Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 96

Thought, with good cause thou lik’st so well the night,
Since kind or chance gives both one livery;
Both sadly black, both blackly darkened be,
Night barred from sun, thou from thy own sun’s light.
Silence in both displays his sullen might;
Slow heaviness in both holds one degree;
That full of doubts, thou of perplexity;
Thy tears express night’s native moisture right.
In both a mazeful solitariness:
In night, of sprites the ghastly powers stir,
In thee, or sprites or sprited ghastliness.
But, but, alas, night’s side the odds hath far,
For that at length yet doth invite some rest,
Thou, though still tired, yet still dost it detest.

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: “That” at the start of line 7 is not the relative pronoun, but rather the demonstrative pronoun, referring back to “night,” by contrast to the pronoun “thou,” which refers to “thought.”

Here we begin a series of four bedtime sonnets, similar to the series of three back at 38-40. Probably most of us are familiar with the “dark thoughts” that keep us awake at night, even if by the light of day the same problems might seem perfectly manageable. This dark brooding is magnified for the would-be lover in the speaker’s situation, since bedtime is a time to be reminded of loneliness, a time for undistracted thinking and brooding, and indeed a time to be reminded that the bed itself is not the place of pleasure one has longed for. So almost by definition, a bedtime sonnet is an “ode on melancholy.”

The poem is an apostrophe to the speaker’s own thought, which either by kinship (“kind”) or by chance seems perfectly matched with the night: both are dark, silent, sullen, heavy, and full of “doubts” or “perplexity.” The “native moisture” (dew) of the night parallels the tears that spring from thought. And the night is “barred from sun,” while the thought is frustrated by the lack of its “own sun’s” (i.e., son’s) light. This pun occurs in the first three of this set of four poems, disappearing only as the actual sun approaches in Sonnet 99.

The first half of the sestet invites comparison with Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the recurring discussion there of how night plays tricks with the mind. “Mazeful solitariness” is a state of amazement, but more literally, the perplexity and isolation of being inside a maze. And while the night of folklore (and Dream) is full of the “ghastly powers” of “sprites,” thought is paranoid, and similarly populates itself with demons (“sprites or sprited ghastliness”).

The poem’s fulcrum comes late, at the start of line 12; and where a single “but” is usually all that is required, in the speaker’s muddled state it takes four syllables (“but, but, alas”) to make the turn, and acknowledge the chief way that night is preferable to thought: at some point night invites us to go to sleep, but thought resists it—as any of us who have struggled with night-thoughts know all too well!

Next time (weekend of March 18): Sonnet 97
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 94

Grief, find the words; for thou hast made my brain
So dark with misty vapours, which arise
From out thy heavy mould, that inbent eyes
Can scarce discern the shape of mine own pain.
Do thou then (for thou canst), do thou complain
For my poor soul, which now that sickness tries,
Which even to sense, sense of itself denies,
Though harbingers of death lodge there his train.
Or if thy love of plaint yet mine forbears,
As of a caitiff, worthy so to die;
Yet wail thyself, and wail with causeful tears,
That though in wretchedness thy life doth lie,
Yet growest more wretched than thy nature bears,
By being placed in such a wretch as I.

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: “even” in line 7 and “growest” in line 13 are pronounced with one syllable. For the second straight sonnet, the speaker refers to himself as a “caitiff” (line 10), a criminal wretch beneath contempt.

The speaker is in an extremely dark mood, and, ever the instinctive (or opportunistic) poet, he personifies his grief and turns it into a sort of muse for his poetry, asking it to “find the words” that he himself cannot, because of the darkness in his brain. This internal struggle of grief, self, and brain is already a bit mind-bending after one quatrain, but simple in comparison to the welter of nouns and pronouns that interact in the rest.

The second quatrain is especially thorny, though the general meaning is just that “Grief” is being asked to “complain” on behalf of the speaker’s soul. In line 6, the relative pronoun “which” is surely an object, rather than a subject, meaning that the sickness of grief, or melancholy, “tries” (as in tests, challenges, or pesters) the soul, which otherwise ordinarily dwells in a state of denial: the soul—the highest, and immortal, part of the mental makeup—denies to sense—the lowest, and mortal, part—awareness (“sense,” a typical Sidney antanaclasis) of its own mortality, even though the evidence of that (“harbingers of death”) is obvious. The implication, then, is that Grief might speak up for a soul that is unwilling or unable to speak up for itself.

But now, in the sestet, the speaker faces a paradox: if it is in the nature of Grief to mope and complain, then Grief might be relatively happy in present circumstances! Or at least it will “forbear” the speaker’s complaining, as we tend to be more tolerant of a condemned prisoner’s sobs as he heads to the gallows (“a caitiff, worthy so to die”). This will not do; the paradox must be met with another: the one way to assure that Grief lives up to its name is to argue that it now inhabits someone—the speaker—who is more wretched than Grief itself! Thus Grief can become more wretched, thus . . . Oh, never mind; this is reductio ad absurdum.

Next time (weekend of February 19): Sonnet 95
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 27

Because I oft, in dark abstracted guise
Seem most alone in greatest company,
With dearth of words, or answers quite awry,
To them that would make speech of speech arise,
They deem, and of their doom the rumor flies,
That poison foul of bubbling pride doth lie
So in my swelling breast that only I
Fawn on myself, and others do despise.
Yet pride, I think, doth not my soul possess,
Which looks too oft in his unflatt’ring glass;
But one worse fault, ambition, I confess,
That makes me oft my best friends overpass,
Unseen, unheard, while thought to highest place
Bends all his powers, even unto Stella’s grace.

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: in lines 7-8 “only” modifies “Fawn,” not “I”; so there is a slight lift after “only,” followed by “I fawn on myself” as a connected clause.

Both “powers” and “even” in the final line are single-syllable.

Notice also that “company,” “awry,” “lie,” and “I” are all supposed to rhyme, although this is observed only mentally (not vocally) in modern reading. Oddly enough, it is most likely the final sound in “company” that was heard in all four; the Great Vowel Shift was still in process when Sidney was writing.

This sonnet is such a close companion to Sonnet 23—the poem on melancholy—that one could almost be a superseded draft for the other, except there is no clear “winner.”  Instead, we must consider that the particular topic presented Sidney with enough matter for two fine sonnets, not to mention a number of others (e.g., Sonnet 30) in which the speaker’s self-absorption is at least mentioned.

Both 23 and this one depict concerned friends pondering reasons why the speaker seems so aloof and distracted, and get it wrong; and both of course end with the speaker giving the “right” answer. Both sonnets use the whole first quatrain to set the scene, although there is a closer grammatical link between lines 4 and 5 in this one than in the other. The second quatrain begins the list of reasons, but now observe carefully how the poet’s thought process on the same stimulus takes a new direction. In Sonnet 23, there were three reasons offered, with the third, ambition, occupying the first half of the sestet, the fulcrum coming after line 11, and the speaker’s response taking only the final three lines. In Sonnet 27, the sole reason given by the friends, the “poison foul of bubbling pride,” fills the second quatrain, and the speaker uses the entire sestet to respond. In fact, not only is the fulcrum after line 8 (the most typical place for an Italian sonnet), but this is a relatively rare sonnet in which Sidney does not make a strong break after line 11, but runs the whole argument of the sestet together. As in 23, the sestet brings up ambition as an issue, but it’s as if the speaker is saying “Wait a minute—come to think of it, it IS ambition, but not the way you thought.” And the sonnet ends with the customary fixation on Stella, here framed as the speaker’s aiming higher than is his due.

Let’s walk through it more carefully:

Again we are reminded of Hamlet, not just by the speaker’s “dark abstracted guise,” but also by the alternative possibilities of either “dearth of words” or “answers quite awry.” And the friends are described dismissively as “them that would make speech of speech arise”—i.e. people who engage in small talk, and think that when they have said anything, they are owed a response. Surely the speaker’s attitude is an exaggerated description for the polished courtier Sidney, but one can’t help wondering if the poet Sidney shares some of the shyness and introversion of the much later poet John Keats, and that poet’s impatience with clever acquaintances.

The sentence begun in line 1 continues right through the octave, and we do not reach the main clause until line 5, a line with wonderful sound effects: “They deem, and of their doom the rumor flies.” First I should explain that “doom” originally meant simply “judgment” (before it underwent pejoration to mean “condemnation”) so a paraphrase of this line is “They judge, and of their judgment, the popular opinion is formed that starts to spread around.”  But the sounds of the line, by themselves, paint a picture of how rumor departs by steady steps from truth. The steps are (1) “they deem,” connected by alliteration and consonance to (2) “their doom,” which is echoed and weakened in (3) “the rumor” (assonance, or in effect, given the successive stresses on “doom” and “rum-“, an internal rhyme, as if one slightly misheard the first word and repeated it as the second).

What their judgment, and the subsequent rumor, is, of course, is that it is the speaker’s pride and egotism (“that only I/Fawn on myself”) that make him so aloof. But that could hardly be the case, he protests, because his soul sees nothing good when it looks in the mirror. We might interpret that metaphor as meaning he feels some guilt over his misplaced passion, or, alternatively, translating “soul” more loosely as “self,” that his ego takes regular poundings in his encounters with the woman he loves.

And here, as discussed above, he allows of the possibility that the fault really is ambition after all—just not the political sort of ambition that his critics would expect. In his distracted daydreaming, the speaker aspires to the “highest place” imaginable: “Stella’s grace”; i.e., Stella’s showering divine blessings on him figuratively, while literally giving in to his will.

Next time (weekend of July 26): Sonnet 28

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

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.