Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 34

Come, let me write. ‘And to what end?’  To ease
A burdened heart. ‘How can words ease, which are
The glasses of thy daily vexing care?’
Oft cruel fights well pictured forth do please.
‘Art not ashamed to publish thy disease?’
Nay, that may breed my fame, it is so rare.
‘But will not wise men think thy words fond ware?’
Then be they close, and so none shall displease.
‘What idler thing, than speak and not be heard?’
What harder thing than smart and not to speak?
Peace, foolish Wit; with wit my wit is marred.
Thus write I while I doubt to write, and wreak
My harms on ink’s poor loss; perhaps some find
Stella’s great powers, that so confuse my mind.

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, if it were found outside the sequence, might have the title “A Dialogue Between the Poet and his Wit.”  As I have noted before, “wit” here means “wisdom,” or the reasoning part of the brain, as opposed to the passions or fancies. As I’m sure the reader has already detected, the speeches of Wit are in quotation marks, and the speaker—obviously here identified with the poet—says all the rest. Thus (at the one point of possible confusion) line 10 is the poet’s direct response to line 9, while line 11 (the poet still speaking) is a general shushing of Wit, who, we may imagine, has drawn breath to continue the argument.

The setting of the poem is the poet’s writing desk, where he has come (as must be his routine) to write another sonnet.  But instead of being visited by the Muse—every poet’s hope in that setting—he is interrupted immediately by his Wit, who turns out to be the very opposite of encouraging. Wit argues that writing about unrequited passion is hardly the best way to get over it (since the words are “glasses”—i.e., mirrors—of the woe), but the poet answers (line 4) as an artist, not a psychiatrist; in fact, the idea that poetic treatment of “cruel fights” can bring pleasure, despite the subject matter, is very much that of Sidney in his Defense of Poesy.

So Wit sharpens his attack in the second quatrain with an appeal to shame.  The word “disease” was at this time in transition from an older, more literal meaning of “unease” or “discomfort,” to its modern meaning of “illness,” and Sidney makes a subtle play on the difference: Wit means the word in the older sense, but the poet jests that people become famous for having rare diseases. Then, in a parallel shaming question, Wit again uses a transitioning word in its older sense, i.e., “fond” as “foolish.”  The poet does not directly respond to that word choice (though the reader will certainly catch a word-play because of the word’s modern meaning), but instead says O.K., I won’t share the poems with anyone. (“Close” in line 8 means “secret” or “closeted.”)

Wit (being, of course, an expert in logic) now senses that the poet’s argument has fallen apart, since everything said to this point assumes sharing or publishing of the poems. So line 9 could be loosely translated “So what’s the point, if you’re just writing them for yourself?”  The poet has no real answer to that, and instead just whines that he has to speak up if he has been wounded (“smart”); the poetry, in other words, has no logical explanation, but is just an animalistic cry of pain. The dialogue comes to an end in line 11 with a confession that “with wit my wit is marred,” an admission of defeat in a logical debate.

The final tercet is like a “recap” of the contest, a reflection on what is happening here. The dialogue apparently characterizes a very real confusion in the poet’s mind, and doubts about the wisdom of writing these love sonnets. “Wreak/My harms on ink’s poor loss” means take out my injuries on poor, defenseless words. The seemingly simple verb “find” is actually an important word-play; the words might manage to “find (= capture) the subject matter of Stella’s hold on him, or the words might “find” (= make their way to) Stella’s powers and exercise some persuasion on them. In any case, the sonnet again ends in paradox, since the doubtful, confused mind has perfectly and poetically spelled out its own confusion.

Next time (weekend of November 1): Sonnet 35
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 33

I might (unhappy word), O me, I might,
And then would not, or could not, see my bliss;
Till now, wrapped in a most infernal night,
I find how heavenly day, wretch, I did miss.
Heart, rend thyself, thou dost thyself but right;
No lovely Paris made thy Helen his;
No force, no fraud, robbed thee of thy delight;
Nor Fortune of thy fortune author is;
But to myself myself did give the blow,
While too much wit, forsooth, so troubled me
That I respects for both our sakes must show,
And yet could not by rising morn foresee
How fair a day was near.  O punished eyes,
That I had been more foolish—or more wise!

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 4 is elided to two syllables.

Since it seems to refer to a specific moment in the poet’s life, this sonnet seems obscure in the absence of a biography. Back when I was being schooled in the “new critics” (a hundred years ago, or so), the famous question for any text was, “What if it were anonymous?”  The obvious temptation here would be to answer, “Well, if it were, we’d just be out of luck, and we’d go on to the next one; and since it’s not, we need to look at the footnotes.”  But the new-critical hypothetical question might be more helpful (or less fatuous) than it appears at first blush, and I’d like to see what we can work out on this poem before I turn to the footnotes.

I’ll use a method I often use in class for a poem that presents any sort of difficulty, not just the biographical kind. At the top of different sections of the board, I write two simple questions, “What’s clear?” and “What’s not?”  Often by the time we have recognized everything that is clear about a poem, the other column has either shrunk into insignificance, or the possibilities for interpretation of the “unclear” parts have become a short, manageable, discussable list.  So let’s try that exercise here:

What’s clear?

–It is a poem about missed opportunity, or what you might call a “woulda-coulda-shoulda” poem.

–The speaker squarely blames himself for the missed opportunity, as opposed to Fate, Fortune, or the choices of others. A first-person pronoun is used three times in the first line; when used twice in line 4, one of them is in reverse-apposition with “wretch”; and after careful elaboration in the second quatrain, the thesis is bluntly stated in line 9 with a double reflexive pronoun: “But to myself myself did give the blow.” * (Remember, by the way, that the speaker is not always above blaming others for his woes in these sonnets!)

–The beginning and end of the poem use the conceit of a man whose previous life was spent entirely in darkness (associated with hell in the adjective “infernal”), who suddenly finds “heavenly” daylight, but does not recognize it, or know what advantage to take of it. This could be interpreted as the height of folly—who cannot tell day from night?—or, more generously, as the natural confusion of someone whose reality is turned upside down, or who is presented with a completely new experience. This range of possibility is helpful for seeing both how the event in question could easily happen and why the speaker feels extremely foolish that it did.

–Lines 6 and 7 make explicit what the general nature of the event, or the “loss,” was: the speaker has missed out on a “Helen” that would have given him “daylight,” and of course in the context of the whole sequence, we know that this is the speaker (or Sidney) missing an opportunity to make Stella (or Penelope) his own. And, as mentioned above, the whole quatrain is at pains to say (with Jimmy Buffet) “It’s my own damn fault.”

–Lines 10-11 suggest the speaker thinks he was overly cautious (“too much wit [i.e., wisdom] . . . so troubled me”), or was too “respect[ful]” to avail himself of the opening.

–And the poem ends (as so many Renaissance sonnets do) in paradox, with the speaker wishing he had been either “more foolish” (i.e., ignored his caution or his conscience) or “more wise” (i.e., been able to foresee the consequences of his inaction).

So what we know about the poem’s meaning is really quite a bit: at some particular moment in time, the speaker had what at least in hindsight was an opportunity to lay claim to Stella simply by taking positive action; and, to his lasting regret, through caution or indecision, he let the opportunity go by.

All that’s left that’s unclear (I think) is exactly what moment in Sidney’s life the sonnet might refer to. Duncan-Jones, sifting through opinions of earlier biographers, argues that the best guess is a possible first meeting between the poet and 13-year-old Penelope in 1576, when Sidney’s father was still alive and a betrothal could have been nailed down, but the reasons for feeling no great haste to do so would be obvious. This leads to an interpretation of the final line—“Would that I had been foolish enough to fall in love with Stella when I first saw her, or wise enough never to fall in love at all”—which readers may prefer to the one I offered above.

But does settling on a precise biographical moment actually enhance or diminish the poem’s meaning?  It seems to me that, first, there might have been other more subtle conversations in Sidney’s evolving acquaintance with Penelope when he might have sensed such an opening; secondly, all but the most brazen men probably recall with a bit of pain the moments when caution, modesty, or respect caused them to remain alone, while a bolder forwardness might have led to a relationship; and thirdly, however rooted in reality these sonnets may be, they are still products of imagination, and a poet (as Sidney himself asserted in his Defense) is as free to develop an imagined conversation as a real one. Sonnets 45 and 63, for example, refer to specific “incidents” in the relationship with Stella, but no one in his right mind would venture a footnote to track those to actual moments in Philip Sidney’s life; they are clearly poetic inventions. So, given the universality of the emotion captured and the license to use invention to capture it, the question “What if it were anonymous?” is perhaps, in this instance, a helpful one to ask.

* One of four instances of clever use of direct repetition within lines of this poem, in addition to “close” pairs such as “would not . . . could not” (2) or “No force, no fraud” (7), or contrastive juxtaposition such as “infernal night . . . heavenly day” (3-4) and “more foolish . . . more wise” (14).

Next time (weekend of October 18): Sonnet 34

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 32

Morpheus, the lively son of deadly Sleep,
Witness of life to them that living die;
A prophet oft, and oft an history,
A poet eke, as humors fly or creep,
Since thou in me so sure a power dost keep
That never I with closed-up sense do lie,
But by thy work my Stella I descry,
Teaching blind eyes both how to smile and weep,
Vouchsafe of all acquaintance this to tell:
Whence hast thou ivory, rubies, pearl and gold,
To show her skin, lips, teeth, and head so well?
‘Fool,’ answers he,’ no Inds such treasures hold,
But from thy heart, while my sire charmeth thee,
Sweet Stella’s image I do steal to me.’

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 might profitably be read as a companion to Sonnet 39 (an apostrophe to Sleep), though this one is more specifically about the mixed blessing of dreams. Morpheus is the god of dreams, and at least according to Ovid (other ancients say otherwise), he is the son of Hypnos, god of sleep; and he is a shape-shifter. Further, he is the “lively son of deadly Sleep” because while sleep was considered (by Renaissance writers) an early foretaste of death (in sleep, we “living die”) dreams disrupt and enliven that state with all sorts of vivid dramas. Morpheus is a story-teller (“Witness of life”), a “prophet” who envisions the future (by superstitious but common interpretation), a historian (“history”) who recalls the past, and a poet who (Sidney would argue—in fact, did argue in Defense of Poesy) alters the truth in order to tell a larger truth. “As humors fly or creep” is just a night-goblin, dream-like way to say “when he feels like it.”

The second quatrain turns specific and gets to the heart of the matter: the speaker is a captive audience for Morpheus, and he always dreams the same thing: Stella, who, as usual, brings the mixed message of smiling and weeping in line 8.

There’s an interesting structural wrinkle, for an Italian sonnet, here: the entire octave is one big subordinate clause, and the “other shoe” of the main clause doesn’t drop until line 9, where Morpheus is finally asked to answer just one 2-line question out of his entire knowledge (“acquaintance”) of the human world: where did you get the materials with which to create such a beautiful image as Stella? (I’m reminded of the hit song from my parents’ era, “Jeepers Creepers, where’d you get those peepers?,” except that, oddly, Stella’s flashing eyes don’t make the list this time around.)

The answer, which fills the final tercet, stands the speaker’s expectation on its head, parallels the bottom line of Sonnet 1 (“look in thy heart”), and incidentally reflects a modern understanding of dreams (and that of Shakespeare’s skeptical characters, such as Mercutio): the “visions” seen there are not imported from exotic, far-flung places (the “Inds” = the Indies, thought to be a treasure house of rich splendors, awaiting western exploitation), but are entirely generated within. This presents the curious paradox (but appropriate to a shape-shifter?) of a mythical being arguing for his own non-existence.

Next time (weekend of October 4): Sonnet 33
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.