Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 12

Cupid, because thou shin’st in Stella’s eyes,
That from her locks, thy day-nets, none ‘scapes free,
That those lips swell, so full of thee they be,
That her sweet breath makes oft thy flames to rise,
That in her breast thy pap well sugared lies,
That her grace gracious makes thy wrongs, that she,
What words so e’er she speaks, persuades for thee,
That her clear voice lifts thy fame to the skies;
Thou countest Stella thine, like those whose powers,
Having got up a breach by fighting well,
Cry, “Victory, this fair day all is ours!”
O no, her heart is such a citadel,
So fortified with wit, stored with disdain,
That to win it, is all the skill and pain.

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 just two sentences long, the first stating a premise that takes eleven lines, and the second shooting it down in a mere three. The octave is one dependent clause comprised, in turn, of eight parallel clauses. The word “that” effectively repeats the word “because” each time, so you can either imagine an implied “because that” (proper Elizabethan usage) in the first line, or a one-syllable substitute for “because” at the head of each new clause—whichever makes more sense to you. The eight parallel clauses are basically one line (five feet, ten syllables) each, except that the first is shortened a foot by the opening address to Cupid, and the seventh steals an extra foot from the end of the sixth:

that she,
What words so e’er she speaks, persuades for thee.
The sentence’s main clause takes only the first three-fifths of line nine:

Thou countest Stella thine,

and is followed by an adverbial phrase that stretches to the end of line eleven:

like those whose powers,
Having got up a breach by fighting well,
Cry, “Victory, this fair day all is ours!”

The eight parallel clauses are eight separate reasons why Cupid might assume Stella belongs to him (i.e., is a disciple of love, but we can’t ignore the secondary sense of Cupid’s paramour), all using some form of the thee/her antithesis:

  1. “thou shin’st” : “[her] eyes”
  2. “thy day-nets” : “her locks” (Day-nets are traps, and Stella’s hair functions as Cupid’s trap for the unsuspecting.)
  3. “full of thee” : “her lips” (meant for kissing)
  4. “thy flames” : “her sweet breath” (which fans the flames of passion)
  5. “thy pap” is what “her breast” contains
  6. “thy wrongs” : “her grace” (makes gracious; i.e., her love and devotion makes even Cupid’s sins O.K.)
  7. “for thee” : “[her] words” (persuades)
  8. “thy fame” : “her clear voice” (lifts to the skies, and this line can summarize the implication of all eight: when a man converses with Stella, Cupid immediately comes to his mind, and he falls in love).

These statements about Cupid’s suppositions become, by indirection, a complimentary blazon of Stella’s features, and Cupid is clearly a stand-in here for the speaker’s own amorous desires. A very rough paraphrase of the poem, read that way, might be: (first eleven lines) “Sometimes I fantasize that Stella might be my lover,” (last three lines) “but then I come back to the reality that I’m not even close.”

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. So, we are to understand that Stella is just going on being her lovely, charming, and gracious self and Cupid, like many another egotistical male, assumes it is all for him. After the main clause (“Thou countest Stella thine”) comes a simile which governs the rest of the poem: in Cupid’s confidence, he is like an army which assumes it has won the battle when it has only breached an outer wall. Anyone familiar with medieval fortifications knows that inside the outer wall are progressively stronger lines of defense, the strongest of all being the “keep” or “citadel” in the center, often with walls twenty feet thick. “Such a citadel” is Stella’s heart, and its walls are two of the qualities omitted from the list in the octave: wit and disdain. In the final line, the verb “is” should be understood as “remains;” “skill,” in the military context, would be the strategy or arrangement of forces, and “pain” is effort (as in our modern phrase “take pains to . . .”). So, in short, despite the breach in the wall and shout of victory, practically the whole job remains to be done.

The sonnet implies quite a bit about the relationship between the speaker and Stella. She presumably treats him with charm, grace, and even affection, but is cold to any suggestion that the relationship could be something more.

Next time (weekend of December 28): Sonnet 13

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