Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 100

O tears, no tears, but rain from beauty’s skies,
Making those lilies and those roses grow,
Which aye most fair, now more than most fair show,
While graceful pity beauty beautifies:
O honeyed sighs, which from that breast do rise,
Whose pants do make unspilling cream to flow,
Winged with whose breath, so pleasing zephyrs blow,
As can refresh the hell where my soul fries:
O plaints, conserved in such a sugared phrase
That eloquence itself envies your praise,
While sobbed-out words a perfect music give:
Such tears, sighs, plaints, no sorrow is but joy;
Or if such heavenly signs must prove annoy,
All mirth farewell, let me in sorrow live.

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The focus shifts abruptly to Stella, in what Shakespeare’s Rosalind would call a “more coming-on disposition”—or at least in visible sorrow at the plight that separates her from the speaker’s love. Her tears, sighs, and plaints (subjects of first quatrain, second quatrain, and first half of sestet, respectively) are all hyperbolized, and imagined as promising signs of her hidden love.

The first quatrain manages a “super-superlative” in three of its four lines (1,3, and 4). The tears are more than tears, a “rain” from Plato’s realm of “beauty” watering the red and white flowers of Stella’s cheeks. Those flowers are always (“aye”) “most fair,” but now (in defiance of the meaning of “most”) become “more than most fair,” and in a typical Sidney antanaclasis, this show of “pity” by a “beauty” makes beauty still more beautiful.

Though we move on from super-superlatives, the conceit of the second quatrain is even more over the top. Sighs, of course, rise from the lungs, which means from the “breast” of a beautiful woman. Thus they represent both “cream” and such cool breezes (“so pleasing zephyrs”) that the speaker is “refresh[ed].” But wait—let me state that as extremely as I can: the speaker’s “soul” which “fries” in “hell” is refreshed. This may be over the top, but it is also the crux of the poem. The previous sonnets have made clear how tormented the speaker’s thoughts are, and a small indication of sympathy or pity from Stella can go a long way in relief.

Lines 9-11 return to a more conventional hyperbole in covering the “plaints,” i.e., the actual words Stella uses to express sympathy. These are eloquent beyond eloquence, and (again evoking Platonic ideals) “perfect music.”

The final tercet is, predictably, a summing up and a mild paradoxical twist. Such clear signs of sorrow on Stella’s part bring joy to the speaker; OR, if they must be regarded negatively (“prove annoy”), then the speaker will foreswear “all mirth” to bask in such sorrow.

Next time (weekend of May 13): Sonnet 101
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 84

Highway, since you my chief Parnassus be,
And that my muse, to some ears not unsweet,
Tempers her words to trampling horse’s feet
More oft than to a chamber melody;
Now, blessed you, bear onward blessed me
To her, where I my heart safeliest shall meet.
My muse and I must you of duty greet,
With thanks and wishes, wishing thankfully.
Be you still fair, honoured by public heed,
By no encroachment wronged, nor time forgot;
Nor blamed for blood, nor shamed for sinful deed.
And that you know I envy you no lot
Of highest wish, I wish you so much bliss,
Hundreds of years you Stella’s feet may kiss.

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: “blessed” (both times) in line 5 has two syllables; and “safeliest” in line 6 is elided to two.

This sonnet is a gentle hymn to a highway, in the form of a “blessing” with a verse preceding it that describes the occasion for the blessing. I am reminded, for example, of the old McGuire Sisters New Year’s song “May You Always,” that begins “This special time, this special place . . . .” The song goes on for eight lines of recitative establishing the context, before swinging into “May you always walk in sunshine . . .,” the more memorable “aria” part of the blessing. Here, in very conventional sonnet form, the “verse” that sets up the blessing is the octave, and the blessing itself is the sestet.

The poem is ostensibly composed on horseback, the speaker/poet traveling toward Stella (in contrast to Sonnets 87-89, where he is forced to leave her). In the first quatrain he suggests that such propitious travel inspires more of his poetry (including supplying the rhythm of horses’ feet) than does chamber music.

The second quatrain completes the picture by gratefully imagining the journey’s end. The fifth line has a very subtle antanaclasis between “blessed you” (as in “Aren’t you wonderful?”) and “blessed me” (as in “I am so fortunate”). And line 8 similarly has a subtle chiasmus on words rooted in “thank” and “wish.”

The actual blessing starts with line 9. We might think of the familiar Irish Blessing which begins “May the road rise to greet you . . .,” except in this case the recipient of the blessing is the road! A blessing for any road might include the wishes that it be well-maintained (line 9 and the last two feet of line 10) and free of crime (first part of line 10, and line 11). But the final “capper” for this blessing, freely offered in the last three lines by an unenvious lover, is that it may “kiss” Stella’s feet for a hyperpolic “hundreds of years.”

Next time (weekend of October 2): Sonnet 85
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 51

Pardon mine ears, both I and they do pray,
So may your tongue still fluently proceed,
To them that do such entertainment need,
So may you still have somewhat new to say.
On silly me do not the burden lay,
Of all the grave conceits your brain doth breed;
But find some Hercules to bear, in steed
Of Atlas tired, your wisdom’s heavenly sway.
For me, while you discourse of courtly tides,
Of cunning’st fishers in most troubled streams,
Of straying ways, when valiant error guides;
Meanwhile my heart confers with Stella’s beams,
And is even irked that so sweet comedy,
By such unsuited speech should hindered be.

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: “even” in line 13 is one syllable; and “in steed” (line 7) was a 16th and 17th century form of “instead,” whose use here creates a pun.

This is another sonnet (like 14 and 21) in the vein of John Donne’s “Canonization” (“For God’s sake, hold thy tongue, and let me love”), responding with sarcasm to the friends who are carping critics of the speaker’s infatuation. Take note that, with this sonnet, we enter the longest stretch of formal uniformity in the whole sequence: seven sonnets in a row with Sidney’s favorite rhyme scheme and, with exceptions at 53 and 54, his typical 4-4-3-3 structure. We might say, optimistically and artistically, that the poet has found his groove; or, pessimistically and biographically, that the stagnation in the relationship is starting to rub off on his poetry!

The first eleven lines here offer a witty array of parodic or sarcastic techniques. In the first quatrain, the speaker’s ears are turned into victims, so that switches him right away from being the “accused” to being the champion of the oppressed. The friend’s criticisms are sarcastically turned to “entertainment,” and the suggestion that a new audience may give him something new to say is a backhanded way of saying that the friend’s criticisms are growing repetitive and tedious.

The sarcasm takes the form of hyperbole in the second quatrain, with a couple of word-plays triggering the device. In the sixteenth century, “silly” was a word in transition from its medieval meaning of “innocent” to the modern sense “foolish.” The speaker’s friend would clearly think of him in the latter sense, but the speaker presents himself as childishly unable to handle such vast wisdom. Secondly, “grave” means serious, but it is a weight-related term (as in the double meaning of “gravity”), so now we are set up for the hyperbolic contrast between the enormous weight of the friend’s “wisdom” and the childish incapacity of the speaker to bear it. The wordplay is compounded by the classical allusion to Hercules briefly standing in for Atlas in holding up the earth (with the choice of “in steed” for “instead” punningly making him a beast of burden), and this is exaggerated still further by making the weight here not just the earth but “heavenly sway”—a veiled reference also to the understanding of Reason as God’s will (see the entry on Sonnets 4 and 10).

Starting with “courtly tides,” we get subtle reference to the sort of sententious preaching being rejected: the repeated similitudes drawn from nature that are characteristic of the faddish euphuistic prose of the day: the “tides” of courtly opinion, fishing in troubled waters, or choosing “error” for a trail guide. As in line 6 of Sonnet 10, the tenth line here captures the difficulty of the weighty arguments with a tongue-twister, three separate “st” combinations in short space, for instance.

By contrast to those first eleven lines, the final three lines are clear and simple, as if the light of “Stella’s beams” has broken through. By contrast to his ears in line 1, the speaker’s heart is focused solely on his prize; and by contrast to the “entertainment” in line 3, this is “sweet comedy,” obviously in the Dantean sense of a story with a heavenly ending, rather than a trivial reference to amusement. The speaker’s critic is dismissed as a noisome distraction from a constant pursuit.

Next time (weekend of June 27): Sonnet 52
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 7

When Nature made her chief work, Stella’s eyes,
In color black why wrapped she beams so bright?
Would she in beamy black, like painter wise,
Frame daintiest luster mixed of shades and light?
Or did she else that sober hue devise
In object best to knit and strength our sight,
Lest, if no veil these brave gleams did disguise,
They, sun-like, should more dazzle than delight?
Or would she her miraculous power show,
That, whereas black seems beauty’s contrary,
She even in black doth make all beauties flow?
Both so, and thus: she, minding Love should be
Placed ever there, gave him this mourning weed
To honor all their deaths, who for her bleed.

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: meter is preserved by eliding “mirac’lous” in line 9 and “e’en” in line 11.

Did someone say “heavenly beams, infusing hellish pain”?  The Petrarchan cliché of the previous poem becomes the subject of this one!

Typical of Sidney’s sonnets, this combines standard Italian form with the logic of an English sonnet*: in this case, three blocks (4-4-3 in length) of “questions” and a 3-line “answer.”  To break that down a bit further, it’s one “real” question (basically, “What was Nature up to?”) and then three possible “answers,” in the form of the questions “Is it Answer A?” or “Is it Answer B?” or “Is it Answer C?”  The answer is, first, “All of the above . . . ,” and then, in a final twist, “. . . plus Answer D as well.”  So I will use these brief paraphrases for the labels of my outline below.

The Real Question (lines 1-2).  Stella’s flashing eyes (with which we will become very well acquainted in these sonnets!) are, paradoxically, dark in hue, or in Renaissance parlance, black.  This is all the more paradoxical because darkness is stereotypically disfavored in female features at this time (a stereotype oft honored in the breach, of course), and generally symbolizes evil.  Perhaps this is also the place to mention that female beauty in this time was regarded as a combination of the work of “Nature” and the added work of “Art,” with Nature’s work of course the more highly prized (at least in poetry) of the two.  So why did Nature do this very strange thing?

Answer A (3-4).  Perhaps she has been studying with the Dutch and Italian masters (“painter wise”), and thus understands that to make black shine (“luster”; note that the oldest sense of “dainty” is “excellent” or “precious”), it is necessary to mix light and dark paint in the same space.

Answer B (5-8).  Or perhaps Nature was concerned for the well-being of the rest of us, and needed to support (“knit”) and strengthen our sight in order to prepare it for something that might otherwise overwhelm it; so the darkness in Stella’s flashing eyes is like sunglasses on a particularly bright day, or perhaps the smoked glass by which one’s eyes are fortified to view a solar eclipse.  We can, of course, take “delight” in sunlight if we are properly protected against its power.

Answer C (9-11).  Or could it be that Nature, the artist, is just showing off, like a chess player playing blindfolded, or Mozart playing a long, complex piece from memory that he had heard only once.  In this case the “miraculous” feat is to capture “all beauties” in the very opposite of beauty, blackness.

The real answer: all (“both”) of the above, plus one more. (Note that, until fairly recently, “both” could be used with a series of more than two, as in Coleridge’s “He prayeth well who loveth well, /Both man and bird and beast.”)  The “all of the above” is disposed of in a single poetic foot, and then we get the additional answer, which is that our initial paradox is doubled back on itself: there is indeed an “evil” side to this darkness, even as it is framed in hyperbolic admiration.  Nature wanted the personified Love to take up residence in Stella’s eyes (a direct anticipation of the tale to be told in Sonnet 8), but if he lives there, he must wear black (“mourning weed”), out of respect for all the lovers who have “died” for her (in that age of battles, duels, and executions, “bleed” was a common synecdoche for “die”). This too is a shadow of things to come in the love saga of our speaker.

* For the typical structure of a Sidney sonnet, see the “Introduction” post.

Next time (weekend of November 2): Sonnet 8

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


Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 6

Some lovers speak, when they their Muses entertain,
Of hopes begot by fear, of wot not what desires,
Of force of heavenly beams, infusing hellish pain,
Of living deaths, dear wounds, fair storms and freezing fires.
Someone his song in Jove, and Jove’s strange tales, attires,
Broidered with bulls and swans, powdered with golden rain;
Another, humbler, wit to shepherd’s pipe retires,
Yet hiding royal blood full oft in rural vein.
To some a sweetest plaint a sweetest style affords,
While tears pour out his ink, and sighs breathe out his words,
His paper pale despair, and pain his pen doth move.
I can speak what I feel, and feel as much as they,
But think that all the map of my state I display,
When trembling voice brings forth that I do Stella 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.

This poem is the second of six in hexameters (or alexandrines) in the sequence, and it shares its full rhyme scheme with only two other sonnets (81 and 87), neither of which is in hexameters; so it could claim structural uniqueness.  Perhaps befitting the subject—as in Sonnet 1, the interplay of the speaker with other poets—its form is “hybridized” in multiple ways:  quite typical of Sidney is the midway break in the sestet, creating the sense of English-sonnet logic in an Italian sonnet; much less typical (it happens in only six sonnets) is a rhyme reversal in the octave whereby two “outie” quatrains become a palindromic “innie” octave:  ABABBABA.

The sonnet parallels the message of Sonnet 1, but with a difference.  Where the speaker had sought to imitate other poets before, he simply catalogs them in a lightly mocking tone now.  And in the final three lines, where he had been “helpless,” and then surprised by the muse, he is now (despite the “trembling voice” reflecting the weakness of his position in the would-be relationship) confident and assertive about what he is doing poetically.

The thrust of the poem—the chronic Sidney paradox of a highly artificial poem decrying artificiality and embracing simplicity—is clear enough, and its parallel examples of overwrought love poetry can no doubt be appreciated without a gloss.  Nevertheless, Duncan-Jones’s notes on the actual poets or poems being mocked are a lagniappe worth enjoying, so I will paraphrase here:  The first quatrain relates to Petrarch and his imitators.  The phrase “wot not what” translates Petrarch’s fondness for “I know not what” constructions introducing hyperboles, and the culminating oxymoron in the series of four in line 4, “freezing fires,” had become a Petrarchan cliché.  (I need hardly add that Sidney himself is, with no intended irony, guilty of everything mentioned in this quatrain at some point in this sequence.)  Ronsard (an early champion of alexandrines) was the most notable of many poets comparing their love to the metamorphoses (bull, swan, shower of gold) of Jove (7-8), while lines 9-10 may reflect the vogue of pastoral poetry both in England(e.g., Spenser) and on the continent.  (Duncan-Jones does not specifically gloss the idea in line 8 of “hiding royal blood . . . in rural vein”—a witty combination of near-miss repetition with royal/rural and the double meaning of “vein”—but this harks back to Virgil’s Eclogues, and may be most familiar to modern readers in plays such as Green’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, or Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Winter’s Tale.)  For lines 9-11 (e.g., “sweetest plaint” and “sweetest style”), Duncan-Jones offers: “Perhaps a reference to the dolce stil nuovo of the Italian poets of the fourteenth century” (358).

This is quite an amalgam of other poets’ (presumably insincere) gambits, replacing the long and frustrating process of attempting to steal from them, described in Sonnet 1. All are of course treated as elaborate ways to avoid a direct statement of a simple truth, rather than what Sidney himself would defend as the purpose of indirection and metaphor in poetry: love is a complex and multi-dimensional emotion, and can stand to be looked at from many angles.  If “I do Stella love” were indeed the entire “map” of Sidney’s “state” (an apt metaphor in that great age of exploration and map-making, as well as a pun on the word “state”*), there would be no place for 108 sonnets and eleven songs on the subject!  The blunt simplicity is but one of many moods.

*Sidney certainly intended the phrase as a metaphor, but he may have here invented the abstract sense of “map” as the plan or layout of one’s mental state; this very line is given as the OED’s first example for that sense.

Next time (weekend of October 19): Sonnet 7

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