Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 108

When Sorrow, using mine own fire’s might,
Melts down his lead into my boiling breast,
Through that dark furnace to my heart oppressed
There shines a joy from thee, my only light;
But soon as thought of thee breeds my delight,
And my young soul flutters to thee, his nest;
Most rude despair, my daily unbidden guest,
Clips straight my wings, straight wraps me in his night,
And makes me then bow down my head and say:
‘Ah, what doth Phoebus’ gold that wretch avail
Whom iron doors do keep from use of day?’
So strangely, alas, thy works in me prevail,
That in my woes for thee thou art my joy,
And in my joys for thee my only annoy.

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:  The final y in “daily” (line 7), “strangely” (line 12) and “only” (line 14) becomes an apostrophe, or elided syllable, in the reading: “dail’ unbidden,” “strangel’, alas,” and “onl’ annoy”.

This is the final sonnet in the sequence, and like (or together with) Sonnet 107, it can be read as a summary of the whole poetic courtship, although without changing a word it could have been placed earlier and reflected only a momentary vicissitude. The bottom line is that Stella presents the impossible paradox of offering the only “joyful” reason to endure such agony, and the only agony that stands in the way of the speaker’s highest joy.

Appropriately the final sonnet, like the first and many others, is highly artificial and figurative. A complex set of images depict a back-and-forth struggle between sorrow and despair, on one side, and “thee” on the other. “Thee” offers the possibility of “gold” and “light,” while sorrow/despair brings only molten lead, “iron doors,” and “night.” But this summary simplifies the actual story line. To begin, the speaker’s heart is on fire with his passion for Stella. Since a “leaden heart” is a conventional image of melancholy, personified sorrow brings lead and melts it down on those same flames (thus passion creates melancholy) which in turn creates a “dark furnace” through which Stella’s “only light” (quickly identified as a “thought of thee”) may shine.

As the speaker’s “young soul” responds in the second quatrain, there is an abrupt change in imagery. The soul is now a young bird and “thee” has become the bird’s “nest” of safety and comfort—if only he can get there. But now sorrow’s alter-ego despair intervenes and, in line 8, brings the two metaphors together by both clipping the wings and “wrap[ping] me in his night.” This juxtaposition might be more awkward were it not for the oblique reference to the very popular sport of falconry: two of the most common training methods were clipping (or otherwise altering) wings and “hooding” or “scarfing” a bird (covering its eyes) to force it to find its prey in total darkness.

As the first sonnet built suspense with a series of dangling modifiers and a periodic sentence, this one keeps us in suspense by uncharacteristically stretching the octave into the ninth line before introducing the speaker’s final speech and then final thought, the speech metaphoric and the thought direct. “Phoebus’ gold” is sunshine, so the metaphoric expression of the paradox could be paraphrased: what good is a sunny day to the “wretch” locked up in an iron prison? In the final tercet, “thy works” most directly refers to Stella’s effects on the speaker, but “thy works” can also mean “all of these poems and songs I have written for thee,” and this is the summary of the result of both:

That in my woes for thee thou art my joy,
And in my joys for thee my only annoy.

This blog now comes to an end with this post, its 108th. I invite you to explore the sonnets of Philip Sidney in any of my earlier posts, I welcome your comments, questions, or alternative readings, and I wish you well. JCS

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 11

In truth, O Love, with what a boyish kind
Thou dost proceed in thy most serious ways:
That when the heaven to thee his best displays,
Yet of that best thou leav’st the best behind.
For, like a child that some fair book doth find,
With gilded leaves or colored vellum plays,
Or at the most, on some fine picture stays,
But never heeds the fruit of writer’s mind:
So when thou saw’st, in Nature’s cabinet,
Stella, thou straight look’st babies in her eyes,
In her cheek’s pit thou didst thy pit-fold set,
And in her breast bo-peep or couching lies,
Playing and shining in each outward part:
But, fool, seek’st not to get into her 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.

This is a playful sonnet, which extends the common image of Cupid (or “Love”) as a child, a small boy. What Cupid is about, of course, is not at all child’s play, and thus the poem’s conceit of a boy who gets in over his head. This is the first of a trio of Cupid sonnets (or third in a set of five if we ignore Sonnet 10) and, despite Sidney’s characteristic playfulness with the theme, all these sonnets reflect rather darkly on Stella, or at least on the speaker’s prospects with her.

After the abstract generalization, in the first quatrain, that children typically overlook the “best” or most “serious” part of anything for the more entertaining or eye-catching part, the second quatrain introduces the conceit, actually in the form of an epic simile.* The “like” part is a child’s reaction to, perhaps, one of the geographic or proto-scientific tomes being published in Sidney’s time—fascination with the beautiful pictures but obliviousness to the writer’s deep ideas.

In the “so” part, the poet doubles down on poetic figures, comparing his simile to yet another metaphor appropriate to the age of exploration: the “cabinet” in which the cognoscenti displayed the curiosities of science or travel. In this case the cabinet belongs to no less a personage than Nature herself, and Stella is displayed there as a rarity in Nature’s collection. But of course the childish Cupid is drawn to her only as a toy. He sees “babies” (i.e., a child’s dolls) in her eyes. The dimples (“pits”) of her cheeks seem good only for bird-trapping (the customary form of hunting for the very young, and the sense is compounded by the rather obvious fact that setting “traps” is one of Cupid’s favorite games; see line 2 of sonnet 12); “pitfold” is a pitfall, or trap.

The final example of this obtuseness is extended over two lines and thus—inSidney’s characteristic division of the sestet into 3 and 3—more closely related to the poem’s final line. It is also more challenging to a modern reader: why “bo-peep” (uncapitalized)?; and what exactly does “bo-peep or couching lies” mean?

Before bo-peep became a name in a nursery rhyme, it described the baby game probably best known to moderns as peek-a-boo. The sense of “or” here is definitely obscure, but it was a common form of “ere,” which, among various other possibilities in the unstressed, “throwaway” position, could mean “now.” In the context of Cupid finding only childish things in Stella’s features, I think the phrase is best understood as either “now couching lies” or, perhaps better, “e’er [ever] couching lies.” In any case, the verbal phrase after the questionable word is a brilliant ambiguity, since “lies” can either be the innocent verb of which “bo-peep” is the subject, or, more damningly, it can be a noun, the direct object of “couching.” Either way, the overall sense is that the visible (“outward”) part of Stella’s breasts, “playing and shining,” plays a game of peek-a-boo with the observer, presumably the speaker himself. In both the erotic and the emotional senses, the speaker wants to see more, the latter because the exposed part of the breasts is the outward part of the body closest to the heart.

Which brings us to the late fulcrum, at the start of the poem’s bottom line, which reveals that all of these rarities of Nature are but “bo-peep” or “lies” after all, since there is no opening for Love in Stella’s heart. “Fool” is ostensibly addressed to Cupid, and consistent with the tone and theme of the rest of the poem; but we can’t help but recall the last line of Sonnet 1, where the muse used that word for the speaker/poet. SurelySidneyis thinking of his own folly and frustration here.

*an extended “like” or “as” phrase, followed by an extended “so,” characteristic of epic poetry or imitations; e.g. “As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly,/When they meet with an obstacle, up to the sky,/So up to the housetop his coursers they flew . . . etc.”

Next time (weekend of December 14): Sonnet 12

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

 

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 6

Some lovers speak, when they their Muses entertain,
Of hopes begot by fear, of wot not what desires,
Of force of heavenly beams, infusing hellish pain,
Of living deaths, dear wounds, fair storms and freezing fires.
Someone his song in Jove, and Jove’s strange tales, attires,
Broidered with bulls and swans, powdered with golden rain;
Another, humbler, wit to shepherd’s pipe retires,
Yet hiding royal blood full oft in rural vein.
To some a sweetest plaint a sweetest style affords,
While tears pour out his ink, and sighs breathe out his words,
His paper pale despair, and pain his pen doth move.
I can speak what I feel, and feel as much as they,
But think that all the map of my state I display,
When trembling voice brings forth that I do Stella love.

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 the second of six in hexameters (or alexandrines) in the sequence, and it shares its full rhyme scheme with only two other sonnets (81 and 87), neither of which is in hexameters; so it could claim structural uniqueness.  Perhaps befitting the subject—as in Sonnet 1, the interplay of the speaker with other poets—its form is “hybridized” in multiple ways:  quite typical of Sidney is the midway break in the sestet, creating the sense of English-sonnet logic in an Italian sonnet; much less typical (it happens in only six sonnets) is a rhyme reversal in the octave whereby two “outie” quatrains become a palindromic “innie” octave:  ABABBABA.

The sonnet parallels the message of Sonnet 1, but with a difference.  Where the speaker had sought to imitate other poets before, he simply catalogs them in a lightly mocking tone now.  And in the final three lines, where he had been “helpless,” and then surprised by the muse, he is now (despite the “trembling voice” reflecting the weakness of his position in the would-be relationship) confident and assertive about what he is doing poetically.

The thrust of the poem—the chronic Sidney paradox of a highly artificial poem decrying artificiality and embracing simplicity—is clear enough, and its parallel examples of overwrought love poetry can no doubt be appreciated without a gloss.  Nevertheless, Duncan-Jones’s notes on the actual poets or poems being mocked are a lagniappe worth enjoying, so I will paraphrase here:  The first quatrain relates to Petrarch and his imitators.  The phrase “wot not what” translates Petrarch’s fondness for “I know not what” constructions introducing hyperboles, and the culminating oxymoron in the series of four in line 4, “freezing fires,” had become a Petrarchan cliché.  (I need hardly add that Sidney himself is, with no intended irony, guilty of everything mentioned in this quatrain at some point in this sequence.)  Ronsard (an early champion of alexandrines) was the most notable of many poets comparing their love to the metamorphoses (bull, swan, shower of gold) of Jove (7-8), while lines 9-10 may reflect the vogue of pastoral poetry both in England(e.g., Spenser) and on the continent.  (Duncan-Jones does not specifically gloss the idea in line 8 of “hiding royal blood . . . in rural vein”—a witty combination of near-miss repetition with royal/rural and the double meaning of “vein”—but this harks back to Virgil’s Eclogues, and may be most familiar to modern readers in plays such as Green’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, or Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Winter’s Tale.)  For lines 9-11 (e.g., “sweetest plaint” and “sweetest style”), Duncan-Jones offers: “Perhaps a reference to the dolce stil nuovo of the Italian poets of the fourteenth century” (358).

This is quite an amalgam of other poets’ (presumably insincere) gambits, replacing the long and frustrating process of attempting to steal from them, described in Sonnet 1. All are of course treated as elaborate ways to avoid a direct statement of a simple truth, rather than what Sidney himself would defend as the purpose of indirection and metaphor in poetry: love is a complex and multi-dimensional emotion, and can stand to be looked at from many angles.  If “I do Stella love” were indeed the entire “map” of Sidney’s “state” (an apt metaphor in that great age of exploration and map-making, as well as a pun on the word “state”*), there would be no place for 108 sonnets and eleven songs on the subject!  The blunt simplicity is but one of many moods.

*Sidney certainly intended the phrase as a metaphor, but he may have here invented the abstract sense of “map” as the plan or layout of one’s mental state; this very line is given as the OED’s first example for that sense.

Next time (weekend of October 19): Sonnet 7

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

INTRODUCTION AND SONNET 1

(NOTE: The first two entries in this blog were first posted elsewhere, so I have included them together in my first post on this site.)

INTRODUCTION

Sir Philip Sidney had a short life (1554-1586, 32 years), crowded with incident. He was a very handsome, talented, pedigreed, and well-connected aristocrat and courtier—his uncle was the Earl of Leicester, for example—and even a Member of Parliament at the precocious age of 18. He had the best education the age could afford, having gone first to Shrewsbury School and then to Oxford. He would likely have learned figures of speech as tools of rhetoric, but sonnet-writing would probably not have been an academic discipline. Both at university, though, and in subsequent travels on the continent as soldier and diplomat, he had ample exposure to the poets of the time, and he moved in literary circles; Sonnet 1 of Astrophil and Stella freely acknowledges that he has emulated others in developing his own poetic voice:

Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburnt brain.

In 1575, the Sidney family accompanied Queen Elizabeth on her famous visit to Kenilworth, and the trip afterward included a stop at the home of young Penelope Devereux—13 or 14 at the time—with whom Philip was immediately smitten with a love that lasted the rest of his life. A marriage was arranged, but in a circumstance straight out of renaissance comedy, Penelope’s father died before the deal was completed, and her new guardian arranged a more mercenary marriage, against her will, to Robert, Lord Rich, in 1581. At about the same time, Sidney began the sonnet sequence which was published after his death with the title of Astrophil and Stella. Stella is quite definitely identified with Penelope (there are puns on her husband’s suggestive name), and if the sonnets are autobiographical beyond that (always a tricky assumption), they suggest that Sidney tried to persuade her to become his mistress, and she stoutly refused, in spite of her clear and continuing affection for him. The name Stella has overt symbolic reference to the translation “star.” The name Astrophil (“star-lover”) was inserted in the title after the fact, and only appears in the Eighth and Ninth Songs, which are in the pastoral mode. It is conventional to refer to “the speaker” in discussing a lyric poem, since the speaker and the poet are not necessarily the same.  But in these poems the “speaker” is pretty reliably the Philip Sidney who is in love with Penelope Devereux Rich.

Sidney’s sonnets may lack the depth of thought and emotion captured almost uniquely by Shakespeare in his sonnets, but they are perfect little gems of craft built around fairly conventional ideas. If Shakespeare is Michelangelo,Sidney is Andrea del Sarto; if Shakespeare is Mozart, Sidney is Haydn. Shakespeare is constantly somehow transcending the “received” ideas that are the basis of his poems; Sidney is a perfect textbook of the literary and philosophical conventions of his time, done up with high art.  I like to say that a great sonnet is a small piece of art of great value, but available to anyone to own.  Shakespeare might have more of his sonnets hanging in the Louvre or the Hermitage, but any collector would be proud to have a Sidney in her own collection.

Astrophil and Stella consists of 108 sonnets (the main focus of this blog) interrupted irregularly by eleven “songs” of varying meters. The sonnet sequence seems generally chronological, and has at least some autobiographical reference to Sidney’s futile fascination with Penelope Devereux, initially betrothed, later married, to Lord Rich. She carries the name of Stella in the sequence, with overt symbolic reference to the translation “star.”

Although in earlier collections Sidney had experimented with other forms, the sonnets in Astrophil and Stella are all Italian, which means divided by rhyme scheme (and usually punctuation) into an octave and a sestet (eight lines and six); as opposed to the English (or Shakespearean) sonnet, divided into three quatrains and a couplet. The typical “logic” of an Italian sonnet is: octave = “set up the problem” and sestet = “deal with it,” while the English sonnet allows a sort of cat’s teasing of the “problem” in three different (possibly parallel, possibly contrastive) stabs, followed by a neat and clever wrap-up in the last two lines.

Sidney has two distinctive variations on the Italian pattern:

1. By far his favorite rhyme scheme in the sestet (after whatever combination of A’s and B’s in the octave) is CDCDEE, which he uses in 82 of the 108 sonnets (to which I should add 3 instances of CDDCEE).  This creates, in effect, a “hybrid” sonnet form, in which the reader has both the “logic” of an Italian sonnet and the satisfying “punch line” of a Shakespearean couplet, wrapping things up.

2.  Adding further complexity, upwards of eighty per cent of the time Sidney subdivides his sestet into two three-line ideas, with a “strong” break (semi-colon or stronger) after line eleven. Because he does this so regularly, I will use the term tercet (= three-line stanza) to refer to each half of the sestet, even though by strictest definition a tercet should have a rhyme scheme of its own.  By the same logic, I will often speak of the two quatrains that make up the octave.  Thus the typical Sidney sonnet divides, first, into two parts (octave and sestet), and then again, into four parts (two quatrains and two tercets). There are, of course, exceptions, where either octave or sestet is not divided in the middle by punctuation or logic.

Despite the uniformity of all Italian sonnets (even sonnet 89, which illustrates the repetitive monotony of days and nights passing in Stella’s absence by rhyming only the words “night” and “day,” takes the 8-and-6 structure of  ABBAABBA ABABAB), and some obvious preferences for rhyming in the octave (ABBAABBA 75 times) and the sestet (as mentioned, CDCDEE 82 times), it is rare to have exactly the same full rhyme scheme for more than a few sonnets in a row, and there are actually fifteen different rhyme schemes employed in the sonnets of the sequence. There are also (appropriately) six sonnets in which Sidney uses hexameter lines rather than the conventional pentameters. (These are 1, 6, 8, 76, 77, and 102.)  On the other hand, I don’t think there is ever a feminine rhyme (where an unstressed eleventh syllable is added at the end of the line and both of the last two syllables rhyme; e.g., flý iňg and dý iňg) in the sonnets of Astrophil and Stella —if I discover otherwise, I’ll let you know!

Quatrains, like belly-buttons, can be “innies” or “outies.”  The ABBA scheme, which seems to be circling back on itself, is an “innie.” The ABAB scheme, which keeps moving forward to what follows, is an “outie.” Sidney has a fairly strong preference for the “innie,” using it in more than 70% of his quatrains.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 1

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she (dear she) might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know;
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain;
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburnt brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”

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 paradoxically the most iconic of all Sidney’s poems (the one more readers are familiar with than any other), and not really a sonnet at all—at least, if you use the definition most of us rely on, “fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter.”  (However, if you use the more liberal and practical definition, “a poem that looks like a box,” it’s just fine—and it is, after all, the first entry in the first English sonnet sequence in history.)  The poem, of course, has 28 extra syllables, an elaborate representation of the pun in line 11, “And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way,” the iambic hexameters being the preferred “alexandrines” of the French poets; and “in my way” having both the neutral sense of “on my road (or journey)” and “stopping me from getting to the love poetry I want to write.”  Line 11 happens to be the final line of the statement of the “problem,” before the 3-line climactic ending, and the fulcrum between it and line 12 is arguably stronger than the more predictable one (for an Italian sonnet) before the “But” that begins line 9.  With the pun on “feet” and the use of alexandrines, the poet announces the arrival of a clever, sophisticated voice; while with the quotation from the muse in the final line, he announces that that voice will be governed by passion, thus illustrating the oxymoronic phrase “feeling skill” in Sonnet 2.

With the luxury of added elbow room in the lines, the poem proceeds by four cumulative and climactic stages containing but one instance of an active verb with the speaker as subject—“I sought” at the start of line 5—and fittingly that one forward motion is not toward, but away from, his actual objective.  Otherwise we are bogged in –ing words that suggest stagnation on the speaker’s part, even as the poem’s logic lurches forward. He is loving, studying, turning (others’ leaves), (his words come) halting, (because they were) wanting, biting (his pen), and beating (himself) without getting anywhere at all, and then the “muse” speaks to him in direct, imperative, monosyllabic language: “Fool . . . look in thy heart, and write”—language that, incidentally, flies in the face of all the contemporary poetic principles (including Sidney’s own) and anticipates English Romanticism by about 200 years.

Each of the quatrains in the octave, plus the first tercet of the sestet, ends in a climactic phrase, but these phrases (and the passages they conclude) grow increasingly lame and frustrated. The first quatrain has an entirely forward-moving, optimistic development; the speaker has a plan, culminating in the heavenly dream of obtaining Stella’s “grace”—a euphemism out of the courtly love tradition, meaning the love-object lady (imagined like God showering blessings on a sinner) actually bends to the suitor’s will. In the second, he seeks to put his plan in action, and there is still a hopefulness about the activity (looking for poetic models to imitate), but basking in the light of others leads only to a “sunburnt brain.”  So the “But” that opens the sestet is not so much a u-turn as a confirmation of doubts already planted, and lines 9-11 are both a verbal picture of a man stumbling badly, and a ringing endorsement of nature and originality over “study,” imitation, and artifice.  And the concluding phrase here has lost even the intensity of “sunburnt brain”; now it is the stalled, hapless “still seemed but strangers in my way.”  The speaker has gone from a positive, reasoned plan of action at the outset to a state aptly named in the following line: helpless (and also, metaphorically, in the last stage of pregnancy and chewing on a pen, but never mind that!)

So the stage is set for perhaps the most effective and best known dangling modifier in all of poetry, as the speaker backs into the dramatic and sudden appearance of the muse, periodic in both the temporal and the grammatical senses. Oddly, for someone who studied so many classical models, the speaker has not invoked the muse, nor even prepared the syntax for her arrival; she comes unbidden and unexpected, and that’s the point, isn’t it?

Other odds and ends:

The use of “leaves” (pages) and “showers” (inspiration) in lines 7 and 8 conditions the reader’s mind for the imagery of refreshment and renewal, so “sunburnt brain” is a particularly harsh and frustrating letdown.

Lines 9-11 may at first appear a mixed metaphor, rather than one continuous conceit, but it is possible to read it as a series of free-association “handoffs.” The image of each new line may not precisely fit with that of the previous line, but it is suggested by it. “Invention’s stay” (the editorial choice to capitalize Sidney’s personifications helps a reader envision the imagery) suggests a crutch (or in the modern world, perhaps a walker), but it could also be a young child leaned on by the “halting” patient; so it is not far-fetched to have that same child, Invention (child of Nature), driven away by the cruel stepmother Study, presumably leaving the patient—the “halting words”—to fall in a heap at the speaker’s feet, the “feet” of others now only getting in his way.

Next time (weekend of August 10): Sonnet 2

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