Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 47

What, have I thus betrayed my liberty?
Can those black beams such burning marks engrave
In my free side? Or am I born a slave,
Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny?
Or want I sense to feel my misery?
Or sprite, disdain of such disdain to have,
Who for long faith, though daily help I crave,
May get no alms but scorn of beggary?
Virtue awake; beauty but beauty is;
I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
Leave following that, which it is gain to miss.
Let her go! Soft, but here she comes. Go to,
Unkind, I love you not. O me, that eye
Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie.

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: “following” in line 11 is elided to two syllables.

The “slave to love” is a well-worn Petrarchan conceit, but in the context of this sequence it points to the speaker apparently reaching the same conclusion that his critical friends have been trying to impress upon him, that he is destroying himself with his pathetic infatuation. The jerky rhythms of this sonnet, with thoughts of varying lengths, reflect the speaker’s inner torment, perhaps overstated a bit in parody, as the poem turns downright comic at the end.

Despite the irregular thought-lengths, the poem as a whole has the most typical outline for an Italian sonnet, with a strong change of direction coming after the octave.  In fact the sestet begins with exactly that—a determination to change direction—and this both culminates and ends three words into the twelfth line with “Let her go!” At this point Stella herself approaches, and the speaker returns to the whimpering mass he was before. The comic determination and failure to grow a spine is accentuated by the unusually monosyllabic language from line 10 on; the last five lines contain 48 words.

The sonnet begins and ends with the power of Stella’s eyes, much-referenced throughout the sonnets, and particularly in Sonnet 42. In this case they become the branding irons used to permanently mark as slaves men who, in some instances (“my free side”) were formerly free. The other dismal possibilities the speaker considers are (lines 2-3) he was born into slavery, or (line 4) he has become inured to it, or (line 5) he lacks a man’s spirit (“sprite”) to rise up and resist abuse. Lines 7 and 8 make more direct reference to the futility of his love, likening himself to a beggar who is despised rather than pitied for his persistent self-humiliation.

The invocation to “Virtue” that opens the sestet recalls the abstract enemy to passion mentioned several times in earlier sonnets—but in this context we are also reminded of the older meaning of the word, rooted in vir—manliness. The speaker is seeking the will to recognize that Stella’s beauty is not unique; there are “other fish in the pond,” as the saying goes. But line 10, both asyndeton and auxesis, turns almost farcical with its five attempts to start the next sentence before the final “I do” manages to launch into the rest of the thought; one is reminded of the cartoonish coward who shouts “Let me at ‘em, let me at ‘em,” while being easily held back by his friends. Finally “released,” he works his way to “Let her go!” before her approach immediate shuts him up. Though he implies that “Go to, Unkind, I love you not” is spoken with his tongue, it is clear from his self-silencing (“Soft”) that his muttering is not actually in her hearing. In any event, one more flash of that enslaving eye puts him firmly back in his abject place.

Next time (weekend of May 2): Sonnet 48
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 41

Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance,
Guided so well, that I obtained the prize,
Both by the judgment of the English eyes
And of some sent from that sweet enemy, France;
Horsemen my skill in horsemanship advance,
Town-folks my strength;  a daintier judge applies
His praise to sleight, which from good use doth rise;
Some lucky wits impute it but to chance;
Others, because of both sides I do take
My blood from them who did excel in this,
Think Nature me a man of arms did make.
How far they shoot awry!  The true cause is,
Stella looked on, and from her heavenly face
Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.

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: in line 4 “enemy” is two syllables: en’my.

This sonnet has an 11-3 division, with one complex sentence occupying the first 11 lines, and then, following the fulcrum, a simpler response in the final three. Or, to break it down a bit more specifically, the first four lines form a dependent phrase, establishing the speaker’s success in a jousting tournament (and, like the last three lines of Sonnet 1, demonstrating that the “dangling modifier” was an unknown error to Sidney and his age); the next seven form the main sentence, a compound series which, like the last three feet of line 1, is an asyndeton in that it lacks a conjunction; it gives a series of explanations, of varying lengths, that other people have given for this success; and the final three reject all these explanations, and give the “true cause.”

Duncan-Jones’s note on this sonnet suggests that the real event referred to in Sidney’s life was probably a tournament at Whitehall on May 15 and 16, 1581, at which 500 French courtiers were in attendance, because of ongoing negotiations to arrange a marriage between Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Alençon—a marriage which Sidney opposed, and delicately demonstrated against in the pageantry of symbolic flattery that accompanied the tournament; thus, perhaps, the reference to France as a “sweet enemy” in line 4 (though admittedly there were many historical and religious reasons to continue to see France as “enemy” even while entertaining its court as guests). An eyewitness account may be found in Duncan-Jones’s appendices, pages 299-311.

To explicate the “explanations”: fellow competitors who are chiefly “horsemen” maintain (“advance”) that his superior horsemanship was responsible—to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail—while the simple townsfolk who are spectators think it’s brute strength. These groups focus on what they can understand, while the “daintier,” or more refined, judge appreciates the finer points of the sport, the deftness (“sleight”) with lance that comes from practice (“good use”). The word “lucky” in line 8 seems to refer not so much to being fortunate as, more generally, to living by a philosophy that emphasizes luck more than skill or work; i.e., these “wits” are probably gamblers who attribute all wins and losses merely to “chance.” The final explanation forms the first half of the sestet, and is a specific autobiographical reference: Sidney’s father and grandfather were both tilters, as were his maternal uncles; so these “others” are attributing his victory to his pedigree on “both sides.”

The final tercet begins with an apt metaphor, converting these various theories to arrows that have missed their target. The true inspiration was of course that Stella looked on and, in keeping with her name, cast celestial light on his “race” or jousting contest.

Next time (weekend of February 7): Sonnet 42
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.