Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 11

In truth, O Love, with what a boyish kind
Thou dost proceed in thy most serious ways:
That when the heaven to thee his best displays,
Yet of that best thou leav’st the best behind.
For, like a child that some fair book doth find,
With gilded leaves or colored vellum plays,
Or at the most, on some fine picture stays,
But never heeds the fruit of writer’s mind:
So when thou saw’st, in Nature’s cabinet,
Stella, thou straight look’st babies in her eyes,
In her cheek’s pit thou didst thy pit-fold set,
And in her breast bo-peep or couching lies,
Playing and shining in each outward part:
But, fool, seek’st not to get into her heart.

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 is a playful sonnet, which extends the common image of Cupid (or “Love”) as a child, a small boy. What Cupid is about, of course, is not at all child’s play, and thus the poem’s conceit of a boy who gets in over his head. This is the first of a trio of Cupid sonnets (or third in a set of five if we ignore Sonnet 10) and, despite Sidney’s characteristic playfulness with the theme, all these sonnets reflect rather darkly on Stella, or at least on the speaker’s prospects with her.

After the abstract generalization, in the first quatrain, that children typically overlook the “best” or most “serious” part of anything for the more entertaining or eye-catching part, the second quatrain introduces the conceit, actually in the form of an epic simile.* The “like” part is a child’s reaction to, perhaps, one of the geographic or proto-scientific tomes being published in Sidney’s time—fascination with the beautiful pictures but obliviousness to the writer’s deep ideas.

In the “so” part, the poet doubles down on poetic figures, comparing his simile to yet another metaphor appropriate to the age of exploration: the “cabinet” in which the cognoscenti displayed the curiosities of science or travel. In this case the cabinet belongs to no less a personage than Nature herself, and Stella is displayed there as a rarity in Nature’s collection. But of course the childish Cupid is drawn to her only as a toy. He sees “babies” (i.e., a child’s dolls) in her eyes. The dimples (“pits”) of her cheeks seem good only for bird-trapping (the customary form of hunting for the very young, and the sense is compounded by the rather obvious fact that setting “traps” is one of Cupid’s favorite games; see line 2 of sonnet 12); “pitfold” is a pitfall, or trap.

The final example of this obtuseness is extended over two lines and thus—inSidney’s characteristic division of the sestet into 3 and 3—more closely related to the poem’s final line. It is also more challenging to a modern reader: why “bo-peep” (uncapitalized)?; and what exactly does “bo-peep or couching lies” mean?

Before bo-peep became a name in a nursery rhyme, it described the baby game probably best known to moderns as peek-a-boo. The sense of “or” here is definitely obscure, but it was a common form of “ere,” which, among various other possibilities in the unstressed, “throwaway” position, could mean “now.” In the context of Cupid finding only childish things in Stella’s features, I think the phrase is best understood as either “now couching lies” or, perhaps better, “e’er [ever] couching lies.” In any case, the verbal phrase after the questionable word is a brilliant ambiguity, since “lies” can either be the innocent verb of which “bo-peep” is the subject, or, more damningly, it can be a noun, the direct object of “couching.” Either way, the overall sense is that the visible (“outward”) part of Stella’s breasts, “playing and shining,” plays a game of peek-a-boo with the observer, presumably the speaker himself. In both the erotic and the emotional senses, the speaker wants to see more, the latter because the exposed part of the breasts is the outward part of the body closest to the heart.

Which brings us to the late fulcrum, at the start of the poem’s bottom line, which reveals that all of these rarities of Nature are but “bo-peep” or “lies” after all, since there is no opening for Love in Stella’s heart. “Fool” is ostensibly addressed to Cupid, and consistent with the tone and theme of the rest of the poem; but we can’t help but recall the last line of Sonnet 1, where the muse used that word for the speaker/poet. SurelySidneyis thinking of his own folly and frustration here.

*an extended “like” or “as” phrase, followed by an extended “so,” characteristic of epic poetry or imitations; e.g. “As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly,/When they meet with an obstacle, up to the sky,/So up to the housetop his coursers they flew . . . etc.”

Next time (weekend of December 14): Sonnet 12

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