Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 103

O happy Thames, that didst my Stella bear!
I saw thyself, with many a smiling line
Upon thy cheerful face, joy’s livery wear,
While those fair planets on thy streams did shine.
The boat for joy could not to dance forbear,
While wanton winds, with beauties so divine
Ravished, stayed not, till in her golden hair
They did themselves (O sweetest prison!) twine.
And fain those Aeol’s youths there would their stay
Have made; but, forced by Nature still to fly,
First did with puffing kiss those locks display.
She, so disheveled, blushed; from window I
With sight thereof cried out ‘O fair disgrace;
Let Honour’s self to thee grant highest place.’

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.

Again we have a sonnet that appears to be based on a biographical event, a moment in which Penelope Devereux (“Stella”) was traveling on the Thames—presumably on one of the festive barges popular with royalty and nobility in Tudor times—and Sidney (the speaker in the poem) watched her departure from a window on shore. It appears to be a nice London day (why would one make such a trip if not?), with sunshine and playful breezes.

The opening quatrain is an apostrophe to the river, whose “many a smiling line” suggests the play of sunshine on the ripples in the water. But not alone sunshine: the fourth line has the double meaning that the astrological alignment is propitious for such a river trip, or that “those fair planets,” Stella’s eyes, are casting their light on the scene.

The remainder of the poem deals with the breezes that play with Stella’s hair, probably stirred up as the boat “dances” into motion. These winds (“Aeol’s youth”*) are made “wanton” as they are “ravished” by Stella’s beauty, and cannot resist being “twined” in the “sweetest prison” of her hair. (The parenthetical phrase in line 8 is a “misplaced” appositive by the modern rules of grammar, to which Sidney was not bound.) There they would gladly stay, but it is in the “nature” of winds to keep moving, and so, with a final “puffing kiss” that disarranges Stella’s hair, they move on.

The final view of Stella thus finds her slightly “disheveled,” and therefore blushing a bit; and this is turned into a charming little candid snapshot of her beauty. The final idea, that this small “disgrace” honors her more than honor itself, is in the spirit of “Honi soit qui mal y pense” (the motto of the Order of the Garter), or of a charming later poem by Robert Herrick, “Delight in Disorder”:

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthralls the crimson stomacher:
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly:
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoestring, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.

Both poems celebrate the human departure from “perfection” which only makes a beautiful woman more desirable.

*i.e., the children or minions of Aeolus, god of the winds

Next time (weekend of June 24): Sonnet 104
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 96

Thought, with good cause thou lik’st so well the night,
Since kind or chance gives both one livery;
Both sadly black, both blackly darkened be,
Night barred from sun, thou from thy own sun’s light.
Silence in both displays his sullen might;
Slow heaviness in both holds one degree;
That full of doubts, thou of perplexity;
Thy tears express night’s native moisture right.
In both a mazeful solitariness:
In night, of sprites the ghastly powers stir,
In thee, or sprites or sprited ghastliness.
But, but, alas, night’s side the odds hath far,
For that at length yet doth invite some rest,
Thou, though still tired, yet still dost it detest.

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: “That” at the start of line 7 is not the relative pronoun, but rather the demonstrative pronoun, referring back to “night,” by contrast to the pronoun “thou,” which refers to “thought.”

Here we begin a series of four bedtime sonnets, similar to the series of three back at 38-40. Probably most of us are familiar with the “dark thoughts” that keep us awake at night, even if by the light of day the same problems might seem perfectly manageable. This dark brooding is magnified for the would-be lover in the speaker’s situation, since bedtime is a time to be reminded of loneliness, a time for undistracted thinking and brooding, and indeed a time to be reminded that the bed itself is not the place of pleasure one has longed for. So almost by definition, a bedtime sonnet is an “ode on melancholy.”

The poem is an apostrophe to the speaker’s own thought, which either by kinship (“kind”) or by chance seems perfectly matched with the night: both are dark, silent, sullen, heavy, and full of “doubts” or “perplexity.” The “native moisture” (dew) of the night parallels the tears that spring from thought. And the night is “barred from sun,” while the thought is frustrated by the lack of its “own sun’s” (i.e., son’s) light. This pun occurs in the first three of this set of four poems, disappearing only as the actual sun approaches in Sonnet 99.

The first half of the sestet invites comparison with Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the recurring discussion there of how night plays tricks with the mind. “Mazeful solitariness” is a state of amazement, but more literally, the perplexity and isolation of being inside a maze. And while the night of folklore (and Dream) is full of the “ghastly powers” of “sprites,” thought is paranoid, and similarly populates itself with demons (“sprites or sprited ghastliness”).

The poem’s fulcrum comes late, at the start of line 12; and where a single “but” is usually all that is required, in the speaker’s muddled state it takes four syllables (“but, but, alas”) to make the turn, and acknowledge the chief way that night is preferable to thought: at some point night invites us to go to sleep, but thought resists it—as any of us who have struggled with night-thoughts know all too well!

Next time (weekend of March 18): Sonnet 97
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 85 and Fourth Song

I see the house; my heart, thyself contain;
Beware full sails drown not thy tottering barge,
Lest joy, by nature apt sprites to enlarge,
Thee to thy wrack beyond thy limits strain;
Nor do like lords, whose weak confused brain,
Not pointing to fit folks each undercharge,
While every office themselves will discharge,
With doing all, leave nothing done but pain.
But give apt servants their due place; let eyes
See beauty’s total sum summed in her face;
Let ears hear speech, which wit to wonder ties;
Let breath suck up those sweets; let arms embrace
The globe of weal, lips love’s indentures make;
Thou but of all the kingly tribute take.

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: “tottering” in line 2 is elided to two syllables.

The first four words indicate a continuation of the story from the previous sonnet, and the arrival at Stella’s house, or whatever home she is in. This of course creates high excitement in the speaker’s “heart,” and the sonnet is an apostrophe to the heart counseling self-control. In the metaphor of the first quatrain, the heart is likened to a sailing “barge” which can be toppled over if the sails are allowed to become too full of wind. The wind is a metaphor for the “joy” that can over-inflate eager spirits (“apt sprites”). In an older man, like Gloucester in King Lear, we might imagine the resulting “wrack” as a physical overflow in which the heart might “burst smilingly.” For our young healthy suitor, the “wrack” envisioned is more likely the cold water of reality thrown on a too-obvious joy (see the Fourth Song, which follows).

In the second quatrain, the heart is counseled not to be like those foolish “lords” who have trouble delegating; they try to “discharge” all the lesser tasks themselves, rather than appointing (“pointing”) them to underlings more “fit” to do them—and thus accomplish “nothing” but “pain.”

The wiser course of delegating tasks to the lesser parts of the body is spelled out through most of the sestet. The eyes are there to admire the “sum” of all beauty in Stella’s face; the ears soak up her wise and wonderful speech; the lungs will absorb her sweetness. The arms will “embrace/The globe of weal,” which at first blush does not sound terribly flattering to Stella’s anatomy! But “globe” must be understood as macrocosm or universe; she is the self-contained universe of all well-being.

Finally, there is a word-play that makes the pivot to the poem’s “bottom line”: the lips make love’s “indentures.” The word could just refer to the physical impression made by the lips in kissing, but “indentures” are also debts or obligations owed to love. Far from being wracked, the speaker’s heart, in acting thus wisely, has become a “lord” or “king” ready to claim his due.

Fourth Song

Only joy, now here you are,
Fit to hear and ease my care:
Let my whispering voice obtain
Sweet reward for sharpest pain:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

Night hath closed all in her cloak,
Twinkling stars love-thoughts provoke;
Danger hence good care doth keep;
Jealousy itself doth sleep:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

Better place no wit can find
Cupid’s yoke to loose or bind;
These sweet flowers on fine bed too,
Us in their best language woo:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

This small light the moon bestows
Serves thy beams but to disclose,
So to raise my hap more high;
Fear not else, none can us spy:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

That you heard was but a mouse;
Dumb sleep holdeth all the house;
Yet asleep, methinks, they say,
Young folks, take time while you may:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

Niggard time threats, if we miss
This large offer of our bliss,
Long stay ere he grant the same;
Sweet, then, while each thing doth frame:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

Your fair mother is abed,
Candles out and curtains spread;
She thinks you do letters write;
Write, but let me first indite:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

Sweet, alas, why strive you thus?
Concord better fitteth us.
Leave to Mars the force of hands,
Your power in your beauty stands:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

Woe to me, and do you swear
Me to hate, but I forbear?
Cursed be my destinies all,
That brought me so high, to fall;
Soon with my death I will please thee.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”


Reading notes: “whispering” in line 3 is elided to two syllables; the third line of the final stanza, “Cursed be my destinies all,” is a challenge to the poem’s metrical pattern; the best solution is two syllables (stressed, unstressed) on “Cursed” and two (stressed, unstressed) on “destinies,” eliding it to “dest’nies.”

This song has a deceptively simple verse form in which each verse has conventional—not to say trite—wooing for four lines and then a two-line refrain in which a proposition is met with a parrot-like frustrating refusal—until the final verse, in which the singer “tricks” the parrot into saying something remotely encouraging.

The first four lines of each verse are seven syllables long, typically stressed on syllables 1, 3, 5, and 7 and unstressed on 2, 4, and 6. So the meter could be understood as trochaic and lacking a final syllable; but in context it probably makes more sense to understand these lines as iambic, after a somewhat awkward and explosive first syllable. In any event, the final two lines are simple iambic tetrameter, notwithstanding that “No, no, no, no” can be stressed however one likes! It is also worth noting that the song is largely monosyllabic, with, for example, just two two-syllable words in the first stanza, none at all in the fourth, and small numbers in the others.

As with the other songs, Sidney eschews poetic subtlety or complexity for blunt and simple wooing: My love, we’re alone together at last (stanza 1); it’s dark and no one else can see us (2 and 4); we have the perfect place for love-making (3); sleeping older folks would want younger folks like us to entertain ourselves (5); time is ripe now and is not likely to provide such opportunity again (6); your mother thinks you’ve stayed up to write letters—do that but let’s do this too (7). All of these entreaties are of course unsuccessful. In the eighth stanza, he finally takes note of her resistance and argues, in effect, that they should make love, not war—no luck there either. So in a final melodramatic flourish, he claims that with a life so blighted he should just end it all, thus gaining the minimal satisfaction of having her say “No, no, no, no, my dear, let be” to that as well.

Next time (weekend of October 16): Sonnet 86
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 42

O eyes, which do the spheres of beauty move,
Whose beams be joys, whose joys all virtues be,
Who, while they make Love conquer, conquer Love,
The schools where Venus hath learned chastity;
O eyes, whose humble looks most glorious prove
Only loved tyrants, just in cruelty,
Do not, O do not from poor me remove;
Keep still my zenith, ever shine on me.
For though I never see them, but straightways
My life forgets to nourish languished sprites;
Yet still on me, O eyes, dart down your rays;
And if from majesty of sacred lights,
Oppressing mortal sense, my death proceed,
Wracks triumphs be, which Love (high set) doth breed.

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 of course addressed to Stella’s now-famous (or infamous) eyes, and all of their symbolic complexity is reflected in the poem’s tight and thorny figurative language. The octave at first glance appears to be two parallel ABAB quatrains, similar to an English sonnet, because of the repeated apostrophe “O eyes”; but in fact, while six of the eight lines do modify “eyes,” the last two shift into the sentence’s main clause, making a plea to the subject.  The first six lines are broken down as follows:

  1. A relative clause implying that the eyes are Prime Movers in some sort of parallel Platonic universe, where the customary planetary spheres of the Ptolemaic universe are replaced by the figurative “spheres of beauty.”
  2. A pair of parallel relative clauses, using auxesis to get the required and uncomplicated compliments out of the way in a hurry.
  3. Another relative clause with an extremely tight chiasmus (or epanados) compressing an idea which takes many more words to explain: Stella’s eyes make a conquest of the men who fall in love with them, but simultaneously quash that same love.
  4. An appositive whose paradox (Venus herself learns chastity in the “schools” of these eyes) elaborates on the paradox of the previous line.
  5. and 6. After the repeated apostrophe, one more relative clause, enjambed over the two lines. The word “prove” at the end of line 5 means “turn out to be” (tyrants), and “Only” in line 6 can mean either “merely” or (attached more closely to “lov’d”) “solely” or “singularly.” The set ends with two more paradoxes, tyrants that are loved, and cruelty that is just.

The plea to the eyes in lines 7 and 8 is simply to stay where they are, a constancy reflected first metrically by five strong stresses in a row in line 7 (“do not from poor me”) and then by the image in line 8: the “zenith” is the high point in the sky, so “still” is here an adverb modifying “keep”; i.e., stay constantly the high point of my sky. The image is akin to the North Star as the “star to every wandering bark” in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, and obviously returns us to the symbolism of Stella’s name.

The sestet explains why the speaker wants the eyes to “ever shine on me,” despite their decidedly mixed benefits. The first tercet may be paraphrased: For although whenever I see those eyes, I immediately lose my spirit, yet still . . . (and the plea is repeated). And then at the end, the crowning paradox: even if those “sacred lights” sap so much of my strength that they kill me, I will have died triumphant if I died for love.

Next time (weekend of February 21): Sonnet 43
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.