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.