Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 63, and First Song

O grammar-rules, O now your virtues show;
So children still read you with awful eyes,
As my young dove may, in your precepts wise,
Her grant to me by her own virtue know;
For late, with heart most high, with eyes most low,
I craved the thing which ever she denies;
She, lightning Love displaying Venus’ skies,
Lest once should not be heard, twice said, No, No!
Sing then, my muse, now Io Pæan sing;
Heavens envy not at my high triumphing,
But grammar’s force with sweet success confirm;
For grammar says (O this, dear Stella, weigh),
For grammar says (to grammar who says nay?)
That in one speech two negatives affirm!

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: “Heavens” in line 10 is one syllable. In line 9, “Io” is the muse, and a “Pæan” is a hymn of praise; both words are two-syllable, the first syllable stressed and the second unstressed in both cases.

This sonnet is downright childish in its playfulness, deflecting the speaker’s frustration in a rather nerdy way. The scene depicted is one in which Stella, notes the speaker’s rising excitement (“heart most high”) as he casts his “eyes most low” (i.e., he’s not looking her in the face!). While her beauty (“displaying Venus’ skies”) seems (to him, at least) to egg him on, she exercises a woman’s prerogative of using her voice to say No!—not just once, but twice.

The “grammar-rules” the poem speaks of are Latin grammar rules, the chief cause of children’s headaches in the grammar schools; hence, the second line, where “awful” has its original sense of “full of awe.” The idea of teaching a grammar for English has not really appeared yet, and, as we are frequently reminded by Shakespeare, at this time the double negative in English intensifies the negativity, rather than canceling it out. But in Latin teaching, a stricter logic would apply. Perhaps I should also point out that, strictly speaking, “No, no!” is not a double negative in the usual logical application of that phrase; it is merely repetition for emphasis.

But the speaker leaps on the opportunity with a self-consciously sappy voice of triumph: the first tercet of the sestet is deliberately bad, overwrought poetry, culminating in the ridiculous apotheosis of grammar, the schoolboy’s bane. Then, in the final three lines, he knows perfectly well he is being puerile, and milks the moment, with his two parenthetical interruptions stalling the springing of the trap until the final line.

First Song

Doubt you to whom my Muse these notes intendeth,
Which now my breast o’ercharged to music lendeth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only in you my song begins and endeth.
Who hath the eyes which marry state with pleasure,              5
Who keeps the key of Nature’s chiefest treasure?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only for you the heaven forgat all measure.
Who hath the lips, where wit in fairness reigneth,
Who womankind at once both decks and staineth?               10
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only by you Cupid his crown maintaineth.
Who hath the feet, whose step all sweetness planteth,
Who else for whom Fame worthy trumpets wanteth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;                                15
Only to you her scepter Venus granteth.
Who hath the breast, whose milk doth passions nourish,
Whose grace is such, that when it chides doth cherish?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only through you the tree of life doth flourish.                     20
Who hath the hand which without stroke subdueth,
Who long dead beauty with increase reneweth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only to you all envy hopeless rueth.
Who hath the hair which, loosest, fastest tieth,                      25
Who makes a man live, then glad when he dieth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only of you the flatterer never lieth.

Who hath the voice, which soul from senses sunders,
Whose force but yours the bolts of beauty thunders?                        30
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only with you are miracles not wonders.
Doubt you to whom my Muse these notes intendeth,
Which now my breast o’ercharg’d to music lendeth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;                                35
Only in you my song begins and endeth.

What strikes me most immediately about this first “song” after sixty-three sonnets is the pervasive use of feminine rhymes, used nowhere in the sonnets themselves. Lines 1, 2, and 4 of each stanza rhyme this way, while line 3, which functions as the song’s refrain, is the same perfectly regular iambic pentameter line all the way through. This refrain rather obviously states the song’s theme and purpose.

In the literal, biographical sense, we could imagine the songs being offered up musically (a version of the serenade) when Sidney and Penelope are together. In the artistic sense, a song like this could be called the antithesis of a sonnet. Instead of very close logic and dense complexity of ideas in tightly restricted space, we have the lengthy spinning out of a single idea as a refrain with a succession of not terribly interesting iterations.

There is not, for example, a closely connected thought running through any single stanza—except for the identical first and last stanzas (each illustrating its final line) which explain the point of the song. Instead, the song’s ingenuity lies in the way first lines are connected to one another (a blazon of physical features), second lines to one another (abstract hyperboles of praise), and fourth lines to one another (parallel extensions of the idea in the refrain).

A few lines that might be obscure or difficult for a reader:

10: “Who womankind at once both decks and staineth?”; i.e., she improves (“decks”) her gender and yet puts it to shame by the comparison of all other women to her.

14: “Who else for whom Fame worthy trumpets wanteth?”; i.e., even Fame itself is not up to the task of honoring her.

22:  “Who long dead beauty with increase reneweth?”; i.e., the “glory of Helen” or other ancient, supposedly matchless, beauty, is not only reborn, but actually improved in her. (Duncan-Jones’s note on this line is misleading.)

24: “Only to you all envy hopeless rueth”; slightly odd grammar here, but the general point seems to be that, while any beauty creates envy in the less beautiful, in her case, others despair even of their envy, as achieving her level is so hopeless.

26: “Who makes a man live, then glad when he dieth?”; i.e., she makes a man feel he is alive for the first time; the second half could be innocently interpreted as hyperbolically suggesting men are happy to die for her, but more immediate to the renaissance ear is the slang use of “die” for sexual intercourse (apparently stemming from the belief that each orgasm shortened one’s life a bit).

Next time (weekend of December 12): Sonnet 64
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.