Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 48

Soul’s joy, bend not those morning stars from me,
Where virtue is made strong by beauty’s might,
Where love is chasteness, pain doth learn delight,
And humbleness grows one with majesty.
Whatever may ensue, O let me be
Co-partner of the riches of that sight;
Let not mine eyes be hell-driven from that light;
O look, O shine, O let me die and see.
For though I oft myself of them bemoan,
That through my heart their beamy darts be gone,
Whose cureless wounds even now most freshly bleed;
Yet since my death-wound is already got,
Dear killer, spare not thy sweet cruel shot:
A kind of grace it is to kill with speed.

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: “driven” in line 7 and “even” in line 11 are one-syllable each, while “cruel” in line 13 is two.

After Stella’s eyes “Sent forth the beams” that inspired the speaker’s jousting triumph at the end of Sonnet 41, he seemed to become preoccupied with her facial physiognomy—and especially the eyes—for several sonnets more, and particularly the eyes in Sonnets 42 and this one, which could be read as a companion pair. Both sonnets are pleas to Stella to continue to “shine” those dark and flashing eyes on the speaker, even if it kills him; this is the plea of the hyper-poetic opening line here, where the “Soul’s joy” is Stella, and the “morning stars” are her eyes.

The next three lines are tightly paradoxical, with the overall point being that the speaker is ennobled by Stella’s sight, even for the suffering that it causes him. The first thought might be that Stella’s own virtue is made still stronger by her extreme beauty (i.e., there’s no particular virtue in chastity if one is ugly), since the word has mostly until now been associated with her; but in context the point seems to be that her extreme beauty makes the speaker’s virtue in keeping his distance still stronger. Similarly, since love of her must remain chaste, he must “delight” (cf. the final line of Sonnet 50) in his pain, and find only humility in the “majesty” of his aspiration.

In the second quatrain, it is hard to see any other meaning in “Co-partner of the riches of that sight” than a desire or willingness to be a second man in Stella’s life, and if Sidney were a Nashville song writer, the “Whatever may ensue” might cover the very forward suggestion of adultery. But given the context of what follows, not to mention the poet’s gallantry, it presumably refers only to his own humiliation and suffering. The middle two lines of the sonnet (7-8) parallel its first and last lines respectively. Line 7 repeats the plea not to be denied the light of her eyes; “hell” is used here in the Miltonic sense of the absence of God’s light. Line 8 prefigures the poem’s “bottom line” of staying within shot of those beams even if it kills him, and features a hysteron-proteron (loosely, “cart before the horse”) in “O let me die and see” as a way of stressing this determination.

The entire sestet then elaborates on this idea with a combat metaphor, indeed the metaphor contained in the French term coup de grace: since you “kill” me in any case, he says, there is a kind of mercy if you aim for the heart and do it swiftly. But of course when we return from the metaphor to the reality under discussion, the speaker is simply begging that Stella not deny him her presence; and since whatever “death” that might bring is far from literal, the actual result of that would be (and will be) merely prolonged suffering.

Next time (weekend of May 23): Sonnet 49
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 38

This night, while sleep begins with heavy wings
To hatch mine eyes, and that unbitted thought
Doth fall to stray, and my chief powers are brought
To leave the scepter of all subject things,
The first that straight my fancy’s error brings
Unto my mind, is Stella’s image, wrought
By Love’s own self, but with so curious draught,
That she, methinks, not only shines, but sings.
I start, look, hark; but what in closed-up sense
Was held, in opened sense it flies away,
Leaving me nought but wailing eloquence.
I, seeing better sights in sight’s decay,
Called it anew, and wooed sleep again:
But him her host that unkind guest had slain.

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:  “wooed” in line 13 is two syllables: woo-ed.

As we begin a three-sonnet series of “bed-time” thoughts—when sleep closes (“hatch[es]”) the speaker’s eyes with its “heavy wings”—we have one of Sidney’s little lessons on Renaissance commonplace understandings; that is, the relationship between Reason and Fancy in the waking and sleeping states. For a more direct, yet poetic, explanation, we can look forward to Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Adam explains to Eve:

But know that in the Soul
Are many lesser Faculties that serve
Reason as chief; among these Fancy next
Her office holds; of all external things,
Which the five watchful Senses represent,
She forms Imaginations, aery shapes,
Which Reason joining or disjoining, frames
All what we affirm or what deny, and call
Our knowledge or opinion; then retires
Into her private cell when Nature rests [i.e., when we go to sleep].
Oft in her absence mimic Fancy wakes
To imitate her; but misjoining shapes,
Wild work produces oft, and most in dreams,
Ill matching words and deeds long past or late.

Sidney’s briefer version in the first quatrain here parallels this explanation precisely, since “chief powers” refers to Reason, which yields up its “scepter” in sleep, leaving unbridled (“unbitted”) and “straying” Fancy to take over. And, as we might expect, the first thing Fancy produces (line 5) is the image of Stella, drawn (“wrought”) by mischievous Cupid (“Love”), but she is depicted so miraculously (we might think of a movie-goer in the 1920’s who attends the first film with sound) that she not only looks like an angel (“shines”) but also has a sound-track: she sings!

The fulcrum between octave and sestet in this poem represents an actual change from sleeping to waking state; “I start, look, hark” means “I wake up, look, and listen.”  But awake, the dream is fled; “fled is that music,” as Keats would say. The image could only stay while the actual senses were “closed-up” in sleep. So, paradoxically, the sweet music of the dream has served only (returning to Keats) “to toll me back from thee to my sole self”—a far less satisfying vision! Indeed, the “wailing eloquence” of line 11 might be an apt description of all these sonnets.

To sort out pronouns or vague references in the final lines, “it” in line 13 refers to the “better sight” the speaker has lost, “him” (to which “her host” is an appositive) is sleep, and Stella is the “unkind guest” who slew him. Slaying one’s host is of course an “unkind” thing for a guest to do, but the OED gives additional historical senses of “unkind”: “strange, foreign,” “contrary to the usual course of nature,” “lacking in natural gratitude,” and “undutiful”; all of which may be applied to Stella here. The bottom line in the poem’s story is obvious: there’s no going back to sleep after that experience!

Next time (weekend of December 27): Sonnet 39
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 2

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 2

Not at first sight, nor with a dribbed shot,
Love gave the wound which while I breathe will bleed;
But known worth did in mine of time proceed,
Till by degrees it had full conquest got.
I saw, and liked; I liked, but loved not;
I loved, but straight did not what love decreed;
At length to love’s decrees I, forced, agreed,
Yet with repining at so partial lot.
Now even that footstep of lost liberty
Is gone, and now like slave-born Muscovite
I call it praise to suffer tyranny;
And now employ the remnant of my wit
To make myself believe that all is well,
While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.

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, on the one hand, one of the simplest, commonest Petrarchan clichés—love  has forced me to take leave of my wits and reason, but what can I do?—and, on the other, so clever and witty as to run the risk of being downright obscure in its ambiguity.

Let’s start with what is most clear and accessible.  The sonnet’s idea is laid out in a 3-step outline, similar to the way Shakespeare makes a case in three quatrains, except in this Italian sonnet the third section fills the sestet, and is further subdivided 3-3, Sidney’s typical pattern (though, as discussed in my first post, with the “hybrid” couplet again evoking the Shakespearean pattern). The outline reads: 1. General description of the problem; 2. shifting to “I” as the repeated subject of active verbs, a specific and succinct summary of how the speaker got to where he is; and 3. Where he is “now,” subdivided (a) how he is characterized (a slave enamored of his own slavery); and (b) what he does about it (tries to rationalize).

Three of the most striking, yet accessible, devices in the poem:

First, the over-punctuation in the second quatrain (to be fair, some of it introduced by modern editing), forcing a halting rhythm that imitates a man being dragged into something against his will.  Notice, for example, breaks after each of the first three feet in line 5, and then, when the two-syllable “lovèd” starts to make a smoother (and more optimistic) two-foot phrase, it comes crashing to earth with “not.” Or the even more disruptive break in the middle of a would-be iambic foot in line 7: if (by contrast) “I forced” were a simple subject-verb phrase, the line would read simply dĕ crées Ĭ fórced, but in this case, with “forced” as a past-participial postnominal modifier, the break forces a virtual spondee, dĕ crées Í, fórced; reader and speaker are, in effect, both stopped in their tracks at the same time.

Second, the wonderfully quiet-but-dramatic transition from the end of the octave to the start of the sestet. In line 8 the speaker retains some shred of his dignity as he comes to the conclusion of the dragging process: “Yet with repining at so partial lot.”  Imagine here a man being locked in a cell, while still protesting his innocence to his jailer. But apparently, the jailer ignores him, clangs the bars shut, and stalks off down an echoing hallway. The next poignant thought is: “Now even that footstep of lost liberty is gone.” The prisoner is on his own to adjust to the terms of his imprisonment, and typically (like the stereotypical Russian under the Tsars) he will find a way to embrace it. The suddenly concrete image of a footstep following the entirely abstract description of lines 5-8 is poetry at its greatest.

Third, the humorous reference to the “remnant” of the speaker’s wit (line 12), when he has not yet explicitly mentioned losing his wit—an almost homespun joke, but also a clever and understated way to “double” the meaning contained within an otherwise merely functional lead-in to an idea.

So where is the difficulty and the obscurity? Lines 3 and 14. The problems are not closely related, and do not seriously undercut the simple pattern discussed above, so I will just discuss them in isolation:

Line 3: The subject phrase “known worth” is itself a bit of a pauser, and may require the footnote information that this is an autobiographical reference to the fact that Sidney knew a great deal about Penelope Devereux before he considered her a love interest, but even without that knowledge, the phrase is a reasonably clear opposite to love at “first sight” or the “dribbed” (i.e., mistaken or misfired) shot of Cupid’s arrow mentioned in line 1. But the real puzzler is the adverbial phrase in the middle of the verb phrase, “in mine of time.” The first instinct, given all the self-preoccupation here, might be to think “mine” is the possessive meaning “my wound,” as in: “Love breaks some hearts, but has utterly smashed mine.”  But that instinct can be quickly dismissed: looking backward, the “wound” in line 2 was already “mine,” so saying “mine” in a “But” clause would be clumsy; and looking forward, the wound is certainly not the object of “had full conquest got”;  the speaker is, and indeed the wound is the instrument of the speaker’s defeat. The word “conquest,” in fact, is the key clue here. Conquest of a fortified city was as likely to be attempted by “mining” (= tunneling under the wall, hence our modern abstract term “undermining”) as by direct assault, though the latter was certainly more honorable and more likely to be admired. This is part of the point for the dashing soldier Sidney: Love has, in effect, gotten to him by “underhanded,” sneaky means, when he wasn’t properly armed against it.  So the “in mine” part of the phrase has nothing to do with a possessive, but refers to the method by which Love has used “known worth” to gain the “conquest.”  But that still leaves the seemingly simple phrase “of time,” which to me is just as hard to sort out.  Is it connected to “proceed,” meaning something as simple as “in time proceed”? If so, why not say “in time proceed,” since the meter is the same and “of time” is not idiomatic for “in time”?  Is it, alternatively, connected to “mine,” so that time is the entity that is actually being mined? That, too, does not make sense, since time is surely a “winner” not a “loser” in the construction that follows.  So let’s try this: it’s connected to “mine,” but the “of” indicates ownership, so mining is Time’s instrument for furthering the cause of Love; now that makes more sense, does it not?  But it is hardly an intuitive reading!

Line 14: The general sense of the final couplet is a paradox similar to Shakespeare’s “I do believe her though I know she lies,” only here the idea is “I do believe me though I know I’m crazy.”  The somewhat hard part is the apparent paradox-within-a-paradox of “While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.”  I think it is safe to say that “feeling skill” is an oxymoron, reflecting the same clash between passion and personal control that is a running theme of the whole sonnet sequence. But what, exactly, is the speaker doing with his passion-affected intellect?; what does it mean to “paint my hell”? There are at least two distinct possibilities, and in this case I think we do well to accept both, and thus enrich the poem’s meaning through ambiguity; as Benedick says, “There’s a double meaning in that!” Duncan-Jones’s endnote opts for Hamlet’s understanding of “paint” as giving “a false colouring or complexion to,” or in the crude American political vernacular, “putting lipstick on a pig.” So in that sense, the speaker admits to using optimistic descriptions of a love relationship to “pretty up” what is really a hellish state he has gotten into. It could similarly be said that line 5 of Sonnet 1, “I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe” refers to putting false make-up on an ugly face (blackness being equated with ugliness in Renaissance-speak). But just as clearly, that line occurs in the midst of a description of the struggle to create art, so it carries the ambiguity of “paint” as “create art.” The verb is used in this sense in several other sonnets (70, 81, 93, 98), unambiguously so in 81 (for example), where the speaker seeks to “paint” poetically a kiss he has received from Stella. So, the “simple” end of what is already a complex idea—“I am deluding myself and putting a false front on a hellish situation”—is given still more complexity, depth, and meaning with the layered suggestions (extending Sonnet 1’s role as “preface” to a lengthy sonnet sequence) that (1) the hellish situation is about to be turned into a work of art; and (2) (as Marlowe, Milton, and other writers have variously affirmed), “hell” is a place between a pair of human ears, and the “hell” the speaker has described himself as being reluctantly dragged into is in fact a hell of his own making.

Next time (weekend of August 24): Sonnet 3

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