Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 16

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.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 7

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.