Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 101

Stella is sick, and in that sickbed lies
Sweetness, that breathes and pants as oft as she;
And grace, sick too, such fine conclusions tries
That sickness brags itself best graced to be.
Beauty is sick, but sick in so fair guise
That in that paleness beauty’s white we see;
And joy, which is inseparate from those eyes,
Stella now learns (strange case!) to weep in thee.
Love moves thy pain, and like a faithful page,
As thy looks stir, runs up and down to make
All folks pressed at thy will thy pain to assuage;
Nature with care sweats for her darling’s sake,
Knowing worlds pass, ere she enough can find
Of such heaven stuff, to clothe so heavenly mind.

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The poem opens with a plain factual statement, suggesting this is a situational sonnet. But Stella’s sickness, as we might expect, is adapted to the purpose of singing her praise. Her weakened body embodies the qualities of sweetness, grace*, beauty (in perhaps the most telling example of the technique, the natural pallor of ill health becomes the “white” or fair complexion of conventional Renaissance beauty), and joy—which Stella is strangely compelled to weep in, because her flashing eyes are unable to do otherwise. This exercise fills the octave.

The sestet shifts the perspective from these abstract qualities of the patient to two abstract attendants—divided between the two tercets—love and nature. The first clause in line nine is best understood as an inverted structure; i.e., in “frontwards” English it means “Thy pain moves love,” and thus metaphorically love is a very busy and attentive nurse, or more literally, love is inspired in everyone who sees Stella’s distress, so that they are “pressed” into duty caring for her.

Nature is of course the progenitor of all that is beautiful, and thus it follows that Stella is her favorite child, and not only favorite but irreplaceable. If she should lose this one, “worlds [will] pass” before she’ll have the right combination of materials to make such another. “Heaven stuff” presumably means either “heavenly stuff” or the “stuff of heaven,” and this is requisite to make such a soul (“mind”) as Stella’s. So Stella is bound to receive the most careful of care from both friends and nature, since she is simply too valuable to lose.

* There is some obscure language in lines 3 and 4, but the general point is the same: to “try conclusions” is to enter into a contest or test of skill; Stella’s grace, encountering sickness with her, gets the better of sickness, so that sickness itself can brag of being “graced”; i.e., endowed with grace.

Next time (weekend of May 27): Sonnet 102
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 52

A strife is grown between Virtue and Love,
While each pretends that Stella must be his:
Her eyes, her lips, her all, saith Love, do this
Since they do wear his badge, most firmly prove.
But Virtue thus that title doth disprove:
That Stella (O dear name) that Stella is
That virtuous soul, sure heir of heavenly bliss,
Not this fair outside, which our hearts doth move;
And therefore, though her beauty and her grace
Be Love’s indeed, in Stella’s self he may
By no pretense claim any manner place.
Well, Love, since this demur our suit doth stay,
Let Virtue have that Stella’s self; yet thus
That Virtue but that body grant to us.

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: both “virtuous” and “heavenly” in line 7 are two syllables.

The “strife” that is the topic of this poem was introduced all the way back in Sonnet 4:

Virtue, alas, now let me take some rest;
Thou sett’st a bate between my will and wit;
If vain Love have my simple soul oppressed,
Leave what thou lik’st not, deal not thou with it.

As we noted there, strict conventional virtue keeps Stella, betrothed or married to another man, from loving as (at least in Sidney’s mind) she more naturally would; that is the essential conflict between Virtue and Love. The logic of this poem depends also on an even better-known conflict, conventionally attributed to St. Paul: that between Soul and Body. The first conflict is carried out by means of the second, as the two parties debate whether body or soul represents the essential Stella. Love states his case first, which in sonnet logic means he is going to lose, though a lawyer might say he has established a “basis for appeal.”  His argument is simply that everything observable about Stella (i.e., bodily features) advertises love, so she is clearly on his team. But this argument is easily trumped by the superior understanding that a person’s “self” is identified with her soul, and Stella’s soul is clearly on the side of Virtue. In lines 9-11 Virtue does generously concede that “her beauty and her grace” (i.e., “this fair outside”) belong to Love, but not the “self” that is Stella.

In the final tercet, the speaker, acting as a less-than-disinterested judge in the dispute, humorously divides the prize, suggesting each disputant get the “part” of Stella that belongs to him. At the risk of becoming more serious than the playful sonnet merits, I will point to two implications here: (1) that one’s body can be separated from the “self” (a marvelous liberation from responsibility!); and (2) an admission that the speaker would be grateful for a mere illicit sexual liaison, with no hint of Shakespeare’s “marriage of true minds” or Donne’s “intertwining” of souls. He is more like the lust-minded Angelo in Measure for Measure, who, when Isabella offers to do anything to save her brother’s life that would not endanger her soul, quickly replies, “I talk not of your soul.”

Next time (weekend of July 11): Sonnet 53
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.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 46

I cursed thee oft; I pity now thy case,
Blind-hitting boy, since she that thee and me
Rules with a beck, so tyrannizeth thee,
That thou must want or food or dwelling place,
For she protests to banish thee her face.
Her face? O Love, a rogue thou then should’st be,
If Love learn not alone to love and see,
Without desire to feed of further grace.
Alas poor wag, that now a scholar art
To such a schoolmistress, whose lessons new
Thou needs must miss, and so thou needs must smart.
Yet dear, let me his pardon get of you,
So long (though he from book mich to desire)
Till without fuel you can make hot fire.

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 “or” in line 4 means “either,” so it is necessary to make a slight lift after “want,” so that “want or food” doesn’t sound like a noun phrase. (To complicate this still further, Sidney clearly intends the “either/or” to mean “both/and,” since Cupid is denied the face where he both lives and “feeds” on grace.)
“Mich” in line 13 is not a typo; it is an archaic verb meaning “to be truant.”  Shakespeareans may recognize it from Falstaff’s rhetorical question in 1HenryIV II.4, “Shall the blessed sun of heaven prove a micher and eat blackberries?”
“Fuel” in the last line has two syllables.

The sonnet is addressed to Cupid (“Blind-hitting boy”), or “Love.” It is somewhat oddly divided, in that the first thought runs through five lines and, because of the ABBA quatrains, in effect ends with a couplet.* This allows three three-line thoughts to develop the implications of Cupid’s being “banished” from Stella’s face (has she taken to frowning lately?), so it could be argued that the poem’s fulcrum comes at this atypical spot. (Alternatively, it is signaled by “Alas” in the much more usual location.) “Rules with a beck” simply means that Stella has both Cupid and the speaker at her beck and call, and the modern way of saying “protests to banish” would be “protests by banishing.”

Exiled from Stella’s face, Cupid must needs be a “rogue,” a sort of vagrant deprived of his usual place and purpose, if (lines 7-8) he cannot learn what the speaker already knows, how to remain alone and loving without hope of return.

Cupid’s awkward situation is compared (lines 9-11) to the paradoxical one of a schoolboy with a particularly harsh schoolmarm, who has in effect been suspended from school, but now is whipped (“needs must smart”) for being absent!

The final tercet is tight and slightly difficult.  The grammatical crux is the construction “So long . . . till,” which means “Unless and until,” followed by an impossibility; as in “So long till [unless and until] money grows on trees, you must work for a living.”  Now to put the poem’s own meaning back in, the speaker is asking Stella (the harsh schoolmistress) to pardon her wayward pupil (though he parenthetically continues to be wayward by turning from his studies to desire the teacher) unless and until she can make a hot fire without fuel; i.e., Cupid needs to be back in place for her to enkindle the “hot fire” of the speaker’s love.

* Duncan-Jones’s editing makes a more conventional sonnet division by making a more abrupt self-interruption. She ends line 4 with a period, and then starts a new thought, which is broken off with a dash at the end of line 5.

Next time (weekend of April 18): Sonnet 47
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 42

O eyes, which do the spheres of beauty move,
Whose beams be joys, whose joys all virtues be,
Who, while they make Love conquer, conquer Love,
The schools where Venus hath learned chastity;
O eyes, whose humble looks most glorious prove
Only loved tyrants, just in cruelty,
Do not, O do not from poor me remove;
Keep still my zenith, ever shine on me.
For though I never see them, but straightways
My life forgets to nourish languished sprites;
Yet still on me, O eyes, dart down your rays;
And if from majesty of sacred lights,
Oppressing mortal sense, my death proceed,
Wracks triumphs be, which Love (high set) doth breed.

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 sonnet is of course addressed to Stella’s now-famous (or infamous) eyes, and all of their symbolic complexity is reflected in the poem’s tight and thorny figurative language. The octave at first glance appears to be two parallel ABAB quatrains, similar to an English sonnet, because of the repeated apostrophe “O eyes”; but in fact, while six of the eight lines do modify “eyes,” the last two shift into the sentence’s main clause, making a plea to the subject.  The first six lines are broken down as follows:

  1. A relative clause implying that the eyes are Prime Movers in some sort of parallel Platonic universe, where the customary planetary spheres of the Ptolemaic universe are replaced by the figurative “spheres of beauty.”
  2. A pair of parallel relative clauses, using auxesis to get the required and uncomplicated compliments out of the way in a hurry.
  3. Another relative clause with an extremely tight chiasmus (or epanados) compressing an idea which takes many more words to explain: Stella’s eyes make a conquest of the men who fall in love with them, but simultaneously quash that same love.
  4. An appositive whose paradox (Venus herself learns chastity in the “schools” of these eyes) elaborates on the paradox of the previous line.
  5. and 6. After the repeated apostrophe, one more relative clause, enjambed over the two lines. The word “prove” at the end of line 5 means “turn out to be” (tyrants), and “Only” in line 6 can mean either “merely” or (attached more closely to “lov’d”) “solely” or “singularly.” The set ends with two more paradoxes, tyrants that are loved, and cruelty that is just.

The plea to the eyes in lines 7 and 8 is simply to stay where they are, a constancy reflected first metrically by five strong stresses in a row in line 7 (“do not from poor me”) and then by the image in line 8: the “zenith” is the high point in the sky, so “still” is here an adverb modifying “keep”; i.e., stay constantly the high point of my sky. The image is akin to the North Star as the “star to every wandering bark” in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, and obviously returns us to the symbolism of Stella’s name.

The sestet explains why the speaker wants the eyes to “ever shine on me,” despite their decidedly mixed benefits. The first tercet may be paraphrased: For although whenever I see those eyes, I immediately lose my spirit, yet still . . . (and the plea is repeated). And then at the end, the crowning paradox: even if those “sacred lights” sap so much of my strength that they kill me, I will have died triumphant if I died for love.

Next time (weekend of February 21): Sonnet 43
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 19

On Cupid’s bow how are my heartstrings bent,
That see my wrack, and yet embrace the same!
When most I glory, then I feel most shame:
I willing run, yet while I run, repent.
My best wits still their own disgrace invent;
My very ink turns straight to Stella’s name;
And yet my words, as them my pen doth frame,
Advise themselves that they are vainly spent.
For though she pass all things, yet what is all
That unto me, who fare like him that both
Looks to the skies, and in a ditch doth fall?
O let me prop my mind, yet in his growth,
And not in Nature, for best fruits unfit:
“Scholar,” saith Love, “bend hitherward your wit.”

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 sonnet describes a sort of growing love-madness in the speaker, as reflected in the disorderly line break between lines 9 and 10—unusually “modern” for Sidney—in which the closely connected noun phrase “all that” is snapped right in the middle, so that even the slight acknowledgement that the end of an enjambed line customarily receives is impossible here; the break after line 10 is only barely more natural, and all three lines of the tercet have caesuras, so, as the soon-to-be-mad Hamlet might observe here, “the time is out of joint.”  As it happens, the simile of that tercet is taken from Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, at the moment when the scholar Nicholas is feigning madness in preparation for his plot to sleep with the Carpenter John’s lovely young wife (a silly story which, for some reason, might be much on Sidney’s mind these days!).  The foolish carpenter, in his sincere concern for his lodger’s obsession with astrology, recalls a similar case:

So ferde another clerk with astromye;
He walked in the feeldes, for to prye
Upon the sterres, what ther sholde befalle,
Til he was in a marle-pit yfalle;
He saugh nat that.

Our “scholar” seems to be relating more to that clerk than to the successful Nicholas.*

While the opening line of the poem seems at first glance to suggest the speaker’s heartstrings are being used to string Cupid’s bow, this clever word-play is misleading. More logically, “bent” here means “inclined toward” or “aimed at,” the same as the verb at the end of line 12 in the previous sonnet. So his “heartstrings” are pulled toward Cupid’s bow, even as he knows that ruin (“wrack”) that way lies. (Compare Shakespeare’s couplet on lust, Sonnet 129: All this the world well knows, yet none knows well/To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.) This paradox is extended with the parallel paradoxes of lines 3 and 4.

Line 5 repeats the idea expressed in lines 10-11 of sonnet 18:

My wit doth strive those passions to defend
Which for reward spoil it with vain annoys.

That is, the speaker’s best thinking is going into a fool’s errand that pays off only negatively. From the second quatrain here, it is now quite obvious that Sidney refers to the writing of the sonnet sequence itself, and the tendency of the sonnets to bring him shame, even as they help him explore both his passion and his shame: “[the words of the poems] Advise themselves that they are vainly spent.”

The first half of the sestet, as discussed above, takes us back to the classic Chaucerian image of star-gazing and embarrassing futility as the only result. But the final tercet returns to the same mulish determination of the speaker to court his own ruin, expressed here in imagery drawn from Renaissance formal gardening: the speaker’s “mind” (and remember, that word encompasses the soul as well as the intellect) is treated as a fruit tree in such a garden; it could have grown naturally, but instead the speaker asks that it be “propped” (i.e., staked) and thus forced to grow in an unnatural direction, for decorative but “fruitless” purposes (my double meaning is quite intentional). Just so the speaker’s “wit” and learning are unnaturally bent toward Love (the repeated verb signals that the poem ends right where it started), with a similarly fruitless result. Notice that the final line of this poem is a faded echo of the final line of Sonnet 1, with most of the drive and optimism already drained out.

* As Duncan-Jones points out, Sidney (and probably Chaucer also) had in mind a commonplace anecdote about Thales of Miletus, an ancient Greek philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer. Sidney makes the same allusion in the Defence of Poesy (Duncan-Jones 219).

Next time (weekend of April 5): Sonnet 20

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 16

In nature apt to like, when I did see,
Beauties, which were of many carats fine,
My boiling sprites did thither soon incline,
And, Love, I thought that I was full of thee:
But finding not those restless flames in me
Which others said did make their souls to pine:
I thought those babes of some pin’s hurt did whine,
By my love judging what Love’s pain might be.
But while I thus with this young lion played,
Mine eyes (shall I say cursed or blessed?) beheld
Stella; now she is named, need more be said?
In her sight I a lesson new have spelled;
I now have learned Love right, and learned even so,
As who by being poisoned doth poison know.

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: “Lion” in line 9 has both its syllables, while “even” in 13 and “poisoned” in 14 (that’s a tough one to do!) each have just one—in fact, all the –ed verbs in this poem are one-syllable.

This is Sidney’s conventional Italian form, with the main fulcrum after the octave, and the sestet divided in the middle.  The octave is also divided by a “But” in the middle, so appropriately the quatrains are the inward-turned ABBA form.  The sestet, rhyming CDCDEE, makes the “hybrid” form (see discussion in the “Introduction” post) with an “English”-sounding witty couplet at the end. The complete form (ABBAABBACDCDEE) is Sidney’s favorite, used in sixty of the A & S sonnets, and sonnet 16 begins a run of four in a row in this form.

The idea of the first quatrain is that the speaker, in earlier life, was by nature (“In nature”) prone to fall in love easily.  When “Beauties” are measured in “carats” there is an implied metaphor that can cut both ways: they are indeed beautiful, like gold and gems, but they are also reduced to visual objects by the same word.  “Boiling sprites” is either an oxymoron (the spirit is not meant to be subject to passion) or a confession that these “sprites” are more like imps or demons. In any case, the thought of being “full of” Love (either the emotion or the personified god, who was so prominent just a few sonnets ago, and makes a full return in the next sonnet), is clearly some sort of delusion.

But in this earlier state of misunderstanding, the second quatrain adds, he observed others who claimed to be love-struck, and thought they did protest too much. The “pains” of love they complained of struck the speaker as hypochondriacal, since he, too, was “in love” (or thought he was) and felt nothing like that. The logic of this quatrain leaves open the question of whether these others were feeling something comparable to what the speaker feels now, thus opening the possibility that there are lots of “Stellas” out there for lots of other men—something he stoutly denies elsewhere. But this sonnet is, I think, strictly personal, a comparison of “before” self to “after” self.

The “after” self is of course created by the sight of Stella, in the sestet. The speaker’s immature love is compared to the mythical “young lion” (Duncan-Jones references Aeschylus, Agamemnon) with which a shepherd boy played until it grew up and became dangerous. That happens in the instant of meeting Stella, and indeed the sonnet sounds as if it might end three lines early with “need more be said?”.  But since the answer to that otherwise rhetorical question is “Yes, you’ve got three lines to go,” he gamely “spells” out the “lesson” he has learned.  “Spell” is a wonderfully flexible word, meaning both to learn something by very close and careful study, and to recite it back with the same care; and of course it also means to write something down, so it plays on “now she is named,” suggesting that the mere writing of her name constitutes all that is necessary in the way of lesson.

Finally, Stella is, as usual, a mixed blessing.  The speaker can not say whether his eyes were “cursed or blessed” in falling on Stella, and the bottom line of the poem compares his newfound wisdom in love to the unique understanding of poison by one who has been poisoned.

Next time (weekend of February 22): Sonnet 17

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.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 13

Phoebus was judge between Jove, Mars, and Love,
Of those three gods, whose arms the fairest were:
Jove’s golden shield did eagle sables bear,
Whose talons held young Ganymede above:
But in vert field Mars bare a golden spear,
Which through a bleeding heart his point did shove.
Each had his crest: Mars carried Venus’ glove,
Jove on his helm the thunderbolt did rear.
Cupid then smiles, for on his crest there lies
Stella’s fair hair, her face he makes his shield,
Where roses gules are borne in silver field.
Phoebus drew wide the curtains of the skies
To blaze these last, and sware devoutly then,
The first, thus matched, were scarcely gentlemen.

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.

Sonnet 13 is a lesson in Elizabethan heraldry. . .

But before I get to that, let me point out something I did not notice right away, which is that the rhyme scheme of this poem is absolutely unique among the Astrophil and Stella sonnets. Initially I had counted its octave among Sidney’s most common ABBAABBA set. When I needed an illustration of that pattern for a talk I was giving, I pulled this sonnet out almost randomly, and then of course was forced to take a closer look: ABBA . . . BAAB. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and in a rush of self-doubt quickly flipped through all the other sonnets opening ABBA—and not a single one had this second-quatrain flip-flop; only this one.*  Is it just an accident? I can’t rule that out, but carelessness in form is hardly a Sidney trait. Notice that this octave opens with a two-line premise, and closes with a two-line comparison of the crests of Mars and Jupiter (“Jove”). In between are two parallel two-line statements—one for each god—and the unique rhyme-scheme reversal makes these more precisely parallel, the first line being a general description ending in rhyme B:

Jove’s golden shield did eagle sables bear,
But in vert field Mars bare a golden spear,

while the second line is a relative clause adding an active detail and ending in rhyme A:

Whose talons held young Ganymede above:
Which through a bleeding heart his point did shove:

One might reasonably ask why, if this is so carefully structured, he never found opportunity to do this again—but I think it is deliberate.

So, what about the heraldry lesson? The little fable here is that Phoebus Apollo (god of wisdom and enlightenment) has been called on to judge the “arms”—i.e., coats of arms, the symbols of gentility or higher—of the three other gods named. There is an obvious echo here of Paris judging the relative beauty of three goddesses, but thankfully no war hangs on the outcome!

In an Italian sonnet (somewhat as in a joke that begins “three guys walked into a bar”), if the octave is entirely devoted to two of a threesome, we already know that the third will be the “winner.” The curious thing here is that there is an additional tip-off in the coats-of-arms of Jove and Mars: of all the exploits that might have been featured there, both have chosen moments when they have gotten giddy in love—as if paying homage to their opponent before the contest has even begun! On the shields, in the characteristic jargon of heraldry, Jove has a black (“sables”) eagle on a gold field, holding the boy Ganymede with whom Jove was so smitten that he adopted the eagle disguise to kidnap him; Jove’s crest (the device above the shield, originally the plumage or other decoration atop a Knight’s helmet), however, is the more predictable and assertive thunderbolt. Mars, conversely, has a more ambiguous shield depicting a golden spear through a bleeding heart on a green (“vert”) field, but almost comically undercut by the glove of Venus on his crest, at least hinting at the possibility that the pierced heart is actually his own! Carrying the glove of a mistress into battle is a courtly love cliché, but the notion of Venus even wearing gloves seems a bit ridiculous to contemplate.

The contest is no longer in suspense; the sestet opens with the simple statement of the inevitable outcome: “Cupid then smiles.” His coat of arms is simply Stella herself, her hair the crest and her face the shield, described heraldically as “roses gules [red] borne in silver field.”  This is the clincher, so announced by Apollo in the final tercet, where he “blazes” the winner across the skies—a multiple pun. On the simple level, he is (as sun-god) lighting up the sky with the image of Stella. But “blaze” is also what one does when one describes a coat-of-arms with all those funny French words, and such a description is called a blazon, from whence was borrowed the poetic term for a catalog of a lady’s beautiful features. Such a blazon (in miniature) is what the blazon of Cupid’s arms turned out to be.

There is one final put-down for the losing competitors, a sort of chain-of-being trope. It is of course ludicrous, to begin with, that gods would try to prove their worthiness with this form of human vanity, but in this case Jove and Mars have been so badly outclassed that they are “scarcely gentlemen”; i.e., they barely qualify to have coats-of-arms at all!

*Six of the ABAB sonnets, however, flip the second quatrain to give the palindromic ABABBABA.  I have not yet checked Sidney’s sonnets outside A and S for the ABBABAAB pattern. I invite readers to find one, or else we shall conclude Sonnet 13 is unique in his works.

Next time (weekend of January 11): Sonnet 14

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