Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 106

O absent presence, Stella is not here;
False flattering hope, that with so fair a face
Bare me in hand, that in this orphan place,
Stella, I say my Stella, should appear:
What say’st thou now? Where is that dainty cheer
Thou told’st mine eyes should help their famished case?
But thou art gone, now that self-felt disgrace
Doth make me most to wish thy comfort near.
But here I do store of fair ladies meet,
Who may with charm of conversation sweet
Make in my heavy mould new thoughts to grow:
Sure they prevail as much with me, as he
That bade his friend, but then new maimed, to be
Merry with him, and not think of his woe.

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

And now she is gone—in body, at least, as the opening oxymoron reminds us that she is ever present in the speaker’s thoughts. The octave is addressed to a personified hope, who raised the possibility that Stella would in fact still be there, where she is not (“in this orphan [i.e., abandoned] place”). The speaker chides “hope” in lines 5 and 6, but then realizes the futility of this exercise, because hope, too, has abandoned him when he most needs its comfort; “disgrace,” at the end of line 7, has its older, more literal sense of being deprived of a grace one once had. In more conventional poetry, lines 7 and 8 might have been addressed to one’s lost love, but here they are addressed to hope.

In the sestet the speaker turns his attention to all the “fair ladies” still surrounding him, who surely promise to turn his mind away from the love he has lost. But in the final tercet he dismisses this possibility, with what is presumably a battle image: a hale and hearty soldier expecting his newly wounded comrade to be “merry” and “not think of his woe.”

Had this same sonnet appeared much earlier in the sequence, we might have read it as a temporary “down” in the see-saw fortunes and spirits of the speaker. But coming at this late point, and given the sense of the two final sonnets that follow, we must interpret this abandonment by “hope” as literal and past recovery. The physical departure by Stella in Sonnet 105 signified more than a change of location.

Next time (weekend of August 5): Sonnet 107
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 67

Hope, art thou true, or dost thou flatter me?
Doth Stella now begin with piteous eye
The ruins of her conquest to espy:
Will she take time, before all wracked be?
Her eyes’ speech is translated thus by thee.
But fail’st thou not in phrase so heavenly high?
Look on again, the fair text better try:
What blushing notes dost thou in margin see?
What sighs stolen out, or killed before full born?
Hast thou found such, and such-like arguments?
Or art thou else to comfort me foresworn?
Well, how so thou interpret the contents,
I am resolved thy error to maintain,
Rather than by more truth to get more pain.

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: “piteous” (line 2), “heavenly” (6), and “stolen” (9) are all shortened by a syllable, while “wracked” (4) is lengthened to two.

Sonnet 67 continues the theme of the previous one, grasping at straws of hope that Stella might take pity on the speaker and requite his love in some way. The opening line poses in milder form the dichotomy in the first quatrain of Sonnet 66: has she given a misleading sign, or is he deluded by his own hope? The remainder of this quatrain picks up Sidney’s familiar military imagery, comparing Stella to a conqueror who suddenly sees the need to pause (“take time”) before allowing the conquest to be so utterly destroyed that it is not worth owning (a similar idea to the plea that comes at the end of Sonnet 40).

The remainder of the sonnet is a charming little colloquy between the speaker and personified Hope, the “thee” of line 5. Hope is partly a comforting counselor—something like Friar Laurence to Romeo, perhaps—but partly a student interpreting a text, and being told by the teacher (in lines 6-8) to take another stab at it, because it might be a bit over the student’s head, so to speak (“phrase so heavenly high”). “Fair text” (i.e., Stella’s face) in line 7 is a play on words, as this is a term of art for the text that expresses the author’s “true” meaning, as opposed to a “foul” copy (either a rough draft or a poorly-done copy) with mistakes. The student (line 8) is encouraged to take a look at the marginal notes (where authors often explain themselves), another word-play, as Stella seems to be “blushing” at the “margins” of her eyes.

The first half of the sestet adds three more questions to the one in line 8, all four basically adding up to an English teacher’s favorite question: do you have any specific evidence to support your general claim?  The answer is clearly no, but in the final tercet the speaker is analogous to the speaker in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138:

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies. . .
—not that Stella is in any way a “dark lady” consciously misleading, but just that our speaker here is knowingly and deliberately suppressing the painful truth, in favor of the false hope.

Next time (weekend of February 6): Sonnet 68
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 49

I on my horse, and Love on me, doth try
Our horsemanships, while by strange work I prove
A horseman to my horse, a horse to Love;
And now man’s wrongs in me, poor beast, descry.
The reins wherewith my rider doth me tie,
Are humbled thoughts, which bit of reverence move,
Curbed in with fear, but with gilt boss above
Of hope, which makes it seem fair to the eye.
The wand is will; thou, fancy, saddle art,
Girt fast by memory; and while I spur
My horse, he spurs with sharp desire my heart;
He sits me fast, however I do stir;
And now hath made me to his hand so right,
That in the manage myself takes delight.

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.

Sidney was of course a skilled horseman, and there is an echo here of Sonnet 41, and his day of triumph. But within the first three lines, the speaker has turned himself “by strange work” into a monster: horse and rider at the same time (because Love, or Cupid, rides him at the same time he rides his horse). And after a transition in Line 4, the remainder of the sonnet develops this conceit in terms of the speaker’s new-found empathy with his own “poor beast” for the treatment he suffers. The poem bears comparison with Wyatt’s “My Galley, Charged with Forgetfulness,” in which different parts of the speaker’s mental process become either parts of a ship or aspects of the storm that troubles it. The abstract qualities here—thoughts, reverence, fear, hope, will, fancy, memory, and desire—are similarly matched up with the physical aspects of horsemanship:

Thoughts = the reins
Reverence = the bit
Fear = the “curbs” on the bit
Hope = the ornamental gilt boss on the side of the bridle
Will = the “wand” or whip
Fancy = the saddle
Memory = the saddle-girth (which thus keeps fancy in control)
Desire = the spurs

I needn’t say too much more, I hope, about how all this works, except to point out that (as explicitly stated in Wyatt’s poem) Reason is nowhere in sight, and the speaker is being entirely “ridden” by Fancy, Desire, and so on.

As we would expect from Sidney, the conceit turns out to be particularly apt, since the final tercet describes the ideal horse-rider relationship that any horseman will recognize: horse and rider become as one (line 12) so that no superfluous movements break that unity; and (lines 13-14) the rider’s control is so complete that the horse actually “takes delight” in perfectly following orders. The speaker recognizes that he, likewise, finds a sort of self-destructive joy in being the utterly compliant slave to Love. An idea briefly alluded to in lines 7-8 of Sonnet 28 is given more elaborated treatment in this sonnet.

Next time (weekend of June 6): Sonnet 50
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.