Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 108

When Sorrow, using mine own fire’s might,
Melts down his lead into my boiling breast,
Through that dark furnace to my heart oppressed
There shines a joy from thee, my only light;
But soon as thought of thee breeds my delight,
And my young soul flutters to thee, his nest;
Most rude despair, my daily unbidden guest,
Clips straight my wings, straight wraps me in his night,
And makes me then bow down my head and say:
‘Ah, what doth Phoebus’ gold that wretch avail
Whom iron doors do keep from use of day?’
So strangely, alas, thy works in me prevail,
That in my woes for thee thou art my joy,
And in my joys for thee my only annoy.

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 final y in “daily” (line 7), “strangely” (line 12) and “only” (line 14) becomes an apostrophe, or elided syllable, in the reading: “dail’ unbidden,” “strangel’, alas,” and “onl’ annoy”.

This is the final sonnet in the sequence, and like (or together with) Sonnet 107, it can be read as a summary of the whole poetic courtship, although without changing a word it could have been placed earlier and reflected only a momentary vicissitude. The bottom line is that Stella presents the impossible paradox of offering the only “joyful” reason to endure such agony, and the only agony that stands in the way of the speaker’s highest joy.

Appropriately the final sonnet, like the first and many others, is highly artificial and figurative. A complex set of images depict a back-and-forth struggle between sorrow and despair, on one side, and “thee” on the other. “Thee” offers the possibility of “gold” and “light,” while sorrow/despair brings only molten lead, “iron doors,” and “night.” But this summary simplifies the actual story line. To begin, the speaker’s heart is on fire with his passion for Stella. Since a “leaden heart” is a conventional image of melancholy, personified sorrow brings lead and melts it down on those same flames (thus passion creates melancholy) which in turn creates a “dark furnace” through which Stella’s “only light” (quickly identified as a “thought of thee”) may shine.

As the speaker’s “young soul” responds in the second quatrain, there is an abrupt change in imagery. The soul is now a young bird and “thee” has become the bird’s “nest” of safety and comfort—if only he can get there. But now sorrow’s alter-ego despair intervenes and, in line 8, brings the two metaphors together by both clipping the wings and “wrap[ping] me in his night.” This juxtaposition might be more awkward were it not for the oblique reference to the very popular sport of falconry: two of the most common training methods were clipping (or otherwise altering) wings and “hooding” or “scarfing” a bird (covering its eyes) to force it to find its prey in total darkness.

As the first sonnet built suspense with a series of dangling modifiers and a periodic sentence, this one keeps us in suspense by uncharacteristically stretching the octave into the ninth line before introducing the speaker’s final speech and then final thought, the speech metaphoric and the thought direct. “Phoebus’ gold” is sunshine, so the metaphoric expression of the paradox could be paraphrased: what good is a sunny day to the “wretch” locked up in an iron prison? In the final tercet, “thy works” most directly refers to Stella’s effects on the speaker, but “thy works” can also mean “all of these poems and songs I have written for thee,” and this is the summary of the result of both:

That in my woes for thee thou art my joy,
And in my joys for thee my only annoy.

This blog now comes to an end with this post, its 108th. I invite you to explore the sonnets of Philip Sidney in any of my earlier posts, I welcome your comments, questions, or alternative readings, and I wish you well. JCS

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 3

Let dainty wits cry on the sisters nine,
That, bravely masked, their fancies may be told;
Or Pindar’s apes flaunt they in phrases fine,
Enam’ling with pied flowers their thoughts of gold;
Or else let them in statelier glory shine,
Ennobling new-found tropes with problems old;
Or with strange similes enrich each line,
Of herbs or beasts, which Ind or Afric hold.
For me, in sooth, no Muse but one I know;
Phrases and problems from my reach do grow,
And strange things cost too dear for my poor sprites.
How then?  even thus: in Stella’s face I read
What love and beauty be; then all my deed
But copying is, what in her Nature writes.

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.

Written in the same vein as Sonnet 1, this poem, like 1, makes use of the poetic fancies that it mocks.  Thus, we read of “sisters nine,” “Enam’ling with pied flowers,” and “herbs or beasts which Ind or Afric hold,” as practices  which (sarcastically) “enrich each line,” while their less-than-original poets are described as “Pindar’s apes” (i.e., imitators).  Lines 5 to 8, while parallel to the first four in describing the third and fourth problematic practices, take us to an opposite extreme from imitation (hence “Or else”), two forms of excessive new-fangledness. The first (lines 5-6) is using fancy rhetorical “tropes” to dress up the same old “problems” (i.e., subject matter), while the second refers to the Euphuean barbarism of drawing strange or forced comparisons with nature.  And as with Sonnet 1 there is irony here that Sidney hopes we won’t notice, since he is guilty of every one of these practices himself—though every artist needs to be aware of the outer limits of the current fashions or trends in his own art.  It is also good to remind ourselves that “artificiality” was considered a good quality by the Elizabethans, and was embraced fulsomely even in the poetic discussion of “natural” passion and sincerity.*

Structurally, the octave is a series of four equal and parallel phrases saying what we are to “let” the lesser poets do—“let” being in this case both the verb “allow” and a conventional way of posing a hypothetical, roughly equivalent to “Let’s say that some poets do this: ______________ etc.” Then the fulcrum comes in the expected place for an Italian sonnet, at the start of the ninth line as the speaker offers the contrast of himself, with the added double-meaning emphasis of “in sooth” (i.e., the mere expletive intensifier on the one hand, but the literal meaning on the other: his writing, unlike theirs, is actually true). In a mere three lines, he strips himself bare of everything it took eight lines to describe before, so sound is admirably imitating sense here, and the poem’s second full end stop further forces that comparison. So now there is a “sub-fulcrum” and line 12 is a perfect echoing response of line 9: “For me, in sooth” = “How then? Even [pronounced e’en] thus”; “no muse but one” = “in Stella’s face” (this of course is the most crucial echo); and, “I know” = “I read.” The final two lines have similar significant parallels, but in a chiasmic**, or crossing, pattern.  The “frontwards” clause “What love and beauty be” is perfectly matched at the other end by the partly inverted clause “what in her nature writes” (again emphasizing that Stella requires no fancy ornamentation), while (focusing on the poet’s job) the “frontwards” “then all my deed” is echoed by the inverted “but copying is.”  We might be reminded here of Keats’s famous dictum: “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body.” The speaker of this poem is professing such Negative Capability and such self-effacement, but of course with considerable irony since Stella would essentially not “exist” at all without the considerable poetic efforts and, yes, the artifice, of Philip Sidney.

* Duncan-Jones’s note on the octave offers help on the actual writers involved in the trends being mocked: imitation of Pindar and other ancients: Ronsard and other Pleiade writers; rhetorical elaboration: Thomas Watson, Hekatompathia (1582); and the exotic similes: of course Lyly, Euphues, in prose, but also employed by Petrarch and all his imitators.  Finally she notes: “Sidney himself uses all four kinds of elaboration in [The Old Arcadia] poems; rhetorical and logical complexity is the only one used persistently in A&S.”

**Chiasmus, named for the Greek letter chi (X), is a pattern of parallel statements or phrases in which the elements are in reverse order (so that if you drew lines connecting the individual elements that were parallel, you would draw an X). So, crudely:
I went to the fair,
Then home came I.
Or more elegantly, by Keats:
Out went the taper
she hurried in.
In theory, you could have a chiasmus based on sound only:
Bam! went the
sea-rent dam.

 Next time (weekend of September 7): Sonnets 4 and 10

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