Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 41

Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance,
Guided so well, that I obtained the prize,
Both by the judgment of the English eyes
And of some sent from that sweet enemy, France;
Horsemen my skill in horsemanship advance,
Town-folks my strength;  a daintier judge applies
His praise to sleight, which from good use doth rise;
Some lucky wits impute it but to chance;
Others, because of both sides I do take
My blood from them who did excel in this,
Think Nature me a man of arms did make.
How far they shoot awry!  The true cause is,
Stella looked on, and from her heavenly face
Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.

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: in line 4 “enemy” is two syllables: en’my.

This sonnet has an 11-3 division, with one complex sentence occupying the first 11 lines, and then, following the fulcrum, a simpler response in the final three. Or, to break it down a bit more specifically, the first four lines form a dependent phrase, establishing the speaker’s success in a jousting tournament (and, like the last three lines of Sonnet 1, demonstrating that the “dangling modifier” was an unknown error to Sidney and his age); the next seven form the main sentence, a compound series which, like the last three feet of line 1, is an asyndeton in that it lacks a conjunction; it gives a series of explanations, of varying lengths, that other people have given for this success; and the final three reject all these explanations, and give the “true cause.”

Duncan-Jones’s note on this sonnet suggests that the real event referred to in Sidney’s life was probably a tournament at Whitehall on May 15 and 16, 1581, at which 500 French courtiers were in attendance, because of ongoing negotiations to arrange a marriage between Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Alençon—a marriage which Sidney opposed, and delicately demonstrated against in the pageantry of symbolic flattery that accompanied the tournament; thus, perhaps, the reference to France as a “sweet enemy” in line 4 (though admittedly there were many historical and religious reasons to continue to see France as “enemy” even while entertaining its court as guests). An eyewitness account may be found in Duncan-Jones’s appendices, pages 299-311.

To explicate the “explanations”: fellow competitors who are chiefly “horsemen” maintain (“advance”) that his superior horsemanship was responsible—to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail—while the simple townsfolk who are spectators think it’s brute strength. These groups focus on what they can understand, while the “daintier,” or more refined, judge appreciates the finer points of the sport, the deftness (“sleight”) with lance that comes from practice (“good use”). The word “lucky” in line 8 seems to refer not so much to being fortunate as, more generally, to living by a philosophy that emphasizes luck more than skill or work; i.e., these “wits” are probably gamblers who attribute all wins and losses merely to “chance.” The final explanation forms the first half of the sestet, and is a specific autobiographical reference: Sidney’s father and grandfather were both tilters, as were his maternal uncles; so these “others” are attributing his victory to his pedigree on “both sides.”

The final tercet begins with an apt metaphor, converting these various theories to arrows that have missed their target. The true inspiration was of course that Stella looked on and, in keeping with her name, cast celestial light on his “race” or jousting contest.

Next time (weekend of February 7): Sonnet 42
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 30

Whether the Turkish new moon minded be
To fill his horns this year on Christian coast;
How Pole’s right king means, without leave of host,
To warm with ill-made fire cold Muscovy;
If French can yet three parts in one agree;
What now the Dutch in their full diets boast;
How Holland hearts, now so good towns be lost,
Trust in the shade of pleasing Orange-tree;
How Ulster likes of that same golden bit
Wherewith my father once made it half tame;
If in the Scottish Court be weltering yet:
These questions busy wits to me do frame.
I, cumbered with good manners, answer do,
But know not how, for still I think of you.

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: “Orange” in line 8 and “weltering” in line 11 both have two syllables.

This reads as something Sidney—a polished ambassador—might have “doodled” while sitting through a boring diplomatic meeting of some sort, presumably in the summer of 1582, when Duncan-Jones (citing in turn an earlier editor) places all the events mentioned. It is definitely a “footnote” poem, requiring a gloss for each of the seven current events mentioned, but Sidney also assigns himself the little poetic exercise of coming up with some word-play for each item. I will be depending on Duncan-Jones’s notes for the topical parts of the explanations that follow:

Lines 1-2: The Turks, whose empire often stretched into Europe, were threatening to attack Spain that summer. The word-play is on the crescent moon which was already Turkey’s most identifiable symbol. Here it is a “new moon” (suggesting a new initiative) and the points of the crescent are “horns,” which are both weapons of aggression and something that can be “filled” (think horn of plenty) with the spoils of conquest.

3-4: The elected (“right”) king of Poland, Stephen Bathory, had invaded and then occupied parts of Russia, the stereotypical “cold” place for English authors; the invader is pictured as a rude guest who lights a fire without first receiving permission (“leave”) from his host.

5: Three religio-political factions (Catholics, Protestants, and Moderates) struggled for control of France throughout this era.

6: The “Dutch” are actually the Germans (Deutsch) here, sometimes stereotyped as hearty eaters. The pun on “full diets” is that the Diet (legislative meeting) of the Holy Roman Empire took place in Germany that summer.

7-8: Several Dutch (i.e., Holland-Dutch) towns (“good towns”) were lost to the Spaniards that year, and the country’s hopes lay in William of Orange. “Holland hearts” probably plays on the fact that artichokes first came to England from Holland in the reign of Henry VIII.

9-10: Sidney’s father was Lord Deputy Governor of Ireland until 1578, and subdued the UlsterProvince, in part through taxation, the “golden bit” with which the Ulstermen were “tamed.”

11:  The now-obsolete noun “weltering” means twisting or turning around, or being unstable or agitated, and there were any number of political intrigues in the Scottish court in the summer of 1582.

Although the full rhyme scheme of the sonnet (ABBAABBACDCDEE) is more common than any other (and used for three in a row, starting here), the period after line 12 makes it perhaps as close to a Shakespearean sonnet as Sidney’s hybrid Italian form can come. Line 12 explains the context of all the items of conversation just discussed, and then there is a full stop while the camera shifts (so to speak) from all the other “busy” and insistent speakers to the quiet, distracted young man (think of the moment just before Hamlet speaks his first line) who has (in my imagined scene) been pretending to take notes while not saying much. I don’t think the final couplet is Sidney’s best poetry by any means, but it very simply captures the tongue-tied state of a man whose mind is elsewhere.

Next time (weekend of September 6): Sonnet 31
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.