Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 19

On Cupid’s bow how are my heartstrings bent,
That see my wrack, and yet embrace the same!
When most I glory, then I feel most shame:
I willing run, yet while I run, repent.
My best wits still their own disgrace invent;
My very ink turns straight to Stella’s name;
And yet my words, as them my pen doth frame,
Advise themselves that they are vainly spent.
For though she pass all things, yet what is all
That unto me, who fare like him that both
Looks to the skies, and in a ditch doth fall?
O let me prop my mind, yet in his growth,
And not in Nature, for best fruits unfit:
“Scholar,” saith Love, “bend hitherward your wit.”

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.

This sonnet describes a sort of growing love-madness in the speaker, as reflected in the disorderly line break between lines 9 and 10—unusually “modern” for Sidney—in which the closely connected noun phrase “all that” is snapped right in the middle, so that even the slight acknowledgement that the end of an enjambed line customarily receives is impossible here; the break after line 10 is only barely more natural, and all three lines of the tercet have caesuras, so, as the soon-to-be-mad Hamlet might observe here, “the time is out of joint.”  As it happens, the simile of that tercet is taken from Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, at the moment when the scholar Nicholas is feigning madness in preparation for his plot to sleep with the Carpenter John’s lovely young wife (a silly story which, for some reason, might be much on Sidney’s mind these days!).  The foolish carpenter, in his sincere concern for his lodger’s obsession with astrology, recalls a similar case:

So ferde another clerk with astromye;
He walked in the feeldes, for to prye
Upon the sterres, what ther sholde befalle,
Til he was in a marle-pit yfalle;
He saugh nat that.

Our “scholar” seems to be relating more to that clerk than to the successful Nicholas.*

While the opening line of the poem seems at first glance to suggest the speaker’s heartstrings are being used to string Cupid’s bow, this clever word-play is misleading. More logically, “bent” here means “inclined toward” or “aimed at,” the same as the verb at the end of line 12 in the previous sonnet. So his “heartstrings” are pulled toward Cupid’s bow, even as he knows that ruin (“wrack”) that way lies. (Compare Shakespeare’s couplet on lust, Sonnet 129: All this the world well knows, yet none knows well/To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.) This paradox is extended with the parallel paradoxes of lines 3 and 4.

Line 5 repeats the idea expressed in lines 10-11 of sonnet 18:

My wit doth strive those passions to defend
Which for reward spoil it with vain annoys.

That is, the speaker’s best thinking is going into a fool’s errand that pays off only negatively. From the second quatrain here, it is now quite obvious that Sidney refers to the writing of the sonnet sequence itself, and the tendency of the sonnets to bring him shame, even as they help him explore both his passion and his shame: “[the words of the poems] Advise themselves that they are vainly spent.”

The first half of the sestet, as discussed above, takes us back to the classic Chaucerian image of star-gazing and embarrassing futility as the only result. But the final tercet returns to the same mulish determination of the speaker to court his own ruin, expressed here in imagery drawn from Renaissance formal gardening: the speaker’s “mind” (and remember, that word encompasses the soul as well as the intellect) is treated as a fruit tree in such a garden; it could have grown naturally, but instead the speaker asks that it be “propped” (i.e., staked) and thus forced to grow in an unnatural direction, for decorative but “fruitless” purposes (my double meaning is quite intentional). Just so the speaker’s “wit” and learning are unnaturally bent toward Love (the repeated verb signals that the poem ends right where it started), with a similarly fruitless result. Notice that the final line of this poem is a faded echo of the final line of Sonnet 1, with most of the drive and optimism already drained out.

* As Duncan-Jones points out, Sidney (and probably Chaucer also) had in mind a commonplace anecdote about Thales of Miletus, an ancient Greek philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer. Sidney makes the same allusion in the Defence of Poesy (Duncan-Jones 219).

Next time (weekend of April 5): Sonnet 20

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