Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 88

Out, traitor absence; darest thou counsel me
From my dear captainess to run away,
Because in brave array here marcheth she
That to win me, oft shows a present pay?
Is faith so weak? Or is such force in thee?
When sun is hid, can stars such beams display?
Cannot heaven’s food, once felt, keep stomachs free
From base desire on earthly cates to prey?
Tush, absence; while thy mists eclipse that light,
My orphan sense flies to the inward sight,
Where memory sets forth the beams of love;
That where before heart loved and eyes did see,
In heart both sight and love now coupled be;
United powers make each the stronger prove.

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: “darest” in line 1, “heaven’s” in line seven, and “powers” in line 14 are elided to a single syllable; and it is perhaps worth noting that there is no elision in lines 10 and 11, so we have the full three syllables for “the inward” and “memory.”

The second of three “absence” sonnets, this one has “outie” ABAB quatrains for the octave so that, in spite of grammatical breaks, one continuous idea spills out for that space. The opening metaphor is from military recruiting, often competitive (Farquhar’s great comedy The Recruiting Officer comes to mind). The sense here is that “absence” plants the treacherous seed of an idea that Stella is just playing with the speaker’s emotions, doing things when he is present to keep him interested in her. But the second quatrain asks rhetorically how one (i.e., the speaker himself) could ever be so faithless as to feed on lesser light or food just because the greater is absent.

The treacherous appeal of absence is easily dismissed at the poem’s fulcrum (“Tush”) because of what Wordsworth called the “inward eye/Which is the bliss of solitude.” Memory and imagination keep vivid the “beams of love” in spite of the clouds (“mists”) of absence. The figure in the final tercet suggests the mildly paradoxical idea that absence actually strengthens the speaker’s faith because, while in her presence heart and eyes function separately, now both are one and the same. Where the sonnet began with the somewhat petty image of competing recruiting officers, it now ends with the military ideal of “United powers.”

Next time (weekend of November 27): Sonnet 89
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 85 and Fourth Song

I see the house; my heart, thyself contain;
Beware full sails drown not thy tottering barge,
Lest joy, by nature apt sprites to enlarge,
Thee to thy wrack beyond thy limits strain;
Nor do like lords, whose weak confused brain,
Not pointing to fit folks each undercharge,
While every office themselves will discharge,
With doing all, leave nothing done but pain.
But give apt servants their due place; let eyes
See beauty’s total sum summed in her face;
Let ears hear speech, which wit to wonder ties;
Let breath suck up those sweets; let arms embrace
The globe of weal, lips love’s indentures make;
Thou but of all the kingly tribute take.

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: “tottering” in line 2 is elided to two syllables.

The first four words indicate a continuation of the story from the previous sonnet, and the arrival at Stella’s house, or whatever home she is in. This of course creates high excitement in the speaker’s “heart,” and the sonnet is an apostrophe to the heart counseling self-control. In the metaphor of the first quatrain, the heart is likened to a sailing “barge” which can be toppled over if the sails are allowed to become too full of wind. The wind is a metaphor for the “joy” that can over-inflate eager spirits (“apt sprites”). In an older man, like Gloucester in King Lear, we might imagine the resulting “wrack” as a physical overflow in which the heart might “burst smilingly.” For our young healthy suitor, the “wrack” envisioned is more likely the cold water of reality thrown on a too-obvious joy (see the Fourth Song, which follows).

In the second quatrain, the heart is counseled not to be like those foolish “lords” who have trouble delegating; they try to “discharge” all the lesser tasks themselves, rather than appointing (“pointing”) them to underlings more “fit” to do them—and thus accomplish “nothing” but “pain.”

The wiser course of delegating tasks to the lesser parts of the body is spelled out through most of the sestet. The eyes are there to admire the “sum” of all beauty in Stella’s face; the ears soak up her wise and wonderful speech; the lungs will absorb her sweetness. The arms will “embrace/The globe of weal,” which at first blush does not sound terribly flattering to Stella’s anatomy! But “globe” must be understood as macrocosm or universe; she is the self-contained universe of all well-being.

Finally, there is a word-play that makes the pivot to the poem’s “bottom line”: the lips make love’s “indentures.” The word could just refer to the physical impression made by the lips in kissing, but “indentures” are also debts or obligations owed to love. Far from being wracked, the speaker’s heart, in acting thus wisely, has become a “lord” or “king” ready to claim his due.

Fourth Song

Only joy, now here you are,
Fit to hear and ease my care:
Let my whispering voice obtain
Sweet reward for sharpest pain:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

Night hath closed all in her cloak,
Twinkling stars love-thoughts provoke;
Danger hence good care doth keep;
Jealousy itself doth sleep:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

Better place no wit can find
Cupid’s yoke to loose or bind;
These sweet flowers on fine bed too,
Us in their best language woo:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

This small light the moon bestows
Serves thy beams but to disclose,
So to raise my hap more high;
Fear not else, none can us spy:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

That you heard was but a mouse;
Dumb sleep holdeth all the house;
Yet asleep, methinks, they say,
Young folks, take time while you may:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

Niggard time threats, if we miss
This large offer of our bliss,
Long stay ere he grant the same;
Sweet, then, while each thing doth frame:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

Your fair mother is abed,
Candles out and curtains spread;
She thinks you do letters write;
Write, but let me first indite:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

Sweet, alas, why strive you thus?
Concord better fitteth us.
Leave to Mars the force of hands,
Your power in your beauty stands:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

Woe to me, and do you swear
Me to hate, but I forbear?
Cursed be my destinies all,
That brought me so high, to fall;
Soon with my death I will please thee.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”


Reading notes: “whispering” in line 3 is elided to two syllables; the third line of the final stanza, “Cursed be my destinies all,” is a challenge to the poem’s metrical pattern; the best solution is two syllables (stressed, unstressed) on “Cursed” and two (stressed, unstressed) on “destinies,” eliding it to “dest’nies.”

This song has a deceptively simple verse form in which each verse has conventional—not to say trite—wooing for four lines and then a two-line refrain in which a proposition is met with a parrot-like frustrating refusal—until the final verse, in which the singer “tricks” the parrot into saying something remotely encouraging.

The first four lines of each verse are seven syllables long, typically stressed on syllables 1, 3, 5, and 7 and unstressed on 2, 4, and 6. So the meter could be understood as trochaic and lacking a final syllable; but in context it probably makes more sense to understand these lines as iambic, after a somewhat awkward and explosive first syllable. In any event, the final two lines are simple iambic tetrameter, notwithstanding that “No, no, no, no” can be stressed however one likes! It is also worth noting that the song is largely monosyllabic, with, for example, just two two-syllable words in the first stanza, none at all in the fourth, and small numbers in the others.

As with the other songs, Sidney eschews poetic subtlety or complexity for blunt and simple wooing: My love, we’re alone together at last (stanza 1); it’s dark and no one else can see us (2 and 4); we have the perfect place for love-making (3); sleeping older folks would want younger folks like us to entertain ourselves (5); time is ripe now and is not likely to provide such opportunity again (6); your mother thinks you’ve stayed up to write letters—do that but let’s do this too (7). All of these entreaties are of course unsuccessful. In the eighth stanza, he finally takes note of her resistance and argues, in effect, that they should make love, not war—no luck there either. So in a final melodramatic flourish, he claims that with a life so blighted he should just end it all, thus gaining the minimal satisfaction of having her say “No, no, no, no, my dear, let be” to that as well.

Next time (weekend of October 16): Sonnet 86
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 29

Like some weak lords, neighbored by mighty kings,
To keep themselves and their chief cities free,
Do easily yield, that all their coasts may be
Ready to store their camps of needful things:
So Stella’s heart, finding what power Love brings,
To keep itself in life and liberty,
Doth willing grant, that in the frontiers he
Use all to help his other conquerings.
And thus her heart escapes; but thus her eyes
Serve him with shot, her lips his heralds are;
Her breasts his tents, legs his triumphal car;
Her flesh his food, her skin his armor brave;
And I, but for because my prospect lies
Upon that coast, am given up for a slave.

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: somewhat confusingly, the pronoun “their” in lines 2 and 3 refers to the “weak lords,” while the same pronoun in line 4 refers to the “mighty kings.”

“Power” in line 5 and “given” in line 14 are each one syllable.

Sonnet 29 is a perfect illustration of a conceit, an elaborate analogy often extended over many lines or, in this case, the entire poem. Here Stella is compared to the delicate geopolitical situation in which “weak lords” surrender to “mighty kings” without a fight, in order to keep their own subjection from being even worse. The poem envisions that the yielders would thus retain their basic freedoms, keep their cities intact, and go on about their business, while the conquerors would make use of the countryside and the coasts to maintain their supply lines. The “weak lords” are thus both conquered and free at the same time, the essential paradox that pertains to what is being said about Stella.

Stella, to keep her heart “in life and liberty” from the power of Love, has yielded up the “frontiers,” or all her outward parts—a similar distinction to that drawn in the sestet of Sonnet 12. And Love (i.e., personified love, or Cupid) uses all those outlying areas—Stella’s attractive features—“to help his other conquering,” i.e. (consistent with the conceit) to assist him in conquering other people.

As we move into the sestet, a blazon of those external features—familiar to us already from Sonnets 9, 12, and 13—is called for, with each being given a supply-line use more or less appropriate to either its form or its function. We have seen already (e.g., Sonnet 17), for instance, how Stella’s darting, dark, and shining eyes supply Cupid with his arrows (“shot”); and the others really require no explanation.

The final focus on the speaker is limited to two lines, so we might expect Sidney to have arranged the rhymes (as he often does) to produce a couplet here; but of course he does not, so the point about the speaker’s proximity to Stella (the outward Stella, not her heart; compare with the endings of Sonnets 17 and 20) is not a separate one, but is integrated with the other effects (collateral damage, we might call it) of Stella’s surrender.

Which brings me, finally, to what intrigues me most about this sonnet. The political side of the analogy is easy enough to understand; while giving up one’s freedom in order to remain free is a paradox, it is a semantic one only, by no means an impossibility, or even unusual. And we dealt in Sonnet 12 with the idea of Cupid setting out to conquer Stella’s heart, but not getting past her outward parts. But what does it mean that “Stella’s heart, finding what power Love brings,” should yield, even partially, to that power? That strikes me as a different statement about Stella than Sonnet 12 makes, unless we just shrug and say “No, he doesn’t really mean it that way”—which I’m not inclined to do. The paradox of being enslaved in order to remain free may be merely semantic for kingdoms and cities, but a woman who has surrendered to Love in order to remain free of love is a very Escher print of a paradox—an insight, perhaps, into the real-life contradiction (a woman who loves him but refuses to love him) that “Stella” presents to the poet.

Next time (weekend of August 23): Sonnet 30

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