just as hard to sort out.  Is it connected to “proceed,” meaning something as simple as “in time proceed”? If so, why not say “in time proceed,” since the meter is the same and “of time” is not idiomatic for “in time”?  Is it, alternatively, connected to “mine,” so that time is the entity that is actually being mined? That, too, does not make sense, since time is surely a “winner” not a “loser” in the construction that follows.  So let’s try this: it’s connected to “mine,” but the “of” indicates ownership, so mining is Time’s instrument for furthering the cause of Love; now that makes more sense, does it not?  But it is hardly an intuitive reading!

Line 14: The general sense of the final couplet is a paradox similar to Shakespeare’s “I do believe her though I know she lies,” only here the idea is “I do believe me though I know I’m crazy.”  The somewhat hard part is the apparent paradox-within-a-paradox of “While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.”  I think it is safe to say that “feeling skill” is an oxymoron, reflecting the same clash between passion and personal control that is a running theme of the whole sonnet sequence. But what, exactly, is the speaker doing with his passion-affected intellect?; what does it mean to “paint my hell”? There are at least two distinct possibilities, and in this case I think we do well to accept both, and thus enrich the poem’s meaning through ambiguity; as Benedick says, “There’s a double meaning in that!” Duncan-Jones’s endnote opts for Hamlet’s understanding of “paint” as giving “a false colouring or complexion to,” or in the crude American political vernacular, “putting lipstick on a pig.” So in that sense, the speaker admits to using optimistic descriptions of a love relationship to “pretty up” what is really a hellish state he has gotten into. It could similarly be said that line 5 of Sonnet 1, “I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe” refers to putting false make-up on an ugly face (blackness being equated with ugliness in Renaissance-speak). But just as clearly, that line occurs in the midst of a description of the struggle to create art, so it carries the ambiguity of “paint” as “create art.” The verb is used in this sense in several other sonnets (70, 81, 93, 98), unambiguously so in 81 (for example), where the speaker seeks to “paint” poetically a kiss he has received from Stella. So, the “simple” end of what is already a complex idea—“I am deluding myself and putting a false front on a hellish situation”—is given still more complexity, depth, and meaning with the layered suggestions (extending Sonnet 1’s role as “preface” to a lengthy sonnet sequence) that (1) the hellish situation is about to be turned into a work of art; and (2) (as Marlowe, Milton, and other writers have variously affirmed), “hell” is a place between a pair of human ears, and the “hell” the speaker has described himself as being reluctantly dragged into is in fact a hell of his own making.

Next time (weekend of August 24): Sonnet 3

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