Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 91

Stella, while now by honour’s cruel might,
I am from you, light of my life, misled,
And that fair you, my sun, thus overspread
With absence’ veil, I live in sorrow’s night;
If this dark place yet show, like candle light
Some beauty’s piece, as amber-coloured head,
Milk hands, rose cheeks, or lips more sweet, more red,
Or seeing jets, black, but in blackness bright;
They please, I do confess, they please mine eyes.
But why? Because of you they models be,
Models such be wood globes of glistering skies.
Dear, therefore be not jealous over me;
If you hear that they seem my heart to move,
Not them, O no, but you in them I love.

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Reading note: “glistering” in line 11 is elided to two syllables.

This sonnet resumes the “absence” theme that began in Sonnet 87, and the opening quatrain indicates that “honour” is to blame—presumably either some diplomatic or military assignment for Philip Sidney, or simply Stella’s “honour” as a married woman, necessitating distance. As usual, Stella is associated with light for her worshipper, and thus her absence with “sorrow’s night.”

The second quatrain is a mini-blazon (head, hands, cheeks, lips, eyes) albeit indirectly applied to Stella herself. The hypothetical condition (the “If . . .”) is that her features would somehow be replicated by another or others in her absence (hinting at the heresy that other women might share Stella’s beauty) and thus draw the speaker’s eye. This dangerous situation for a would-be faithful lover is freely confessed in line 9: “They please, I do confess, they please mine eyes.” And as we would expect, the man who has made this confession needs to start paddling furiously to stay afloat. The rest of the first half of the sestet (in Sidney’s customary two-tercet division) uses the conventional Renaissance shadow/substance dichotomy, in which—following Plato’s concept of ideal forms—lesser entities are seen as shadows or “models” of the real thing. The other attractive women are seen as wooden “globes”—not the more familiar models of the earth, but a sort of spherical planetarium model of the skies,* while Stella’s star quality is the real thing.

The final tercet makes a direct appeal to Stella to be understanding and forgiving if she hears rumors of a roving eye. The rumors presumably have some basis in reality—suggesting the long-frustrated speaker might be hedging his bets—but he somewhat lamely pleads that this is yet another sign of his devotion to her.

* The meaning of “globe” as a spherical map of the world did not come into common use until the seventeenth century, though the object itself existed earlier; indeed, both types of “globe” are well illustrated in Hans Holbein’s famous 1553 painting “The Ambassadors,” which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Next time (weekend of January 8): Sonnet 92
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus 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 63, and First Song

O grammar-rules, O now your virtues show;
So children still read you with awful eyes,
As my young dove may, in your precepts wise,
Her grant to me by her own virtue know;
For late, with heart most high, with eyes most low,
I craved the thing which ever she denies;
She, lightning Love displaying Venus’ skies,
Lest once should not be heard, twice said, No, No!
Sing then, my muse, now Io Pæan sing;
Heavens envy not at my high triumphing,
But grammar’s force with sweet success confirm;
For grammar says (O this, dear Stella, weigh),
For grammar says (to grammar who says nay?)
That in one speech two negatives affirm!

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Reading notes: “Heavens” in line 10 is one syllable. In line 9, “Io” is the muse, and a “Pæan” is a hymn of praise; both words are two-syllable, the first syllable stressed and the second unstressed in both cases.

This sonnet is downright childish in its playfulness, deflecting the speaker’s frustration in a rather nerdy way. The scene depicted is one in which Stella, notes the speaker’s rising excitement (“heart most high”) as he casts his “eyes most low” (i.e., he’s not looking her in the face!). While her beauty (“displaying Venus’ skies”) seems (to him, at least) to egg him on, she exercises a woman’s prerogative of using her voice to say No!—not just once, but twice.

The “grammar-rules” the poem speaks of are Latin grammar rules, the chief cause of children’s headaches in the grammar schools; hence, the second line, where “awful” has its original sense of “full of awe.” The idea of teaching a grammar for English has not really appeared yet, and, as we are frequently reminded by Shakespeare, at this time the double negative in English intensifies the negativity, rather than canceling it out. But in Latin teaching, a stricter logic would apply. Perhaps I should also point out that, strictly speaking, “No, no!” is not a double negative in the usual logical application of that phrase; it is merely repetition for emphasis.

But the speaker leaps on the opportunity with a self-consciously sappy voice of triumph: the first tercet of the sestet is deliberately bad, overwrought poetry, culminating in the ridiculous apotheosis of grammar, the schoolboy’s bane. Then, in the final three lines, he knows perfectly well he is being puerile, and milks the moment, with his two parenthetical interruptions stalling the springing of the trap until the final line.

First Song

Doubt you to whom my Muse these notes intendeth,
Which now my breast o’ercharged to music lendeth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only in you my song begins and endeth.
 
Who hath the eyes which marry state with pleasure,              5
Who keeps the key of Nature’s chiefest treasure?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only for you the heaven forgat all measure.
 
Who hath the lips, where wit in fairness reigneth,
Who womankind at once both decks and staineth?               10
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only by you Cupid his crown maintaineth.
 
Who hath the feet, whose step all sweetness planteth,
Who else for whom Fame worthy trumpets wanteth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;                                15
Only to you her scepter Venus granteth.
 
Who hath the breast, whose milk doth passions nourish,
Whose grace is such, that when it chides doth cherish?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only through you the tree of life doth flourish.                     20
 
Who hath the hand which without stroke subdueth,
Who long dead beauty with increase reneweth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only to you all envy hopeless rueth.
 
Who hath the hair which, loosest, fastest tieth,                      25
Who makes a man live, then glad when he dieth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only of you the flatterer never lieth.

Who hath the voice, which soul from senses sunders,
Whose force but yours the bolts of beauty thunders?                        30
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only with you are miracles not wonders.
 
Doubt you to whom my Muse these notes intendeth,
Which now my breast o’ercharg’d to music lendeth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;                                35
Only in you my song begins and endeth.

What strikes me most immediately about this first “song” after sixty-three sonnets is the pervasive use of feminine rhymes, used nowhere in the sonnets themselves. Lines 1, 2, and 4 of each stanza rhyme this way, while line 3, which functions as the song’s refrain, is the same perfectly regular iambic pentameter line all the way through. This refrain rather obviously states the song’s theme and purpose.

In the literal, biographical sense, we could imagine the songs being offered up musically (a version of the serenade) when Sidney and Penelope are together. In the artistic sense, a song like this could be called the antithesis of a sonnet. Instead of very close logic and dense complexity of ideas in tightly restricted space, we have the lengthy spinning out of a single idea as a refrain with a succession of not terribly interesting iterations.

There is not, for example, a closely connected thought running through any single stanza—except for the identical first and last stanzas (each illustrating its final line) which explain the point of the song. Instead, the song’s ingenuity lies in the way first lines are connected to one another (a blazon of physical features), second lines to one another (abstract hyperboles of praise), and fourth lines to one another (parallel extensions of the idea in the refrain).

A few lines that might be obscure or difficult for a reader:

10: “Who womankind at once both decks and staineth?”; i.e., she improves (“decks”) her gender and yet puts it to shame by the comparison of all other women to her.

14: “Who else for whom Fame worthy trumpets wanteth?”; i.e., even Fame itself is not up to the task of honoring her.

22:  “Who long dead beauty with increase reneweth?”; i.e., the “glory of Helen” or other ancient, supposedly matchless, beauty, is not only reborn, but actually improved in her. (Duncan-Jones’s note on this line is misleading.)

24: “Only to you all envy hopeless rueth”; slightly odd grammar here, but the general point seems to be that, while any beauty creates envy in the less beautiful, in her case, others despair even of their envy, as achieving her level is so hopeless.

26: “Who makes a man live, then glad when he dieth?”; i.e., she makes a man feel he is alive for the first time; the second half could be innocently interpreted as hyperbolically suggesting men are happy to die for her, but more immediate to the renaissance ear is the slang use of “die” for sexual intercourse (apparently stemming from the belief that each orgasm shortened one’s life a bit).

Next time (weekend of December 12): Sonnet 64
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 29

Like some weak lords, neighbored by mighty kings,
To keep themselves and their chief cities free,
Do easily yield, that all their coasts may be
Ready to store their camps of needful things:
So Stella’s heart, finding what power Love brings,
To keep itself in life and liberty,
Doth willing grant, that in the frontiers he
Use all to help his other conquerings.
And thus her heart escapes; but thus her eyes
Serve him with shot, her lips his heralds are;
Her breasts his tents, legs his triumphal car;
Her flesh his food, her skin his armor brave;
And I, but for because my prospect lies
Upon that coast, am given up for a slave.

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: somewhat confusingly, the pronoun “their” in lines 2 and 3 refers to the “weak lords,” while the same pronoun in line 4 refers to the “mighty kings.”

“Power” in line 5 and “given” in line 14 are each one syllable.

Sonnet 29 is a perfect illustration of a conceit, an elaborate analogy often extended over many lines or, in this case, the entire poem. Here Stella is compared to the delicate geopolitical situation in which “weak lords” surrender to “mighty kings” without a fight, in order to keep their own subjection from being even worse. The poem envisions that the yielders would thus retain their basic freedoms, keep their cities intact, and go on about their business, while the conquerors would make use of the countryside and the coasts to maintain their supply lines. The “weak lords” are thus both conquered and free at the same time, the essential paradox that pertains to what is being said about Stella.

Stella, to keep her heart “in life and liberty” from the power of Love, has yielded up the “frontiers,” or all her outward parts—a similar distinction to that drawn in the sestet of Sonnet 12. And Love (i.e., personified love, or Cupid) uses all those outlying areas—Stella’s attractive features—“to help his other conquering,” i.e. (consistent with the conceit) to assist him in conquering other people.

As we move into the sestet, a blazon of those external features—familiar to us already from Sonnets 9, 12, and 13—is called for, with each being given a supply-line use more or less appropriate to either its form or its function. We have seen already (e.g., Sonnet 17), for instance, how Stella’s darting, dark, and shining eyes supply Cupid with his arrows (“shot”); and the others really require no explanation.

The final focus on the speaker is limited to two lines, so we might expect Sidney to have arranged the rhymes (as he often does) to produce a couplet here; but of course he does not, so the point about the speaker’s proximity to Stella (the outward Stella, not her heart; compare with the endings of Sonnets 17 and 20) is not a separate one, but is integrated with the other effects (collateral damage, we might call it) of Stella’s surrender.

Which brings me, finally, to what intrigues me most about this sonnet. The political side of the analogy is easy enough to understand; while giving up one’s freedom in order to remain free is a paradox, it is a semantic one only, by no means an impossibility, or even unusual. And we dealt in Sonnet 12 with the idea of Cupid setting out to conquer Stella’s heart, but not getting past her outward parts. But what does it mean that “Stella’s heart, finding what power Love brings,” should yield, even partially, to that power? That strikes me as a different statement about Stella than Sonnet 12 makes, unless we just shrug and say “No, he doesn’t really mean it that way”—which I’m not inclined to do. The paradox of being enslaved in order to remain free may be merely semantic for kingdoms and cities, but a woman who has surrendered to Love in order to remain free of love is a very Escher print of a paradox—an insight, perhaps, into the real-life contradiction (a woman who loves him but refuses to love him) that “Stella” presents to the poet.

Next time (weekend of August 23): Sonnet 30

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 13

Phoebus was judge between Jove, Mars, and Love,
Of those three gods, whose arms the fairest were:
Jove’s golden shield did eagle sables bear,
Whose talons held young Ganymede above:
But in vert field Mars bare a golden spear,
Which through a bleeding heart his point did shove.
Each had his crest: Mars carried Venus’ glove,
Jove on his helm the thunderbolt did rear.
Cupid then smiles, for on his crest there lies
Stella’s fair hair, her face he makes his shield,
Where roses gules are borne in silver field.
Phoebus drew wide the curtains of the skies
To blaze these last, and sware devoutly then,
The first, thus matched, were scarcely gentlemen.

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.

Sonnet 13 is a lesson in Elizabethan heraldry. . .

But before I get to that, let me point out something I did not notice right away, which is that the rhyme scheme of this poem is absolutely unique among the Astrophil and Stella sonnets. Initially I had counted its octave among Sidney’s most common ABBAABBA set. When I needed an illustration of that pattern for a talk I was giving, I pulled this sonnet out almost randomly, and then of course was forced to take a closer look: ABBA . . . BAAB. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and in a rush of self-doubt quickly flipped through all the other sonnets opening ABBA—and not a single one had this second-quatrain flip-flop; only this one.*  Is it just an accident? I can’t rule that out, but carelessness in form is hardly a Sidney trait. Notice that this octave opens with a two-line premise, and closes with a two-line comparison of the crests of Mars and Jupiter (“Jove”). In between are two parallel two-line statements—one for each god—and the unique rhyme-scheme reversal makes these more precisely parallel, the first line being a general description ending in rhyme B:

Jove’s golden shield did eagle sables bear,
But in vert field Mars bare a golden spear,

while the second line is a relative clause adding an active detail and ending in rhyme A:

Whose talons held young Ganymede above:
Which through a bleeding heart his point did shove:

One might reasonably ask why, if this is so carefully structured, he never found opportunity to do this again—but I think it is deliberate.

So, what about the heraldry lesson? The little fable here is that Phoebus Apollo (god of wisdom and enlightenment) has been called on to judge the “arms”—i.e., coats of arms, the symbols of gentility or higher—of the three other gods named. There is an obvious echo here of Paris judging the relative beauty of three goddesses, but thankfully no war hangs on the outcome!

In an Italian sonnet (somewhat as in a joke that begins “three guys walked into a bar”), if the octave is entirely devoted to two of a threesome, we already know that the third will be the “winner.” The curious thing here is that there is an additional tip-off in the coats-of-arms of Jove and Mars: of all the exploits that might have been featured there, both have chosen moments when they have gotten giddy in love—as if paying homage to their opponent before the contest has even begun! On the shields, in the characteristic jargon of heraldry, Jove has a black (“sables”) eagle on a gold field, holding the boy Ganymede with whom Jove was so smitten that he adopted the eagle disguise to kidnap him; Jove’s crest (the device above the shield, originally the plumage or other decoration atop a Knight’s helmet), however, is the more predictable and assertive thunderbolt. Mars, conversely, has a more ambiguous shield depicting a golden spear through a bleeding heart on a green (“vert”) field, but almost comically undercut by the glove of Venus on his crest, at least hinting at the possibility that the pierced heart is actually his own! Carrying the glove of a mistress into battle is a courtly love cliché, but the notion of Venus even wearing gloves seems a bit ridiculous to contemplate.

The contest is no longer in suspense; the sestet opens with the simple statement of the inevitable outcome: “Cupid then smiles.” His coat of arms is simply Stella herself, her hair the crest and her face the shield, described heraldically as “roses gules [red] borne in silver field.”  This is the clincher, so announced by Apollo in the final tercet, where he “blazes” the winner across the skies—a multiple pun. On the simple level, he is (as sun-god) lighting up the sky with the image of Stella. But “blaze” is also what one does when one describes a coat-of-arms with all those funny French words, and such a description is called a blazon, from whence was borrowed the poetic term for a catalog of a lady’s beautiful features. Such a blazon (in miniature) is what the blazon of Cupid’s arms turned out to be.

There is one final put-down for the losing competitors, a sort of chain-of-being trope. It is of course ludicrous, to begin with, that gods would try to prove their worthiness with this form of human vanity, but in this case Jove and Mars have been so badly outclassed that they are “scarcely gentlemen”; i.e., they barely qualify to have coats-of-arms at all!

*Six of the ABAB sonnets, however, flip the second quatrain to give the palindromic ABABBABA.  I have not yet checked Sidney’s sonnets outside A and S for the ABBABAAB pattern. I invite readers to find one, or else we shall conclude Sonnet 13 is unique in his works.

Next time (weekend of January 11): Sonnet 14

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 12

Cupid, because thou shin’st in Stella’s eyes,
That from her locks, thy day-nets, none ‘scapes free,
That those lips swell, so full of thee they be,
That her sweet breath makes oft thy flames to rise,
That in her breast thy pap well sugared lies,
That her grace gracious makes thy wrongs, that she,
What words so e’er she speaks, persuades for thee,
That her clear voice lifts thy fame to the skies;
Thou countest Stella thine, like those whose powers,
Having got up a breach by fighting well,
Cry, “Victory, this fair day all is ours!”
O no, her heart is such a citadel,
So fortified with wit, stored with disdain,
That to win it, is all the skill and pain.

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 just two sentences long, the first stating a premise that takes eleven lines, and the second shooting it down in a mere three. The octave is one dependent clause comprised, in turn, of eight parallel clauses. The word “that” effectively repeats the word “because” each time, so you can either imagine an implied “because that” (proper Elizabethan usage) in the first line, or a one-syllable substitute for “because” at the head of each new clause—whichever makes more sense to you. The eight parallel clauses are basically one line (five feet, ten syllables) each, except that the first is shortened a foot by the opening address to Cupid, and the seventh steals an extra foot from the end of the sixth:

that she,
What words so e’er she speaks, persuades for thee.
The sentence’s main clause takes only the first three-fifths of line nine:

Thou countest Stella thine,

and is followed by an adverbial phrase that stretches to the end of line eleven:

like those whose powers,
Having got up a breach by fighting well,
Cry, “Victory, this fair day all is ours!”

The eight parallel clauses are eight separate reasons why Cupid might assume Stella belongs to him (i.e., is a disciple of love, but we can’t ignore the secondary sense of Cupid’s paramour), all using some form of the thee/her antithesis:

  1. “thou shin’st” : “[her] eyes”
  2. “thy day-nets” : “her locks” (Day-nets are traps, and Stella’s hair functions as Cupid’s trap for the unsuspecting.)
  3. “full of thee” : “her lips” (meant for kissing)
  4. “thy flames” : “her sweet breath” (which fans the flames of passion)
  5. “thy pap” is what “her breast” contains
  6. “thy wrongs” : “her grace” (makes gracious; i.e., her love and devotion makes even Cupid’s sins O.K.)
  7. “for thee” : “[her] words” (persuades)
  8. “thy fame” : “her clear voice” (lifts to the skies, and this line can summarize the implication of all eight: when a man converses with Stella, Cupid immediately comes to his mind, and he falls in love).

These statements about Cupid’s suppositions become, by indirection, a complimentary blazon of Stella’s features, and Cupid is clearly a stand-in here for the speaker’s own amorous desires. A very rough paraphrase of the poem, read that way, might be: (first eleven lines) “Sometimes I fantasize that Stella might be my lover,” (last three lines) “but then I come back to the reality that I’m not even close.”

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. So, we are to understand that Stella is just going on being her lovely, charming, and gracious self and Cupid, like many another egotistical male, assumes it is all for him. After the main clause (“Thou countest Stella thine”) comes a simile which governs the rest of the poem: in Cupid’s confidence, he is like an army which assumes it has won the battle when it has only breached an outer wall. Anyone familiar with medieval fortifications knows that inside the outer wall are progressively stronger lines of defense, the strongest of all being the “keep” or “citadel” in the center, often with walls twenty feet thick. “Such a citadel” is Stella’s heart, and its walls are two of the qualities omitted from the list in the octave: wit and disdain. In the final line, the verb “is” should be understood as “remains;” “skill,” in the military context, would be the strategy or arrangement of forces, and “pain” is effort (as in our modern phrase “take pains to . . .”). So, in short, despite the breach in the wall and shout of victory, practically the whole job remains to be done.

The sonnet implies quite a bit about the relationship between the speaker and Stella. She presumably treats him with charm, grace, and even affection, but is cold to any suggestion that the relationship could be something more.

Next time (weekend of December 28): Sonnet 13

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.