Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 63, and First Song

O grammar-rules, O now your virtues show;
So children still read you with awful eyes,
As my young dove may, in your precepts wise,
Her grant to me by her own virtue know;
For late, with heart most high, with eyes most low,
I craved the thing which ever she denies;
She, lightning Love displaying Venus’ skies,
Lest once should not be heard, twice said, No, No!
Sing then, my muse, now Io Pæan sing;
Heavens envy not at my high triumphing,
But grammar’s force with sweet success confirm;
For grammar says (O this, dear Stella, weigh),
For grammar says (to grammar who says nay?)
That in one speech two negatives affirm!

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: “Heavens” in line 10 is one syllable. In line 9, “Io” is the muse, and a “Pæan” is a hymn of praise; both words are two-syllable, the first syllable stressed and the second unstressed in both cases.

This sonnet is downright childish in its playfulness, deflecting the speaker’s frustration in a rather nerdy way. The scene depicted is one in which Stella, notes the speaker’s rising excitement (“heart most high”) as he casts his “eyes most low” (i.e., he’s not looking her in the face!). While her beauty (“displaying Venus’ skies”) seems (to him, at least) to egg him on, she exercises a woman’s prerogative of using her voice to say No!—not just once, but twice.

The “grammar-rules” the poem speaks of are Latin grammar rules, the chief cause of children’s headaches in the grammar schools; hence, the second line, where “awful” has its original sense of “full of awe.” The idea of teaching a grammar for English has not really appeared yet, and, as we are frequently reminded by Shakespeare, at this time the double negative in English intensifies the negativity, rather than canceling it out. But in Latin teaching, a stricter logic would apply. Perhaps I should also point out that, strictly speaking, “No, no!” is not a double negative in the usual logical application of that phrase; it is merely repetition for emphasis.

But the speaker leaps on the opportunity with a self-consciously sappy voice of triumph: the first tercet of the sestet is deliberately bad, overwrought poetry, culminating in the ridiculous apotheosis of grammar, the schoolboy’s bane. Then, in the final three lines, he knows perfectly well he is being puerile, and milks the moment, with his two parenthetical interruptions stalling the springing of the trap until the final line.

First Song

Doubt you to whom my Muse these notes intendeth,
Which now my breast o’ercharged to music lendeth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only in you my song begins and endeth.
 
Who hath the eyes which marry state with pleasure,              5
Who keeps the key of Nature’s chiefest treasure?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only for you the heaven forgat all measure.
 
Who hath the lips, where wit in fairness reigneth,
Who womankind at once both decks and staineth?               10
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only by you Cupid his crown maintaineth.
 
Who hath the feet, whose step all sweetness planteth,
Who else for whom Fame worthy trumpets wanteth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;                                15
Only to you her scepter Venus granteth.
 
Who hath the breast, whose milk doth passions nourish,
Whose grace is such, that when it chides doth cherish?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only through you the tree of life doth flourish.                     20
 
Who hath the hand which without stroke subdueth,
Who long dead beauty with increase reneweth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only to you all envy hopeless rueth.
 
Who hath the hair which, loosest, fastest tieth,                      25
Who makes a man live, then glad when he dieth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only of you the flatterer never lieth.

Who hath the voice, which soul from senses sunders,
Whose force but yours the bolts of beauty thunders?                        30
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only with you are miracles not wonders.
 
Doubt you to whom my Muse these notes intendeth,
Which now my breast o’ercharg’d to music lendeth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;                                35
Only in you my song begins and endeth.

What strikes me most immediately about this first “song” after sixty-three sonnets is the pervasive use of feminine rhymes, used nowhere in the sonnets themselves. Lines 1, 2, and 4 of each stanza rhyme this way, while line 3, which functions as the song’s refrain, is the same perfectly regular iambic pentameter line all the way through. This refrain rather obviously states the song’s theme and purpose.

In the literal, biographical sense, we could imagine the songs being offered up musically (a version of the serenade) when Sidney and Penelope are together. In the artistic sense, a song like this could be called the antithesis of a sonnet. Instead of very close logic and dense complexity of ideas in tightly restricted space, we have the lengthy spinning out of a single idea as a refrain with a succession of not terribly interesting iterations.

There is not, for example, a closely connected thought running through any single stanza—except for the identical first and last stanzas (each illustrating its final line) which explain the point of the song. Instead, the song’s ingenuity lies in the way first lines are connected to one another (a blazon of physical features), second lines to one another (abstract hyperboles of praise), and fourth lines to one another (parallel extensions of the idea in the refrain).

A few lines that might be obscure or difficult for a reader:

10: “Who womankind at once both decks and staineth?”; i.e., she improves (“decks”) her gender and yet puts it to shame by the comparison of all other women to her.

14: “Who else for whom Fame worthy trumpets wanteth?”; i.e., even Fame itself is not up to the task of honoring her.

22:  “Who long dead beauty with increase reneweth?”; i.e., the “glory of Helen” or other ancient, supposedly matchless, beauty, is not only reborn, but actually improved in her. (Duncan-Jones’s note on this line is misleading.)

24: “Only to you all envy hopeless rueth”; slightly odd grammar here, but the general point seems to be that, while any beauty creates envy in the less beautiful, in her case, others despair even of their envy, as achieving her level is so hopeless.

26: “Who makes a man live, then glad when he dieth?”; i.e., she makes a man feel he is alive for the first time; the second half could be innocently interpreted as hyperbolically suggesting men are happy to die for her, but more immediate to the renaissance ear is the slang use of “die” for sexual intercourse (apparently stemming from the belief that each orgasm shortened one’s life a bit).

Next time (weekend of December 12): Sonnet 64
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 35

What may words say, or what may words not say,
Where truth itself must speak like flattery?
Within what bounds can one his liking stay,
Where nature doth with infinite agree?
What Nestor’s counsels can my flames allay,
Since Reason’s self doth blow the coal in me?
And ah, what hope that hope should once see day,
Where Cupid is sworn page to chastity?
Honor is honored, that thou dost possess
Him as thy slave, and now long-needy Fame
Doth even grow rich, naming my Stella’s name.
Wit learns in thee perfection to express;
Not thou by praise, but praise in thee is raised;
It is a praise to praise, when thou art praised.

 

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.

For two sonnets now, Sidney resorts to the less common (for him) use of the ABAB open-ended, or “outie,” pattern for the octave, suggesting a more relaxed discussion for that part of the poem.*  Here we see the speaker “rambling on” in Stella’s praise, piling hyperbole on hyperbole, almost as if by free association, rather than any tightly logical conceit. Twelve of the fourteen lines are in this glowing vein; only the exact center of the poem, lines seven and eight, interrupts for a “reality check,” reminding us (and presumably the speaker himself) how hopelessly unobtainable this paragon is.  But unlike many other sonnets (e.g. 29, 31, 33, 34) in which this frustration builds steadily to the end, in this case it is almost as if the speaker claps his hands over his ears and shouts “LA LA LA,” so that never might be heard a discouraging word. He goes right back to the almost manic string of praises, as if there had been no interruption at all, or as if in a hurry to drown it out.  Also, oddly, as he resumes in line nine he makes his addresses directly to Stella (“that thou dost possess”) as if (1) he has previously been talking within his mind and now finds the courage to speak directly; or (2) the mental musings become increasingly charged and manic, as the object of his love fills his mind.

So, setting aside that central “downer” for a moment, we are left with the three 2-line ideas before it, and two 3-line ideas after, and if there is a unifying thread (besides hyperbolic praise of Stella), it is in the use of paradox. Let’s consider these four ideas in turn:

What may words say, or what may words not say,
Where truth itself must speak like flattery?

The main paradox here is that truth and flattery are supposed to be, by definition, mutually exclusive, but in this case they sound exactly the same. This makes a mind-bending riddle out of a cliché such as “words cannot convey . . .,” since in one way (“What can words say?”) the cliché seems perfectly true, but in another (“what may words not say?”) it is disproved by the paradox of the second line: words can convey the glory of Stella if the simple truth will suffice.

Within what bounds can one his liking stay,
Where nature doth with infinite agree?

Again, the anchor paradox is in the second line: if there was one thing Sidney’s contemporaries learned from the “laws” of nature, it was to accept limitations and avoid extremes; the “golden mean” was what Nature insisted on. But in the case of Stella, Nature has allowed infinity as a reality. (The word “infinite” is used as a noun here, or conceivably as an adjective in quotation marks; i.e. Nature has agreed to use “infinite” to describe Stella.)  From that grand paradox it is an easy step back to the fact that the speaker cannot keep (“stay”) his love (“liking”) within any reasonable boundaries (“bounds”).

What Nestor’s counsels can my flames allay,
Since Reason’s self doth blow the coal in me?

This is a fairly easy paradox to understand, in the wake of our study of sonnets 2, 4,5, and especially 10 and 18. As I have said there, Reason is the very opposite—and rightfully the squelcher—of passion, but where Stella is concerned, Reason itself fans the flames (“doth blow the coal”) of passion, so what help does the proverbial human wisdom of Nestor have against such a force?

Moving ahead now to lines 9-11:

Honor is honored, that thou dost possess
Him as thy slave, and now long-needy Fame
Doth even grow rich, naming my Stella’s name.

The central paradoxes here—and indeed throughout the sestet—are that the qualities we aspire to (honor, fame, praise, etc.) are commonly regarded as ideal ceilings to measure mortal attainment against, with mortals by definition always falling short. But what if the “ceiling”—the ideal quality itself—is somehow short of what it could be, and thus expandable?  What if honor can make itself yet more honorable by honoring Stella?; that is the proposition here. That fame is “long-needy” doubles down on the paradox: it is a commonplace of every age that all the greatest soldiers, writers, statesmen, artists, or whatever, existed only in the past; so Stella is stretching the limits not just of a “Hall of Fame” already filled, but of one that started as sort of dusty and archaic! (The fact that Fame grows “rich” in naming Stella is a sidelong reference to her married name.)

Wit learns in thee perfection to express;
Not thou by praise, but praise in thee is raised;
It is a praise to praise, when thou art praised.

These final lines continue in the same vein. Wisdom (“wit”) ordinarily knows not to expect perfection, but suddenly one can talk wisely and of perfection, too. And the final couplet, where praise, like honor, gains by praising Stella, finds a way to sum up the whole accomplishment of the poem, and the poet, who becomes more praiseworthy for praising her. We have a notable example here of a favorite poetic trick of Sidney’s, called antanaclasis, or close repetition of a word while changing its senses; for other examples, see sonnets 9 (lines 12-14), 10 (13-14), 12 (6), 26 (4) 31 (12-13), 34 (11), 36 (9-11), 37 (10, in particular), 38 (12), 39 (5), 59 (10), and 79 (1-3).

Now, what about the “heart” of this sonnet, those two lines in the exact center that threaten to undo all the rest?:

And ah, what hope that hope should once see day,
Where Cupid is sworn page to chastity?

Stella adds praise to praise and honor to honor, but hope she only makes more hopeless. Like the opening two lines of the sonnet that follows (Stella, whence doth this new assault arise,/A conquered, yelden, ransacked heart to win?), these suggest the context in which a flurry of wooing by various means takes place in this trio of sonnets: hyperbolic flattery in this one is followed by whining of her cruelty in 36, and sarcastically mocking her marriage in 37. Only with the “bedtime” sonnets 38, 39, and 40 does Sidney back off from this relatively direct confrontation.

* The full rhyme scheme of this poem is actually unique, because of the arrangement of the sestet, where each tercet ends with a couplet. As I have noted before, the variety Sidney achieves within the strict form of the Italian sonnet is amazing!

Next time (weekend of November 15): Sonnet 36
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.