Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 101

Stella is sick, and in that sickbed lies
Sweetness, that breathes and pants as oft as she;
And grace, sick too, such fine conclusions tries
That sickness brags itself best graced to be.
Beauty is sick, but sick in so fair guise
That in that paleness beauty’s white we see;
And joy, which is inseparate from those eyes,
Stella now learns (strange case!) to weep in thee.
Love moves thy pain, and like a faithful page,
As thy looks stir, runs up and down to make
All folks pressed at thy will thy pain to assuage;
Nature with care sweats for her darling’s sake,
Knowing worlds pass, ere she enough can find
Of such heaven stuff, to clothe so heavenly mind.

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 poem opens with a plain factual statement, suggesting this is a situational sonnet. But Stella’s sickness, as we might expect, is adapted to the purpose of singing her praise. Her weakened body embodies the qualities of sweetness, grace*, beauty (in perhaps the most telling example of the technique, the natural pallor of ill health becomes the “white” or fair complexion of conventional Renaissance beauty), and joy—which Stella is strangely compelled to weep in, because her flashing eyes are unable to do otherwise. This exercise fills the octave.

The sestet shifts the perspective from these abstract qualities of the patient to two abstract attendants—divided between the two tercets—love and nature. The first clause in line nine is best understood as an inverted structure; i.e., in “frontwards” English it means “Thy pain moves love,” and thus metaphorically love is a very busy and attentive nurse, or more literally, love is inspired in everyone who sees Stella’s distress, so that they are “pressed” into duty caring for her.

Nature is of course the progenitor of all that is beautiful, and thus it follows that Stella is her favorite child, and not only favorite but irreplaceable. If she should lose this one, “worlds [will] pass” before she’ll have the right combination of materials to make such another. “Heaven stuff” presumably means either “heavenly stuff” or the “stuff of heaven,” and this is requisite to make such a soul (“mind”) as Stella’s. So Stella is bound to receive the most careful of care from both friends and nature, since she is simply too valuable to lose.

* There is some obscure language in lines 3 and 4, but the general point is the same: to “try conclusions” is to enter into a contest or test of skill; Stella’s grace, encountering sickness with her, gets the better of sickness, so that sickness itself can brag of being “graced”; i.e., endowed with grace.

Next time (weekend of May 27): Sonnet 102
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 44

My words, I know, do well set forth my mind;
My mind bemoans his sense of inward smart;
Such smart may pity claim of any heart,
Her heart (sweet heart) is of no tiger’s kind:
And yet she hears, yet I no pity find;
But more I cry, less grace she doth impart.
Alas, what cause is there so overthwart,
That nobleness itself makes thus unkind?
I much do guess, yet find no truth save this:
That when the breath of my complaints doth touch
Those dainty doors unto the court of bliss,
The heavenly nature of that place is such
That once come there, the sobs of mine annoys
Are metamorphosed straight to tunes of joys.

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 auxesis of the opening quatrain closely echoes the opening of the entire sequence in Sonnet 1:

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she (dear she) might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know;
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;

But this hopeful aspiration has already over-shot reality, as the fifth and sixth lines of the present sonnet make certain:

And yet she hears, yet I no pity find;
But more I cry, less grace she doth impart.

The enterprise is not going well! And the very center of this sonnet, lines 7-8, poses the question of how this could be; what “overthwart” (literally, lying crosswise across; so figuratively, perverse or contrary to reason) cause could make such a noble mind (Stella) so oblivious to the speaker’s suffering, so incapable of pity or grace?

The sestet makes a very tentative and metaphorical stab at an explanation, and this explanation is, like the problem itself, a paradox, stretched out over the last five lines, since this is one of the very small number of Sidney sonnets without a full stop after line 11. Stella’s divinity (or “heavenly nature”) is of such a kind that it can instantly convert, or metamorphose, “sobs” of pain (“mine annoys”) to “tunes of joys.”* High praise, on the one hand, befitting a god—but, at the same time, a god who is coldly indifferent to the suffering of worshippers! The final couplet could be read as a veiled dig at the sadistic joy (as the speaker sees it) that Stella takes in making a lover miserable.

* On line 11, cf. Sonnet 9 for Stella as a “court,” not of bliss, but of virtue. Presumably here the metaphorical “doors” are her ears, not her mouth, as there.

Next time (weekend of March 21): Sonnet 45
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.