Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 96

Thought, with good cause thou lik’st so well the night,
Since kind or chance gives both one livery;
Both sadly black, both blackly darkened be,
Night barred from sun, thou from thy own sun’s light.
Silence in both displays his sullen might;
Slow heaviness in both holds one degree;
That full of doubts, thou of perplexity;
Thy tears express night’s native moisture right.
In both a mazeful solitariness:
In night, of sprites the ghastly powers stir,
In thee, or sprites or sprited ghastliness.
But, but, alas, night’s side the odds hath far,
For that at length yet doth invite some rest,
Thou, though still tired, yet still dost it detest.

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: “That” at the start of line 7 is not the relative pronoun, but rather the demonstrative pronoun, referring back to “night,” by contrast to the pronoun “thou,” which refers to “thought.”

Here we begin a series of four bedtime sonnets, similar to the series of three back at 38-40. Probably most of us are familiar with the “dark thoughts” that keep us awake at night, even if by the light of day the same problems might seem perfectly manageable. This dark brooding is magnified for the would-be lover in the speaker’s situation, since bedtime is a time to be reminded of loneliness, a time for undistracted thinking and brooding, and indeed a time to be reminded that the bed itself is not the place of pleasure one has longed for. So almost by definition, a bedtime sonnet is an “ode on melancholy.”

The poem is an apostrophe to the speaker’s own thought, which either by kinship (“kind”) or by chance seems perfectly matched with the night: both are dark, silent, sullen, heavy, and full of “doubts” or “perplexity.” The “native moisture” (dew) of the night parallels the tears that spring from thought. And the night is “barred from sun,” while the thought is frustrated by the lack of its “own sun’s” (i.e., son’s) light. This pun occurs in the first three of this set of four poems, disappearing only as the actual sun approaches in Sonnet 99.

The first half of the sestet invites comparison with Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the recurring discussion there of how night plays tricks with the mind. “Mazeful solitariness” is a state of amazement, but more literally, the perplexity and isolation of being inside a maze. And while the night of folklore (and Dream) is full of the “ghastly powers” of “sprites,” thought is paranoid, and similarly populates itself with demons (“sprites or sprited ghastliness”).

The poem’s fulcrum comes late, at the start of line 12; and where a single “but” is usually all that is required, in the speaker’s muddled state it takes four syllables (“but, but, alas”) to make the turn, and acknowledge the chief way that night is preferable to thought: at some point night invites us to go to sleep, but thought resists it—as any of us who have struggled with night-thoughts know all too well!

Next time (weekend of March 18): Sonnet 97
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 90

Stella, think not that I by verse seek fame,
Who seek, who hope, who love, who live but thee;
Thine eyes my pride, thy lips mine history;
If thou praise not, all other praise is shame.
Nor so ambitious am I as to frame
A nest for my young praise in laurel tree;
In truth, I swear, I wish not there should be
Graved in mine epitaph a poet’s name.
Ne if I would, could I just title make,
That any laud to me thereof should grow,
Without my plumes from others’ wings I take.
For nothing from my wit or will doth flow,
Since all my words thy beauty doth endite,
And love doth hold my hand, and makes me write.

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: “Ne” at the start of line 9 is pronounced to rhyme with “key,” and since it simply means “nor,” there is no pause after it.

Every once in a while, there is a pause in the “story,” for the poet/speaker to remind us of the premise underlying the entire sonnet sequence. That is the case here, in a very conventional sonnet, following the sequence’s most predictable form: an Italian sonnet rhymed ABBAABBACDCDEE, the most common scheme (60 times) in the sequence. There are full end-stops at the expected places, after line 8 (separating octave from sestet) and line 11 (splitting the sestet into two tercets).

Artifice is valued positively by Renaissance poets, and Sidney is a master of artifice. We have also been told from time to time in the sequence that others read his sonnets and apparently admire them, if not the infatuation that inspires them. So the octave here—in this most artificial of sonnets—dismisses the plausible notion that the poet celebrates Stella only to gain fame for his art. The images of fame are also the most conventional: critical acclaim by readers (the first quatrain maintains that Stella is the only reader who counts), the classical laurel-leaf crown from which the phrase “poet laureate” derives, or the designation of “poet” on one’s gravestone (which anticipates the honor of being recognized in the “Poets’ Corner” of Westminster Abbey, though Chaucer occupied the space in lonely splendor as Sidney wrote).

The fulcrum comes at the predictable spot, and the sestet moves in the direction of what he might be famous for as a poet, and that is that he does not fly on “others’ wings,” i.e., steal from other poets—as he asserted repeatedly in the early sonnets. There is no need for that (the final tercet tells us), but paradoxically he does not rely on his own “wit or will” either. As we have known since the final line of the first sonnet, it is Stella’s beauty and his own love that inspires this poetry and makes it worthy of praise.

Next time (weekend of December 25): Sonnet 91
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 56

Fie, school of Patience, fie! Your lesson is
Far, far too long to learn it without book:
What, a whole week without one piece of look,
And think I should not your large precepts miss?
When I might read those letters fair of bliss,
Which in her face teach virtue, I could brook
Somewhat thy leaden counsels, which I took
As of a friend that meant not much amiss:
But now that I, alas, do want her sight,
What, dost thou think that I can ever take
In thy cold stuff a phlegmatic delight?
No, Patience, if thou wilt my good, then make
Her come, and hear with patience my desire,
And then with patience bid me bear my fire.

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: “What,” at the start of lines 3 and 10 is the Elizabethan common interjection, not the start of a question, so the comma must be observed.  And “phlegmatic” in line 11 (originally “phlegmatique”) has an unusual pronunciation in which the third syllable is stressed, rather than the second, for the sake of the meter.

Apparently a week away from Stella is an unusually long time, and the poem sort of captures the tedium of such a lonely week, by its several repetitions of words (fie, far, and patience, and matching (in structure and general meaning) two-line sets at 3-4 and 10-11, giving that vaguely Godot-like feeling of just going in circles.

As in the following sonnet, we meet a new personification here, Patience. Patience is a counselor and teacher but, like Polonius, a rather dull, sententious, and tedious one. She gives “long lessons,” “large precepts,” and “leaden counsels”—in short, “cold stuff,” like a cold shower for the speaker’s passions.

The metaphorical scene that the poem creates has the speaker as a restless schoolboy in a classroom where the teacher’s lesson has taken on new urgency, but the teacher has lost her chief teaching aid, the textbook, which in the conceit is Stella herself. Imagine trying to master a complex subject by listening to lectures alone, with no recourse to printed explanations, illustrations, charts, and so forth; on top of that, imagine trying to do it when one’s mind is constantly elsewhere. In the octave, the speaker argues that he tried to be a good student of Patience as long as Stella herself was contributing to the lesson; with the consolation of her sight, he could “brook” those endless, tedious lectures.

“But now” (the fulcrum comes on cue, in the most predictable place) the lecture by (and on) Patience stands alone. If the point of poetry (as Sidney argues elsewhere) is both to teach and to delight, the lectures of Patience are decidedly unpoetic, offering instruction only, without the other half. How could he possibly be expected to keep paying attention?

So the final tercet offers an alternative course of action that is both appropriate and complex. If Patience wants the speaker to be patient, and has his best interests at heart (“wilt my good”), she should exert some influence over Stella also, and make her come back and listen patiently while the speaker lays out his claim for her love. The verb “bid” in the final line is deliberately and deliciously ambiguous. In a more neutral and somewhat less interesting reading it parallels “make,” and simply returns to the idea (running through the whole poem) of Patience trying to get the speaker to “chill out.” But if the subject of this verb is “Her” (Stella), and it parallels “come” and “hear,” then the line becomes a challenge: let’s just see if she can still bid me to contain the heat of my passion (“bear my fire”) when I have had a fair opportunity to present my case. For the sake of the strong ending of this sonnet, let’s just pretend, for the moment, that we don’t know the answer to that dare!

Next time (weekend of September 5): Sonnet 57
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 46

I cursed thee oft; I pity now thy case,
Blind-hitting boy, since she that thee and me
Rules with a beck, so tyrannizeth thee,
That thou must want or food or dwelling place,
For she protests to banish thee her face.
Her face? O Love, a rogue thou then should’st be,
If Love learn not alone to love and see,
Without desire to feed of further grace.
Alas poor wag, that now a scholar art
To such a schoolmistress, whose lessons new
Thou needs must miss, and so thou needs must smart.
Yet dear, let me his pardon get of you,
So long (though he from book mich to desire)
Till without fuel you can make hot fire.

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: the first “or” in line 4 means “either,” so it is necessary to make a slight lift after “want,” so that “want or food” doesn’t sound like a noun phrase. (To complicate this still further, Sidney clearly intends the “either/or” to mean “both/and,” since Cupid is denied the face where he both lives and “feeds” on grace.)
“Mich” in line 13 is not a typo; it is an archaic verb meaning “to be truant.”  Shakespeareans may recognize it from Falstaff’s rhetorical question in 1HenryIV II.4, “Shall the blessed sun of heaven prove a micher and eat blackberries?”
“Fuel” in the last line has two syllables.

The sonnet is addressed to Cupid (“Blind-hitting boy”), or “Love.” It is somewhat oddly divided, in that the first thought runs through five lines and, because of the ABBA quatrains, in effect ends with a couplet.* This allows three three-line thoughts to develop the implications of Cupid’s being “banished” from Stella’s face (has she taken to frowning lately?), so it could be argued that the poem’s fulcrum comes at this atypical spot. (Alternatively, it is signaled by “Alas” in the much more usual location.) “Rules with a beck” simply means that Stella has both Cupid and the speaker at her beck and call, and the modern way of saying “protests to banish” would be “protests by banishing.”

Exiled from Stella’s face, Cupid must needs be a “rogue,” a sort of vagrant deprived of his usual place and purpose, if (lines 7-8) he cannot learn what the speaker already knows, how to remain alone and loving without hope of return.

Cupid’s awkward situation is compared (lines 9-11) to the paradoxical one of a schoolboy with a particularly harsh schoolmarm, who has in effect been suspended from school, but now is whipped (“needs must smart”) for being absent!

The final tercet is tight and slightly difficult.  The grammatical crux is the construction “So long . . . till,” which means “Unless and until,” followed by an impossibility; as in “So long till [unless and until] money grows on trees, you must work for a living.”  Now to put the poem’s own meaning back in, the speaker is asking Stella (the harsh schoolmistress) to pardon her wayward pupil (though he parenthetically continues to be wayward by turning from his studies to desire the teacher) unless and until she can make a hot fire without fuel; i.e., Cupid needs to be back in place for her to enkindle the “hot fire” of the speaker’s love.

* Duncan-Jones’s editing makes a more conventional sonnet division by making a more abrupt self-interruption. She ends line 4 with a period, and then starts a new thought, which is broken off with a dash at the end of line 5.

Next time (weekend of April 18): Sonnet 47
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 31

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies;
How silently, and with how wan a face.
What, may it be that even in heav’nly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?
Sure, if that long-with-love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case;
I read it in thy looks; thy languished grace
To me, that feel the like, thy state descries.
Then even of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deemed there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be loved, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?

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: “Even” in both lines 3 and 9 is one syllable.

“What” at the start of line 3 is an expletive (common in Renaissance verse); resist the urge to ignore the comma and read “What may it be . . .”

“Above” in line 12 modifies “they,” and should therefore be followed by a slight lift before reading on; this also adds emphasis to the bevy of rhymes right there.

The inversion in the final line will be discussed below.

This is one of the best-known, oft-anthologized Sidney poems, and for good reason—although reading it outside the context of the whole sequence, or following only other popular ones such as Sonnets 1 and 10, might make a reader wonder why the speaker has “suddenly” taken such a dim view of Stella. Those of us who have been carefully following the whole sonnet sequence, of course, are right at home with these complaints.

Personifying the moon is a cliché of poetry and song, and Sidney was by no means the first to focus on paleness as the moon’s most noticeable feature. But this poem is a world apart from “Shine on, harvest moon” or even “Blue moon, you saw me standing alone,” in the closeness it achieves with the personified object. With the phrase “even of fellowship,” we realize we are looking at two guys who find themselves otherwise alone, in the pub on a Friday night, when everyone else has a date. The shared confidence between strangers, the immediate assumption that the other guy’s “case” is precisely the same as yours—this is the realism in the midst of utter fantasy that makes this one of the greatest poems in the language.

Structurally, the poem is as typical a model of Sidney’s sonnets as there could be: his favorite octave, sestet, and whole rhyme scheme; a fulcrum after line 8 (though not with a u-turn, just a “new departure” in the conversation); and a quiet division of the sestet, indicated simply by having each tercet start with a two-line question, and follow with a one-line question. The poem is a structural equivalent of a little black dress, simple and understated but elegant and classic.

The opening line establishes a literal scene, but also subtly indicates the speaker’s lonely condition and state of mind: is this a slow evening, or what? (Watching a moon rise, when you remove the poetry, must be akin to watching grass grow or paint dry.) The “wan face” is, from old, stereotypical for a courtly lover, so the mental association immediately bumps the speaker away from natural observation to the mythology of love, specifically his favorite tormentor, Cupid.

As a lover’s acquaintances are all too apt to do, the speaker leaps at once (“Sure”) to the answer to his own question, and the assumption that the moon must suffer the same affliction as himself. “If that” means “if it be that,” or simply “if,” so the unstressed “that” is barely a hiccup in the reading. The hyphens in the phrase that follows are crucial to the reading. Strictly speaking, we use one-word modifiers before nouns in English, and multi-word modifiers (such as prepositional phrases or relative clauses) after; so hyphens are crucial to turn many words into one. If you don’t believe me, take the hyphens out (as some editors, alas, do) and put the poem in front of a class of first-time viewers, and see how this line turns out! “Eyes” is of course a conventional synecdoche* for the speaker himself, who feels he is precisely the fellow-sufferer who can best judge the moon’s symptoms: just like him, the moon “feelst a lover’s case.”  This is a metaphysical claim, and like most such claims (in poetry, at least) it is both preposterous and totally convincing (slow steps, wan face . . .) at the same time.

Readers of the whole sequence to this point know that the speaker has been getting precious little sympathy or empathy from his friends. In catch-phrases from the world of 20th-century entertainment, while he “can’t get no satisfaction” in his love-life, he also “can’t get no respect” from those who know him best. So his recognition of a fellow-sufferer on whom he can disburden himself (albeit indirectly, through more questions) is heart-felt. The four questions to the moon in the sestet reveal the deep bitterness he feels at Stella’s response to his love, and at least his view of the complexity or hypocrisy of that response. She could, after all, just tell him to drop dead, and put an end to all this foolishness. Instead, she just questions his sanity (“wit”); instead, she “loves to be loved,” and appears to take pride in both the attention and her virtuous rejection of it.

The final line almost certainly needs to be read as a tortured inversion meaning (in normal order) “Do they call ungratefulness virtue there?” I say “almost” because a case might be made that the speaker has shifted to a comparison with himself, and might be admitting that he refers to Stella’s “virtue” as “ungratefulness.” But such a reading disrupts a consistent pattern, established in the sestet, of describing the attitudes of “proud” beauties, by implication the attitude of Stella. And the most logical extension, in particular, of lines 12 and 13, is that Stella takes mere ingratitude and dresses it up with the name of “virtue.”

So the poem has moved seamlessly from natural description to fanciful conversation to a set of questions that reveal more than they ask.

* the poetic figure in which a part stands for a whole, and quite often taking the form of part of the body representing the whole person.

Next time (weekend of September 20): Sonnet 32

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 28

You that with allegory’s curious frame
Of others’ children changelings use to make,
With me those pains, for God’s sake, do not take;
I list not dig so deep for brazen fame.
When I say “Stella,” I do mean the same
Princess of beauty for whose only sake
The reins of love I love, though never slake,
And joy therein, though nations count it shame.
I beg no subject to use eloquence,
Nor in hid ways do guide philosophy;
Look at my hands for no such quintessence.
But know that I, in pure simplicity
Breathe out the flames which burn within my heart,
Love only reading unto me this art.

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.

It’s not unusual, in an introductory literature course, for a student to tell me something like this: “I’ve never been any good at reading poetry, because I can’t find those hidden meanings.”  At such times I have to insist that there are no “hidden” meanings; if a meaning can not be found in, and supported by, the words of the poem, then it’s not there. Poets write to reveal truths, not to conceal them. One of the first slogans I write large on my blackboard is: POETRY IS WRITTEN TO MAKE SENSE.

But I may be at least partly to blame for the defeatist attitude, because I also write on the board: EVERYTHING MEANS SOMETHING ELSE. This is not just a statement about poetry; it is, indeed, a statement about everything. A student’s posture in my classroom has meaning. Whether a man does or does not wear a tie to work has meaning. Posture is still posture and a tie is still a tie, but we ignore the symbolism of the details of our life at our peril. The meanings may not be obvious, but that is why developing symbolic literacy is just as important as other basic kinds of learning, and incidentally why the study of poetry is a good preparation for life.

But say I wore a red tie to work one day, and someone said to me that this color tie indicated my affiliation with a local gang whose chosen color was red. This would of course be a preposterous assignment of meaning, based only on coincidence, and having nothing to do with either the conventional symbolism of ties or the context in which I was wearing the tie. Conventional understandings (e.g., Venus = love, Mars = war) and specific context are what we use to identify the “extra” meanings of things.

Now, Stella is the name chosen for a specific (apparently lovely) woman, and that Stella is rich in additional meaning is evident from the fact that 108 sonnets are addressed to her, and written about her. But if someone said, “When Sidney writes about Stella, he is really writing about his lost religious faith, and his strong desire to get it back,” I would have to blow the whistle on that one! I can’t deny that one of these poems might make that thought come into your head, but if so, a lot of other people’s poems would make the same thought come into your head, because the thought is already in your head, and not in the poem itself. This is an example of imposing an allegorical meaning that is supported neither by convention nor context.

And fortunately for me and my profession, Sidney himself has addressed such allegorical reading in this sonnet. The allegorists, he says, “Of others’ children changelings use to make.” The “children” here are clearly the poet’s offspring, or poems, and “changelings” (the most notable of which is at the center of the plot of Midsummer Night’s Dream) are babies exchanged by fairies during the night, so that fairies have the most beautiful babies and mortals are left with the ugly ones. (“Use to” is the archaic idiom meaning “are accustomed to.”) That is, such people are making a poem something it is not, by digging “deep” below what the poem actually says on its surface. There is wonderful word-play in both of the rhyming phrases “curious frame” and “brazen fame.” The “frame” into which the poem is being unnaturally squeezed is “curious” in that it is very carefully studied and inquisitive, but also in being odd or strange. And in rejecting “brazen fame,” the poet/speaker is saying both that he is not reaching so high (brazen = arrogant) and that such meaning cheapens his actual intent (brazen = brass, inferior to gold or silver).

The second quatrain states the simple and obvious about the sonnets, but also acknowledges the challenge and complexity of the speaker’s situation: he loves the “reins” (the control over him, or his thralldom) of love, though these reins are never slack (“slake”) or easy; and though everybody (“nations”) tries to talk him out of this shameful infatuation (as we have already seen repeatedly).

The first tercet of the sestet is fairly clear in its full meaning, though the specific wording may be a bit obscure. I think “subject” in line 9, like “philosophy” in line 10, can be understood as a special rhetorical purpose beyond what the poems directly say; and note that line 10 explicitly rejects “hid” meanings! (Students please take note!) “Quintessence” in line 11 is literally the “fifth element” of which only celestial objects were made. (The periodic chart for our own planet had only four elements at this point in history.) The word implies strongly that the poems are not pretending to be something they aren’t.

The fulcrum comes after line 11, as the poet/speaker shifts from the somewhat elaborated statement of what he is not doing to a simpler account of what he is doing, which is following the dictates of the Muse in Sonnet 1: “Look in thy heart and write.”

Next time (weekend of August 9): Sonnet 29
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 26

Though dusty wits dare scorn astrology,
And, fools, can think those lamps of purest light,
Whose numbers, ways, greatness, eternity,
Promising wonders, wonder do invite,
To have for no cause birthright in the sky,
But for to spangle the black weeds of night;
Or for some brawl, which in that chamber high
They should still dance, to please a gazer’s sight:
For me, I do Nature unidle know,
And know great causes great effects procure,
And know those bodies high reign on the low.
And if these rules did fail, proof makes me sure,
Who oft fore-judge my after-following race,
By only those two stars in Stella’s face.

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 rhyme scheme is used for the third sonnet in a row here, though it is otherwise not used a lot—nineteen times, total—in the sequence. But unlike Sonnet 25, this one has a strong fulcrum and change of direction after line 8.

At first glance (and especially if the first two commas in line 2 are omitted), the poem seems to offer a debate between the “dusty wits” (pedantic scholars?) and the “fools,” on the subject of the influence of the stars on humans. But the whole octave (which runs continuously, without a break in the middle) reaches a single conclusion—the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Cassius and Edmund, that we cannot attribute our fortunes to the stars—and the word “fools” in the second line is a sort of delayed appositive for the “dusty wits” themselves. Having tried out two other possibilities, I find this the reading that best fits the grammar, in particular in lines 4-5. So it parses thus: these dusty wits or fools think the stars (“lamps”)—and here we insert 2.4 lines of modification on how awesome the stars are (in part with words that would also apply to the “two stars in Stella’s face,” especially line 4)—to have (picking up again in line 5) no particular reason for being there, other than (1) to decorate the clothing (“black weeds”) of night, or (2) to dance in a “brawl” for our edification.* In short, according to the “dusty wits,” Nature is “idle” or random in its arrangement of the heavens, and beyond any recognizable or explicable purpose.

After line 8 comes the fulcrum and the “other side of the story”; the reason, so to speak, that the speaker can dismiss the best scientific minds of his age as “dusty wits” and “fools.”  The speaker comes down foursquare (albeit with irony, of course) on the side of purposeful stars dictating the fates of men (which would be an old-fashioned, outmoded view in the realm of Renaissance science, and no doubt one that a man of Sidney’s intellect would “in real life” scorn).  And why?  Because the “stars” (= eyes) in Stella’s face are so clearly dictating his own fate (“fore-judge[ing] my after-following race”). Just as in Sonnet 25, discussion of an ostensibly serious topic has ended, deliberately and cleverly, with a self-mocking jest.

* This option is not quite as riotous as it sounds to our ears. According to the OED, a “brawl” is a “kind of French dance resembling a cotillion,” and Sidney himself is cited for an example from The Arcadia which can be found on p. 43 of Duncan-Jones.

 Next time (weekend of July 12): Sonnet 27

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 23

The curious wits, seeing dull pensiveness
Bewray itself in my long settled eyes,
Whence those same fumes of melancholy rise
With idle pains, and missing aim, do guess.
Some, that know how my spring I did address,
Deem that my Muse some fruit of knowledge plies;
Others, because the Prince my service tries,
Think that I think state errors to redress.
But harder judges judge ambition’s rage,
Scourge of itself, still climbing slippery place,
Holds my young brain captived in golden cage.
O fools, or over-wise: alas, the race
Of all my thoughts hath neither stop nor start,
But only Stella’s eyes and Stella’s 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.

A central concern of Hamlet had been a standard component of poetry and drama for years before: the difficulty of explaining a young man’s melancholy when he is young, healthy, and gifted. While our own age considers depression to be a commonplace of minor mental impairment, its Medieval/Renaissance equivalent engendered a sort of awe and mystery, even though (or perhaps because?) there is clearly no place for melancholy within a life governed by reason. In 1621, Robert Burton would publish a monumental and detailed study titled The Anatomy of Melancholy, and he had a plethora of literary sources for his examples.

So here the “curious wits”—perhaps the very same friends who have been criticizing and counseling the speaker in many of these sonnets—find themselves in roughly the same position as Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, trying to explain the speaker’s strange melancholy and the “dull pensiveness” that has, of late, crept into his “long settled eyes”; that is, something has changed, and the “wits” are no better than those characters in Hamlet at diagnosing what it is. With “idle pains” (efforts) and a “missing aim,” they merely “guess.”

So now (lines 5-11), predictably, we’re going to hear what their wrong guesses are: basically, three in number, they occupy two, two, and three lines respectively. First (5-6) they guess that since the speaker was devoted to poetry in youth (“spring”), he is preoccupied with his Muse, or pondering a poem (this one actually has a bit of indirect truth in it). Second (7-8), that, as trusted ambassador, he has been given some thorny diplomatic problem to solve.  The third guess (9-11), offered by “harder judges,” is considerably less flattering to the speaker: like so many young noblemen in Elizabeth’s reign, he is deemed to be too ambitious for his own good, and is plotting some Machiavellian way to advance himself. Brooding melancholy is indeed the period’s stereotype for plotting or revenge, as in Hieronymo in The Spanish Tragedy, or Caesar’s view of Cassius, or Edmund, Aaron, Don John, or other villains in Shakespeare’s plays. But such ambition is aptly described in the 10th line, even as it is brought up: “Scourge of itself, still climbing slippery place.”

The poem’s fulcrum comes after the eleventh line. Having given free rein to all these opinions, the speaker now dismisses the wits as “fools, or overwise” (i.e., the second possibility is that they are over-analyzing a very simple case).  That which preoccupies the speaker (“the race of all my thoughts”) begins and ends with Stella. Or, to complicate that simple truth with a chiasmic structure, it “starts” with Stella’s eyes and “stops” with her heart. Complicate it, indeed: there are three possibilities for that simple idea:

  1. Neutral, or innocent: Stella is first and last, beginning and end, of the speaker’s preoccupations.
  2. Optimistic: his quest of Stella began with (the flash of) her eyes (see Sonnets 17 and 20) and its end or goal will be the conquest of her heart.
  3. Pessimistic: (cf. Sonnets 11 and 12) the quest of Stella started with her eyes, but will be stopped short by her heart.

Next time (weekend of May 31): Sonnet 24

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 22

In highest way of heaven the Sun did ride,
Progressing then from fair twins’ golden place:
Having no scarf of clouds before his face,
But shining forth of heat in his chief pride,
When some fair ladies, by hard promise tied,
On horseback met him in his furious race;
Yet each prepared with fan’s well-shading grace,
From that foe’s wounds their tender skins to hide.
Stella alone with face unarmed marched.
Either to do like him which open shone,
Or careless of the wealth because her own:
Yet were the hid and meaner beauties parched,
Her daintiest bare went free. The cause was this:
The Sun, which others burned, did her but kiss.

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: Line 9: “unarmèd” is three syllables, while “marched” is one.

A change of pace from many of the sonnets surrounding it, as this one again focuses entirely on the glory that is Stella, instead of on the speaker’s folly in loving her. This is a charming little tale, which is definitely allegorical, but also reads as if it might be based on a real incident.  The opening quatrain sets the scene as mid-day (the sun is at the “highest way of heaven”) in the hottest time of year (late June or July, when the sun is in Gemini) and with no clouds in the sky.

In other words, it is a terrible time for ladies who are concerned about their complexions to be traveling out of doors; but this particular group of ladies (Stella among them) are committed (“by hard promise tied”) to an outing on horseback, despite the adverse sunshine. As the octave ends, we learn that “each” lady has brought a fan with which to shield her face . . .

. . . except for Stella, we learn in the sestet, after the fulcrum. She marches “unarmed” into what we might now call a face-off with the sun; she faces the sun down because she shines just as bright, and the sun’s “wealth” is actually her own.

So several ladies protected by sun-screens, Stella recklessly uncovered, and what is the outcome? The other ladies were sun-burned, while Stella was not. And why? Even the sun is drawn to Stella’s brightness, and can only meekly “kiss” her, despite his power.

Next time (week of May 27): Sonnet 23

(The timing of these posts has been altered slightly by my trip to England)

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

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.