Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 106

O absent presence, Stella is not here;
False flattering hope, that with so fair a face
Bare me in hand, that in this orphan place,
Stella, I say my Stella, should appear:
What say’st thou now? Where is that dainty cheer
Thou told’st mine eyes should help their famished case?
But thou art gone, now that self-felt disgrace
Doth make me most to wish thy comfort near.
But here I do store of fair ladies meet,
Who may with charm of conversation sweet
Make in my heavy mould new thoughts to grow:
Sure they prevail as much with me, as he
That bade his friend, but then new maimed, to be
Merry with him, and not think of his woe.

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Reading note: “flattering” in line 2 is elided to two syllables.

And now she is gone—in body, at least, as the opening oxymoron reminds us that she is ever present in the speaker’s thoughts. The octave is addressed to a personified hope, who raised the possibility that Stella would in fact still be there, where she is not (“in this orphan [i.e., abandoned] place”). The speaker chides “hope” in lines 5 and 6, but then realizes the futility of this exercise, because hope, too, has abandoned him when he most needs its comfort; “disgrace,” at the end of line 7, has its older, more literal sense of being deprived of a grace one once had. In more conventional poetry, lines 7 and 8 might have been addressed to one’s lost love, but here they are addressed to hope.

In the sestet the speaker turns his attention to all the “fair ladies” still surrounding him, who surely promise to turn his mind away from the love he has lost. But in the final tercet he dismisses this possibility, with what is presumably a battle image: a hale and hearty soldier expecting his newly wounded comrade to be “merry” and “not think of his woe.”

Had this same sonnet appeared much earlier in the sequence, we might have read it as a temporary “down” in the see-saw fortunes and spirits of the speaker. But coming at this late point, and given the sense of the two final sonnets that follow, we must interpret this abandonment by “hope” as literal and past recovery. The physical departure by Stella in Sonnet 105 signified more than a change of location.

Next time (weekend of August 5): Sonnet 107
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 45

Stella oft sees the very face of woe
Painted in my beclouded stormy face,
But cannot skill to pity my disgrace,
Not though thereof the cause herself she know;
Yet hearing late a fable, which did show
Of lovers never known a grievous case,
Pity thereof gat in her breast such place
That, from that sea derived, tears’ spring did flow.
Alas, if fancy drawn by imaged things,
Though false, yet with free scope more grace doth breed
Than servant’s wrack, where new doubts honor brings;
Then think, my dear, that you in me do read
Of lover’s ruin some sad tragedy.
I am not I; pity the tale of me.

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One of the better-known and oft-anthologized sonnets in the sequence, as it is both an excellent example of Sidney’s wit and artistry, and an illustration of the spirit of the age: that wonderful mix of increased reading (especially among women), lingering medieval clichés in love, and raw human emotions that are timeless.

Two evenly matched and inward-looking (ABBA) quatrains make up the octave, with the linchpin of their comparison (and echo of the previous sonnet)—the word “pity”—coming in the third line of each. The first quatrain recites the now-familiar tale of woe for our speaker: his love-sick pining for Stella is written all over his face, but she appears oblivious to it, even though she knows perfectly well (line 4) that she causes it. In the third line, both “skill” and “disgrace” have older meanings; “cannot skill” means she lacks the ability, or in this context the imagination, to understand and thus pity his need for grace from another; that is, “disgrace” originally and more literally meant the loss of standing in the eyes of another, whether deserved or not; it gradually evolved to its closer connection with the subject’s own behavior.

On the other hand, Stella in the second quatrain is apparently quite a fan of the “chick-lit” of the day, the romantic tales, for example, from which Shakespeare may have drawn the plots of Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and various other plays: tales of “lovers never known,” which here has the double meaning that these lovers are fictitious to begin with, and that, of course, they are people Stella has not even met. And her imaginative response to these fictitious beings is everything a writer could ask for: the tears flow freely.

“Alas,” indeed!  What’s a real, flesh-and-blood lover to do, against such competition? The problem is that she has “free scope”—with no taint to her honor—to pour out pity on creatures of fiction, whereas honor requires aloofness (“new doubts”) to the “wrack” of her present and visible “servant,” the speaker. In despair, the speaker seeks to undo his physical presence (“I am not I”—a clever metrical pun, since “I am” is in fact not the iamb that it is supposed to be) and be replaced by the sad, romantic “tale” of himself, so that Stella might show “pity” without loss of honor. That this sentiment is expressed in a Petrarchan sonnet—and among many other such sonnets—may be a sort of self-fulfillment of the wish to present lover as “tale.”

Next time (weekend of April 4): Sonnet 46
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.