Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 107

Stella, since thou so right a princess art
Of all the powers which life bestows on me,
That ere by them aught undertaken be
They first resort unto that sovereign part;
Sweet, for a while give respite to my heart,
Which pants as though it still should leap to thee;
And on my thoughts give thy lieutenancy
To this great cause, which needs both use and art;
And as a queen, who from her presence sends
Whom she employs, dismiss from thee my wit,
Till it have wrought what thy own will attends.
On servant’s shame oft master’s blame doth sit;
O let not fools in me thy works reprove,
And scorning say, ‘See what it is to 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.

Did Sidney arrive at the intended end of his sonnet sequence, or did he just give up and stop? Neither of the final two sonnets by itself seems to reach the clear resolution of an intended end. But of course the intended end in the love relationship—expressed from Sonnet 1 onward—has not and will not come about; and these two sonnets, read together, do form a sort of “summing up” of where this failure has left the speaker/the poet/possibly Sidney himself.* This one, specifically, rather plaintively asks Stella to sanction, or at least acknowledge, the passions and poetic efforts of the speaker, lest all this poetry be dismissed as the ravings of a madman.

Needless to say, this is a delicate request to pose to the woman who has dismissed all overtures of love. How is she to remain true to herself while acknowledging, and in some sense sanctioning, the poetic efforts for which these final sonnets serve as an envoi?

The speaker approaches the task with great care. The basis of Stella’s objection throughout the sequence (see especially Sonnets 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 18 etc.) is that she stands for Reason, and the opening quatrain addresses her in this light: she is the “princess” of all his powers (i.e., including will and appetite, the senses, etc.), but she represents “that sovereign part” which properly governs all these powers, i.e., the soul as directed by reason.

Having acknowledged this sovereignty, he turns back to his lesser “powers”—passions, lustful “thoughts,” a “heart” which “pants”—and says, in effect, don’t sovereigns find employment for lesser beings? Do they not send them out as servants, lieutenants, emissaries? And, line 12 suggests, the sovereign might remain perfect, and yet share in the blame for the follies of the servants. So if Stella has now “dismissed” the speaker and all his romantic pretensions—as it appears she has—could it not be with at least an acknowledgement that these “servants”—i.e., the sonnets—are working to please her will?

There is a certain amount of desperation in this carefully-worded plea, as the more bluntly stated final couplet makes clear. If the dismissal does not have this qualified blessing, then all of these sonnets represent only folly, the ravings of a love-sick lunatic, exposed to the scorn even of fools, rather than high art with a noble intent.

*Though as we come to the end of this journey and resurface from our suspended disbelief, we should remember the caveat that the “story lines” of renaissance sonnets can be entirely artificial and fictional.

Next time (weekend of August 19): Sonnet 108
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 25

The wisest scholar of the wight most wise,
By Phoebus’ doom, with sugared sentence says,
That virtue, if it once met with our eyes,
Strange flames of love it in our souls would raise;
But for that man with pain his truth descries,
While he each thing in sense’s balance weighs,
And so nor will, nor can, behold those skies
Which inward sun to heroic mind displays:
Virtue of late, with virtuous care to stir
Love of herself, takes Stella’s shape, that she
To mortal eyes might sweetly shine in her.
It is most true, for since I her did see,
Virtue’s great beauty in that face I prove,
And find the effect, for I do burn in 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 notes:  the third and fourth feet of the eighth line require elision, and I think the best course is to join the word “to” with the first syllable of “heroic”; and similarly, the second foot of the final line is an elided “th’effect.”

Structurally, the entire poem has “outie” (ABAB) rhymes and weak fulcrums (primarily after line 11, secondarily after line 8) with no real change of direction in the argument; the (quite deliberate) result is something that roughly parallels a dialogue of Plato, moving inexorably toward a logical conclusion. This impression is of course undercut by the humor and irony of the poem’s “punch line.”

As Duncan-Jones’s note on the poem details, the first line refers to Plato, the “scholar” of Socrates, the wisest man (“wight”) in the view of the Delphic Oracle, i.e., the priestess of Phoebus Apollo (who, by the way, is god of both the sun and wisdom).  Lines 3 and 4 (gently mocked as “sugared sentence”) express the well-known Platonic idea from The Apology,* that the soul is drawn toward its own good by falling in love with virtue, when drawn to it by its beauty.

The second quatrain is a generalization about “mankind” (“his truth” could arguably refer back to Plato, but on reflection, it makes more sense that it refers to the generic “man” earlier in line 5) which obviously applies to the speaker himself: since “sense” (= appetite, or the life of the senses) filters everything, it is very difficult (“pain”) to get at the soul’s “truth,” or the “skies/Which inward sun [the soul, connected back to Apollo by this metaphor] to heroic mind [i.e., the mind that can overrule “sense”] displays.”

That whole idea, in turn, is contained within a “because” clause (introduced by “for that,” which idiomatically means “because”), which is answered in the first half of the sestet; thus, to paraphrase: Because an ordinary man (like the speaker) has trouble grasping wisdom or virtue, Virtue herself (personified) tries to take more visible form by assuming “Stella’s shape.”  As a result, Plato’s point is proved, but only in a joking way. We know already (from previous sonnets) that Stella’s virtue is not at all a quality the speaker admires, and the well-chosen verb “burn in love” (also linked in jest to the earlier sun imagery) is the very opposite of the Platonic wisdom it is superficially claiming to illustrate.

* Duncan-Jones suggests that Sidney may actually have received the idea second-hand, from Cicero.

Next time (weekend of June 28): Sonnet 26

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 14

Alas, have I not pain enough, my friend,
Upon whose breast a fiercer gripe doth tire
Than did on him who first stole down the fire,
While Love on me doth all his quiver spend,
But with your rhubarb words you must contend
To grieve me worse, in saying that desire
Doth plunge my well-formed soul even in the mire
Of sinful thoughts, which do in ruin end?
If that be sin, which doth the manners frame,
Well stayed with truth in word, and faith of deed,
Ready of wit, and fearing nought but shame:
If that be sin which in fixed hearts doth breed
A loathing of all loose unchastity,
Then love is sin, and let me sinful be.

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.

Duncan-Jones says of this: “First of many sonnets showing Astrophil with an uncomprehending or disapproving friend; cf. 20, 21, 23, 27, 51, 88, 92, and 104.”  Again, Donne’s pugilistic “For God’s sake, hold thy tongue” comes to mind, but of that lengthy list, only 21 and 51 suggest such a direct confrontation as we have here—unless, when the speaker argues with “Reason” (e.g., 10 and 18), he has an actual person in mind as the voice of reason. The other sonnets in the list refer more generally to an uncomprehending circle of friends (no direct confrontation is pictured, and they are not necessarily disapproving) or, in the case of sonnet 92, to a friend who has seen Stella but, like Juliet’s nurse, is too balky in giving news about her.

The first quatrain is an “innie” (ABBA) that focuses on the speaker’s existing pain, independent of the new wrinkle of the friend’s interference. The love-pain is compared to (and deemed “fiercer” than) that of Prometheus, whose punishment for giving fire to mortals was to have his liver eaten out by a vulture daily, forever. The word chosen for vulture, “gripe,” is rich in additional meaning, starting with “clutch” or “grasp” (suggesting the clutches of Love), but also a severe inner-body pain, such as liver-pain (and we moderns need to remind ourselves that for Elizabethans the liver was the seat of the emotions; cf. “This wins him, liver and all” in Twelfth Night); and finally, to make a subtle link between the parallel annoyances in the two quatrains, a “gripe” is a covetous or envious person.

So he’s got this gut-wrenching pain already, and “Is that not enough?,” he suggests, “but [second quatrain] you have to add insult to injury?” “Rhubarb” is an appropriately ambiguous answer to “gripe,” since rhubarb was famous as a cure for liver illness, but also synonymous with bitterness (and modern readers can add a sense not known to Sidney, since “rhubarb words” can now mean “nonsense words,” such as those muttered by extras in a crowd scene). With such words the friend seems to be very much on the side of Virtue (sonnet 4) and Reason (sonnet 10), arguing that appetite (“desire”) can drag the speaker’s soul down into sin and damnation (“ruin”).

Each of the tercets in the sestet opens with an “If” argument, the first occupying all three lines, the second two, with the “then” answer to both coming in the final line. The gist of both “If” arguments is that the speaker’s love for Stella actually ennobles him in every way: (1) makes him a better gentleman, more truthful, faithful, wise, and discreet; and (2) (more to the point, but with pointed irony) in his single-minded devotion, makes him “[loathe] all loose unchastity.”  This is the key to the black-is-white, up-is-down argument that ends the poem.  The love he envisions with Stella is of course sinful by any conventional view, the very opposite of faithfulness, truth, and chastity. But by his reasoning, because Stella is the “fixed star” of his devotion, and he will give his love to no other, sin and virtue have switched places.

Next time (weekend of January 25): Sonnet 15

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.