Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 23

The curious wits, seeing dull pensiveness
Bewray itself in my long settled eyes,
Whence those same fumes of melancholy rise
With idle pains, and missing aim, do guess.
Some, that know how my spring I did address,
Deem that my Muse some fruit of knowledge plies;
Others, because the Prince my service tries,
Think that I think state errors to redress.
But harder judges judge ambition’s rage,
Scourge of itself, still climbing slippery place,
Holds my young brain captived in golden cage.
O fools, or over-wise: alas, the race
Of all my thoughts hath neither stop nor start,
But only Stella’s eyes and Stella’s heart.

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.

A central concern of Hamlet had been a standard component of poetry and drama for years before: the difficulty of explaining a young man’s melancholy when he is young, healthy, and gifted. While our own age considers depression to be a commonplace of minor mental impairment, its Medieval/Renaissance equivalent engendered a sort of awe and mystery, even though (or perhaps because?) there is clearly no place for melancholy within a life governed by reason. In 1621, Robert Burton would publish a monumental and detailed study titled The Anatomy of Melancholy, and he had a plethora of literary sources for his examples.

So here the “curious wits”—perhaps the very same friends who have been criticizing and counseling the speaker in many of these sonnets—find themselves in roughly the same position as Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, trying to explain the speaker’s strange melancholy and the “dull pensiveness” that has, of late, crept into his “long settled eyes”; that is, something has changed, and the “wits” are no better than those characters in Hamlet at diagnosing what it is. With “idle pains” (efforts) and a “missing aim,” they merely “guess.”

So now (lines 5-11), predictably, we’re going to hear what their wrong guesses are: basically, three in number, they occupy two, two, and three lines respectively. First (5-6) they guess that since the speaker was devoted to poetry in youth (“spring”), he is preoccupied with his Muse, or pondering a poem (this one actually has a bit of indirect truth in it). Second (7-8), that, as trusted ambassador, he has been given some thorny diplomatic problem to solve.  The third guess (9-11), offered by “harder judges,” is considerably less flattering to the speaker: like so many young noblemen in Elizabeth’s reign, he is deemed to be too ambitious for his own good, and is plotting some Machiavellian way to advance himself. Brooding melancholy is indeed the period’s stereotype for plotting or revenge, as in Hieronymo in The Spanish Tragedy, or Caesar’s view of Cassius, or Edmund, Aaron, Don John, or other villains in Shakespeare’s plays. But such ambition is aptly described in the 10th line, even as it is brought up: “Scourge of itself, still climbing slippery place.”

The poem’s fulcrum comes after the eleventh line. Having given free rein to all these opinions, the speaker now dismisses the wits as “fools, or overwise” (i.e., the second possibility is that they are over-analyzing a very simple case).  That which preoccupies the speaker (“the race of all my thoughts”) begins and ends with Stella. Or, to complicate that simple truth with a chiasmic structure, it “starts” with Stella’s eyes and “stops” with her heart. Complicate it, indeed: there are three possibilities for that simple idea:

  1. Neutral, or innocent: Stella is first and last, beginning and end, of the speaker’s preoccupations.
  2. Optimistic: his quest of Stella began with (the flash of) her eyes (see Sonnets 17 and 20) and its end or goal will be the conquest of her heart.
  3. Pessimistic: (cf. Sonnets 11 and 12) the quest of Stella started with her eyes, but will be stopped short by her heart.

Next time (weekend of May 31): Sonnet 24

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 3

Let dainty wits cry on the sisters nine,
That, bravely masked, their fancies may be told;
Or Pindar’s apes flaunt they in phrases fine,
Enam’ling with pied flowers their thoughts of gold;
Or else let them in statelier glory shine,
Ennobling new-found tropes with problems old;
Or with strange similes enrich each line,
Of herbs or beasts, which Ind or Afric hold.
For me, in sooth, no Muse but one I know;
Phrases and problems from my reach do grow,
And strange things cost too dear for my poor sprites.
How then?  even thus: in Stella’s face I read
What love and beauty be; then all my deed
But copying is, what in her Nature writes.

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.

Written in the same vein as Sonnet 1, this poem, like 1, makes use of the poetic fancies that it mocks.  Thus, we read of “sisters nine,” “Enam’ling with pied flowers,” and “herbs or beasts which Ind or Afric hold,” as practices  which (sarcastically) “enrich each line,” while their less-than-original poets are described as “Pindar’s apes” (i.e., imitators).  Lines 5 to 8, while parallel to the first four in describing the third and fourth problematic practices, take us to an opposite extreme from imitation (hence “Or else”), two forms of excessive new-fangledness. The first (lines 5-6) is using fancy rhetorical “tropes” to dress up the same old “problems” (i.e., subject matter), while the second refers to the Euphuean barbarism of drawing strange or forced comparisons with nature.  And as with Sonnet 1 there is irony here that Sidney hopes we won’t notice, since he is guilty of every one of these practices himself—though every artist needs to be aware of the outer limits of the current fashions or trends in his own art.  It is also good to remind ourselves that “artificiality” was considered a good quality by the Elizabethans, and was embraced fulsomely even in the poetic discussion of “natural” passion and sincerity.*

Structurally, the octave is a series of four equal and parallel phrases saying what we are to “let” the lesser poets do—“let” being in this case both the verb “allow” and a conventional way of posing a hypothetical, roughly equivalent to “Let’s say that some poets do this: ______________ etc.” Then the fulcrum comes in the expected place for an Italian sonnet, at the start of the ninth line as the speaker offers the contrast of himself, with the added double-meaning emphasis of “in sooth” (i.e., the mere expletive intensifier on the one hand, but the literal meaning on the other: his writing, unlike theirs, is actually true). In a mere three lines, he strips himself bare of everything it took eight lines to describe before, so sound is admirably imitating sense here, and the poem’s second full end stop further forces that comparison. So now there is a “sub-fulcrum” and line 12 is a perfect echoing response of line 9: “For me, in sooth” = “How then? Even [pronounced e’en] thus”; “no muse but one” = “in Stella’s face” (this of course is the most crucial echo); and, “I know” = “I read.” The final two lines have similar significant parallels, but in a chiasmic**, or crossing, pattern.  The “frontwards” clause “What love and beauty be” is perfectly matched at the other end by the partly inverted clause “what in her nature writes” (again emphasizing that Stella requires no fancy ornamentation), while (focusing on the poet’s job) the “frontwards” “then all my deed” is echoed by the inverted “but copying is.”  We might be reminded here of Keats’s famous dictum: “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body.” The speaker of this poem is professing such Negative Capability and such self-effacement, but of course with considerable irony since Stella would essentially not “exist” at all without the considerable poetic efforts and, yes, the artifice, of Philip Sidney.

* Duncan-Jones’s note on the octave offers help on the actual writers involved in the trends being mocked: imitation of Pindar and other ancients: Ronsard and other Pleiade writers; rhetorical elaboration: Thomas Watson, Hekatompathia (1582); and the exotic similes: of course Lyly, Euphues, in prose, but also employed by Petrarch and all his imitators.  Finally she notes: “Sidney himself uses all four kinds of elaboration in [The Old Arcadia] poems; rhetorical and logical complexity is the only one used persistently in A&S.”

**Chiasmus, named for the Greek letter chi (X), is a pattern of parallel statements or phrases in which the elements are in reverse order (so that if you drew lines connecting the individual elements that were parallel, you would draw an X). So, crudely:
I went to the fair,
Then home came I.
Or more elegantly, by Keats:
Out went the taper
she hurried in.
In theory, you could have a chiasmus based on sound only:
Bam! went the
sea-rent dam.

 Next time (weekend of September 7): Sonnets 4 and 10

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