Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 102

Where be those roses gone, which sweetened so our eyes?
Where those red cheeks, which oft with fair increase did frame
The height of honour in the kindly badge of shame?
Who hath the crimson weeds stol’n from my morning skies?
How doth the colour vade of those vermilion dyes,
Which nature’s self did make, and self engrained the same?
I would know by what right this paleness overcame
That hue, whose force my heart still unto thraldom ties.
Galen’s adoptive sons, who by a beaten way
Their judgments hackney on, the fault on sickness lay,
But feeling proof makes me say they mistake it far:
It is but love, which makes his paper perfect white
To write therein more fresh the story of delight,
While beauty’s reddest ink Venus for him doth stir.

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: “vade” in line 5 is simply an archaic form of “fade,” used presumably for the pleasing chiasmic alliteration of “doth . . . vade . . . vermilion . . . dies.”

Still on the subject of Stella’s illness, this is the last of six hexameter sonnets in the sequence. As if to dwell further on the number six, there is a sort of six-line “stanza” opening the poem, with alternating one- and two-line questions. And, as usual, the answer comes in the sestet at the other end. The unattached two lines in the middle state the thesis of the poem: in what is definitely not Sidney’s finest poetry, he wonders for twenty-four rather awkward syllables why the paleness of disease has been permitted to take away Stella’s customary color (color which enslaves the speaker’s heart).

Having said that, I must admit that the first six lines, the four questions which could be paraphrased “Where have all the flowers gone?” are neither witty nor melodic as poetry either. Is it possible that, this near the end of a long set of sonnets, Sidney has run out of fresh ways to compliment his would-be mistress? Or is he deliberately trying to be to poetry what Stella’s physicians are to medicine, in line 10; i.e., “hackney[ed].” Stella’s cheeks have lost their “roses,” or “crimson weeds” or “vermilion dyes”; where redness of the cheeks often indicates shame, Stella’s color is “engrained” by Nature herself and is therefore the “height of honour.”

The imaginative part of the sonnet, relatively speaking, comes in the sestet, where the speaker ventures an answer to his own questions. The phrase “Galen’s adoptive sons,” meaning the doctors (the implication of “adoptive” being “quacks”), recalls various disparaging remarks about derivative poets (e.g., “Pindar’s apes”) in early sonnets such as 3 and 15. Like those poets, these physicians “take wrong ways” (Sonnet 15) by sticking to the “beaten way” of medical practice and laying the blame for Stella’s paleness on—surprise!—her sickness. But with no medical training, the speaker by instinct (“feeling proof”) knows what the actual answer must be, and gives it in the final three lines. It is perhaps not the cleverest or most plausible sort of poetic trick, but it does at last and at least provide a positive spin for the illness. Love (Cupid or Eros) needed a fresh, white sheet of paper on which to write anew his “story of delight” with a fresh supply of “reddest ink” provided by his mother Venus.

Next time (weekend of June 10): Sonnet 103
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 8

Love, born in Greece, of late fled from his native place,
Forced by a tedious proof that Turkish hardened heart
Is no fit mark to pierce with his fine pointed dart;
And, pleased with our soft peace, stayed here his flying race.
But, finding these north climes too coldly him embrace,
Not used to frozen clips, he strave to find some part
Where with most ease and warmth he might employ his art.
At length he perched himself in Stella’s joyful face,
Whose fair skin, beamy eyes, like morning sun on snow,
Deceived the quaking boy, who thought, from so pure light
Effects of lively heat must needs in nature grow:
But she, most fair, most cold, made him thence take his flight
To my close heart; where, while some firebrands he did lay,
He burnt unwares his wings, and cannot fly away.

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.

The hexameters here reflect the “transfer” of a Greek figure (various ancient Greek poets wrote in hexameters) to an alien clime.  This poem makes quite a complex conceit from that fairly simple idea, and also makes explicit for the first time in the sequence its central tragic fact: that Stella is “cold” to the speaker’s love.

The poem’s conceit is that Greece, having lately fallen under control of the Ottoman Empire, is no longer hospitable to the god of love, Eros (Cupid, to Sidney, and often simply called “Love” in Renaissance verse), whose arrows can no longer pierce the Turk-hardened hearts. The word “proof” in the second line is the word we use in “fire-proof” or that Romeo uses when he says he is “proof” against his enemies if he is armed merely be Juliet’s smiles. And the word “heart” there is the first of two puns on that word (or even three, if you want to press the case that Cupid in line 7 was also employing his “heart” (“art”) when he sought out Stella, so that his own case is parallel to the speaker’s), since the hart (deer) was the most common game animal for gentlemen hunters.

So Cupid has relocated to England, a more peaceful place—but also a chilly climate for a Greek who doesn’t wear much! Sidney is again foreshadowing the metaphysical rhetoric of John Donne, in which a seemingly trivial detail of one trope opens up a whole new idea of even greater interest than the last (think of moth to a flame–>phoenix–>”die and rise again”–>canonization).  Here the (seemingly trivial) cold climate drives Cupid to seek warmth in Stella’s “beamy eyes” (those eyes again!), but alas they turn out to be “like morning sun on snow”—i.e., all bright light and no heat. For the first time in the sonnet sequence, the essential Stella is described: “most fair, most cold.”  This coldness is, from her perspective, her “virtue” or the dictate of Reason, while, from the speaker’s perspective, it is both ingratitude and folly—and of course (with just a few happy interruptions) constantly frustrating.

I should pause to point out a metrical rarity: you can almost count on one hand (there are six) the sonnets in A & S that do not have a strong stop after the eighth line, and this is one (the others being 79, 86, 89, 98, and 108). The effect is a “clipped” stay—lines 5-7, rather than the whole quatrain—in the cold (the word “clips” in line 6 has multiple meanings; the most direct is “hugs,” referring back to “embrace,” but in context it also evokes clips that might be on Cupid’s hunting weapons or on his tunic, or the blow of cold winds) and an elongated one—lines 8-11—in the promised heat of Stella’s eyes. Lines 5-11, almost always in Sidney divided 4-3, are here divided 3-4 by punctuation, despite the rhyme.

But we are back on familiar ground with a strong break and a fulcrum after the eleventh line. That line (content-wise) brings us to what we might have expected was the “end” of any previous sonnet in the sequence, and the end of Cupid’s journey: yes, of course, Love comes to reside in Stella’s beautiful face, as who wouldn’t?

But the fulcrum is a “but” (as fulcrums so often are; sonnets tend to turn on their buts), and in the remaining three lines we get yet another twist in Cupid’s strange eventful history: naturally he finds a more receptive place in the heart* of the speaker, but in laying on the fire there, he accidentally (like a “fly” with a “taper,” as Donne might say) burns his wings, and thus has to settle in permanently.  The “trembling voice” that undercut the speaker’s bold, blunt words in the last line of Sonnet 6 has now been fully embodied in that most pathetic of figures: the Petrarchan lover whose unremitting love is also unrequited.

* The word-play in and around the simple phrase “close heart” is so delicious I need extra space to talk about it. At the simplest level, his heart is “close” because it is always with Stella, but “close” (=closet) also means a small sitting room, and “heart” is clearly intended to suggest “hearth.”  Thus we are set up for the final image of Cupid clumsily piling logs on a fire.  But how the mighty have fallen, from the heart-pun in the second line to the heart-pun in the second-to-last line!  In the former he was a lord hunting in his own deer-park, perhaps; in the latter he is an unattended shivering boy in a small, cold room, trying to get a fire going.  Stella has reduced him too.

Next time (weekend of November 16): Sonnet 9

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