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.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 27

Because I oft, in dark abstracted guise
Seem most alone in greatest company,
With dearth of words, or answers quite awry,
To them that would make speech of speech arise,
They deem, and of their doom the rumor flies,
That poison foul of bubbling pride doth lie
So in my swelling breast that only I
Fawn on myself, and others do despise.
Yet pride, I think, doth not my soul possess,
Which looks too oft in his unflatt’ring glass;
But one worse fault, ambition, I confess,
That makes me oft my best friends overpass,
Unseen, unheard, while thought to highest place
Bends all his powers, even unto Stella’s grace.

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: in lines 7-8 “only” modifies “Fawn,” not “I”; so there is a slight lift after “only,” followed by “I fawn on myself” as a connected clause.

Both “powers” and “even” in the final line are single-syllable.

Notice also that “company,” “awry,” “lie,” and “I” are all supposed to rhyme, although this is observed only mentally (not vocally) in modern reading. Oddly enough, it is most likely the final sound in “company” that was heard in all four; the Great Vowel Shift was still in process when Sidney was writing.

This sonnet is such a close companion to Sonnet 23—the poem on melancholy—that one could almost be a superseded draft for the other, except there is no clear “winner.”  Instead, we must consider that the particular topic presented Sidney with enough matter for two fine sonnets, not to mention a number of others (e.g., Sonnet 30) in which the speaker’s self-absorption is at least mentioned.

Both 23 and this one depict concerned friends pondering reasons why the speaker seems so aloof and distracted, and get it wrong; and both of course end with the speaker giving the “right” answer. Both sonnets use the whole first quatrain to set the scene, although there is a closer grammatical link between lines 4 and 5 in this one than in the other. The second quatrain begins the list of reasons, but now observe carefully how the poet’s thought process on the same stimulus takes a new direction. In Sonnet 23, there were three reasons offered, with the third, ambition, occupying the first half of the sestet, the fulcrum coming after line 11, and the speaker’s response taking only the final three lines. In Sonnet 27, the sole reason given by the friends, the “poison foul of bubbling pride,” fills the second quatrain, and the speaker uses the entire sestet to respond. In fact, not only is the fulcrum after line 8 (the most typical place for an Italian sonnet), but this is a relatively rare sonnet in which Sidney does not make a strong break after line 11, but runs the whole argument of the sestet together. As in 23, the sestet brings up ambition as an issue, but it’s as if the speaker is saying “Wait a minute—come to think of it, it IS ambition, but not the way you thought.” And the sonnet ends with the customary fixation on Stella, here framed as the speaker’s aiming higher than is his due.

Let’s walk through it more carefully:

Again we are reminded of Hamlet, not just by the speaker’s “dark abstracted guise,” but also by the alternative possibilities of either “dearth of words” or “answers quite awry.” And the friends are described dismissively as “them that would make speech of speech arise”—i.e. people who engage in small talk, and think that when they have said anything, they are owed a response. Surely the speaker’s attitude is an exaggerated description for the polished courtier Sidney, but one can’t help wondering if the poet Sidney shares some of the shyness and introversion of the much later poet John Keats, and that poet’s impatience with clever acquaintances.

The sentence begun in line 1 continues right through the octave, and we do not reach the main clause until line 5, a line with wonderful sound effects: “They deem, and of their doom the rumor flies.” First I should explain that “doom” originally meant simply “judgment” (before it underwent pejoration to mean “condemnation”) so a paraphrase of this line is “They judge, and of their judgment, the popular opinion is formed that starts to spread around.”  But the sounds of the line, by themselves, paint a picture of how rumor departs by steady steps from truth. The steps are (1) “they deem,” connected by alliteration and consonance to (2) “their doom,” which is echoed and weakened in (3) “the rumor” (assonance, or in effect, given the successive stresses on “doom” and “rum-“, an internal rhyme, as if one slightly misheard the first word and repeated it as the second).

What their judgment, and the subsequent rumor, is, of course, is that it is the speaker’s pride and egotism (“that only I/Fawn on myself”) that make him so aloof. But that could hardly be the case, he protests, because his soul sees nothing good when it looks in the mirror. We might interpret that metaphor as meaning he feels some guilt over his misplaced passion, or, alternatively, translating “soul” more loosely as “self,” that his ego takes regular poundings in his encounters with the woman he loves.

And here, as discussed above, he allows of the possibility that the fault really is ambition after all—just not the political sort of ambition that his critics would expect. In his distracted daydreaming, the speaker aspires to the “highest place” imaginable: “Stella’s grace”; i.e., Stella’s showering divine blessings on him figuratively, while literally giving in to his will.

Next time (weekend of July 26): Sonnet 28

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 2

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 2

Not at first sight, nor with a dribbed shot,
Love gave the wound which while I breathe will bleed;
But known worth did in mine of time proceed,
Till by degrees it had full conquest got.
I saw, and liked; I liked, but loved not;
I loved, but straight did not what love decreed;
At length to love’s decrees I, forced, agreed,
Yet with repining at so partial lot.
Now even that footstep of lost liberty
Is gone, and now like slave-born Muscovite
I call it praise to suffer tyranny;
And now employ the remnant of my wit
To make myself believe that all is well,
While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.

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.

This sonnet is, on the one hand, one of the simplest, commonest Petrarchan clichés—love  has forced me to take leave of my wits and reason, but what can I do?—and, on the other, so clever and witty as to run the risk of being downright obscure in its ambiguity.

Let’s start with what is most clear and accessible.  The sonnet’s idea is laid out in a 3-step outline, similar to the way Shakespeare makes a case in three quatrains, except in this Italian sonnet the third section fills the sestet, and is further subdivided 3-3, Sidney’s typical pattern (though, as discussed in my first post, with the “hybrid” couplet again evoking the Shakespearean pattern). The outline reads: 1. General description of the problem; 2. shifting to “I” as the repeated subject of active verbs, a specific and succinct summary of how the speaker got to where he is; and 3. Where he is “now,” subdivided (a) how he is characterized (a slave enamored of his own slavery); and (b) what he does about it (tries to rationalize).

Three of the most striking, yet accessible, devices in the poem:

First, the over-punctuation in the second quatrain (to be fair, some of it introduced by modern editing), forcing a halting rhythm that imitates a man being dragged into something against his will.  Notice, for example, breaks after each of the first three feet in line 5, and then, when the two-syllable “lovèd” starts to make a smoother (and more optimistic) two-foot phrase, it comes crashing to earth with “not.” Or the even more disruptive break in the middle of a would-be iambic foot in line 7: if (by contrast) “I forced” were a simple subject-verb phrase, the line would read simply dĕ crées Ĭ fórced, but in this case, with “forced” as a past-participial postnominal modifier, the break forces a virtual spondee, dĕ crées Í, fórced; reader and speaker are, in effect, both stopped in their tracks at the same time.

Second, the wonderfully quiet-but-dramatic transition from the end of the octave to the start of the sestet. In line 8 the speaker retains some shred of his dignity as he comes to the conclusion of the dragging process: “Yet with repining at so partial lot.”  Imagine here a man being locked in a cell, while still protesting his innocence to his jailer. But apparently, the jailer ignores him, clangs the bars shut, and stalks off down an echoing hallway. The next poignant thought is: “Now even that footstep of lost liberty is gone.” The prisoner is on his own to adjust to the terms of his imprisonment, and typically (like the stereotypical Russian under the Tsars) he will find a way to embrace it. The suddenly concrete image of a footstep following the entirely abstract description of lines 5-8 is poetry at its greatest.

Third, the humorous reference to the “remnant” of the speaker’s wit (line 12), when he has not yet explicitly mentioned losing his wit—an almost homespun joke, but also a clever and understated way to “double” the meaning contained within an otherwise merely functional lead-in to an idea.

So where is the difficulty and the obscurity? Lines 3 and 14. The problems are not closely related, and do not seriously undercut the simple pattern discussed above, so I will just discuss them in isolation:

Line 3: The subject phrase “known worth” is itself a bit of a pauser, and may require the footnote information that this is an autobiographical reference to the fact that Sidney knew a great deal about Penelope Devereux before he considered her a love interest, but even without that knowledge, the phrase is a reasonably clear opposite to love at “first sight” or the “dribbed” (i.e., mistaken or misfired) shot of Cupid’s arrow mentioned in line 1. But the real puzzler is the adverbial phrase in the middle of the verb phrase, “in mine of time.” The first instinct, given all the self-preoccupation here, might be to think “mine” is the possessive meaning “my wound,” as in: “Love breaks some hearts, but has utterly smashed mine.”  But that instinct can be quickly dismissed: looking backward, the “wound” in line 2 was already “mine,” so saying “mine” in a “But” clause would be clumsy; and looking forward, the wound is certainly not the object of “had full conquest got”;  the speaker is, and indeed the wound is the instrument of the speaker’s defeat. The word “conquest,” in fact, is the key clue here. Conquest of a fortified city was as likely to be attempted by “mining” (= tunneling under the wall, hence our modern abstract term “undermining”) as by direct assault, though the latter was certainly more honorable and more likely to be admired. This is part of the point for the dashing soldier Sidney: Love has, in effect, gotten to him by “underhanded,” sneaky means, when he wasn’t properly armed against it.  So the “in mine” part of the phrase has nothing to do with a possessive, but refers to the method by which Love has used “known worth” to gain the “conquest.”  But that still leaves the seemingly simple phrase “of time,” which to me is just as hard to sort out.  Is it connected to “proceed,” meaning something as simple as “in time proceed”? If so, why not say “in time proceed,” since the meter is the same and “of time” is not idiomatic for “in time”?  Is it, alternatively, connected to “mine,” so that time is the entity that is actually being mined? That, too, does not make sense, since time is surely a “winner” not a “loser” in the construction that follows.  So let’s try this: it’s connected to “mine,” but the “of” indicates ownership, so mining is Time’s instrument for furthering the cause of Love; now that makes more sense, does it not?  But it is hardly an intuitive reading!

Line 14: The general sense of the final couplet is a paradox similar to Shakespeare’s “I do believe her though I know she lies,” only here the idea is “I do believe me though I know I’m crazy.”  The somewhat hard part is the apparent paradox-within-a-paradox of “While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.”  I think it is safe to say that “feeling skill” is an oxymoron, reflecting the same clash between passion and personal control that is a running theme of the whole sonnet sequence. But what, exactly, is the speaker doing with his passion-affected intellect?; what does it mean to “paint my hell”? There are at least two distinct possibilities, and in this case I think we do well to accept both, and thus enrich the poem’s meaning through ambiguity; as Benedick says, “There’s a double meaning in that!” Duncan-Jones’s endnote opts for Hamlet’s understanding of “paint” as giving “a false colouring or complexion to,” or in the crude American political vernacular, “putting lipstick on a pig.” So in that sense, the speaker admits to using optimistic descriptions of a love relationship to “pretty up” what is really a hellish state he has gotten into. It could similarly be said that line 5 of Sonnet 1, “I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe” refers to putting false make-up on an ugly face (blackness being equated with ugliness in Renaissance-speak). But just as clearly, that line occurs in the midst of a description of the struggle to create art, so it carries the ambiguity of “paint” as “create art.” The verb is used in this sense in several other sonnets (70, 81, 93, 98), unambiguously so in 81 (for example), where the speaker seeks to “paint” poetically a kiss he has received from Stella. So, the “simple” end of what is already a complex idea—“I am deluding myself and putting a false front on a hellish situation”—is given still more complexity, depth, and meaning with the layered suggestions (extending Sonnet 1’s role as “preface” to a lengthy sonnet sequence) that (1) the hellish situation is about to be turned into a work of art; and (2) (as Marlowe, Milton, and other writers have variously affirmed), “hell” is a place between a pair of human ears, and the “hell” the speaker has described himself as being reluctantly dragged into is in fact a hell of his own making.

Next time (weekend of August 24): Sonnet 3

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