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 26

Though dusty wits dare scorn astrology,
And, fools, can think those lamps of purest light,
Whose numbers, ways, greatness, eternity,
Promising wonders, wonder do invite,
To have for no cause birthright in the sky,
But for to spangle the black weeds of night;
Or for some brawl, which in that chamber high
They should still dance, to please a gazer’s sight:
For me, I do Nature unidle know,
And know great causes great effects procure,
And know those bodies high reign on the low.
And if these rules did fail, proof makes me sure,
Who oft fore-judge my after-following race,
By only those two stars in Stella’s face.

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 rhyme scheme is used for the third sonnet in a row here, though it is otherwise not used a lot—nineteen times, total—in the sequence. But unlike Sonnet 25, this one has a strong fulcrum and change of direction after line 8.

At first glance (and especially if the first two commas in line 2 are omitted), the poem seems to offer a debate between the “dusty wits” (pedantic scholars?) and the “fools,” on the subject of the influence of the stars on humans. But the whole octave (which runs continuously, without a break in the middle) reaches a single conclusion—the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Cassius and Edmund, that we cannot attribute our fortunes to the stars—and the word “fools” in the second line is a sort of delayed appositive for the “dusty wits” themselves. Having tried out two other possibilities, I find this the reading that best fits the grammar, in particular in lines 4-5. So it parses thus: these dusty wits or fools think the stars (“lamps”)—and here we insert 2.4 lines of modification on how awesome the stars are (in part with words that would also apply to the “two stars in Stella’s face,” especially line 4)—to have (picking up again in line 5) no particular reason for being there, other than (1) to decorate the clothing (“black weeds”) of night, or (2) to dance in a “brawl” for our edification.* In short, according to the “dusty wits,” Nature is “idle” or random in its arrangement of the heavens, and beyond any recognizable or explicable purpose.

After line 8 comes the fulcrum and the “other side of the story”; the reason, so to speak, that the speaker can dismiss the best scientific minds of his age as “dusty wits” and “fools.”  The speaker comes down foursquare (albeit with irony, of course) on the side of purposeful stars dictating the fates of men (which would be an old-fashioned, outmoded view in the realm of Renaissance science, and no doubt one that a man of Sidney’s intellect would “in real life” scorn).  And why?  Because the “stars” (= eyes) in Stella’s face are so clearly dictating his own fate (“fore-judge[ing] my after-following race”). Just as in Sonnet 25, discussion of an ostensibly serious topic has ended, deliberately and cleverly, with a self-mocking jest.

* This option is not quite as riotous as it sounds to our ears. According to the OED, a “brawl” is a “kind of French dance resembling a cotillion,” and Sidney himself is cited for an example from The Arcadia which can be found on p. 43 of Duncan-Jones.

 Next time (weekend of July 12): Sonnet 27

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