Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 104 and Eleventh Song

Envious wits, what hath been mine offence,
That with such poisonous care my looks you mark,
That to each word, nay, sigh, of mine you hark,
As grudging me my sorrow’s eloquence?
Ah, is it not enough that I am thence,
Thence, so far thence, that scarcely any spark
Of comfort dare come to this dungeon dark,
Where rigor’s exile locks up all my sense?
But if I by a happy window pass,
If I but stars upon mine armor bear;
Sick, thirsty, glad, though but of empty glass;
Your moral notes straight my hid meaning tear
From out my ribs, and puffing prove that I
Do Stella love.   Fools, who doth it deny?

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: The first word of the poem (somewhat unusually in Sidney’s poetry) requires all three syllables, while “poisonous” in the second line has the more usual two.

It has become apparent, near the end of the sequence, that Sidney’s sonnets to Stella are being more widely read, and have inevitably become subject to carping criticism. The phrase “Envious wits” suggests not merely the censorious friends of Sonnets 14, 20, 21, 23, 27, etc., but perhaps rival poets who envy the success of the poetry and therefore seize on the immoral subject matter and “hid meaning” as something to criticize.

The octave consists of two four-line questions, more or less parallel: (1) Why do you carp at me?; and (2) Especially when I am unhappy or unfortunate to begin with? The speaker/poet’s “eloquence” springs from “sorrow,” and this sorrow comes from being “thence,” i.e., separated from Stella and thus denied physically (“sense”) what the poetry muses upon.

The sestet complains of the critics’ tendency to “read into” every gesture of the speaker—even such trivialities as being glad to have quenched his thirst, or having stars on his armor*—some hidden expression of his love for Stella. The irony of this, and bottom line of the poem, is that they are falling all over themselves to prove an accusation that the speaker would never deny.

* Duncan-Jones offers evidence that Sidney did indeed display stars on his armor, with no connection to Stella.

Eleventh Song

“Who is it that this dark night
Underneath my window plaineth?”
It is one who from thy sight
Being, ah, exiled, disdaineth
Every other vulgar light.
 
‘Why, alas, and are you he?
Be not yet those fancies changed?’
Dear, when you find change in me,
Though from me you be estranged,
Let my change to ruin be.
 
‘Well, in absence this will die.
Leave to see, and leave to wonder.’
Absence sure will help, if I
Can learn how myself to sunder
From what in my heart doth lie.
 
‘But time will these thoughts remove;
Time doth work what no man knoweth.’
Time doth as the subject prove;
With time still the affection growth
In the faithful turtledove.
 
‘What if you new beauties see?
Will they not stir new affection?’
I will think they pictures be,
Image-like of saint’s perfection,
Poorly counterfeiting thee.
 
‘But your reason’s purest light
Bids you leave such minds to nourish.’
Dear, do reason no such spite;
Never doth thy beauty flourish
More than in my reason’s sight.

‘But the wrongs love bears will make
Love at length leave undertaking.’
No, the more fools it do shake,
In a ground of so firm making
Deeper still they drive the stake.
 
‘Peace, I think that some give ear;
Come no more, lest I get anger.’
Bliss, I will my bliss forbear,
Fearing, sweet, you to endanger,
But my soul shall harbour there.
 
‘Well, be gone, be gone, I say,
Lest that Argus’ eyes perceive you.’
O unjust is fortune’s sway,
Which can make me thus to leave you,
And from louts to run away!

Reading notes: Consistent with the feminine rhymes in other stanzas, the –ed syllable in “changed” and “exchanged” in the second stanza is pronounced; in the fourth stanza, “the affection” is elided to three syllables, i.e., “th’affection.”

See my previous metrical notes on Songs, especially the Fourth, Eighth, and Ninth, after Sonnets 85 and 86. This most resembles the Ninth Song, with a five-line stanza containing one feminine rhyme which dictates a trochaic rhythm throughout, even in the lines that are one syllable “short.” Here the rhyme scheme changes from ABABB (in the Ninth Song) to ABABA, the effect being that the speaker of the last three lines “matches” the challenge of the first two lines, and then is able to “top” it with one additional line.

Like most of the songs, the format allows a looser, more open-ended version of the constant debate between Stalla—the self-styled voice of reason—and her impatient and importunate lover. This particular version seems to foreshadow Romeo beneath Juliet’s window, drawn to the “light” that shines there; except that this Juliet is never going to let her lover in. The debate whips back and forth rapidly, with Stella posing question or challenge in the first two lines of each stanza, and the speaker giving his come-back in the final three.

Absence, she says in Stanza 3, should surely make him forget her; only if he is separated from his own heart, he replies. To her thought that the passage of time will help him forget, he gives a Rosalind-like answer that time works differently with different beings (“Time doth in the subject prove”); with the turtledove, for example, affection only grows with time. If his eye is caught by new beauties? Shadow versus substance; other beauties are but the poor shadows of Stella’s ideal form. The old trump card reason? As we have heard many times, reason itself must acknowledge Stella’s beauty. Somewhat in contradiction of that stanza, the one that follows acknowledges the speaker’s folly, anticipating Einstein’s definition of madness as repeating the same exercise over and over while expecting a different result: fools, on the “ground” of the “wrongs” brought by their love, just keep driving the “stake” deeper.

This game could theoretically go on all night, if not broken off by some practical concern. And so, in the penultimate stanza, Stella either senses or pretends to sense that they are being overheard (“some give ear”). This must be by her husband, since he would be the only one from whom she could “get anger.” The speaker agrees to withdraw rather than endanger her, but neither (at least in Sidney’s view) can resist taking one last dig at Lord Rich, as our final song comes to an end. Stella describes him as the odious see-all guard Argus, while the speaker laments the unjust fortune that forces a brave soldier like himself to flee from “louts.”

Next time (weekend of July 8): Sonnet 105
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 26

Though dusty wits dare scorn astrology,
And, fools, can think those lamps of purest light,
Whose numbers, ways, greatness, eternity,
Promising wonders, wonder do invite,
To have for no cause birthright in the sky,
But for to spangle the black weeds of night;
Or for some brawl, which in that chamber high
They should still dance, to please a gazer’s sight:
For me, I do Nature unidle know,
And know great causes great effects procure,
And know those bodies high reign on the low.
And if these rules did fail, proof makes me sure,
Who oft fore-judge my after-following race,
By only those two stars in Stella’s face.

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.

The rhyme scheme is used for the third sonnet in a row here, though it is otherwise not used a lot—nineteen times, total—in the sequence. But unlike Sonnet 25, this one has a strong fulcrum and change of direction after line 8.

At first glance (and especially if the first two commas in line 2 are omitted), the poem seems to offer a debate between the “dusty wits” (pedantic scholars?) and the “fools,” on the subject of the influence of the stars on humans. But the whole octave (which runs continuously, without a break in the middle) reaches a single conclusion—the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Cassius and Edmund, that we cannot attribute our fortunes to the stars—and the word “fools” in the second line is a sort of delayed appositive for the “dusty wits” themselves. Having tried out two other possibilities, I find this the reading that best fits the grammar, in particular in lines 4-5. So it parses thus: these dusty wits or fools think the stars (“lamps”)—and here we insert 2.4 lines of modification on how awesome the stars are (in part with words that would also apply to the “two stars in Stella’s face,” especially line 4)—to have (picking up again in line 5) no particular reason for being there, other than (1) to decorate the clothing (“black weeds”) of night, or (2) to dance in a “brawl” for our edification.* In short, according to the “dusty wits,” Nature is “idle” or random in its arrangement of the heavens, and beyond any recognizable or explicable purpose.

After line 8 comes the fulcrum and the “other side of the story”; the reason, so to speak, that the speaker can dismiss the best scientific minds of his age as “dusty wits” and “fools.”  The speaker comes down foursquare (albeit with irony, of course) on the side of purposeful stars dictating the fates of men (which would be an old-fashioned, outmoded view in the realm of Renaissance science, and no doubt one that a man of Sidney’s intellect would “in real life” scorn).  And why?  Because the “stars” (= eyes) in Stella’s face are so clearly dictating his own fate (“fore-judge[ing] my after-following race”). Just as in Sonnet 25, discussion of an ostensibly serious topic has ended, deliberately and cleverly, with a self-mocking jest.

* This option is not quite as riotous as it sounds to our ears. According to the OED, a “brawl” is a “kind of French dance resembling a cotillion,” and Sidney himself is cited for an example from The Arcadia which can be found on p. 43 of Duncan-Jones.

 Next time (weekend of July 12): Sonnet 27

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 14

Alas, have I not pain enough, my friend,
Upon whose breast a fiercer gripe doth tire
Than did on him who first stole down the fire,
While Love on me doth all his quiver spend,
But with your rhubarb words you must contend
To grieve me worse, in saying that desire
Doth plunge my well-formed soul even in the mire
Of sinful thoughts, which do in ruin end?
If that be sin, which doth the manners frame,
Well stayed with truth in word, and faith of deed,
Ready of wit, and fearing nought but shame:
If that be sin which in fixed hearts doth breed
A loathing of all loose unchastity,
Then love is sin, and let me sinful 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.

Duncan-Jones says of this: “First of many sonnets showing Astrophil with an uncomprehending or disapproving friend; cf. 20, 21, 23, 27, 51, 88, 92, and 104.”  Again, Donne’s pugilistic “For God’s sake, hold thy tongue” comes to mind, but of that lengthy list, only 21 and 51 suggest such a direct confrontation as we have here—unless, when the speaker argues with “Reason” (e.g., 10 and 18), he has an actual person in mind as the voice of reason. The other sonnets in the list refer more generally to an uncomprehending circle of friends (no direct confrontation is pictured, and they are not necessarily disapproving) or, in the case of sonnet 92, to a friend who has seen Stella but, like Juliet’s nurse, is too balky in giving news about her.

The first quatrain is an “innie” (ABBA) that focuses on the speaker’s existing pain, independent of the new wrinkle of the friend’s interference. The love-pain is compared to (and deemed “fiercer” than) that of Prometheus, whose punishment for giving fire to mortals was to have his liver eaten out by a vulture daily, forever. The word chosen for vulture, “gripe,” is rich in additional meaning, starting with “clutch” or “grasp” (suggesting the clutches of Love), but also a severe inner-body pain, such as liver-pain (and we moderns need to remind ourselves that for Elizabethans the liver was the seat of the emotions; cf. “This wins him, liver and all” in Twelfth Night); and finally, to make a subtle link between the parallel annoyances in the two quatrains, a “gripe” is a covetous or envious person.

So he’s got this gut-wrenching pain already, and “Is that not enough?,” he suggests, “but [second quatrain] you have to add insult to injury?” “Rhubarb” is an appropriately ambiguous answer to “gripe,” since rhubarb was famous as a cure for liver illness, but also synonymous with bitterness (and modern readers can add a sense not known to Sidney, since “rhubarb words” can now mean “nonsense words,” such as those muttered by extras in a crowd scene). With such words the friend seems to be very much on the side of Virtue (sonnet 4) and Reason (sonnet 10), arguing that appetite (“desire”) can drag the speaker’s soul down into sin and damnation (“ruin”).

Each of the tercets in the sestet opens with an “If” argument, the first occupying all three lines, the second two, with the “then” answer to both coming in the final line. The gist of both “If” arguments is that the speaker’s love for Stella actually ennobles him in every way: (1) makes him a better gentleman, more truthful, faithful, wise, and discreet; and (2) (more to the point, but with pointed irony) in his single-minded devotion, makes him “[loathe] all loose unchastity.”  This is the key to the black-is-white, up-is-down argument that ends the poem.  The love he envisions with Stella is of course sinful by any conventional view, the very opposite of faithfulness, truth, and chastity. But by his reasoning, because Stella is the “fixed star” of his devotion, and he will give his love to no other, sin and virtue have switched places.

Next time (weekend of January 25): Sonnet 15

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