Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 82

Nymph of the garden where all beauties be;
Beauties which do in excellency pass
His who till death looked in a watery glass,
Or hers, whom naked the Trojan boy did see;
Sweet garden nymph, which keeps the cherry tree,
Whose fruit doth far th’Hesperian taste surpass;
Most sweet-fair, most fair-sweet, do not, alas,
From coming near those cherries banish me.
For though, full of desire, empty of wit,
Admitted late by your best-graced grace,
I caught at one of them a hungry bit,
Pardon that fault, once more grant me the place,
And I do swear, even by the same delight,
I will but kiss, I never more will bite.

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Reading notes: “watery” in line 3 and “graced” in line 10 both have two syllables; “th’Hesperian” in line 6 is elided at both ends, for a total of three syllables; and “even” in line 13 is one unstressed syllable.

The conceit of this sonnet is that Stella’s lips—much the focus of attention in this part of the sequence—are the “cherries” in her garden of earthly delights, and she is both the garden itself and the “nymph” who guards it. (Such identification of nymphs with the rivers, forests, and so on that they patrol is common in classical lore.) The octave, in which the speaker begs the nymph not to “banish” him from the garden for his trespass, is a patch of “footnote poetry” referencing three classical tales: (1) Narcissus, who wasted his life away in contemplation of his own image in a “watery glass”; (2) Paris, who stumbled upon the naked Venus; and (3) the golden apples of Atlas’s daughter Hesperides, the capture of which was one of the labors of Hercules.

Such obscurity is set aside as we get down to the crux of the matter in the sestet. The speaker admits he has been stupidly (“empty of wit”) naughty, and is now in a penitent spirit—or at least pretends to be. Since the lips are cherries, the stolen kiss can be described as a “bit” of food, a table scrap stolen by, say, a dog. And as a dog blessed with speech might do, he now promises to behave himself if only he can remain in “place.” But the food conceit allows a twist in the final line, so that in “behaving himself” he would merely repeat the misbehavior!

Next time (weekend of September 4): Sonnet 83
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 77

Those looks, whose beams be joy, whose motion is delight;
That face, whose lecture shows what perfect beauty is;
That presence, which doth give dark hearts a living light;
That grace, which Venus weeps that she herself doth miss;
That hand, which without touch holds more than Atlas might:
Those lips, which make death’s pay a mean price for a kiss;
That skin, whose past-praise hue scorns this poor term of ‘white’;
Those words, which do sublime the quintessence of bliss;
That voice, which makes the soul plant himself in the ears:
That conversation sweet, where such high comforts be,
As construed in true speech, the name of heaven it bears,
Makes me in my best thoughts and quiet’st judgment see
That in no more but these I might be fully blessed:
Yet ah, my maiden muse doth blush to tell the rest.

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:  “heaven” in line 11 is (as usual) one syllable, and “quiet’st” in line 12 is two, divided “qui” and “et’st.” Somewhat unusual word senses are “lecture”—meaning “reading”—in line 2, and “sublime”—a transitive verb meaning “distill” or “extract”—in line 8. And given the vagaries of Elizabethan punctuation, the phrase “Atlas might” can be understood two ways: the more obvious is with “might” as an auxiliary verb for an understood “do”; but we can also imagine an apostrophe after “Atlas,” making “might” the noun that means “strength.”

The second of a pair of sonnets in hexameters, the extra length provides spaciousness for an extended blazon, running eleven lines and combining tangible bodily features (face, hands, lips, skin) with intangible actions (looks, words, voice) and abstract qualities (presence, grace, conversation) to make up the entire picture of perfection:

–looks (i.e., from those blazing, darting eyes) that create “joy” and “delight”;
–a face, the reading (“lecture”) of which defines “perfect beauty”;
–a presence which lights up even “dark hearts”;
–a grace envied even by Venus herself;
–a hand that exercises enormous sway even “without touch”;
–lips literally to die for; that is, even death would be a low (“mean”) price to pay for a kiss;
–skin that is fairer than fair (“white”);
–words which distill (“sublime”) the rarest form (“quintessence”) of “bliss”;
–a voice which makes the “soul” (ordinarily the aloof immortal part within the mortal) want to take up residence in the relatively humble place of the ears;
–and conversation (given a two-line description to finish the series) that puts the listener in heaven.

The verb “Makes” at the start of line 12, despite its singularity in modern grammar, clearly has as subjects all the ten features named above, and starts a two-line thought that, by his acquaintance with Stella, the speaker is quite “fully,” quite thoroughly, “blessed.” It is another of Sidney’s sonnets (like 71 and 72) where a perfectly romantic ideal is achieved in thirteen lines, with a “but”—or in this case “Yet”—opening the poem’s final line. All the qualities mentioned are those that can, with honor, be acknowledged by an admirer in public; but the speaker dreams of other “blessings” from Stella, of a kind to make a “maiden muse . . . blush.”

Next time (weekend of June 26): Sonnet 78
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 51

Pardon mine ears, both I and they do pray,
So may your tongue still fluently proceed,
To them that do such entertainment need,
So may you still have somewhat new to say.
On silly me do not the burden lay,
Of all the grave conceits your brain doth breed;
But find some Hercules to bear, in steed
Of Atlas tired, your wisdom’s heavenly sway.
For me, while you discourse of courtly tides,
Of cunning’st fishers in most troubled streams,
Of straying ways, when valiant error guides;
Meanwhile my heart confers with Stella’s beams,
And is even irked that so sweet comedy,
By such unsuited speech should hindered 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.

Reading notes: “even” in line 13 is one syllable; and “in steed” (line 7) was a 16th and 17th century form of “instead,” whose use here creates a pun.

This is another sonnet (like 14 and 21) in the vein of John Donne’s “Canonization” (“For God’s sake, hold thy tongue, and let me love”), responding with sarcasm to the friends who are carping critics of the speaker’s infatuation. Take note that, with this sonnet, we enter the longest stretch of formal uniformity in the whole sequence: seven sonnets in a row with Sidney’s favorite rhyme scheme and, with exceptions at 53 and 54, his typical 4-4-3-3 structure. We might say, optimistically and artistically, that the poet has found his groove; or, pessimistically and biographically, that the stagnation in the relationship is starting to rub off on his poetry!

The first eleven lines here offer a witty array of parodic or sarcastic techniques. In the first quatrain, the speaker’s ears are turned into victims, so that switches him right away from being the “accused” to being the champion of the oppressed. The friend’s criticisms are sarcastically turned to “entertainment,” and the suggestion that a new audience may give him something new to say is a backhanded way of saying that the friend’s criticisms are growing repetitive and tedious.

The sarcasm takes the form of hyperbole in the second quatrain, with a couple of word-plays triggering the device. In the sixteenth century, “silly” was a word in transition from its medieval meaning of “innocent” to the modern sense “foolish.” The speaker’s friend would clearly think of him in the latter sense, but the speaker presents himself as childishly unable to handle such vast wisdom. Secondly, “grave” means serious, but it is a weight-related term (as in the double meaning of “gravity”), so now we are set up for the hyperbolic contrast between the enormous weight of the friend’s “wisdom” and the childish incapacity of the speaker to bear it. The wordplay is compounded by the classical allusion to Hercules briefly standing in for Atlas in holding up the earth (with the choice of “in steed” for “instead” punningly making him a beast of burden), and this is exaggerated still further by making the weight here not just the earth but “heavenly sway”—a veiled reference also to the understanding of Reason as God’s will (see the entry on Sonnets 4 and 10).

Starting with “courtly tides,” we get subtle reference to the sort of sententious preaching being rejected: the repeated similitudes drawn from nature that are characteristic of the faddish euphuistic prose of the day: the “tides” of courtly opinion, fishing in troubled waters, or choosing “error” for a trail guide. As in line 6 of Sonnet 10, the tenth line here captures the difficulty of the weighty arguments with a tongue-twister, three separate “st” combinations in short space, for instance.

By contrast to those first eleven lines, the final three lines are clear and simple, as if the light of “Stella’s beams” has broken through. By contrast to his ears in line 1, the speaker’s heart is focused solely on his prize; and by contrast to the “entertainment” in line 3, this is “sweet comedy,” obviously in the Dantean sense of a story with a heavenly ending, rather than a trivial reference to amusement. The speaker’s critic is dismissed as a noisome distraction from a constant pursuit.

Next time (weekend of June 27): Sonnet 52
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.