In nature apt to like, when I did see,
Beauties, which were of many carats fine,
My boiling sprites did thither soon incline,
And, Love, I thought that I was full of thee:
But finding not those restless flames in me
Which others said did make their souls to pine:
I thought those babes of some pin’s hurt did whine,
By my love judging what Love’s pain might be.
But while I thus with this young lion played,
Mine eyes (shall I say cursed or blessed?) beheld
Stella; now she is named, need more be said?
In her sight I a lesson new have spelled;
I now have learned Love right, and learned even so,
As who by being poisoned doth poison know.
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: “Lion” in line 9 has both its syllables, while “even” in 13 and “poisoned” in 14 (that’s a tough one to do!) each have just one—in fact, all the –ed verbs in this poem are one-syllable.
This is Sidney’s conventional Italian form, with the main fulcrum after the octave, and the sestet divided in the middle. The octave is also divided by a “But” in the middle, so appropriately the quatrains are the inward-turned ABBA form. The sestet, rhyming CDCDEE, makes the “hybrid” form (see discussion in the “Introduction” post) with an “English”-sounding witty couplet at the end. The complete form (ABBAABBACDCDEE) is Sidney’s favorite, used in sixty of the A & S sonnets, and sonnet 16 begins a run of four in a row in this form.
The idea of the first quatrain is that the speaker, in earlier life, was by nature (“In nature”) prone to fall in love easily. When “Beauties” are measured in “carats” there is an implied metaphor that can cut both ways: they are indeed beautiful, like gold and gems, but they are also reduced to visual objects by the same word. “Boiling sprites” is either an oxymoron (the spirit is not meant to be subject to passion) or a confession that these “sprites” are more like imps or demons. In any case, the thought of being “full of” Love (either the emotion or the personified god, who was so prominent just a few sonnets ago, and makes a full return in the next sonnet), is clearly some sort of delusion.
But in this earlier state of misunderstanding, the second quatrain adds, he observed others who claimed to be love-struck, and thought they did protest too much. The “pains” of love they complained of struck the speaker as hypochondriacal, since he, too, was “in love” (or thought he was) and felt nothing like that. The logic of this quatrain leaves open the question of whether these others were feeling something comparable to what the speaker feels now, thus opening the possibility that there are lots of “Stellas” out there for lots of other men—something he stoutly denies elsewhere. But this sonnet is, I think, strictly personal, a comparison of “before” self to “after” self.
The “after” self is of course created by the sight of Stella, in the sestet. The speaker’s immature love is compared to the mythical “young lion” (Duncan-Jones references Aeschylus, Agamemnon) with which a shepherd boy played until it grew up and became dangerous. That happens in the instant of meeting Stella, and indeed the sonnet sounds as if it might end three lines early with “need more be said?”. But since the answer to that otherwise rhetorical question is “Yes, you’ve got three lines to go,” he gamely “spells” out the “lesson” he has learned. “Spell” is a wonderfully flexible word, meaning both to learn something by very close and careful study, and to recite it back with the same care; and of course it also means to write something down, so it plays on “now she is named,” suggesting that the mere writing of her name constitutes all that is necessary in the way of lesson.
Finally, Stella is, as usual, a mixed blessing. The speaker can not say whether his eyes were “cursed or blessed” in falling on Stella, and the bottom line of the poem compares his newfound wisdom in love to the unique understanding of poison by one who has been poisoned.
Next time (weekend of February 22): Sonnet 17
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.