Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 23

The curious wits, seeing dull pensiveness
Bewray itself in my long settled eyes,
Whence those same fumes of melancholy rise
With idle pains, and missing aim, do guess.
Some, that know how my spring I did address,
Deem that my Muse some fruit of knowledge plies;
Others, because the Prince my service tries,
Think that I think state errors to redress.
But harder judges judge ambition’s rage,
Scourge of itself, still climbing slippery place,
Holds my young brain captived in golden cage.
O fools, or over-wise: alas, the race
Of all my thoughts hath neither stop nor start,
But only Stella’s eyes and Stella’s heart.

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.

A central concern of Hamlet had been a standard component of poetry and drama for years before: the difficulty of explaining a young man’s melancholy when he is young, healthy, and gifted. While our own age considers depression to be a commonplace of minor mental impairment, its Medieval/Renaissance equivalent engendered a sort of awe and mystery, even though (or perhaps because?) there is clearly no place for melancholy within a life governed by reason. In 1621, Robert Burton would publish a monumental and detailed study titled The Anatomy of Melancholy, and he had a plethora of literary sources for his examples.

So here the “curious wits”—perhaps the very same friends who have been criticizing and counseling the speaker in many of these sonnets—find themselves in roughly the same position as Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, trying to explain the speaker’s strange melancholy and the “dull pensiveness” that has, of late, crept into his “long settled eyes”; that is, something has changed, and the “wits” are no better than those characters in Hamlet at diagnosing what it is. With “idle pains” (efforts) and a “missing aim,” they merely “guess.”

So now (lines 5-11), predictably, we’re going to hear what their wrong guesses are: basically, three in number, they occupy two, two, and three lines respectively. First (5-6) they guess that since the speaker was devoted to poetry in youth (“spring”), he is preoccupied with his Muse, or pondering a poem (this one actually has a bit of indirect truth in it). Second (7-8), that, as trusted ambassador, he has been given some thorny diplomatic problem to solve.  The third guess (9-11), offered by “harder judges,” is considerably less flattering to the speaker: like so many young noblemen in Elizabeth’s reign, he is deemed to be too ambitious for his own good, and is plotting some Machiavellian way to advance himself. Brooding melancholy is indeed the period’s stereotype for plotting or revenge, as in Hieronymo in The Spanish Tragedy, or Caesar’s view of Cassius, or Edmund, Aaron, Don John, or other villains in Shakespeare’s plays. But such ambition is aptly described in the 10th line, even as it is brought up: “Scourge of itself, still climbing slippery place.”

The poem’s fulcrum comes after the eleventh line. Having given free rein to all these opinions, the speaker now dismisses the wits as “fools, or overwise” (i.e., the second possibility is that they are over-analyzing a very simple case).  That which preoccupies the speaker (“the race of all my thoughts”) begins and ends with Stella. Or, to complicate that simple truth with a chiasmic structure, it “starts” with Stella’s eyes and “stops” with her heart. Complicate it, indeed: there are three possibilities for that simple idea:

  1. Neutral, or innocent: Stella is first and last, beginning and end, of the speaker’s preoccupations.
  2. Optimistic: his quest of Stella began with (the flash of) her eyes (see Sonnets 17 and 20) and its end or goal will be the conquest of her heart.
  3. Pessimistic: (cf. Sonnets 11 and 12) the quest of Stella started with her eyes, but will be stopped short by her heart.

Next time (weekend of May 31): Sonnet 24

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 20

Fly, fly, my friends, I have my death wound, fly;
See there that boy, that murth’ring boy, I say,
Who like a thief hid in dark bush doth lie,
Till bloody bullet get him wrongful prey.
So tyrant he no fitter place could spy,
Nor so fair level in so secret stay
As that sweet black which veils the heav’nly eye;
There himself with his shot he close doth lay.
Poor passenger, pass now thereby I did,
And stayed, pleased with the prospect of the place,
While that black hue from me the bad guest hid:
But straight I saw motions of lightning grace,
And then descried the glist’ring of his dart:
But ere I could fly thence, it pierced my heart.

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.

If the “friends” being warned to save themselves here are the same friends who have been counseling reason, trying to talk the speaker out of his infatuation, and so on, the seemingly altruistic opening of this poem becomes also, in the context of the whole sequence, a witty and lighthearted way of saying (again) “Get off my back!”

The poem is a conceit, in which the speaker, in his (metaphorical) death throes, reports on how he received his fatal wound. The little tale is outlined as follows:

First quatrain: Dramatic recap of an “ambush” (i.e., briefly summarizes the “whole” event)
Second quatrain: How the ambusher came to be in place
Sestet: How the victim (the speaker) came to be victimized

I can’t absolutely prove it, but i suspect that the opening line is a conventional formula on the Medieval/Renaissance battlefield for the noble warrior who knows he has received his death wound and doesn’t want anyone else to die trying to rescue him; Sidney, as soldier, might actually have heard some form of it. Notice, for example, the recurrent pattern in Shakespeare:

Fly, father, fly! For all your friends are fled . . . 3 Henry VI, 2.5.125

Fly, lords, and save yourselves . . . 3 Henry VI, 5.2.48

Fly further off, my lord, fly further off.
Mark Antony is in your tents, my lord:
Fly, therefore, noble Cassius, fly further off. Julius Caesar 5.3.9-11

Fly, goodf Fleance, fly, fly, fly! Macbeth 3.3.25

The “murth’ring” (murdering) boy is of course Cupid, and the “bloody bullet” is his iconic arrow, which has (as we now know all too well!) been aimed at the wrong man (“wrongful prey”).

After the brief abstract, we go back to the beginning, as it were, with line 5. “So tyrant he” needs to be understood as “So great a tyrant as he . . . ,” and the word “tyrant” is not so much the despot of a whole nation as the OED’s extended sense of “Any one who acts in a cruel, violent, or wicked manner; a ruffian, desperado; a villain.” Nevertheless, there is a certain resemblance between Sidney’s Cupid and Wyatt’s personified “long love” (translated, in turn, from Petrarch) who with similar rudeness takes up residence in human features:

The long love that in my thought doth harbor
And in mine hert doth keep his residence,
Into my face presseth with bold pretence
And therein campeth, spreading his banner.

The general sense of the second quatrain is clear enough—the fittest place Cupid could find to hide was in Stella’s dark eyes—but the grammatical specifics are a little more challenging, chiefly because both “level” and “stay” in line 6 could be parsed defensibly as either nouns or verbs. “Stay,” for example, could reasonably be a verb in a parallel structure with “spy.” But as nouns, level = “aim” and stay = “support,” and I think the line is best read as a noun phrase in parallel with “place.” Thus, Cupid could find no fitter place, with no better aim (for his target) and no more secret support (for his weapon) than Stella’s dark eyes. All of these individual pieces add metaphorical richness to the conceit of a “tyrant” Cupid hidden in a woman’s eyes.

In line 9, “passenger” is used in the older, more literal sense of the word, merely a passer-by. The conceit goes forward in a fairly predictable way here, but we also, perhaps, learn something about Stella/Penelope and the speaker/Sidney’s reaction to her. He is “pleased with the prospect” when he merely looks at her, but it is only the animated Stella, the Stella who is looking back at him with “motions of lightning [also literal, growing more light] grace,” who actually allows Cupid to fire his “dart.” The flashing of those dark eyes in conversation is synonymous with the arrows of Cupid, and the speaker has been shot through the heart.

Next time (weekend of April 19): Sonnet 21

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