Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 11

In truth, O Love, with what a boyish kind
Thou dost proceed in thy most serious ways:
That when the heaven to thee his best displays,
Yet of that best thou leav’st the best behind.
For, like a child that some fair book doth find,
With gilded leaves or colored vellum plays,
Or at the most, on some fine picture stays,
But never heeds the fruit of writer’s mind:
So when thou saw’st, in Nature’s cabinet,
Stella, thou straight look’st babies in her eyes,
In her cheek’s pit thou didst thy pit-fold set,
And in her breast bo-peep or couching lies,
Playing and shining in each outward part:
But, fool, seek’st not to get into her heart.

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 is a playful sonnet, which extends the common image of Cupid (or “Love”) as a child, a small boy. What Cupid is about, of course, is not at all child’s play, and thus the poem’s conceit of a boy who gets in over his head. This is the first of a trio of Cupid sonnets (or third in a set of five if we ignore Sonnet 10) and, despite Sidney’s characteristic playfulness with the theme, all these sonnets reflect rather darkly on Stella, or at least on the speaker’s prospects with her.

After the abstract generalization, in the first quatrain, that children typically overlook the “best” or most “serious” part of anything for the more entertaining or eye-catching part, the second quatrain introduces the conceit, actually in the form of an epic simile.* The “like” part is a child’s reaction to, perhaps, one of the geographic or proto-scientific tomes being published in Sidney’s time—fascination with the beautiful pictures but obliviousness to the writer’s deep ideas.

In the “so” part, the poet doubles down on poetic figures, comparing his simile to yet another metaphor appropriate to the age of exploration: the “cabinet” in which the cognoscenti displayed the curiosities of science or travel. In this case the cabinet belongs to no less a personage than Nature herself, and Stella is displayed there as a rarity in Nature’s collection. But of course the childish Cupid is drawn to her only as a toy. He sees “babies” (i.e., a child’s dolls) in her eyes. The dimples (“pits”) of her cheeks seem good only for bird-trapping (the customary form of hunting for the very young, and the sense is compounded by the rather obvious fact that setting “traps” is one of Cupid’s favorite games; see line 2 of sonnet 12); “pitfold” is a pitfall, or trap.

The final example of this obtuseness is extended over two lines and thus—inSidney’s characteristic division of the sestet into 3 and 3—more closely related to the poem’s final line. It is also more challenging to a modern reader: why “bo-peep” (uncapitalized)?; and what exactly does “bo-peep or couching lies” mean?

Before bo-peep became a name in a nursery rhyme, it described the baby game probably best known to moderns as peek-a-boo. The sense of “or” here is definitely obscure, but it was a common form of “ere,” which, among various other possibilities in the unstressed, “throwaway” position, could mean “now.” In the context of Cupid finding only childish things in Stella’s features, I think the phrase is best understood as either “now couching lies” or, perhaps better, “e’er [ever] couching lies.” In any case, the verbal phrase after the questionable word is a brilliant ambiguity, since “lies” can either be the innocent verb of which “bo-peep” is the subject, or, more damningly, it can be a noun, the direct object of “couching.” Either way, the overall sense is that the visible (“outward”) part of Stella’s breasts, “playing and shining,” plays a game of peek-a-boo with the observer, presumably the speaker himself. In both the erotic and the emotional senses, the speaker wants to see more, the latter because the exposed part of the breasts is the outward part of the body closest to the heart.

Which brings us to the late fulcrum, at the start of the poem’s bottom line, which reveals that all of these rarities of Nature are but “bo-peep” or “lies” after all, since there is no opening for Love in Stella’s heart. “Fool” is ostensibly addressed to Cupid, and consistent with the tone and theme of the rest of the poem; but we can’t help but recall the last line of Sonnet 1, where the muse used that word for the speaker/poet. SurelySidneyis thinking of his own folly and frustration here.

*an extended “like” or “as” phrase, followed by an extended “so,” characteristic of epic poetry or imitations; e.g. “As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly,/When they meet with an obstacle, up to the sky,/So up to the housetop his coursers they flew . . . etc.”

Next time (weekend of December 14): Sonnet 12

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

 

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 9

Queen Virtue’s court, which some call Stella’s face,
Prepared by Nature’s choicest furniture,
Hath his front built of alabaster pure;
Gold is the covering of that stately place.
The door, by which, sometimes, comes forth her grace,
Red porphyr is, which lock of pearl makes sure;
Whose porches rich (which name of ‘cheeks’ endure)
Marble, mixed red and white, do interlace.
The windows now, through which this heavenly guest
Looks o’er the world, and can find nothing such
Which dare claim from those lights the name of ‘best,’
Of touch they are, that without touch doth touch,
Which Cupid’s self, from Beauty’s mind did draw:
Of touch they are, and poor I am their straw.

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.

Another conceit poem, and one that eventually rings all the changes of Sidney’s wit and verbal dexterity.  Insofar as we can trust the clichés of Petrarchan love poetry—which, we know from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun . . .”), is not much—we get something of a physical description of Stella (in fact, a very abbreviated blazon,* starting with the hair and not reaching the chin) in the palace of Queen Virtue: golden hair (“covering”), alabaster forehead (“front”), fiery red lips (“door”), pearl teeth (“lock”), and damasked (“mixed red and white”) cheeks (“porches,” and these alone are explicitly identified, perhaps to make sure we have not missed the whole point of the conceit).

All of this is conventional flattery, but unconventionally, Stella’s distinctive eyes are black (“touch”=touchstone, a type of black basalt), and the entire sestet is devoted to a careful and clever analysis of them.

First, we have already been introduced, in line 1 and again in line 5, to this exalted personage “Queen Virtue,” who lives here. Line 5 tells us that “her grace” steps out the front door (i.e., passes through Stella’s lips) “sometimes.” “Sometimes” is hardly a romantic or poetic adverb, and it is a significant qualifier of all this flattery.  In the real world of the poet, “her grace” refers simply to any kind or encouraging words Stella might bestow on him.  Within the trope, “her grace” is an appropriate form of address for a royal personage, but on yet another level of meaning it suggests divinity.  Line 9 picks up on that hint with a reference to Queen Virtue as a “heavenly guest,” thus identifying her with the soul (a temporary visitor to mortal flesh), or with the soul’s alter ego, Reason.  And we know already (see earlier discussion of sonnets 4 and 10) that the speaker does not like to play on the same team as Reason.  Critical Virtue/Reason/Soul, looking out through the windows of the eyes (which, as we know, are paradoxically dark and bright), cannot find anyone qualified to be “best” in show.  This is a two-edged dig at Stella: first, simply that she is too aloof and will not acknowledge and return the speaker’s love; but also, if we assume she spends more of her time with the man to whom she is betrothed (Lord Rich, in the case of Penelope Devereux), that her eyes are not usually seeing the “best” man for her!

The sonnet wraps up with a flurry of fairly esoteric word-play.  The eyes are of touchstone, which, as the colloquial name implies, must definitely be touched in order to perform its function (testing the purity of precious metals).  But paradoxically, these touchstone eyes touch others (specifically, the speaker, in the second, emotional, sense of the verb touch) without allowing themselves to be touched (in either the physical or emotional sense).  Further, the touchstone was mined by no less a personage than Cupid himself (who, as miner, seems to be sinking ever lower on the social scale!**), from the highest Platonic place of ideal forms: the “mind” (a pun with “mine”) of Beauty; i.e., Beauty herself cannot imagine anything more perfect than Stella’s touchstone eyes.  But this perfect, aloof, spiritual, divine beauty has the decidedly imperfect effect of enflaming the speaker’s all too fleshly passions.  “Touch” is not only short for touchstone, but also for touchwood, the light kindling with which it is quite easy to start a fire—especially if what’s above it is made of nothing more substantial than straw.

* I feel conflicted about the spelling of this word. Some literature handbooks have used blason for the poetic device, to distinguish between that and the heraldic description which is the original sense of blazon. But the words have the same etymology, and common or dictionary usage makes no such distinction, so I’ll go along with that.

**See the footnote to the blog on Sonnet 8.

Next time (weekend of November 30): Sonnet 11 (Sonnet 10 covered already in earlier blog.)

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 8

Love, born in Greece, of late fled from his native place,
Forced by a tedious proof that Turkish hardened heart
Is no fit mark to pierce with his fine pointed dart;
And, pleased with our soft peace, stayed here his flying race.
But, finding these north climes too coldly him embrace,
Not used to frozen clips, he strave to find some part
Where with most ease and warmth he might employ his art.
At length he perched himself in Stella’s joyful face,
Whose fair skin, beamy eyes, like morning sun on snow,
Deceived the quaking boy, who thought, from so pure light
Effects of lively heat must needs in nature grow:
But she, most fair, most cold, made him thence take his flight
To my close heart; where, while some firebrands he did lay,
He burnt unwares his wings, and cannot fly away.

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 hexameters here reflect the “transfer” of a Greek figure (various ancient Greek poets wrote in hexameters) to an alien clime.  This poem makes quite a complex conceit from that fairly simple idea, and also makes explicit for the first time in the sequence its central tragic fact: that Stella is “cold” to the speaker’s love.

The poem’s conceit is that Greece, having lately fallen under control of the Ottoman Empire, is no longer hospitable to the god of love, Eros (Cupid, to Sidney, and often simply called “Love” in Renaissance verse), whose arrows can no longer pierce the Turk-hardened hearts. The word “proof” in the second line is the word we use in “fire-proof” or that Romeo uses when he says he is “proof” against his enemies if he is armed merely be Juliet’s smiles. And the word “heart” there is the first of two puns on that word (or even three, if you want to press the case that Cupid in line 7 was also employing his “heart” (“art”) when he sought out Stella, so that his own case is parallel to the speaker’s), since the hart (deer) was the most common game animal for gentlemen hunters.

So Cupid has relocated to England, a more peaceful place—but also a chilly climate for a Greek who doesn’t wear much! Sidney is again foreshadowing the metaphysical rhetoric of John Donne, in which a seemingly trivial detail of one trope opens up a whole new idea of even greater interest than the last (think of moth to a flame–>phoenix–>”die and rise again”–>canonization).  Here the (seemingly trivial) cold climate drives Cupid to seek warmth in Stella’s “beamy eyes” (those eyes again!), but alas they turn out to be “like morning sun on snow”—i.e., all bright light and no heat. For the first time in the sonnet sequence, the essential Stella is described: “most fair, most cold.”  This coldness is, from her perspective, her “virtue” or the dictate of Reason, while, from the speaker’s perspective, it is both ingratitude and folly—and of course (with just a few happy interruptions) constantly frustrating.

I should pause to point out a metrical rarity: you can almost count on one hand (there are six) the sonnets in A & S that do not have a strong stop after the eighth line, and this is one (the others being 79, 86, 89, 98, and 108). The effect is a “clipped” stay—lines 5-7, rather than the whole quatrain—in the cold (the word “clips” in line 6 has multiple meanings; the most direct is “hugs,” referring back to “embrace,” but in context it also evokes clips that might be on Cupid’s hunting weapons or on his tunic, or the blow of cold winds) and an elongated one—lines 8-11—in the promised heat of Stella’s eyes. Lines 5-11, almost always in Sidney divided 4-3, are here divided 3-4 by punctuation, despite the rhyme.

But we are back on familiar ground with a strong break and a fulcrum after the eleventh line. That line (content-wise) brings us to what we might have expected was the “end” of any previous sonnet in the sequence, and the end of Cupid’s journey: yes, of course, Love comes to reside in Stella’s beautiful face, as who wouldn’t?

But the fulcrum is a “but” (as fulcrums so often are; sonnets tend to turn on their buts), and in the remaining three lines we get yet another twist in Cupid’s strange eventful history: naturally he finds a more receptive place in the heart* of the speaker, but in laying on the fire there, he accidentally (like a “fly” with a “taper,” as Donne might say) burns his wings, and thus has to settle in permanently.  The “trembling voice” that undercut the speaker’s bold, blunt words in the last line of Sonnet 6 has now been fully embodied in that most pathetic of figures: the Petrarchan lover whose unremitting love is also unrequited.

* The word-play in and around the simple phrase “close heart” is so delicious I need extra space to talk about it. At the simplest level, his heart is “close” because it is always with Stella, but “close” (=closet) also means a small sitting room, and “heart” is clearly intended to suggest “hearth.”  Thus we are set up for the final image of Cupid clumsily piling logs on a fire.  But how the mighty have fallen, from the heart-pun in the second line to the heart-pun in the second-to-last line!  In the former he was a lord hunting in his own deer-park, perhaps; in the latter he is an unattended shivering boy in a small, cold room, trying to get a fire going.  Stella has reduced him too.

Next time (weekend of November 16): Sonnet 9

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

 

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 7

When Nature made her chief work, Stella’s eyes,
In color black why wrapped she beams so bright?
Would she in beamy black, like painter wise,
Frame daintiest luster mixed of shades and light?
Or did she else that sober hue devise
In object best to knit and strength our sight,
Lest, if no veil these brave gleams did disguise,
They, sun-like, should more dazzle than delight?
Or would she her miraculous power show,
That, whereas black seems beauty’s contrary,
She even in black doth make all beauties flow?
Both so, and thus: she, minding Love should be
Placed ever there, gave him this mourning weed
To honor all their deaths, who for her bleed.

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: meter is preserved by eliding “mirac’lous” in line 9 and “e’en” in line 11.

Did someone say “heavenly beams, infusing hellish pain”?  The Petrarchan cliché of the previous poem becomes the subject of this one!

Typical of Sidney’s sonnets, this combines standard Italian form with the logic of an English sonnet*: in this case, three blocks (4-4-3 in length) of “questions” and a 3-line “answer.”  To break that down a bit further, it’s one “real” question (basically, “What was Nature up to?”) and then three possible “answers,” in the form of the questions “Is it Answer A?” or “Is it Answer B?” or “Is it Answer C?”  The answer is, first, “All of the above . . . ,” and then, in a final twist, “. . . plus Answer D as well.”  So I will use these brief paraphrases for the labels of my outline below.

The Real Question (lines 1-2).  Stella’s flashing eyes (with which we will become very well acquainted in these sonnets!) are, paradoxically, dark in hue, or in Renaissance parlance, black.  This is all the more paradoxical because darkness is stereotypically disfavored in female features at this time (a stereotype oft honored in the breach, of course), and generally symbolizes evil.  Perhaps this is also the place to mention that female beauty in this time was regarded as a combination of the work of “Nature” and the added work of “Art,” with Nature’s work of course the more highly prized (at least in poetry) of the two.  So why did Nature do this very strange thing?

Answer A (3-4).  Perhaps she has been studying with the Dutch and Italian masters (“painter wise”), and thus understands that to make black shine (“luster”; note that the oldest sense of “dainty” is “excellent” or “precious”), it is necessary to mix light and dark paint in the same space.

Answer B (5-8).  Or perhaps Nature was concerned for the well-being of the rest of us, and needed to support (“knit”) and strengthen our sight in order to prepare it for something that might otherwise overwhelm it; so the darkness in Stella’s flashing eyes is like sunglasses on a particularly bright day, or perhaps the smoked glass by which one’s eyes are fortified to view a solar eclipse.  We can, of course, take “delight” in sunlight if we are properly protected against its power.

Answer C (9-11).  Or could it be that Nature, the artist, is just showing off, like a chess player playing blindfolded, or Mozart playing a long, complex piece from memory that he had heard only once.  In this case the “miraculous” feat is to capture “all beauties” in the very opposite of beauty, blackness.

The real answer: all (“both”) of the above, plus one more. (Note that, until fairly recently, “both” could be used with a series of more than two, as in Coleridge’s “He prayeth well who loveth well, /Both man and bird and beast.”)  The “all of the above” is disposed of in a single poetic foot, and then we get the additional answer, which is that our initial paradox is doubled back on itself: there is indeed an “evil” side to this darkness, even as it is framed in hyperbolic admiration.  Nature wanted the personified Love to take up residence in Stella’s eyes (a direct anticipation of the tale to be told in Sonnet 8), but if he lives there, he must wear black (“mourning weed”), out of respect for all the lovers who have “died” for her (in that age of battles, duels, and executions, “bleed” was a common synecdoche for “die”). This too is a shadow of things to come in the love saga of our speaker.

* For the typical structure of a Sidney sonnet, see the “Introduction” post.

Next time (weekend of November 2): Sonnet 8

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

 

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 6

Some lovers speak, when they their Muses entertain,
Of hopes begot by fear, of wot not what desires,
Of force of heavenly beams, infusing hellish pain,
Of living deaths, dear wounds, fair storms and freezing fires.
Someone his song in Jove, and Jove’s strange tales, attires,
Broidered with bulls and swans, powdered with golden rain;
Another, humbler, wit to shepherd’s pipe retires,
Yet hiding royal blood full oft in rural vein.
To some a sweetest plaint a sweetest style affords,
While tears pour out his ink, and sighs breathe out his words,
His paper pale despair, and pain his pen doth move.
I can speak what I feel, and feel as much as they,
But think that all the map of my state I display,
When trembling voice brings forth that I do Stella 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.

This poem is the second of six in hexameters (or alexandrines) in the sequence, and it shares its full rhyme scheme with only two other sonnets (81 and 87), neither of which is in hexameters; so it could claim structural uniqueness.  Perhaps befitting the subject—as in Sonnet 1, the interplay of the speaker with other poets—its form is “hybridized” in multiple ways:  quite typical of Sidney is the midway break in the sestet, creating the sense of English-sonnet logic in an Italian sonnet; much less typical (it happens in only six sonnets) is a rhyme reversal in the octave whereby two “outie” quatrains become a palindromic “innie” octave:  ABABBABA.

The sonnet parallels the message of Sonnet 1, but with a difference.  Where the speaker had sought to imitate other poets before, he simply catalogs them in a lightly mocking tone now.  And in the final three lines, where he had been “helpless,” and then surprised by the muse, he is now (despite the “trembling voice” reflecting the weakness of his position in the would-be relationship) confident and assertive about what he is doing poetically.

The thrust of the poem—the chronic Sidney paradox of a highly artificial poem decrying artificiality and embracing simplicity—is clear enough, and its parallel examples of overwrought love poetry can no doubt be appreciated without a gloss.  Nevertheless, Duncan-Jones’s notes on the actual poets or poems being mocked are a lagniappe worth enjoying, so I will paraphrase here:  The first quatrain relates to Petrarch and his imitators.  The phrase “wot not what” translates Petrarch’s fondness for “I know not what” constructions introducing hyperboles, and the culminating oxymoron in the series of four in line 4, “freezing fires,” had become a Petrarchan cliché.  (I need hardly add that Sidney himself is, with no intended irony, guilty of everything mentioned in this quatrain at some point in this sequence.)  Ronsard (an early champion of alexandrines) was the most notable of many poets comparing their love to the metamorphoses (bull, swan, shower of gold) of Jove (7-8), while lines 9-10 may reflect the vogue of pastoral poetry both in England(e.g., Spenser) and on the continent.  (Duncan-Jones does not specifically gloss the idea in line 8 of “hiding royal blood . . . in rural vein”—a witty combination of near-miss repetition with royal/rural and the double meaning of “vein”—but this harks back to Virgil’s Eclogues, and may be most familiar to modern readers in plays such as Green’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, or Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Winter’s Tale.)  For lines 9-11 (e.g., “sweetest plaint” and “sweetest style”), Duncan-Jones offers: “Perhaps a reference to the dolce stil nuovo of the Italian poets of the fourteenth century” (358).

This is quite an amalgam of other poets’ (presumably insincere) gambits, replacing the long and frustrating process of attempting to steal from them, described in Sonnet 1. All are of course treated as elaborate ways to avoid a direct statement of a simple truth, rather than what Sidney himself would defend as the purpose of indirection and metaphor in poetry: love is a complex and multi-dimensional emotion, and can stand to be looked at from many angles.  If “I do Stella love” were indeed the entire “map” of Sidney’s “state” (an apt metaphor in that great age of exploration and map-making, as well as a pun on the word “state”*), there would be no place for 108 sonnets and eleven songs on the subject!  The blunt simplicity is but one of many moods.

*Sidney certainly intended the phrase as a metaphor, but he may have here invented the abstract sense of “map” as the plan or layout of one’s mental state; this very line is given as the OED’s first example for that sense.

Next time (weekend of October 19): Sonnet 7

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 5

It is most true—that eyes are formed to serve
The inward light; and that the heavenly part
Ought to be king; from whose rules, who doth swerve,
Rebels to Nature, strive for their own smart.
It is most true, what we call Cupid’s dart,
An image is, which for ourselves we carve,
And, fools, adore in temple of our heart;
Till that good god make church and churchmen starve.
True, that true beauty Virtue is indeed,
Whereof this beauty can be but a shade,
Which elements with mortal mixture breed;
True, that on earth we are but pilgrims made,
And should in soul up to our country move;
True—and yet true, that I must Stella 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.

For thirteen lines and a word, this poem is a tidy little summary of commonplace wisdom of Sidney’s time—wisdom in which humanistic Christianity is heavily infused with Platonic ideas. The quality of Reason (discussed previously) is synonymous with the soul in St. Paul’s soul/body dichotomy, or with Plato’s eternal spirit of beauty temporarily inhabiting a mortal frame.  In the Platonic paradox, the world that is visible (audible, etc.) to our senses is actually a “shadow” of a permanent ideal form, often referred to as the “substance” related to (and contrasted with) that shadow; thus Dr. Faustus’s ironic line about the false images he is able to conjure, “These are but shadows, not substantial.”  In the Ptolemaic universe, the closest sphere to the central earth, the sphere of the moon, is a key boundary between that which is immortal and immutable—outside the sphere—and that which is mortal and constantly changing, within. Thus, John Donne’s put-down, “dull, sublunary lovers’ love,” for the affection that depends on proximity and the stimulation of the senses.  Ideally we understand that our time on earth is the briefest and least significant part of our existence, so we filter all the stimuli of  our senses through the higher wisdom of our Reason/Soul, and thus stay on the path of eternal bliss.  This is the systematic understanding that informs this poem—and is of course rejected curtly in the final line.

Structurally, the repeated words “It is most true” announce that the two quatrains of the octave are parallel statements of the same idea.  These simple words also carry the ambiguity of meaning both (in Austen’s clause) “It is a truth universally acknowledged” and the phrase “Granted that,” with which a speaker indicates that he will actually take the other side. The sense of the first quatrain (in keeping with the general scheme I described in the previous post) is that the senses (“eyes”) are supposed to be the servants of Reason (the “inward light”) or the soul (the “heavenly part”) which Nature dictates should be in charge. Rebelling (“swerving”) against that rule means one courts his own harm (“smart”).  Repeating the idea with a slightly more specific example, the second quatrain admits that passionate infatuation (“what we call Cupid’s dart”) is but an illusion (“image”) or shadow, and the “image” takes on the second meaning of “idol,” which we first “carve” for ourselves and then worship (“adore”) in the false “temple” of our hearts—again an admission (as in Sonnet 2) that the speaker’s torment and folly are self-inflicted. But this false religion is so pervasive that the “good god” (Cupid, so-called with sarcasm) is putting God (“church and churchmen”) out of business.

The sestet has Sidney’s characteristic three-three division,* and each tercet opens, like the quatrains, with the same phrase, in this case “True, that.”  The first one gives a Platonic rewording to the Christian idea just expressed: that Virtue (Reason’s twin, as discussed in the last entry) is the “true” (i.e., permanent, eternal) “beauty,” as opposed to Stella’s earthly and sublunary beauty, bred by impure “elements with mortal mixture” and thus a mere shadow (“shade”) of that ideal substance.  The second sums up the Platonic-Christian ideal that mortal existence is but a “pilgrimage” in which our souls prepare themselves for the return to the true home.

The little sermon draws near its perfectly symmetrical end; but suddenly, as if an impatient listener can stand it no more, and must get to the “bottom line,” the poem’s bottom line breaks in with one more “True,” when the pattern does not call for it. After the fulcrum phrase “and yet,” the word “true” is repeated one more time (two can play this game!) and the entire counter-sermon, based on no reason, no religion, no philosophy, but raw human passion instead, takes a mere three iambs to state in full: “that I must Stella love.”

* For the typical structure of a Sidney sonnet, see the “Introduction” post.

Next time (weekend of October 5): Sonnet 6

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnets 4 and 10 (considered together)

4.
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.

10.
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.

INTRODUCTION AND SONNET 1

(NOTE: The first two entries in this blog were first posted elsewhere, so I have included them together in my first post on this site.)

INTRODUCTION

Sir Philip Sidney had a short life (1554-1586, 32 years), crowded with incident. He was a very handsome, talented, pedigreed, and well-connected aristocrat and courtier—his uncle was the Earl of Leicester, for example—and even a Member of Parliament at the precocious age of 18. He had the best education the age could afford, having gone first to Shrewsbury School and then to Oxford. He would likely have learned figures of speech as tools of rhetoric, but sonnet-writing would probably not have been an academic discipline. Both at university, though, and in subsequent travels on the continent as soldier and diplomat, he had ample exposure to the poets of the time, and he moved in literary circles; Sonnet 1 of Astrophil and Stella freely acknowledges that he has emulated others in developing his own poetic voice:

Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburnt brain.

In 1575, the Sidney family accompanied Queen Elizabeth on her famous visit to Kenilworth, and the trip afterward included a stop at the home of young Penelope Devereux—13 or 14 at the time—with whom Philip was immediately smitten with a love that lasted the rest of his life. A marriage was arranged, but in a circumstance straight out of renaissance comedy, Penelope’s father died before the deal was completed, and her new guardian arranged a more mercenary marriage, against her will, to Robert, Lord Rich, in 1581. At about the same time, Sidney began the sonnet sequence which was published after his death with the title of Astrophil and Stella. Stella is quite definitely identified with Penelope (there are puns on her husband’s suggestive name), and if the sonnets are autobiographical beyond that (always a tricky assumption), they suggest that Sidney tried to persuade her to become his mistress, and she stoutly refused, in spite of her clear and continuing affection for him. The name Stella has overt symbolic reference to the translation “star.” The name Astrophil (“star-lover”) was inserted in the title after the fact, and only appears in the Eighth and Ninth Songs, which are in the pastoral mode. It is conventional to refer to “the speaker” in discussing a lyric poem, since the speaker and the poet are not necessarily the same.  But in these poems the “speaker” is pretty reliably the Philip Sidney who is in love with Penelope Devereux Rich.

Sidney’s sonnets may lack the depth of thought and emotion captured almost uniquely by Shakespeare in his sonnets, but they are perfect little gems of craft built around fairly conventional ideas. If Shakespeare is Michelangelo,Sidney is Andrea del Sarto; if Shakespeare is Mozart, Sidney is Haydn. Shakespeare is constantly somehow transcending the “received” ideas that are the basis of his poems; Sidney is a perfect textbook of the literary and philosophical conventions of his time, done up with high art.  I like to say that a great sonnet is a small piece of art of great value, but available to anyone to own.  Shakespeare might have more of his sonnets hanging in the Louvre or the Hermitage, but any collector would be proud to have a Sidney in her own collection.

Astrophil and Stella consists of 108 sonnets (the main focus of this blog) interrupted irregularly by eleven “songs” of varying meters. The sonnet sequence seems generally chronological, and has at least some autobiographical reference to Sidney’s futile fascination with Penelope Devereux, initially betrothed, later married, to Lord Rich. She carries the name of Stella in the sequence, with overt symbolic reference to the translation “star.”

Although in earlier collections Sidney had experimented with other forms, the sonnets in Astrophil and Stella are all Italian, which means divided by rhyme scheme (and usually punctuation) into an octave and a sestet (eight lines and six); as opposed to the English (or Shakespearean) sonnet, divided into three quatrains and a couplet. The typical “logic” of an Italian sonnet is: octave = “set up the problem” and sestet = “deal with it,” while the English sonnet allows a sort of cat’s teasing of the “problem” in three different (possibly parallel, possibly contrastive) stabs, followed by a neat and clever wrap-up in the last two lines.

Sidney has two distinctive variations on the Italian pattern:

1. By far his favorite rhyme scheme in the sestet (after whatever combination of A’s and B’s in the octave) is CDCDEE, which he uses in 82 of the 108 sonnets (to which I should add 3 instances of CDDCEE).  This creates, in effect, a “hybrid” sonnet form, in which the reader has both the “logic” of an Italian sonnet and the satisfying “punch line” of a Shakespearean couplet, wrapping things up.

2.  Adding further complexity, upwards of eighty per cent of the time Sidney subdivides his sestet into two three-line ideas, with a “strong” break (semi-colon or stronger) after line eleven. Because he does this so regularly, I will use the term tercet (= three-line stanza) to refer to each half of the sestet, even though by strictest definition a tercet should have a rhyme scheme of its own.  By the same logic, I will often speak of the two quatrains that make up the octave.  Thus the typical Sidney sonnet divides, first, into two parts (octave and sestet), and then again, into four parts (two quatrains and two tercets). There are, of course, exceptions, where either octave or sestet is not divided in the middle by punctuation or logic.

Despite the uniformity of all Italian sonnets (even sonnet 89, which illustrates the repetitive monotony of days and nights passing in Stella’s absence by rhyming only the words “night” and “day,” takes the 8-and-6 structure of  ABBAABBA ABABAB), and some obvious preferences for rhyming in the octave (ABBAABBA 75 times) and the sestet (as mentioned, CDCDEE 82 times), it is rare to have exactly the same full rhyme scheme for more than a few sonnets in a row, and there are actually fifteen different rhyme schemes employed in the sonnets of the sequence. There are also (appropriately) six sonnets in which Sidney uses hexameter lines rather than the conventional pentameters. (These are 1, 6, 8, 76, 77, and 102.)  On the other hand, I don’t think there is ever a feminine rhyme (where an unstressed eleventh syllable is added at the end of the line and both of the last two syllables rhyme; e.g., flý iňg and dý iňg) in the sonnets of Astrophil and Stella —if I discover otherwise, I’ll let you know!

Quatrains, like belly-buttons, can be “innies” or “outies.”  The ABBA scheme, which seems to be circling back on itself, is an “innie.” The ABAB scheme, which keeps moving forward to what follows, is an “outie.” Sidney has a fairly strong preference for the “innie,” using it in more than 70% of his quatrains.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 1

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she (dear she) might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know;
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain;
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburnt brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”

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 paradoxically the most iconic of all Sidney’s poems (the one more readers are familiar with than any other), and not really a sonnet at all—at least, if you use the definition most of us rely on, “fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter.”  (However, if you use the more liberal and practical definition, “a poem that looks like a box,” it’s just fine—and it is, after all, the first entry in the first English sonnet sequence in history.)  The poem, of course, has 28 extra syllables, an elaborate representation of the pun in line 11, “And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way,” the iambic hexameters being the preferred “alexandrines” of the French poets; and “in my way” having both the neutral sense of “on my road (or journey)” and “stopping me from getting to the love poetry I want to write.”  Line 11 happens to be the final line of the statement of the “problem,” before the 3-line climactic ending, and the fulcrum between it and line 12 is arguably stronger than the more predictable one (for an Italian sonnet) before the “But” that begins line 9.  With the pun on “feet” and the use of alexandrines, the poet announces the arrival of a clever, sophisticated voice; while with the quotation from the muse in the final line, he announces that that voice will be governed by passion, thus illustrating the oxymoronic phrase “feeling skill” in Sonnet 2.

With the luxury of added elbow room in the lines, the poem proceeds by four cumulative and climactic stages containing but one instance of an active verb with the speaker as subject—“I sought” at the start of line 5—and fittingly that one forward motion is not toward, but away from, his actual objective.  Otherwise we are bogged in –ing words that suggest stagnation on the speaker’s part, even as the poem’s logic lurches forward. He is loving, studying, turning (others’ leaves), (his words come) halting, (because they were) wanting, biting (his pen), and beating (himself) without getting anywhere at all, and then the “muse” speaks to him in direct, imperative, monosyllabic language: “Fool . . . look in thy heart, and write”—language that, incidentally, flies in the face of all the contemporary poetic principles (including Sidney’s own) and anticipates English Romanticism by about 200 years.

Each of the quatrains in the octave, plus the first tercet of the sestet, ends in a climactic phrase, but these phrases (and the passages they conclude) grow increasingly lame and frustrated. The first quatrain has an entirely forward-moving, optimistic development; the speaker has a plan, culminating in the heavenly dream of obtaining Stella’s “grace”—a euphemism out of the courtly love tradition, meaning the love-object lady (imagined like God showering blessings on a sinner) actually bends to the suitor’s will. In the second, he seeks to put his plan in action, and there is still a hopefulness about the activity (looking for poetic models to imitate), but basking in the light of others leads only to a “sunburnt brain.”  So the “But” that opens the sestet is not so much a u-turn as a confirmation of doubts already planted, and lines 9-11 are both a verbal picture of a man stumbling badly, and a ringing endorsement of nature and originality over “study,” imitation, and artifice.  And the concluding phrase here has lost even the intensity of “sunburnt brain”; now it is the stalled, hapless “still seemed but strangers in my way.”  The speaker has gone from a positive, reasoned plan of action at the outset to a state aptly named in the following line: helpless (and also, metaphorically, in the last stage of pregnancy and chewing on a pen, but never mind that!)

So the stage is set for perhaps the most effective and best known dangling modifier in all of poetry, as the speaker backs into the dramatic and sudden appearance of the muse, periodic in both the temporal and the grammatical senses. Oddly, for someone who studied so many classical models, the speaker has not invoked the muse, nor even prepared the syntax for her arrival; she comes unbidden and unexpected, and that’s the point, isn’t it?

Other odds and ends:

The use of “leaves” (pages) and “showers” (inspiration) in lines 7 and 8 conditions the reader’s mind for the imagery of refreshment and renewal, so “sunburnt brain” is a particularly harsh and frustrating letdown.

Lines 9-11 may at first appear a mixed metaphor, rather than one continuous conceit, but it is possible to read it as a series of free-association “handoffs.” The image of each new line may not precisely fit with that of the previous line, but it is suggested by it. “Invention’s stay” (the editorial choice to capitalize Sidney’s personifications helps a reader envision the imagery) suggests a crutch (or in the modern world, perhaps a walker), but it could also be a young child leaned on by the “halting” patient; so it is not far-fetched to have that same child, Invention (child of Nature), driven away by the cruel stepmother Study, presumably leaving the patient—the “halting words”—to fall in a heap at the speaker’s feet, the “feet” of others now only getting in his way.

Next time (weekend of August 10): Sonnet 2

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