Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 54

Because I breathe not love to everyone,
Nor do not use set colors for to wear,
Nor nourish special locks of vowed hair,
Nor give each speech a full point of a groan,
The courtly nymphs, acquainted with the moan
Of them who in their lips Love’s standard bear,
“What, he!” say they of me; “now I dare swear
He cannot love; no, no, let him alone.”
And think so still, so Stella know my mind!
Profess, indeed, I do not Cupid’s art;
But you, fair maids, at length this true shall find,
That his right badge is worn but in the heart.
Dumb swans, not chattering pies, do lovers prove;
They love indeed, who quake to say they love.

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:  “vowed” in line 3 is two syllables

While this is a conventional Italian sonnet, with fulcrum and change of rhyme scheme after the eighth line, it is more “hybridized” with the English sonnet form than most of Sidney’s sonnets. The customary division of the sestet into two tercets is here replaced with a quatrain and a couplet, although this third quatrain (CDCD) changes form from the two in the octave (ABBA).

The understanding of this sonnet is enhanced by a familiarity with Shakespeare’s As You Like It, specifically the several moments when characters describe what the typical lover is supposed to look like:

Rosalind (in disguise, challenging Orlando for lacking any of the “signs” of a lover):

A lean cheek, which you have not; a blue eye and sunken, which you have not; an unquestionable spirit, which you have not; a beard neglected, which you have not . . . . Then your hose should be ungartered, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbuttoned, your shoe untied and everything about you demonstrating a careless desolation; but you are no such man . . . . (3.2.278 ff.)

Silvius (to Corin, arguing that the older man cannot know what love is):

If thou rememb’rest not the slightest folly
That ever love did make thee run into,
Thou hast not loved.
Or if thou hast not sat as I do now,
Wearing thy hearer in thy mistress’ praise,
Thou hast not loved.
Or if thou hast not broke from company
Abruptly, as my passion now makes me,
Thou hast not loved. (2.4.26-34)

Jaques (describing one of the “ages of man”):

And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. (2.7.150-152)

If Rosalind were one of the real ladies of Elizabeth’s court in Sidney’s time—the “courtly nymphs” or “fair maids”—her skepticism, we are told here, would be aimed at the poet himself. The octave humorously describes how these court gossips, versed in such things, have determined that the speaker lacks all the requisite signs of a lover, and have therefore struck him from their lists of eligible bachelors.

This is just fine, he says, as long as Stella knows about his love, since she is the only one he wants. But he cannot resist offering himself as an example and trying to teach these shallow people a little lesson: true love is carried in the heart, not in the mouth. As in an English sonnet, the couplet is a tidy “bottom line” or moral of the story. It is the graceful, silent swans whose mating habits are suggestive of faithful love, not the noisy magpies who are chattering all the time. (Since the women themselves have spoken aloud in the poem, and none too gracefully, this dig is probably aimed back at them.) The word “indeed” in the final line is a pun, heard as “in deed,” the antithesis of “say.”

With Sonnet 54, I have reached the halfway point on my journey through the sonnets of Astrophil and Stella. I can take inventory of the formal features of these sonnets with some numbers. At this point, Sidney has employed 11 of the 15 different rhyme schemes used in the whole sequence. When this is broken down further, it appears that the blend of the familiar with the experimental is roughly the same on both sides of this dividing line:

  • Of the 79 occurrences of the two most common rhyme schemes, 40 have happened in the first half, while of the 8 schemes that appear only once, we have seen 5.
  • Of 23 cases (some arguable) where the sestet does not have the typical two-tercet division, we have seen 11.
  • The six occurrences of hexameter lines are divided 3 and 3.

This would argue for at least formal consistency of purpose over the whole sequence, were it not for a departure we have not seen at all yet: the introduction of “songs,” several with substantial length, in among the sonnets, which starts only after Sonnet 63. There are 11 of these in all, of varying meters and stanza structures, and lengths ranging from 18 to 104 lines. They are found one each after Sonnets 63, 72, 83 and 85, then five in a row after 86 (so it almost seems the sonnets are overwhelmed by other material in the “80s”), and one each after 92 and 104. I have no explanation for this change, and indeed have never really given it much thought, preoccupied as I am with the form and function of individual sonnets. But I will see if any new speculation comes to mind when I encounter the songs in a context of closely analyzing the sonnets that surround them.

As for the content of the 54 poems we have examined to date, I think it’s fair to confess that the Petrarchan fixation on unrequited love, and the Courtly Love tradition of worshipping an unattainable goddess-mistress (usually someone else’s wife) from a distance, are hoary poetic clichés; and that if Sidney were a close friend and these poems truly reflected his daily preoccupations, we would be thoroughly fed up with him! But Sidney’s is an age of artifice; originality of expression, not the uniqueness or confessional truth of the passions expressed, is what is valued in the arts. And Sidney has not ceased to amaze me in the non-repetitive inventiveness of his pen. Like great paintings on the wall of a museum, each of these sonnets offers another little “surprise” each time you walk past. If I have done anything at all to open a reader’s eyes to some of these surprises, I am doing what I set out to do.

Next time (weekend of August 8): Sonnet 55
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.