Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 70

My muse may well grudge at my heavenly joy,
If still I force her in sad rhymes to creep;
She oft hath drunk my tears, now hopes to enjoy
Nectar of mirth, since I Jove’s cup do keep.
Sonnets be not bound prentice to annoy;
Trebles sing high, as well as basses deep:
Grief but Love’s winter livery is, the boy
Hath cheeks to smile, as well as eyes to weep.
Come then, my muse, show thou height of delight
In well-raised notes; my pen the best it may
Shall paint out joy, though but in black and white.
Cease, eager muse; peace, pen, for my sake stay;
I give you here my hand for truth of this:
Wise silence is best music unto bliss.

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: “heavenly” in line 1 is two syllables, and “to enjoy” in line 3 must be elided to “t’enjoy.”

This sonnet seeks to hold on to the blissful moment of the previous one, with a more modest and quiet reflection. It resumes the on-and-off conversation with the muse that started in Sonnet 1, and opens with the assumption that this long-suffering muse will be expecting some happy poetry now, for a change. The somewhat obscure reference in line 4 to keeping “Jove’s cup” may be a footnote reference to Sidney’s honorary office of cupbearer to the Queen, but since this was neither new nor the source of his bliss, the more important symbolism is the suggestion of his finding favor with a deity.

The second quatrain comments on the range or versatility of the sonnet, and could be read as a rebuke of the cult of Petrarch—of which Sidney himself is a prominent member—for its single-minded focus on unrequited love. “Annoy” at the end of line 5 is a noun, meaning grief, and a “bound prentice” is an apprentice who has been signed over (by a parent or guardian) to a master for a period of time in return for learning a trade. So the sense of the line is that sonnets do not just serve to express grief or disappointment. They have “high” notes as well as low (line 6); they wear different clothing (“livery”) for different seasons (7); Cupid (“Love,” or “the boy”) can smile as well as weep (8).

Lines 9-11 make a rather tentative effort to put this new poetic principle into practice, looking a bit like the ever-sober prude Malvolio at the moment when the planted letter instructs him to smile. The very first thing the muse is told to show is “height of delight,” a comical internal rhyme, with a “reverse” foot (trochee) paired with a normal one—like an unsure person trying to buck himself up for a new direction. And it doesn’t go so well: “my pen the best it may/Shall paint out joy . . .” hardly inspires confidence!

By the end of this very halting and hesitant invocation, the speaker has abruptly changed his mind, and the final tercet suggests that perhaps sonnets should be “bound prentice to annoy.”  After all, the successful lover should not boast of his triumph (such as it is); wisely, he should just enjoy his “bliss” in silence.

Next time (weekend of March 20): Sonnet 71
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.