Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 98

Ah bed, the field where joy’s peace some do see,
The field where all my thoughts to war be trained,
How is thy grace by my strange fortune stained!
How thy lee shores by my sighs stormed be!
With sweet soft shades thou oft invitest me
To steal some rest; but, wretch, I am constrained
(Spurr’d with love’s spur, though galled and shortly reined
With care’s hard hand) to turn and toss in thee,
While the black horrors of the silent night
Paint woe’s black face so lively to my sight,
That tedious leisure marks each wrinkled line.
But when Aurora leads out Phoebus’ dance,
Mine eyes then only wink, for spite perchance,
That worms should have their sun, and I want mine.

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: “stormed” in line 4 has two syllables; and since “sighs” is almost impossible to read as an unstressed syllable (especially given the rhyme with “my”), the sound here imitates the sense of a buffeting storm, with three straight strong syllables, “my sighs storm-.”

This poem should be compared to Sonnet 39, which it almost echoes. The first line of 39, for example:

Come sleep, O sleep, the certain knot of peace,

comes easily to mind as we read:

Ah bed, the field where joy’s peace some do see . . .

Both poems discuss war and peace, and speak of sleep as the natural refuge of peace. But what a falling off is here! To read the two poems side-by-side is to go from hope to despair, from the speaker’s idealized vision of a future with Stella—when he could entice sleep with a promise that “Stella’s image” would appear there—to the dark tormented thoughts he has been discussing for the past two sonnets.

The hypnotic opening line of Sonnet 39 (quoted above) is developed for a full, leisurely quatrain, adding five parallel phrases to “the certain knot of peace” (“The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe,” etc.). But here, after the word “field” is repeated, the poem turns right away in the opposite direction, stressing that the speaker has got things backwards, and thus is “staining” sleep, or giving it a bad name. The normal “lee shores” of sleep—i.e., the sheltered shores, facing away from the bad weather—are being unaccustomedly buffeted by the speaker’s misery. Like a horse with an incompetent rider, his love spurs him on and “galls,” or checks, him at the same time.

Notice the poetic illustration of “turn and toss” (line 8): the moment where an Italian sonnet customarily comes to rest is right after “in thee” at the end of this line. But this one keeps churning on for another three lines, a “sound” imitation of the “sense” of one being kept up well past one’s bedtime.

The fulcrum comes at the start of line 12, and the fairly pathetic twist on the poem’s main idea is that at dawn (“when Aurora leads out Phoebus’ dance”) he finally nods off (“eyes . . . wink”) as if to spite the whole rest of the natural world—down to even the lowly worms—which welcomes the “sun” (think: son) he cannot have.

Next time (weekend of April 15): Sonnet 99
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 76

She comes, and straight therewith her shining twins do move
Their rays to me, who in her tedious absence lay
Benighted in cold woe; but now appears my day,
The only light of joy, the only warmth of love.
She comes, with light and warmth, which like Aurora prove
Of gentle force, so that mine eyes dare gladly play
With such a rosy morn, whose beams most freshly gay
Scorch not, but only do dark chilling sprites remove.
But lo, while I do speak, it groweth noon with me;
Her flamy glistering lights increase with time and place;
My heart cries, ‘Ah, it burns’; mine eyes now dazzled be;
No wind, no shade can cool; what help then in my case,
But with short breath, long looks, staid feet and walking head,
Pray that my sun go down with meeker beams to bed.

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: “glistering” in line 10 is elided to two syllables.

At this point in the sequence, we have two of the six sonnets written in hexameters. In this one, five of the eight lines in the octave are also enjambed, so we get a particularly leisurely stroll through ideas the speaker likes to entertain, especially in the poem’s second quatrain. For, despite Stella’s angry reaction to the stolen kiss, the effect on the speaker seems to be a heightened imagination of what might be.

The first quatrain, featuring Stella’s now-familiar eyes (“shining twins”), is a fairly straightforward statement of a plot-fact, Stella’s arrival to turn the speaker’s night to day. This is restated as a frictionless thought in the second quatrain. Here, Stella is the dawn (“Aurora”) who not only brings “light” into his life, but does it with gentleness, removing all the “chilling sprites” of night.

But this figurative language has implications or consequences; the light of a cool dawn must turn into the noon-time heat of day, i.e., the passion which Stella’s presence inspires in the speaker, as announced in line 11. So the final tercet seeks a solution to this excessive heat. In a line (13) that recalls the “throes” of Sonnet 1, Sidney wonderfully captures the situation of a man in such a state, with a pair of antitheses: as his looks grow longer, his breath grows shorter, and as his feet are rooted, his mind wanders off to another place. Finishing the conceit of a sun’s journey through the day, he envisions—nay, “pray[s] that”—a “meeker” (or more yielding) love might go to bed, a perfectly innocent gesture for the sun, but with obvious sexual suggestion for Stella.

Next time (weekend of June 12): Sonnet 77
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 37

My mouth doth water, and my breast doth swell,
My tongue doth itch, my thoughts in labor be;
Listen then, lordings, with good ear to me,
For of my life I must a riddle tell.
Towards Aurora’s court a nymph doth dwell,
Rich in all beauties which man’s eye can see;
Beauties so far from reach of words, that we
Abase her praise, saying she doth excel;
Rich in the treasure of deserved renown;
Rich in the riches of a royal heart;
Rich in those gifts which give the eternal crown;
Who though most rich in these, and every part
Which make the patents of true worldly bliss,
Hath no misfortune, but that Rich she is.

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 11, “the eternal” must be elided: “th’eternal.”

Like sonnets 24 and 35 (and possibly 9), this one makes a direct real-life connection to Penelope Devereux by punning on her married name, Rich. As I mentioned with the previous sonnet, the speaker is in a three-sonnet stretch of renewed passion and strong emotion. I don’t know if there’s a long tradition of telling riddles at such moments of emotion, and especially frustration, but there is a slightly later parallel in Middleton and Dekker’s 1611 play, The Roaring Girl, when the greedy father, Sir Alexander, who disapproves of his son’s chosen bride, begins a lengthy riddling tale to his peers this way:

Last day I met
An aged man, upon whose head was scored
A debt of just so many years as these
Which I owe to my grave: the man you all know.

When his friends ask for the “aged man’s” name, he responds:

Nay, you shall pardon me:
But when he saw me, with a sigh that brake,
Or seemed to break, his heart-strings, thus he spake:
O my good knight, says he (and then his eyes
Were richer even by that which made them poor,
They’d spent so many tears they had no more). . .

and goes on to tell the story of an aging father with a disobedient son, obviously using the riddle to describe himself in a state of high dudgeon.

The word “lordings” in line three suggests the speaker is talking with close friends, possibly the same group as those who are by turns critical or mystified by his infatuation in sonnets 14, 18, 20, 21, and 27. The word can be a mildly contemptuous diminutive, but can also simply demonstrate intimacy and mutual regard. The clause “my thoughts in labor be,” at the end of the second line, recalls the same metaphor near the end of Sonnet 1, but there the emphasis was on the frustrated hopefulness of labor, and here it is clearly on the pain.

Since the first quatrain serves as introduction to the riddle, the riddle itself has the somewhat unusual form of ten lines, divided 4-3-3. The first seven of these lines establish the presence of a “rich” nymph living toward the east (Aurora being Homer’s “rosy-fingered” goddess of dawn; I’ll assume Lord Rich’s home is to the east of Sidney’s until I can confirm that.)  She is chiefly rich, as Sidney’s readers are so often told, in “beauties,” and the quatrain dwells fully on that idea, with a hyperbole similar to those in sonnet 36: by seeking to praise Stella, we only (as Regan says of Goneril) “come too short,” in our mortal fallibility. Having established this chief way in which Stella is “rich” in four lines, the speaker now grabs the word itself and offers three other ways she is rich, in each line of the first tercet. These too are idealistic, carefully skirting the more obvious material sense of the word. They are, in turn, fame (“renown”), and greatness of “heart” and soul (that which aspires to “the eternal crown”).

So far the sonnet, despite the introduction of the hated married name, could take its place with others that are steadfast in their praise of Stella—but we haven’t really gotten to the enigmatic part of the riddle. The word “though” in line 12 tips us off that a change of direction is coming, and the word “but” in the bottom line confirms it. While being fortunate in every conceivable way (the word “patents” suggests unique models; i.e., Plato’s ideal forms), Stella’s one misfortune is to bear the name Rich; she has (of course) married the wrong man.

Next time (weekend of December 13): Sonnet 38
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.