Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 102

Where be those roses gone, which sweetened so our eyes?
Where those red cheeks, which oft with fair increase did frame
The height of honour in the kindly badge of shame?
Who hath the crimson weeds stol’n from my morning skies?
How doth the colour vade of those vermilion dyes,
Which nature’s self did make, and self engrained the same?
I would know by what right this paleness overcame
That hue, whose force my heart still unto thraldom ties.
Galen’s adoptive sons, who by a beaten way
Their judgments hackney on, the fault on sickness lay,
But feeling proof makes me say they mistake it far:
It is but love, which makes his paper perfect white
To write therein more fresh the story of delight,
While beauty’s reddest ink Venus for him doth stir.

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: “vade” in line 5 is simply an archaic form of “fade,” used presumably for the pleasing chiasmic alliteration of “doth . . . vade . . . vermilion . . . dies.”

Still on the subject of Stella’s illness, this is the last of six hexameter sonnets in the sequence. As if to dwell further on the number six, there is a sort of six-line “stanza” opening the poem, with alternating one- and two-line questions. And, as usual, the answer comes in the sestet at the other end. The unattached two lines in the middle state the thesis of the poem: in what is definitely not Sidney’s finest poetry, he wonders for twenty-four rather awkward syllables why the paleness of disease has been permitted to take away Stella’s customary color (color which enslaves the speaker’s heart).

Having said that, I must admit that the first six lines, the four questions which could be paraphrased “Where have all the flowers gone?” are neither witty nor melodic as poetry either. Is it possible that, this near the end of a long set of sonnets, Sidney has run out of fresh ways to compliment his would-be mistress? Or is he deliberately trying to be to poetry what Stella’s physicians are to medicine, in line 10; i.e., “hackney[ed].” Stella’s cheeks have lost their “roses,” or “crimson weeds” or “vermilion dyes”; where redness of the cheeks often indicates shame, Stella’s color is “engrained” by Nature herself and is therefore the “height of honour.”

The imaginative part of the sonnet, relatively speaking, comes in the sestet, where the speaker ventures an answer to his own questions. The phrase “Galen’s adoptive sons,” meaning the doctors (the implication of “adoptive” being “quacks”), recalls various disparaging remarks about derivative poets (e.g., “Pindar’s apes”) in early sonnets such as 3 and 15. Like those poets, these physicians “take wrong ways” (Sonnet 15) by sticking to the “beaten way” of medical practice and laying the blame for Stella’s paleness on—surprise!—her sickness. But with no medical training, the speaker by instinct (“feeling proof”) knows what the actual answer must be, and gives it in the final three lines. It is perhaps not the cleverest or most plausible sort of poetic trick, but it does at last and at least provide a positive spin for the illness. Love (Cupid or Eros) needed a fresh, white sheet of paper on which to write anew his “story of delight” with a fresh supply of “reddest ink” provided by his mother Venus.

Next time (weekend of June 10): Sonnet 103
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 86 and the Fifth through Ninth Songs

Alas, whence came this change of looks? If I
Have changed desert, let mine own conscience be
A still-felt plague, to self-condemning me:
Let woe gripe on my heart, shame load mine eye.
But if all faith, like spotless ermine, lie
Safe in my soul, which only doth to thee
(As his sole object of felicity)
With wings of love in air of wonder fly,
O ease your hand, treat not so hard your slave;
In justice pains come not till faults do call;
Or if I needs, sweet judge, must torments have,
Use something else to chasten me withal
Than those blessed eyes, where all my hopes do dwell.
No doom should make one’s heaven become his hell.

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: in the final couplet, both “blessed” and “heaven” are one syllable. 

Stella is angry again, perhaps in response to the overly blunt and persistent wooing of the Fourth Song? In any event, we are about to take our longest leave of sonnet-making in the whole sequence, as (following this one) Sidney wrestles with the problematic relationship over five long songs, before settling back into sonnets.

“Those blessed eyes” begin and end this sonnet and, perhaps for added emphasis, the opening rhyme is the homophonic “I” and “eye.” Stella’s dark and flashing eyes have taken on that look of menace, and the speaker tries to extricate himself from her apparent wrath. If I really have become less deserving (“changed desert”), he says, let my own conscience punish me; the quatrain ends with the sound effect of two “heavy” (i.e., spondaic) feet: “shame load mine eye.”

But that “if” was clearly rhetorical; the speaker (faithful lover that he is) could not possibly have offended! In contrast to the heavy ending of the first quatrain, the second trips ever so lightly through enjambed lines, carrying all the way into the sestet before its thought is completed. This second “if” argument runs: if I have been faithful and true to you, please treat me (“your slave”) more leniently. It is simple justice (says line 10) not to punish where there is no fault.

The third and final “if,” in the last four lines of the poem, goes beyond justice to plead for mercy. If, after all (the speaker argues), I must be punished, please choose some other scourge “Than those blessed eyes” to punish me with—because, of course, these are the very eyes that spark his love. Line 14 parallels line 10 as an apparent principle of jurisprudence, but here the statement becomes both metaphysical (heaven and hell) and poignantly reflective of physical discomfort in a state of alienation from one’s love. 

Fifth Song

While favour fed my hope, delight with hope was brought,
Thought waited on delight, and speech did follow thought;
Then drew my tongue and pen records unto thy glory;
I thought all words were lost, that were not spent of thee;
I thought each place was dark but where thy lights would be,
And all ears worse than deaf, that heard not out thy story.

I said thou wert most fair, and so indeed thou art;
I said thou wert most sweet, sweet poison to my heart;
I said my soul was thine—O that I then had lied!
I said thine eyes were stars, thy breasts the milken way,
Thy fingers Cupid’s shafts, thy voice the angels’ lay,
And all I said so well, as no man it denied.

But now that hope is lost, unkindness kills delight,
Yet thought and speech do live, though metamorphosed quite;
For rage now rules the reins, which guided were by pleasure.
I think now of thy faults, who late thought of thy praise;
That speech falls now to blame, which did thy honour raise;
The same key open can, which can lock up a treasure.

Thou then, whom partial heavens conspired in one to frame,
The proof of beauty’s worth, th’inheritrix of fame,
The mansion seat of bliss, and just excuse of lovers;
See now those feathers plucked, wherewith thou flew’st most high;
See what clouds of reproach shall dark thy honour’s sky;
Whose own fault casts him down, hardly high seat recovers.

And O my Muse, though oft you lulled her in your lap,
And then, a heavenly child, gave her ambrosian pap,
And to that brain of hers your hiddenest gifts infused;
Since she, disdaining me, doth you in me disdain,
Suffer not her to laugh, while we both suffer pain;
Princes in subjects wronged, must deem themselves abused.

Your client poor myself, shall Stella handle so?
Revenge, revenge, my muse; defiance’ trumpet blow;
Threaten what may be done, yet do more than you threaten.
Ah, my suit granted is; I feel my breast to swell;
Now child, a lesson new you shall begin to spell:
Sweet babes must babies have, but shrewd girls must be beaten.

Think now no more to hear of warm fine-odored snow,
Nor blushing lilies, nor pearls’ ruby-hidden row,
Nor of that golden sea, whose waves in curls are broken:
But of thy soul, so fraught with such ungratefulness,
As where thou soon might’st help, most faith dost most oppress;
Ungrateful who is called, the worst of evils is spoken.

Yet worse than worst, I say thou art a thief. A thief?
No God forbid. A thief, and of worst thieves the chief;
Thieves steal for need, and steal but goods, which pain recovers,
But thou, rich in all joys, dost rob my joys from me,
Which cannot be restored by time nor industry.
Of foes the spoil is evil, far worse of constant lovers.

Yet gentle English thieves do rob, but will not slay;
Thou English murdering thief, wilt have hearts for thy prey;
The name of murderer now on thy fair forehead sitteth;
And even while I do speak, my death wounds bleeding be,
Which, I protest, proceed from only cruel thee.
Who may, and will not, save, murder in truth committeth.

But murder, private fault, seems but a toy to thee;
I lay then to thy charge, unjustest tyranny,
If rule by force without all claim a tyrant showeth.
For thou dost lord my heart, who am not born thy slave;
And which is worse, makes me, most guiltless, torments have;
A rightful prince by unright deeds a tyrant groweth.

Lo, you grow proud with this, for tyrants make folk bow.
Of foul rebellion then I do appeach thee now;
Rebel by nature’s law, rebel by law of reason.
Thou, sweetest subject, wert born in the realm of love,
And yet against thy prince thy force dost daily prove;
No virtue merits praise, once touched with blot of treason.

But valiant rebels oft in fools’ mouths purchase fame;
I now then stain thy white with vagabonding shame,
Both rebel to the son, and vagrant from the mother:
For wearing Venus’ badge in every part of thee
Unto Diana’s train thou, runaway, didst flee:
Who faileth one, is false, though trusty to another.

What, is not this enough? Nay, far worse cometh here:
A witch I say thou art, though thou so fair appear;
For I protest, my sight never thy face enjoyeth,
But I in me am changed; I am alive and dead;
My feet are turned to roots; my heart becometh lead;
No witchcraft is so evil, as which man’s mind destroyeth.

Yet witches may repent; thou art far worse than they;
Alas, that I am forced such evil of thee to say!
I say thou art a devil, though clothed in angel’s shining;
For thy face tempts my soul to leave the heaven for thee,
And thy words of refuse, do pour even hell on me.
Who tempt, and tempted plague, are devils in true defining.

You then, ungrateful thief, you murdering tyrant, you;
You rebel runaway, to lord and lady untrue;
You witch, you devil, alas—you still of me beloved,
You see what I can say; mend yet your froward mind,
And such skill in my muse you, reconciled, shall find,
That all these cruel words your praises shall be proved.

Reading notes: because of the pattern of feminine endings at the end of the third and sixth lines of each stanza, the final syllables should be pronounced in “lied” and “denied” (stanza 2), “infused” and “abused” (5), and “beloved” and “proved” (15); both “murdering” and “murderer” in stanza 9 are elided to two syllables; and “even” in the penultimate line of stanza 14 is elided to one.

This song can be compared to the Third, in its use of six-hexameter-line stanzas; and my comments there on how hexameters translate into singable song verses are also relevant here. The rhyme scheme (AABCCB), however, is new, and the feminine rhymes here come in the “B” lines, 3 and 6.

The first stanza employs an auxesis paralleling that which opens the whole sequence in Sonnet 1, and in fact it recapitulates the process by which the speaker came to write of Stella (lines 1-3), as well as the importance he attached to this writing (4-6). But by the second half of the second line in the second stanza, the poet is having second thoughts! The regret of having given himself over to this project creeps into the verse as a “sweet poison,” even as he maintains the truth of all the praise his sonnets have contained.

The third stanza makes the disappointment more direct and explicit. He fairly bluntly states that his love has turned to hate (“rage now rules the reins”) or at least anger and reproach. In context, the metaphor of the key in the last line of the stanza is a reference to the use of his own talents (i.e., he is threatening to “lock up” any further praise); but it is also a sly hint at how Stella could have chosen to “open” rather than “lock up” her “treasure,” where the speaker is concerned.

Stanzas 4-6 go from vaguely hostile and threatening (“clouds of reproach”) to downright ugly (“shrewd [i.e., shrewish] girls must be beaten”). The general idea is that the poet’s muse is invoked, not for the usual inspiration, but as a force of “revenge” for Stella’s ingratitude; and rather unusually, the muse appears to be responsive to this, in the second half of stanza 6. In the most unappealing passage of the entire Astrophil and Stella, Sidney makes a point of Penelope Devereux’s relatively young age, suggesting she can be a “good girl” and have the “reward” of “babies,” but (a mere “babe” herself) if she is bad, she must, like a bad child, be “beaten.”

Stanza 7 makes the pivot into the second half of the song, starting with the slightly odd poetic gifts (“warm, fine-odored snow . . . etc.”) that Stella is now to lose, and ending with the announcement that her sin is ingratitude, and that this is the “worst of evils.” But this is merely the start of a ratcheting-up game in which such announcements are followed quickly by some version of: “Did I say worst? No, even worse than that, she is ____________.” And with this somewhat tedious and overwrought method, Stella advances from mere ingrate to thief, murderer, tyrant, rebel (worse than tyrant in the peculiar anti-democratic spirit of the Elizabethans), and traitor. By stanza 13, she has morphed all the way up to “witch,” and in 14 she tops out at “devil.”

The final stanza gives a brief recap of the sequence, from ingratitude up to devil, and then acknowledges in a half-line (“You see what I can say”) that all this extreme venting was just an exercise in persuasion. Hope springs eternal! In the last two-and-a-half lines of a nasty ninety-line diatribe, he promises that if she will stop being “froward” (a favorite Elizabethan adjective for uppity, unyielding, or shrewish women) the muse will return to singing her praises.

Sixth Song

O you that hear this voice,
O you that see this face,
Say whether of the choice
Deserves the former place:
Fear not to judge this ’bate,
For it is void of hate.

This side doth Beauty take,
For that doth Music speak,
Fit orators to make
The strongest judgments weak:
The bar to plead their right
Is only true delight.

Thus doth the voice and face
These gentle lawyers wage
Like loving brothers’ case
For father’s heritage:
That each, while each contends,
Itself to other lends.

For Beauty beautifies
With heavenly hue and grace
The heavenly harmonies;
And in this faultless face
The perfect beauties be
A perfect harmony.

Music more lofty swells
In speeches nobly placed;
Beauty as far excels
In action aptly graced;
A friend each party draws
To countenance his cause.

Love more affected seems
To Beauty’s lovely light,
And Wonder more esteems
Of Music’s wondrous might;
But both to both so bent,
As both in both are spent.

Music doth witness call
The ear, his truth to try;
Beauty brings to the hall
The judgment of the eye:
Both in their objects such,
As no exceptions touch.

The Common Sense, which might
Be arbiter of this,
To be forsooth upright,
To both sides partial is:
He lays on this chief praise,
Chief praise on that he lays.

The Reason, princess high,
Whose throne is in the mind,
Which Music can in sky
And hidden beauties find:
Say whether thou wilt crown
With limitless renown.

Reading note: each “heavenly” in the fourth stanza is elided to two syllables.

By sharp contrast to the Fifth Song, the lines of this one are half as long (iambic trimeter), and the poem itself is a rather simple allegory of abstract properties engaged in an open-ended “debate” that is not resolved. It ends in a sort of “question d’amor,” a medieval device for ending a love story with an unanswerable riddle about love—as in, for example, The Franklin’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The overall effect here is bland flattery of Stella, as if in apology for the critical blast of the previous song.

The word “whether” in the third line means roughly “if either,” so the question is if either Stella’s voice or face deserves the favored position it once held. But sensing a return to the nastiness of the Fifth Song, the speaker hastens to assure that the debate (“’bate”) will be “void of hate.” And it certainly is. “Beauty” is the advocate for the face, and “Music” for the voice, but they are such “gentle lawyers” and “loving brothers” that there is absolutely no heat or contention in the dispute. Stanzas 4 and 5 explain that it is hard to tell their arguments apart. Beauty is all about harmony, and the music of the spheres (the sixteenth-century understanding of “heavenly harmonies”); so probably some form of vice-versa is also true, though Music gets only two lines of its own, making this less explicit.

It gradually turns out that four judges will be called on to settle the issue: Love, Wonder (or Admiration), Common Sense, and Reason. Love leans a little to Beauty, and Wonder to Music, but in truth (last two lines of Stanza 6) they can’t completely swing one way. Common Sense should be counted on for a straight answer, but he does what should be impossible, laying “chief praise” on both contestants. And the “witnesses”—ear for Music and eye for Beauty—merely affirm that their respective “objects” (i.e., Stella’s voice and face) are unsurpassed (“no exceptions touch”).

The song finally appeals to Reason—theoretically the highest authority on issues of debate—to say “whether” (i.e., which) she will choose. But this appeal ends the song; Reason’s answer is left to us to give—or perhaps we are to suspend judgment while we consider the case further in the Seventh Song.

Seventh Song

Whose senses in so ill consort, their stepdame Nature lays,
That ravishing delight in them most sweet tunes do not raise;
Or if they do delight therein, yet are so cloyed with wit,
As with sententious lips to set a title vain on it;
O let them hear these sacred tunes, and learn in wonder’s schools
To be, in things past bounds of wit, fools, if they be not fools.

Who have so leaden eyes, as not to see sweet beauty’s show,
Or seeing, have so wooden wits, as not that worth to know;
Or knowing, have so muddy minds, as not to be in love;
Or loving, have so frothy thoughts, as easily thence to move:
O let them see these heavenly beams, and in fair letters read
A lesson fit, both sight and skill, love and firm love to breed.

Hear then, but then with wonder hear; see, but adoring see;
No mortal gifts, no earthly fruits, now here descended be;
See, do you see this face? A face? Nay, image of the skies,
Of which the two life-giving lights are figured in her eyes.
Hear you this soul-invading voice, and count it but a voice?
The very essence of their tunes, when angels do rejoice.

Reading notes: “easily” and “heavenly” in the second stanza are both elided to two syllables.

Now we have stretched all the way out to heptameter lines, but (similar to my earlier notes on hexameter “songs”) I must point out that heptameter lines in rhyming couplets can be sung simply as “common meter” or “ballad” stanzas (four feet in the first and third lines, three feet in the second and fourth), with each couplet representing such a stanza. Again by contrast to the Fifth Song, this one is just three six-line stanzas (not fifteen) long. And it continues the friendly “contention” between Music (Stella’s voice) and Beauty (her face) that was the subject of the Sixth Song. But the poetry here is tighter and carefully balanced, and the flattery is less bland.

The essential thesis is that Stella’s voice and face are not of this world, but heavenly, and the case is made with Sidney’s tight, paradoxical logic. The first stanza, focused on music, anticipates Lorenzo’s well-known speech on “that man that hath not music in his soul” in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice; Sidney concludes his version with the neat paradox that only a fool would not be made a fool by music.

Then beauty is featured in the second stanza, with the now-familiar auxesis that looks back to Plato and forward to Wordsworth (see notes on Sonnet 81). Here, each step of the process is framed negatively, again (as in the first stanza) imagining the fool who might ignore or resist Stella’s charms. But the song pivots in the final two lines of this stanza, calling on anyone with eyes to see to look on Stella’s “heavenly beams,” and thus perforce have “love and firm love” (a figure called a diacope) bred in him.

The final stanza artfully combines the music of voice and beauty of face, first intertwined in the opening couplet, then parallel in the other two. Rhetorical questions establish that the face is the “image of the skies”—fitting the association of her eyes with stars—and the voice belongs to the angels.

Eighth Song

In a grove most rich of shade,
Where birds wanton music made,
May, then young, his pied weeds showing,
New perfumed with flowers fresh growing,

Astrophil with Stella sweet
Did for mutual comfort meet,
Both within themselves oppressed,
But each in the other blessed.

Him great harms had taught much care:
Her fair neck a foul yoke bare:
But her sight his cares did banish,
In his sight her yoke did vanish.

Wept they did, but now betwixt
Sighs of woe were glad sighs mixed,
With arms crossed, yet testifying
Restless rest, and living dying.

Their ears hungry of each word,
Which the dear tongue would afford,
But their tongues restrained from walking,
Till their hearts had ended talking.

But when their tongues could not speak,
Love itself did silence break;
Love did set his lips asunder,
Thus to speak in love and wonder:

‘Stella, sovereign of my joy,
Fair triumpher of annoy,
Stella, star of heavenly fire,
Stella, lodestar of desire;

‘Stella, in whose shining eyes
Are the lights of Cupid’s skies;
Whose beams, where they once are darted,
Love therewith is straight imparted;

‘Stella, whose voice when it speaks,
Senses all asunder breaks;
Stella, whose voice when it singeth
Angels to acquaintance bringeth;

‘Stella, in whose body is
Writ each character of bliss;
Whose face all, all beauty passeth,
Save thy mind, which yet surpasseth:

‘Grant, O grant—but speech, alas,
Fails me, fearing on to pass;
Grant—O me, what am I saying?
But no fault there is in praying:

‘Grant, O dear, on knees I pray’—
(Knees on ground he then did stay)
‘That not I, but since I love you,
Time and place for me may move you.

‘Never season was more fit,
Never room more apt for it;
Smiling air allows my reason;
These birds sing, “Now use the season”;

‘This small wind, which so sweet is,
See how it the leaves doth kiss,
Each tree in his best attiring,
Sense of love to love inspiring.

‘Love makes earth the water drink,
Love to earth makes water sink;
And if dumb things be so witty,
Shall a heavenly grace want pity?’

There his hands in their speech fain
Would have made tongue’s language plain;
But her hands his hands repelling,
Gave repulse, all grace excelling.

Then she spake; her speech was such
As not ears, but heart did touch;
While such wise she love denied,
As yet love she signified.

‘Astrophil,’ said she, ‘my love,
Cease in these effects to prove:
Now be still, yet still believe me,
Thy grief more than death would grieve me.

‘If that any thought in me
Can taste comfort but of thee,
Let me, fed with hellish anguish,
Joyless, hopeless, endless languish.

‘If those eyes you praised be
Half so dear as you to me,
Let me home return, stark blinded
Of those eyes, and blinder minded.

‘If to secret of my heart
I do any wish impart
Where thou art not foremost placed,
Be both wish and I defaced.

‘If more may be said, I say,
All my bliss in thee I lay;
If thou love, my love content thee,
For all love, all faith is meant thee.

‘Trust me, while I thee deny,
In myself the smart I try;
Tyrant honour thus doth use thee;
Stella’s self might not refuse thee.

‘Therefore, dear, this no more move,
Lest, though I leave not thy love,
Which too deep in me is framed,
I should blush when thou art named.’

Therewithal away she went,
Leaving him so passion-rent
With what she had done and spoken,
That therewith my song is broken.

Reading notes: “flowers” in the final line of the first stanza is one syllable; “heavenly” is two syllables in the seventh and fifteenth stanzas; and because of the song’s established pattern (see metrical discussion below) the “-ed” of “placed” and “defaced” in Stanza 21, and “framed” and “named” in Stanza 24, must be pronounced as an extra syllable.

See my metrical notes on the Fourth Song, which came after Sonnet 85. Here the first two lines of each stanza have that same “incomplete” structure, but because the last two in each stanza have feminine rhymes, the whole effect is trochaic, or a tumbling rhythm, rather than the more typical relaxed beat of iambs.

The song is arcadian and pastoral, harking back to Sidney’s Old Arcadia, possibly the last thing he wrote before starting this sonnet sequence. The season is May, the flowers (May’s “pied weeds” or clothing) are blooming, and—at least in the poet’s fancy—Astrophil and Stella are young lovers taking “mutual comfort” from each other while both are “oppressed” by others. Indeed, this is the rare moment in the whole sequence when Astrophil is given his name, and is not the speaker of the poem, that job being here assigned to an omniscient third-person narrator.

Stella’s “foul yoke” (Stanza 3) is of course her betrothal or marriage to Lord Rich, and this encounter (perhaps imaginary) quickly takes on the oxymoronic nature of such forbidden love: “Sighs of woe” mixed with “glad sighs”; finding “restless rest” and “living dying” in their togetherness. They find themselves tongue-tied, but their “hearts” communicate, and the poet skirts the issue of Astrophil’s boldness in finally speaking by blaming “Love” for “set[ting] his lips asunder.” His plea occupies stanzas 7 to 15. He is clearly intent on adultery, and the extremity of what he desires gives him momentary pause in Stanza 11, but with “knees on ground” he pushes on with his plea that she give in to his passion, citing the perfect ripeness of their opportunity.

In the pivotal sixteenth stanza, Astrophil tries to act on his plea with his hands, but her own hands “Gave repulse, all grace excelling.” Her answer to his speech is set up in Stanza 17; conveniently, she will speak silently, so the poet is able to interpret the “love she signified” as well. Her silent speech occupies stanzas 18-24 and it repeats in many different ways the basic idea that she loves him, but cannot love him: “Trust me, while I thee deny,/In myself the smart I try” (i.e., the pain I feel).

Finally, in Stanza 24, she says that since she continues to love him deeply, he must keep his distance so that she is not caught blushing at the mere sound of his name. This message leaves Astrophil so “passion-rent” that the song cannot go on, and so, in spite of having lasted for twenty-five stanzas, is quite abruptly “broken.” 

Ninth Song

Go, my flock, go get you hence,
Seek a better place of feeding,
Where you may have some defence
From the storms in my breast breeding,
And showers from my eyes proceeding.

Leave a wretch, in whom all woe
Can abide to keep no measure;
Merry flock, such one forego,
Unto whom mirth is displeasure,
Only rich in mischief’s treasure.

Yet, alas, before you go,
Hear your woeful master’s story,
Which to stones I else would show:
Sorrow only then hath glory,
When ‘tis excellently sorry.

Stella, fiercest shepherdess,
Fiercest, but yet fairest ever;
Stella, whom, O heavens, do bless,
Though against me she persever,
Though I bliss inherit never;

Stella hath refused me,
Stella, who more love hath proved
In this caitiff heart to be
Than can in good ewes be moved
Toward lambkins best beloved.

Stella hath refused me;
Astrophil, that so well served,
In this pleasant spring must see,
While in pride flowers be preserved,
Himself only winter-starved.

Why, alas, doth she then swear
That she loveth me so dearly,
Seeing me so long to bear
Coals of love, that burn so clearly,
And yet leave me helpless merely?

Is that love? Forsooth, I trow,
If I saw my good dog grieved,
And a help for him did know,
My love should not be believed
But he were by me relieved.

No, she hates me, wellaway,
Feigning love somewhat, to please me;
For she knows, if she display
All her hate, death soon would seize me,
And of hideous torments ease me.

Then adieu, dear flock, adieu:
But alas, if in your straying
Heavenly Stella meet with you,
Tell her, in your piteous blaying,
Her poor slave’s unjust decaying.

Reading notes: “heavens” in Stanza 4 and “heavenly” in Stanza 10 are elided in the usual way; and the “-ed” syllable is pronounced in “refused,” “proved,” “moved,” and “beloved” (Stanza 5), “refused,” “served,” “preserved,” and “starved” (6), “grieved,” believed,” and “relieved” (8); and “hideous” in Stanza 9 and “piteous” in Stanza 10 are elided to two syllables.

As the song is taken up again, in the same trochaic rhythm, but now in 5-line ABABB stanzas with all the B-rhymes feminine, Astrophil has become a shepherd and Stella a shepherdess. We have completed the movement into the pastoral mode and its suffering swain motif, lovingly mocked by Shakespeare in his portrayal of Silvius and Phebe in As You Like It. The song also returns to the customary first-person, though once again Astrophil’s name is given.

The microcosm/macrocosm analogy is at work in the opening lines, so the “storms” in Astrophil’s breast and the “showers” from his eyes are a meteorological threat from which the otherwise “merry” flock should seek shelter. But, before they go, he will make them hear his tale of woe, since it’s either them or no one (i.e., “stones”), and sorrow cannot be “excellently sorry” without an audience.

The tale is the familiar one about Stella’s seemingly contradictory behavior, summed up most succinctly in Stanza 7. As usual in pastoral poetry, the season is spring (Stanza 6) when even the lilies of the field (so to speak) are taken care of by nature, but the good, faithful shepherd Astrophil is “starved” as if it were still winter. In Stanza 5, for the sake of his audience, he uses a home-spun sheep analogy: there’s more constant love in his wretched (“caitiff”) heart for Stella than ewes have for their lambs. And another in Stanza 8: Astrophil would show more love to his faithful dog than Stella is showing to him.

This rustic simplicity is modestly challenged by a complication in the final two stanzas. Although Stella clearly “hates” him (“wellaway” can mean either “a great deal” or, as an interjection, “alas!”), it sounds at first as if she “feign[s] love” out of a sort of kindness, to keep him from dying of grief; but the last line of the penultimate stanza implies that she just sadistically wants to prolong his “torments.” But having decided that she in fact “hates” him, nothing remains but his death, which in turn will cast the flock adrift; and in their “straying,” their “piteous baying” will convey to Stella the message of his “unjust decaying.”

Next time (weekend of October 30): Sonnet 87
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 80

Sweet swelling lip, well may’st thou swell in pride,
Since best wits think it wit thee to admire;
Nature’s praise, virtue’s stall, Cupid’s cold fire,
Whence words, not words but heavenly graces slide;
The new Parnassus, where the Muses bide,
Sweetener of music, wisdom’s beautifier;
Breather of life, and fastener of desire,
Where beauty’s blush in honour’s grain is dyed.
Thus much my heart compelled my mouth to say,
But now, spite of my heart, my mouth will stay,
Loathing all lies, doubting this flattery is,
And no spur can his resty race renew,
Without how far this praise is short of you,
Sweet lip, you teach my mouth with one sweet 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 notes: “heavenly” in line 4, “Sweetener” in line 6, and “fastener” in line 7 are all elided to two syllables; “doubting” in line 11 has the normal renaissance usage (i.e., “fearing that”) which makes the whole phrase sound to a modern ear the opposite of what it actually means; “resty” in line 12 means “restive” or “restless” (two words which paradoxically mean the same thing); and “Without” in line 13 is best understood as “Except.”

After a sonnet in praise of a single kiss, the poet’s “camera” now zooms in still further, to praise the lip that received it. Three of the first four lines use repeated words in antanaclasis, while line 3 slows us down emphatically with a “backwards” rhythm similar to line 6 of Sonnet 78*; all this in hyperbolic praise of Stella’s “swelling lip,” on which the speaker has focused for several sonnets now, since the stolen kiss of the Second Song.

But this is a sonnet of very mixed, or even confused, feelings. The oxymoronic “cold fire” of Cupid, and the intrusion of “virtue” and “honour” upon the more romantic themes of beauty and desire, temper the more conventional praise sprinkled through the octave; e.g., that even the wise (“best wits”) find it wise to admire Stella’s lips, her words are “heavenly graces,” her lips entertain the muses, sweeten music, speak wisdom, and so on.

Then, as if to further confuse us, in the sestet the speaker takes it all back! . . . sort of. First he suggests that his heart had “compelled” his mouth to say what he just said (so his heart was in it, but the mouth that spoke the actual words was not), and now his mouth will shut up (“stay”), rather than speak more “lies” or “flattery.”

Now he has dug himself into a pretty deep hole, and attempts to redeem himself in the final tercet. Nothing will make the praise resume, he says, except (“Without”) a kiss from that lip to teach him how far short of the truth his praise actually falls. It is not really clear whether he is acknowledging lessons learned from the “one sweet kiss” he has already had, or offering a sort of bribe for another. It is, in fact, an awkward poem, perhaps by design, reflecting the ambivalent and confused state of the speaker’s mind.

*The two lines are strikingly parallel:
(78.6)        Beauty’s plague, virtue’s scourge, succour of lies;
(80.3)      Nature’s praise, virtue’s stall, Cupid’s cold fire,
Where the normal iambic pentameter rhythm rolls forward da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM, each of these lines creates three separated “valley” shapes: DUM-da-DUM, DUM-da-DUM, DUM-da-da-DUM.

Next time (weekend of August 7): Sonnet 81
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 73

Love still a boy, and oft a wanton is,
Schooled only by his mother’s tender eye;
What wonder then if he his lesson miss,
When for so soft a rod dear play he try?
And yet my star, because a sugared kiss
In sport I sucked, while she asleep did lie,
Doth lour, nay chide, nay threat, for only this.
Sweet, it was saucy Love, not humble I.
But no ‘scuse serves, she makes her wrath appear
In Beauty’s throne; see now, who dares come near
Those scarlet judges, threatening bloody pain?
O heavenly fool, thy most kiss-worthy face
Anger invests with such a lovely grace
That anger’s self I needs must kiss again.

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: “threatening” in line 11 and “heavenly” in line 12 are both elided to two syllables.

When Hamlet attempts to apologize to Laertes for extremely boorish behavior at Ophelia’s grave (not to mention murdering his father), he does so by separating the self from the act:

Was’t Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet:
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not. Hamlet denies it.
Who does it, then? His madness.

Our speaker, who has just stolen a kiss from the sleeping Stella, attempts the same sort of separation from his version of “madness,” his alter-ego “saucy” Cupid. Because Cupid has a “soft” schoolmistress in his mother Venus (we are told in the first quatrain) he often plays hooky (“his lesson miss”) and plays around.

But Stella (“my star”) is clearly not buying the excuse, and still “Doth lour, nay chide, nay threat” (each of those more serious than the last), despite all protestations.

However, the sestet reveals that all her frowning and foot-stomping is counter-productive. As she reddens in anger—the “scarlet judges” could be either the cheeks that lour or the lips that chide and threat, or both—she merely grows more beautiful to the speaker, increasing his desire to repeat his transgression.

Next time (weekend of May 1): Sonnet 74
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

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.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 65

Love, by sure proof I may call thee unkind,
That giv’st no better ear to my just cries;
Thou whom to me such my good turns should bind,
As I may well recount, but none can prize;
For when, naked boy, thou could’st no harbour find
In this old world, grown now so too too wise,
I lodged thee in my heart, and being blind
Bu nature born, I gave to thee mine eyes.
Mine eyes, my light, my heart, my life, alas;
If so great services may scorned be,
Yet let this thought thy tigerish courage pass:
That I perhaps am somewhat kin to thee,
Since in thine arms, if learn’d fame truth hath spread,
Thou bear’st the arrow, I the arrowhead.

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: the “As” that begins line 4 is tied back to “such” in line 3, so the sense is “the good deeds that I am able to list (‘recount’)—though I won’t boast of them (‘prize’)—should be enough to put you in my debt.”
“Naked” in line 5 is one syllable (“nak’d”); “scorned” in line 10 is two, and “tigerish” in line 11 is elided to two.
The word “arms” in line 13 refers to a coat of arms, in heraldry.

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cassius, while having a tempestuous spat with his long-time pal Brutus, pleads: “A friend should bear his friend’s infirmities; but Brutus makes mine greater than they are.”  The point is that mere friendship—let alone past favors—should buy one a certain level of indulgence for one’s peccadilloes. Cassius’s charge against Brutus is similar to what the speaker says of Love (i.e., Cupid) here: if he really is a spirit of love, he should think of the speaker in terms of all the “good turns” or favors that the speaker has done for him. The poem starts modestly listing these in the second quatrain (with “outie” quatrains, the argument flows straight through the octave): when Cupid could no longer find a home in a “world grown wise”—wisdom, as we know, being the implacable adversary of love—the speaker made him welcome, even going so far as to provide “eyes” for the blind Cupid; i.e., the speaker sees entirely through the eyes of love.

As the octave ends, the speaker realizes he has been far too modest in the claims of obligation he has made on Love. He has not merely taken him in and provided him with eyes, but has given over his entire being to Love. The line that makes this transition and takes us “up a level” (in the current vernacular) is a lovely pair of explicit synecdoches: eyes = light (which could mean consciousness or intellect), while heart = life itself. The other two lines of the first tercet are used to set up the “clincher” argument in the final three lines. If you can’t honor me as a friend, he says, my trump card is that we’re actually related. How do you tell if aristocratic Englishmen are in the same family? You look for overlapping imagery in the coats of arms. It takes a footnote (such as that of Duncan-Jones) at this point to alert us that the Sidney arms feature arrowheads, while Cupid is obviously associated with arrows. That is the fairly arcane and specific meaning of the  final couplet, but the more general (and possibly erotic) sense is just as important: Cupid’s arrows would be useless (I was about to say “pointless”) without the speaker’s additions.

Next time (weekend of January 9): Sonnet 66
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!

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: “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 62

Late tired with woe, even ready for to pine,
With rage of love, I called my love unkind;
She in whose eyes love, though unfelt, doth shine,
Sweet said that I true love in her should find.
I joyed, but straight thus watered was my wine,
That love she did, but loved a love not blind,
Which would not let me, whom she loved, decline
From nobler course, fit for my birth and mind:
And therefore by her love’s authority,
Willed me these tempests of vain love to fly,
And anchor fast myself on virtue’s shore.
Alas, if this the only metal be
Of Love, new-coined to help my beggary,
Dear, love me not, that you may love me more.

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: As usual, “even” in line 1 is a single syllable. The word “fly” in line 10, for Sidney, would have rhymed with “be” and the final syllable of “authority” and “beggary,” but this need only be noted mentally in modern reading.

This is a companion sonnet to the previous one, and we might borrow Wordsworth’s title “The Tables Turned” for at least its final line, where the paradox that ended Sonnet 61 is reversed.

Like Sonnet 61, there is an “extroverted” rhyme scheme in the octave, and here the near-rhymes of the A’s and B’s reflects two “loves” that also sound alike but aren’t. Line 4, at first blush, sounds as if it might be the breakthrough moment we have waited for throughout the sequence: Stella sweetly says she DOES love me after all!

The joyful response lasts for exactly two words, or two syllables, or one brief foot, before the other shoe begins to drop, beginning with a teaser metaphor of watered wine. It turns out she has a sincere, pure, Platonic love for the speaker—not the “blind,” passionate love of Cupid, but the heavenly kind that sees clearly by the light of reason. And in the spirit of love, she wishes him to be as perfect as he can be, and as his pedigree (“birth”) and talents (“mind”) promise for him. The first tercet of the sestet continues the main idea of the sonnet by giving the clear implication of this special “love’s authority”: as in Sonnet 61, she shows her form of love by urging him to abandon his.

The fulcrum comes after line 11, as the final three lines give the speaker’s response. Setting it up with the metaphor of love as a “metal” from which improving ideas are “coined,” he says that if that’s the way it has to be, he wishes she would stop “loving” him that way, so that she could “love” him the other way. The two words “love” in the final line obviously mean two different things, and the meaning of the word has in fact been subtly shifting all through the poem, especially in line 6, where the meaning shifts over from his to hers, and here at the end, where it shifts back, referring at the end to the passionate relationship the speaker would like to have.

Next time (weekend of November 28): Sonnet 63
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 54

Because I breathe not love to everyone,
Nor do not use set colors for to wear,
Nor nourish special locks of vowed hair,
Nor give each speech a full point of a groan,
The courtly nymphs, acquainted with the moan
Of them who in their lips Love’s standard bear,
“What, he!” say they of me; “now I dare swear
He cannot love; no, no, let him alone.”
And think so still, so Stella know my mind!
Profess, indeed, I do not Cupid’s art;
But you, fair maids, at length this true shall find,
That his right badge is worn but in the heart.
Dumb swans, not chattering pies, do lovers prove;
They love indeed, who quake to say they 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.

Reading note:  “vowed” in line 3 is two syllables

While this is a conventional Italian sonnet, with fulcrum and change of rhyme scheme after the eighth line, it is more “hybridized” with the English sonnet form than most of Sidney’s sonnets. The customary division of the sestet into two tercets is here replaced with a quatrain and a couplet, although this third quatrain (CDCD) changes form from the two in the octave (ABBA).

The understanding of this sonnet is enhanced by a familiarity with Shakespeare’s As You Like It, specifically the several moments when characters describe what the typical lover is supposed to look like:

Rosalind (in disguise, challenging Orlando for lacking any of the “signs” of a lover):

A lean cheek, which you have not; a blue eye and sunken, which you have not; an unquestionable spirit, which you have not; a beard neglected, which you have not . . . . Then your hose should be ungartered, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbuttoned, your shoe untied and everything about you demonstrating a careless desolation; but you are no such man . . . . (3.2.278 ff.)

Silvius (to Corin, arguing that the older man cannot know what love is):

If thou rememb’rest not the slightest folly
That ever love did make thee run into,
Thou hast not loved.
Or if thou hast not sat as I do now,
Wearing thy hearer in thy mistress’ praise,
Thou hast not loved.
Or if thou hast not broke from company
Abruptly, as my passion now makes me,
Thou hast not loved. (2.4.26-34)

Jaques (describing one of the “ages of man”):

And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. (2.7.150-152)

If Rosalind were one of the real ladies of Elizabeth’s court in Sidney’s time—the “courtly nymphs” or “fair maids”—her skepticism, we are told here, would be aimed at the poet himself. The octave humorously describes how these court gossips, versed in such things, have determined that the speaker lacks all the requisite signs of a lover, and have therefore struck him from their lists of eligible bachelors.

This is just fine, he says, as long as Stella knows about his love, since she is the only one he wants. But he cannot resist offering himself as an example and trying to teach these shallow people a little lesson: true love is carried in the heart, not in the mouth. As in an English sonnet, the couplet is a tidy “bottom line” or moral of the story. It is the graceful, silent swans whose mating habits are suggestive of faithful love, not the noisy magpies who are chattering all the time. (Since the women themselves have spoken aloud in the poem, and none too gracefully, this dig is probably aimed back at them.) The word “indeed” in the final line is a pun, heard as “in deed,” the antithesis of “say.”

With Sonnet 54, I have reached the halfway point on my journey through the sonnets of Astrophil and Stella. I can take inventory of the formal features of these sonnets with some numbers. At this point, Sidney has employed 11 of the 15 different rhyme schemes used in the whole sequence. When this is broken down further, it appears that the blend of the familiar with the experimental is roughly the same on both sides of this dividing line:

  • Of the 79 occurrences of the two most common rhyme schemes, 40 have happened in the first half, while of the 8 schemes that appear only once, we have seen 5.
  • Of 23 cases (some arguable) where the sestet does not have the typical two-tercet division, we have seen 11.
  • The six occurrences of hexameter lines are divided 3 and 3.

This would argue for at least formal consistency of purpose over the whole sequence, were it not for a departure we have not seen at all yet: the introduction of “songs,” several with substantial length, in among the sonnets, which starts only after Sonnet 63. There are 11 of these in all, of varying meters and stanza structures, and lengths ranging from 18 to 104 lines. They are found one each after Sonnets 63, 72, 83 and 85, then five in a row after 86 (so it almost seems the sonnets are overwhelmed by other material in the “80s”), and one each after 92 and 104. I have no explanation for this change, and indeed have never really given it much thought, preoccupied as I am with the form and function of individual sonnets. But I will see if any new speculation comes to mind when I encounter the songs in a context of closely analyzing the sonnets that surround them.

As for the content of the 54 poems we have examined to date, I think it’s fair to confess that the Petrarchan fixation on unrequited love, and the Courtly Love tradition of worshipping an unattainable goddess-mistress (usually someone else’s wife) from a distance, are hoary poetic clichés; and that if Sidney were a close friend and these poems truly reflected his daily preoccupations, we would be thoroughly fed up with him! But Sidney’s is an age of artifice; originality of expression, not the uniqueness or confessional truth of the passions expressed, is what is valued in the arts. And Sidney has not ceased to amaze me in the non-repetitive inventiveness of his pen. Like great paintings on the wall of a museum, each of these sonnets offers another little “surprise” each time you walk past. If I have done anything at all to open a reader’s eyes to some of these surprises, I am doing what I set out to do.

Next time (weekend of August 8): Sonnet 55
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 53

In martial sports I had my cunning tried,
And yet to break more staves did me address:
While with the people’s shouts, I must confess,
Youth, luck, and praise, even filled my veins with pride;
When Cupid having me his slave descried,
In Mars’s livery, prancing in the press:
“What now, Sir Fool,” said he; “I would no less.
Look here, I say.” I looked and Stella spied,
Who hard by made a window send forth light.
My heart then quaked, then dazzled were mine eyes;
One hand forgot to rule, th’other to fight;
Nor trumpet’s sound I heard, nor friendly cries;
My foe came on, and beat the air for me,
Till that her blush taught me my shame to see.

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: “even” in line 4 is one syllable.

This sonnet gives a small insight into the “trash talk” or (in earlier parlance) “flyting,” or (a bit later) “braving” that immediately precedes an armed combat. Cupid’s taunts in lines 7 and 8 are not different in kind from what a modern street thug or gang member might use to challenge a rival.

The sonnet as a whole tells a charming little tale of a usually-great warrior who in this instance makes a fool of himself because his attention is diverted from the fight, and he offers no opposition at all. In Sidney’s case, there is a remote possibility that some such embarrassment was a real event, but the fact that Cupid is made the actual opponent in the story, and not a third party, suggests that the event here is purely symbolic.

The speaker at the start is feeling pretty cocky about his martial prowess and well-earned celebrity as a jouster; but Cupid, an opponent who has already dominated and “enslaved” him, shows up to challenge and put him in his place. When the speaker turns to look at this new challenger, he sees only Stella, watching from a window and (as is her wont) “send[ing] forth light.” In the presumably real instance when that happened (described in Sonnet 41) Stella’s light inspired him to greatness; but in this symbolic version it merely “dazzles” and disables him, and he very much appears the “fool” that Cupid has called him, offering no opposition so that his opponent fights only “air.”* While Sidney the warrior would likely never be subject to such shame, Astrophil the lover is helpless to resist the power of Cupid in the face of Stella’s beauty, and does not even try.

Approaching this poem steeped as we are in the conventional structure of Sidney’s Italian sonnets (octave plus a sestet divided into two tercets), we can readily appreciate the structural trick that captures the effect of losing one’s concentration and being wrong-footed. The opening quatrain is perfectly solid and predictable, reflecting the speaker’s confidence and smugness. Then, like the laughter on the bridge in Amsterdam for the self-satisfied Clamence in Camus’ The Fall, comes the mocking challenge and the distracting vision of Stella—and, quite uncharacteristically, it takes an extra line to “finish” the octave, as if the speaker lost track of where the break should come. A three-line thought, describing his confusion, follows, but perforce this misses the usual dividing spot, running lines 10-12 instead of 9-11. A couplet at the end brings us out of the daze and into the embarrassing reality; so at start and end the sonnet is structurally on solid ground, but for eight lines in between it is—like its speaker—thrown “off stride.”

* The OED cites 1 Corinthians 9.26 as the source for the phrase “to beat the air,” meaning “to fight to no purpose or against no opposition.”

Next time (weekend of July 25): Sonnet 54
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.