Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 22

In highest way of heaven the Sun did ride,
Progressing then from fair twins’ golden place:
Having no scarf of clouds before his face,
But shining forth of heat in his chief pride,
When some fair ladies, by hard promise tied,
On horseback met him in his furious race;
Yet each prepared with fan’s well-shading grace,
From that foe’s wounds their tender skins to hide.
Stella alone with face unarmed marched.
Either to do like him which open shone,
Or careless of the wealth because her own:
Yet were the hid and meaner beauties parched,
Her daintiest bare went free. The cause was this:
The Sun, which others burned, did her but kiss.

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: Line 9: “unarmèd” is three syllables, while “marched” is one.

A change of pace from many of the sonnets surrounding it, as this one again focuses entirely on the glory that is Stella, instead of on the speaker’s folly in loving her. This is a charming little tale, which is definitely allegorical, but also reads as if it might be based on a real incident.  The opening quatrain sets the scene as mid-day (the sun is at the “highest way of heaven”) in the hottest time of year (late June or July, when the sun is in Gemini) and with no clouds in the sky.

In other words, it is a terrible time for ladies who are concerned about their complexions to be traveling out of doors; but this particular group of ladies (Stella among them) are committed (“by hard promise tied”) to an outing on horseback, despite the adverse sunshine. As the octave ends, we learn that “each” lady has brought a fan with which to shield her face . . .

. . . except for Stella, we learn in the sestet, after the fulcrum. She marches “unarmed” into what we might now call a face-off with the sun; she faces the sun down because she shines just as bright, and the sun’s “wealth” is actually her own.

So several ladies protected by sun-screens, Stella recklessly uncovered, and what is the outcome? The other ladies were sun-burned, while Stella was not. And why? Even the sun is drawn to Stella’s brightness, and can only meekly “kiss” her, despite his power.

Next time (week of May 27): Sonnet 23

(The timing of these posts has been altered slightly by my trip to England)

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