When Nature made her chief work, Stella’s eyes,
In color black why wrapped she beams so bright?
Would she in beamy black, like painter wise,
Frame daintiest luster mixed of shades and light?
Or did she else that sober hue devise
In object best to knit and strength our sight,
Lest, if no veil these brave gleams did disguise,
They, sun-like, should more dazzle than delight?
Or would she her miraculous power show,
That, whereas black seems beauty’s contrary,
She even in black doth make all beauties flow?
Both so, and thus: she, minding Love should be
Placed ever there, gave him this mourning weed
To honor all their deaths, who for her bleed.
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: meter is preserved by eliding “mirac’lous” in line 9 and “e’en” in line 11.
Did someone say “heavenly beams, infusing hellish pain”? The Petrarchan cliché of the previous poem becomes the subject of this one!
Typical of Sidney’s sonnets, this combines standard Italian form with the logic of an English sonnet*: in this case, three blocks (4-4-3 in length) of “questions” and a 3-line “answer.” To break that down a bit further, it’s one “real” question (basically, “What was Nature up to?”) and then three possible “answers,” in the form of the questions “Is it Answer A?” or “Is it Answer B?” or “Is it Answer C?” The answer is, first, “All of the above . . . ,” and then, in a final twist, “. . . plus Answer D as well.” So I will use these brief paraphrases for the labels of my outline below.
The Real Question (lines 1-2). Stella’s flashing eyes (with which we will become very well acquainted in these sonnets!) are, paradoxically, dark in hue, or in Renaissance parlance, black. This is all the more paradoxical because darkness is stereotypically disfavored in female features at this time (a stereotype oft honored in the breach, of course), and generally symbolizes evil. Perhaps this is also the place to mention that female beauty in this time was regarded as a combination of the work of “Nature” and the added work of “Art,” with Nature’s work of course the more highly prized (at least in poetry) of the two. So why did Nature do this very strange thing?
Answer A (3-4). Perhaps she has been studying with the Dutch and Italian masters (“painter wise”), and thus understands that to make black shine (“luster”; note that the oldest sense of “dainty” is “excellent” or “precious”), it is necessary to mix light and dark paint in the same space.
Answer B (5-8). Or perhaps Nature was concerned for the well-being of the rest of us, and needed to support (“knit”) and strengthen our sight in order to prepare it for something that might otherwise overwhelm it; so the darkness in Stella’s flashing eyes is like sunglasses on a particularly bright day, or perhaps the smoked glass by which one’s eyes are fortified to view a solar eclipse. We can, of course, take “delight” in sunlight if we are properly protected against its power.
Answer C (9-11). Or could it be that Nature, the artist, is just showing off, like a chess player playing blindfolded, or Mozart playing a long, complex piece from memory that he had heard only once. In this case the “miraculous” feat is to capture “all beauties” in the very opposite of beauty, blackness.
The real answer: all (“both”) of the above, plus one more. (Note that, until fairly recently, “both” could be used with a series of more than two, as in Coleridge’s “He prayeth well who loveth well, /Both man and bird and beast.”) The “all of the above” is disposed of in a single poetic foot, and then we get the additional answer, which is that our initial paradox is doubled back on itself: there is indeed an “evil” side to this darkness, even as it is framed in hyperbolic admiration. Nature wanted the personified Love to take up residence in Stella’s eyes (a direct anticipation of the tale to be told in Sonnet 8), but if he lives there, he must wear black (“mourning weed”), out of respect for all the lovers who have “died” for her (in that age of battles, duels, and executions, “bleed” was a common synecdoche for “die”). This too is a shadow of things to come in the love saga of our speaker.
* For the typical structure of a Sidney sonnet, see the “Introduction” post.
Next time (weekend of November 2): Sonnet 8
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.