Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 68

Stella, the only planet of my light,
Light of my life, and life of my desire,
Chief good, whereto my hope doth only aspire,
World of my wealth, and heaven of my delight:
Why dost thou spend the treasure of thy sprite,
With voice more fit to wed Amphion’s lyre,
Seeking to quench in me the noble fire
Fed by thy worth, and kindled by thy sight?
And all in vain, for while thy breath most sweet,
With choicest words, thy words with reasons rare,
Thy reasons firmly set on virtue’s feet,
Labour to kill in me this killing care:
Oh, think I then, what paradise of joy
It is, so fair a virtue to enjoy.

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: in line 3, “only aspire” needs to be elided to three syllables: “onl’aspire.”

Like Sonnet 66 (though not identical in form), this one mimics the structure of an English sonnet, building an argument in three quatrains and giving a snappy response to it in the final couplet, rather than having Sidney’s more customary evenly divided sestet.

The first quatrain functions only as a hyperbolic version of “Dear Stella,” and is a rather subtle auxesis (like the opening of Sonnet 1), starting out explicit (with repetitions of “light” and “life”) and turning implicit as “desire” turns into “good” and “world” and “wealth” step up to “heaven” and “delight.”

The second quatrain asks the rhetorical question that is the central message of the poem: why is she so determined to “quench” the very passion that her person ignites? Why does she use a voice “more fit” to be singing along with Amphion (the lyrist who could move stones with his music, and thus built Thebes) to instead preach cold reason? The “third quatrain” (in our faux-English form) extends this thought: her preaching efforts are “all in vain” because the more she gives voice to her virtue, the more convinced he is of her perfection, and the more he desires her!

“Enjoy” (the final word of the sonnet) is a word with an explicit sexual sense, so the speaker is coming close to the peculiar corruption of Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: being aroused by the very purity that he would violate. A more generous interpretation might focus on the Platonic idea of being drawn to better ourselves by the force of beauty; but however generous we might want to be to our long-suffering speaker, we must still accept the ambiguity of that attraction. The “bottom line” of the poem is the paradox that Stella’s virtuous pleading has the very opposite of its intended effect.

Next time (weekend of February 20): Sonnet 69
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 52

A strife is grown between Virtue and Love,
While each pretends that Stella must be his:
Her eyes, her lips, her all, saith Love, do this
Since they do wear his badge, most firmly prove.
But Virtue thus that title doth disprove:
That Stella (O dear name) that Stella is
That virtuous soul, sure heir of heavenly bliss,
Not this fair outside, which our hearts doth move;
And therefore, though her beauty and her grace
Be Love’s indeed, in Stella’s self he may
By no pretense claim any manner place.
Well, Love, since this demur our suit doth stay,
Let Virtue have that Stella’s self; yet thus
That Virtue but that body grant to us.

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: both “virtuous” and “heavenly” in line 7 are two syllables.

The “strife” that is the topic of this poem was introduced all the way back in Sonnet 4:

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.

As we noted there, strict conventional virtue keeps Stella, betrothed or married to another man, from loving as (at least in Sidney’s mind) she more naturally would; that is the essential conflict between Virtue and Love. The logic of this poem depends also on an even better-known conflict, conventionally attributed to St. Paul: that between Soul and Body. The first conflict is carried out by means of the second, as the two parties debate whether body or soul represents the essential Stella. Love states his case first, which in sonnet logic means he is going to lose, though a lawyer might say he has established a “basis for appeal.”  His argument is simply that everything observable about Stella (i.e., bodily features) advertises love, so she is clearly on his team. But this argument is easily trumped by the superior understanding that a person’s “self” is identified with her soul, and Stella’s soul is clearly on the side of Virtue. In lines 9-11 Virtue does generously concede that “her beauty and her grace” (i.e., “this fair outside”) belong to Love, but not the “self” that is Stella.

In the final tercet, the speaker, acting as a less-than-disinterested judge in the dispute, humorously divides the prize, suggesting each disputant get the “part” of Stella that belongs to him. At the risk of becoming more serious than the playful sonnet merits, I will point to two implications here: (1) that one’s body can be separated from the “self” (a marvelous liberation from responsibility!); and (2) an admission that the speaker would be grateful for a mere illicit sexual liaison, with no hint of Shakespeare’s “marriage of true minds” or Donne’s “intertwining” of souls. He is more like the lust-minded Angelo in Measure for Measure, who, when Isabella offers to do anything to save her brother’s life that would not endanger her soul, quickly replies, “I talk not of your soul.”

Next time (weekend of July 11): Sonnet 53
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.