Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 100

O tears, no tears, but rain from beauty’s skies,
Making those lilies and those roses grow,
Which aye most fair, now more than most fair show,
While graceful pity beauty beautifies:
O honeyed sighs, which from that breast do rise,
Whose pants do make unspilling cream to flow,
Winged with whose breath, so pleasing zephyrs blow,
As can refresh the hell where my soul fries:
O plaints, conserved in such a sugared phrase
That eloquence itself envies your praise,
While sobbed-out words a perfect music give:
Such tears, sighs, plaints, no sorrow is but joy;
Or if such heavenly signs must prove annoy,
All mirth farewell, let me in sorrow live.

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.

The focus shifts abruptly to Stella, in what Shakespeare’s Rosalind would call a “more coming-on disposition”—or at least in visible sorrow at the plight that separates her from the speaker’s love. Her tears, sighs, and plaints (subjects of first quatrain, second quatrain, and first half of sestet, respectively) are all hyperbolized, and imagined as promising signs of her hidden love.

The first quatrain manages a “super-superlative” in three of its four lines (1,3, and 4). The tears are more than tears, a “rain” from Plato’s realm of “beauty” watering the red and white flowers of Stella’s cheeks. Those flowers are always (“aye”) “most fair,” but now (in defiance of the meaning of “most”) become “more than most fair,” and in a typical Sidney antanaclasis, this show of “pity” by a “beauty” makes beauty still more beautiful.

Though we move on from super-superlatives, the conceit of the second quatrain is even more over the top. Sighs, of course, rise from the lungs, which means from the “breast” of a beautiful woman. Thus they represent both “cream” and such cool breezes (“so pleasing zephyrs”) that the speaker is “refresh[ed].” But wait—let me state that as extremely as I can: the speaker’s “soul” which “fries” in “hell” is refreshed. This may be over the top, but it is also the crux of the poem. The previous sonnets have made clear how tormented the speaker’s thoughts are, and a small indication of sympathy or pity from Stella can go a long way in relief.

Lines 9-11 return to a more conventional hyperbole in covering the “plaints,” i.e., the actual words Stella uses to express sympathy. These are eloquent beyond eloquence, and (again evoking Platonic ideals) “perfect music.”

The final tercet is, predictably, a summing up and a mild paradoxical twist. Such clear signs of sorrow on Stella’s part bring joy to the speaker; OR, if they must be regarded negatively (“prove annoy”), then the speaker will foreswear “all mirth” to bask in such sorrow.

Next time (weekend of May 13): Sonnet 101
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 94

Grief, find the words; for thou hast made my brain
So dark with misty vapours, which arise
From out thy heavy mould, that inbent eyes
Can scarce discern the shape of mine own pain.
Do thou then (for thou canst), do thou complain
For my poor soul, which now that sickness tries,
Which even to sense, sense of itself denies,
Though harbingers of death lodge there his train.
Or if thy love of plaint yet mine forbears,
As of a caitiff, worthy so to die;
Yet wail thyself, and wail with causeful tears,
That though in wretchedness thy life doth lie,
Yet growest more wretched than thy nature bears,
By being placed in such a wretch as I.

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 7 and “growest” in line 13 are pronounced with one syllable. For the second straight sonnet, the speaker refers to himself as a “caitiff” (line 10), a criminal wretch beneath contempt.

The speaker is in an extremely dark mood, and, ever the instinctive (or opportunistic) poet, he personifies his grief and turns it into a sort of muse for his poetry, asking it to “find the words” that he himself cannot, because of the darkness in his brain. This internal struggle of grief, self, and brain is already a bit mind-bending after one quatrain, but simple in comparison to the welter of nouns and pronouns that interact in the rest.

The second quatrain is especially thorny, though the general meaning is just that “Grief” is being asked to “complain” on behalf of the speaker’s soul. In line 6, the relative pronoun “which” is surely an object, rather than a subject, meaning that the sickness of grief, or melancholy, “tries” (as in tests, challenges, or pesters) the soul, which otherwise ordinarily dwells in a state of denial: the soul—the highest, and immortal, part of the mental makeup—denies to sense—the lowest, and mortal, part—awareness (“sense,” a typical Sidney antanaclasis) of its own mortality, even though the evidence of that (“harbingers of death”) is obvious. The implication, then, is that Grief might speak up for a soul that is unwilling or unable to speak up for itself.

But now, in the sestet, the speaker faces a paradox: if it is in the nature of Grief to mope and complain, then Grief might be relatively happy in present circumstances! Or at least it will “forbear” the speaker’s complaining, as we tend to be more tolerant of a condemned prisoner’s sobs as he heads to the gallows (“a caitiff, worthy so to die”). This will not do; the paradox must be met with another: the one way to assure that Grief lives up to its name is to argue that it now inhabits someone—the speaker—who is more wretched than Grief itself! Thus Grief can become more wretched, thus . . . Oh, never mind; this is reductio ad absurdum.

Next time (weekend of February 19): Sonnet 95
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 84

Highway, since you my chief Parnassus be,
And that my muse, to some ears not unsweet,
Tempers her words to trampling horse’s feet
More oft than to a chamber melody;
Now, blessed you, bear onward blessed me
To her, where I my heart safeliest shall meet.
My muse and I must you of duty greet,
With thanks and wishes, wishing thankfully.
Be you still fair, honoured by public heed,
By no encroachment wronged, nor time forgot;
Nor blamed for blood, nor shamed for sinful deed.
And that you know I envy you no lot
Of highest wish, I wish you so much bliss,
Hundreds of years you Stella’s feet may 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: “blessed” (both times) in line 5 has two syllables; and “safeliest” in line 6 is elided to two.

This sonnet is a gentle hymn to a highway, in the form of a “blessing” with a verse preceding it that describes the occasion for the blessing. I am reminded, for example, of the old McGuire Sisters New Year’s song “May You Always,” that begins “This special time, this special place . . . .” The song goes on for eight lines of recitative establishing the context, before swinging into “May you always walk in sunshine . . .,” the more memorable “aria” part of the blessing. Here, in very conventional sonnet form, the “verse” that sets up the blessing is the octave, and the blessing itself is the sestet.

The poem is ostensibly composed on horseback, the speaker/poet traveling toward Stella (in contrast to Sonnets 87-89, where he is forced to leave her). In the first quatrain he suggests that such propitious travel inspires more of his poetry (including supplying the rhythm of horses’ feet) than does chamber music.

The second quatrain completes the picture by gratefully imagining the journey’s end. The fifth line has a very subtle antanaclasis between “blessed you” (as in “Aren’t you wonderful?”) and “blessed me” (as in “I am so fortunate”). And line 8 similarly has a subtle chiasmus on words rooted in “thank” and “wish.”

The actual blessing starts with line 9. We might think of the familiar Irish Blessing which begins “May the road rise to greet you . . .,” except in this case the recipient of the blessing is the road! A blessing for any road might include the wishes that it be well-maintained (line 9 and the last two feet of line 10) and free of crime (first part of line 10, and line 11). But the final “capper” for this blessing, freely offered in the last three lines by an unenvious lover, is that it may “kiss” Stella’s feet for a hyperpolic “hundreds of years.”

Next time (weekend of October 2): Sonnet 85
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 81

O kiss, which dost those ruddy gems impart,
Or gems, or fruits of new-found Paradise,
Breathing all bliss, and sweetening to the heart,
Teaching dumb lips a nobler exercise;
O kiss, which souls, even souls, together ties
By links of love, and only nature’s art:
How fain would I paint thee to all men’s eyes,
Or of thy gifts at least shade out some part.
But she forbids; with blushing words, she says
She builds her fame on higher-seated praise;
But my heart burns, I cannot silent be.
Then since (dear life) you fain would have me peace,
And I, mad with delight, want wit to cease,
Stop you my mouth with still, still kissing me.

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.

Like Sonnet 79, this one begins as an apostrophe to a kiss, the topic that has preoccupied our poet for a while. As if to compensate for the structural departure in 79, this one has rock-solid conventional Italian sonnet structure, with a full stop after line 8, and the pivotal “But” to start line 9.*

Furthermore, Sidney’s own favorite two-part sestet form receives special emphasis, with two carefully paralleled three-line sentences, rhymed CCD EED. In the first, the “camera” is on Stella for two lines, and then shifts to the speaker for the third; in the second, it stays on the speaker for two lines, and then shifts back to Stella. The CC and EE couplets are linked by consonance in the rhymes, and a But/Then contrast between what Stella does do and what the speaker would like her to do. And in the two “D” lines, “heart” and “mouth” are antitheses, while the subject of silence occupies the final three feet of each line.

Assuming a similar parallelism in the two quatrains of the octave is instructive. While the “nobler exercise” taught by the kiss might remain vague in isolation, it becomes clear from lines 7-8 that it refers to the artistic challenge of capturing Stella’s “gifts” in poetry. The painting metaphor here is the same as in Sonnets 1 and 2 (and see also Sonnets 70, 93, and 98); to “shade out” is a step beyond sketching out, so the point is he would like to “paint” her, or “at least” capture her essence in the shaded sketch. The octave also employs auxesis in building a process that looks back to Plato and forward to Wordsworth, in which the external encounter with beauty triggers a sympathetic reaction (“all bliss and sweetening”) in the heart, leading in turn to poetic inspiration and the sharing of beauty with “all men.”

But. The speaker has taken his best shot at idealizing the outcome of an illicit kiss, but the big “But” at the poem’s swivel point announces that the virtuous Stella is having none of it. “She builds her fame in higher-seated praise” implies that it is the virtuous soul, not the gorgeous flesh, that she would like to be remembered for. The conflict between her aspirations and his is familiar to all readers of the whole sequence.

So, thwarted in his frontal attempt to bestow honor on kissing, the speaker must now stoop to a clever (or so he hopes) ploy instead: if she would keep him from singing her praise, she must stop his mouth—with kissing! (as Beatrice tells her cousin Hero to do in Much Ado, to keep Claudio from speaking). The repeated “still” in the last line, sometimes printed with no comma between, could be thus understood as stretching the moment through sheer repetition, as in the phrase “for ever and ever.” But given Sidney’s fondness for antanaclasis, in which the sense of the repeated word changes a bit, a better reading might be that, while the second “still” is the common adverb, the first is a spoken “still” (as in “be still”) by Stella, to make him hold his peace. Again in Shakespeare’s Much Ado, Verges comes to mind, telling the watch to bid the nurse to “still” a crying child. In any case, the noble Platonic sentiment of the octave has been reduced by Stella’s stout virtue to a puerile gambit at the end.

*Somewhat paradoxically, the oddly-shaped 79 (as noted there) has Sidney’s most common rhyme scheme, while this very conventionally shaped one has the rare rhyme scheme (used just three times in the whole sequence) of ABABBABACCDEED; the palindromic octave is the unusual element.

Next time (weekend of August 21): Sonnet 82
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 80

Sweet swelling lip, well may’st thou swell in pride,
Since best wits think it wit thee to admire;
Nature’s praise, virtue’s stall, Cupid’s cold fire,
Whence words, not words but heavenly graces slide;
The new Parnassus, where the Muses bide,
Sweetener of music, wisdom’s beautifier;
Breather of life, and fastener of desire,
Where beauty’s blush in honour’s grain is dyed.
Thus much my heart compelled my mouth to say,
But now, spite of my heart, my mouth will stay,
Loathing all lies, doubting this flattery is,
And no spur can his resty race renew,
Without how far this praise is short of you,
Sweet lip, you teach my mouth with one sweet 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: “heavenly” in line 4, “Sweetener” in line 6, and “fastener” in line 7 are all elided to two syllables; “doubting” in line 11 has the normal renaissance usage (i.e., “fearing that”) which makes the whole phrase sound to a modern ear the opposite of what it actually means; “resty” in line 12 means “restive” or “restless” (two words which paradoxically mean the same thing); and “Without” in line 13 is best understood as “Except.”

After a sonnet in praise of a single kiss, the poet’s “camera” now zooms in still further, to praise the lip that received it. Three of the first four lines use repeated words in antanaclasis, while line 3 slows us down emphatically with a “backwards” rhythm similar to line 6 of Sonnet 78*; all this in hyperbolic praise of Stella’s “swelling lip,” on which the speaker has focused for several sonnets now, since the stolen kiss of the Second Song.

But this is a sonnet of very mixed, or even confused, feelings. The oxymoronic “cold fire” of Cupid, and the intrusion of “virtue” and “honour” upon the more romantic themes of beauty and desire, temper the more conventional praise sprinkled through the octave; e.g., that even the wise (“best wits”) find it wise to admire Stella’s lips, her words are “heavenly graces,” her lips entertain the muses, sweeten music, speak wisdom, and so on.

Then, as if to further confuse us, in the sestet the speaker takes it all back! . . . sort of. First he suggests that his heart had “compelled” his mouth to say what he just said (so his heart was in it, but the mouth that spoke the actual words was not), and now his mouth will shut up (“stay”), rather than speak more “lies” or “flattery.”

Now he has dug himself into a pretty deep hole, and attempts to redeem himself in the final tercet. Nothing will make the praise resume, he says, except (“Without”) a kiss from that lip to teach him how far short of the truth his praise actually falls. It is not really clear whether he is acknowledging lessons learned from the “one sweet kiss” he has already had, or offering a sort of bribe for another. It is, in fact, an awkward poem, perhaps by design, reflecting the ambivalent and confused state of the speaker’s mind.

*The two lines are strikingly parallel:
(78.6)        Beauty’s plague, virtue’s scourge, succour of lies;
(80.3)      Nature’s praise, virtue’s stall, Cupid’s cold fire,
Where the normal iambic pentameter rhythm rolls forward da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM, each of these lines creates three separated “valley” shapes: DUM-da-DUM, DUM-da-DUM, DUM-da-da-DUM.

Next time (weekend of August 7): Sonnet 81
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

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 59

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 59

Dear, why make you more of a dog than me?
If he do love, I burn, I burn in love;
If he wait well, I never thence would move;
If he be fair, yet but a dog can be.
Little he is, so little worth is he;
He barks, my songs thine own voice oft doth prove:
Bidden, perhaps, he fetcheth thee a glove,
But I unbid, fetch even my soul to thee.
Yet while I languish, him that bosom clips,
That lap doth lap, nay lets in spite of spite
This sour-breathed mate taste of those sugared lips.
Alas, if you grant only such delight
To witless things, then love I hope (since wit
Becomes a clog) will soon ease me of it.

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: “even” in line 8 is the customary one-syllable elision.

Apparently the speaker has the pleasure of an extended visit with Stella. But she has gone from the delightful highlight of reading his poetry (previous sonnet) to now showering more affection on the family dog than on him. So, demeaning as it might seem, he spends 11 of his 14 lines comparing himself favorably to a dog. We might think of a rough paraphrase of Shakespeare’s much better known Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”):

Shall I compare me to a mangy mutt?
I am more lovely and more temperate. . .

After an opening-line question gives the premise of the poem, the remainder of the first quatrain is three parallel “If” statements, seeking to “one-up” three of the dog’s virtues, his loving, his “wait[ing] well,” and his beauty, respectively. In the second quatrain, he sharpens the criticism and tries to heighten the contrast to his own benefit: the dog’s small size matches its “worth”; the dog barks, the speaker provides Stella with songs; and in a two-line culmination of the octave, the dog can “perhaps” fetch a trivial object such as a glove, while the speaker fetches his very “soul” to Stella.

The “Yet” at the start of line 9 announces that we will now get the full indignity of the injustice being committed, described in just three very tight, antithetical lines. The dog has everything the speaker lacks: Stella’s “bosom” embraces (the oldest meaning of “clips”) it; her “lap” enfolds (“laps”) it; and without necessarily even enjoying it (“in spite of spite”—line 10 is a brilliant double-antanaclasis), the “sour-breathed” pooch receives the sweet kisses the speaker long has craved.

In the final three lines, this little home-spun anecdote turns into a reflection—albeit a jesting one—on the Chain of Being. What separates the speaker from the beast, ultimately is his human gift of reason, which, we have seen in other contexts (e.g., Sonnet 10) also happens to be what keeps Stella and him apart. So now reason (or “wit”) has become an obstacle (“clog”) in another sense; if he lacked it, and were a mere beast like the dog, Stella could safely pour out all that affection on him. Not to worry, he jokes: through the force of love, he will very soon lose whatever reason he has left!

Next time (weekend of October 17): Sonnet 60
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 39

Come Sleep, O Sleep, the certain knot of peace,
The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release,
The indifferent judge between the high and low;
With shield of proof shield me from out the press
Of those fierce darts Despair at me doth throw;
O make in me those civil wars to cease;
I will good tribute pay, if thou do so.
Take thou of me smooth pillows, sweetest bed,
A chamber deaf to noise, and blind to light;
A rosy garland, and a weary head;
And if these things, as being thine by right,
Move not thy heavy grace, thou shalt in me,
Livelier than elsewhere, Stella’s image see.

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: “The indifferent” in line 4 is elided as “Th’indifferent.”

This sonnet, the second of three ostensibly written at bed-time, has a fairly simple outline for its message: the octave is an invocation to personified Sleep, while the sestet lists the inducements or “tribute” the speaker offers to make Sleep come. The second quatrain cleverly introduces a military conceit, to make the concept of tribute more logical than it would otherwise have been.

A reader is perhaps reminded of Macbeth’s rueful ode to sleep as he stands with Duncan’s blood on his hands in Act II, scene 2:

Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast . . .

The meaning of Sidney’s lines may not be immediately clear to a modern reader, because of older senses of some words. One needs to know that a “knot” is a small formal garden, so, read simply, sleep is a peaceful spot to retreat to; or, if we personify “peace,” we have the more complex suggestion that sleep is where Peace herself goes to find peace. “Bait” means a light snack (go figure!), so, in older parlance, a “baiting place” was what we now call a “rest stop” for travelers on the road, or in this instance a place where one’s brain (“wit”) can take some time off. The remaining phrases in lines 2 to 4 mean, respectively, a place where woes are healed, where the downtrodden (poor men and prisoners) can dream of better things, and (line 4) where all are alike, as status differences are not recognized (“In sleep a king,” says the speaker of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 87, “but waking no such matter”).

With shield of proof shield me from out the press
Of those fierce darts Despair at me doth throw;

Here we have a brief antanaclasis (“shield” as noun and then verb) and the pivotal word “press.”  When used as an unmodified noun in this period, the typical and expected reference would be to a crowd of people; so, for just a moment, we expect the speaker to be welcoming sleep as a break from other people, possibly those friends who keep telling him his infatuation is crazy. But this noun is modified (in an enjambed line), and the “press” turns out to be a shower of “darts,” i.e., arrows, of despair, a self-inflicted emotion of futility, warring with his hopes. And with that deft pivot, we are into the language of war:

O make in me those civil wars to cease;
I will good tribute pay, if thou do so.

(The last two feet of the line, “if thou do so” are uncharacteristically uneconomical, and not Sidney’s best poetry!)  Now he speaks to sleep as a sort of Emperor who might intervene in a vassal nation embroiled in internal conflict, and silence both sides. And, as one must do for such an Emperor, he offers the payments of “tribute” which he will go on to describe in the sestet.  For the first three lines (9-11) these are the same ordinary things you or I might offer as inducements to Sleep, a nice bed in a dark and quiet room, and so forth. I’m not sure where the rosy garland fits in; no doubt it is “proverbial” (as footnote writers say), but one of you will need to explain the proverb to me.

Then, as if the speaker recognizes how ordinary and pedestrian these offers are (merely “thine by right”), he ends the poem with the ultimate inducement, which happens to be the chief reason he is seeking sleep in the first place: it offers his best hope (“livelier than elsewhere”) of seeing Stella as he wishes her to be, in his dreams. The wish to recover that “lively” image makes this sonnet even more clearly the sequel to the previous one.

Next time (weekend of January 10): Sonnet 40
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 36

Stella, whence doth this new assault arise,
A conquered, yelden, ransacked heart to win?
Whereto long since through my long battered eyes,
Whole armies of thy beauties entered in;
And there, long since, Love, thy lieutenant lies;
My forces razed, thy banners raised within.
Of conquest, do not these effects suffice,
But wilt new war upon thine own begin?
With so sweet voice, and by sweet nature so,
In sweetest strength, so sweetly skilled withal,
In all sweet stratagems sweet art can show,
That not my soul, which at thy foot did fall,
Long since, forced by thy beams, but stone nor tree,
By sense’s privilege, can ‘scape from thee.

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.

It is tempting to read an autobiographical moment into the phrases “new assault” in the opening line and “new war” in line 8. Has there been a thaw?  Is Penelope Devereux suddenly showing renewed interest in Philip Sidney?  But there is nothing else in this or the surrounding sonnets to suggest that her behavior has changed in any way, so it makes more sense (insofar as we allow of autobiography at all) to see the phrases subjectively; i.e., that his passion for her seems to have come on with renewed force.

The conceit of the poem is the well-worn one of siege warfare, though it is perhaps a little more typical to picture the male as the besieging army (as in, for example, sonnets 12 and 29).  The male as the “occupied” territory recalls, in particular, Petrarch’s Sonnet 140 (“Amor, che nel penser . . .”) and the very familiar translations of it by Wyatt (“The Long Love”) and Surrey (“Love that Doth Reign”). The speaker’s heart has long since been surrendered (“yelden” is an archaic inflected form of “yielded”), having (in the courtly love tradition) been stormed through the eyes by “armies of thy beauties”—which does not mean a bevy of “Stella’s Angels,” of course, but rather the multiple ways in which she herself is beautiful.  In the second quatrain, the speaker makes the whining appeal that is central to the poem’s message: Why do you set about to re-conquer what you already own?

The sestet departs somewhat from the military conceit. True, it makes a connection by using the word “stratagems,” but these are now enumerated in very non-military language as Stella’s feminine beauty and, particularly her “sweetness”—in another antanaclasis (see previous post), the word is repeated six times in three lines!

The final tercet is one of those “Yes . . . and” bottom lines. It returns to the poem’s opening question—why this new assault?—and suggests it is hardly surprising that the speaker has been “conquered,” since even senseless things (“By sense’s privilege” is a very tight way of saying “by the fact that they are free of sense”) must come under her divine “beams” and her sway. The phrase “not my soul” needs to be understood as “not just my soul,” as well. There may be a sacrilegious echo here of Luke 19:40, where Jesus says during his triumphal entry to Jerusalem that even if his followers were silent, “the stones would shout out”—but let’s not go there.

Next time (weekend of November 29): Sonnet 37
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.