Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 103

O happy Thames, that didst my Stella bear!
I saw thyself, with many a smiling line
Upon thy cheerful face, joy’s livery wear,
While those fair planets on thy streams did shine.
The boat for joy could not to dance forbear,
While wanton winds, with beauties so divine
Ravished, stayed not, till in her golden hair
They did themselves (O sweetest prison!) twine.
And fain those Aeol’s youths there would their stay
Have made; but, forced by Nature still to fly,
First did with puffing kiss those locks display.
She, so disheveled, blushed; from window I
With sight thereof cried out ‘O fair disgrace;
Let Honour’s self to thee grant highest place.’

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.

Again we have a sonnet that appears to be based on a biographical event, a moment in which Penelope Devereux (“Stella”) was traveling on the Thames—presumably on one of the festive barges popular with royalty and nobility in Tudor times—and Sidney (the speaker in the poem) watched her departure from a window on shore. It appears to be a nice London day (why would one make such a trip if not?), with sunshine and playful breezes.

The opening quatrain is an apostrophe to the river, whose “many a smiling line” suggests the play of sunshine on the ripples in the water. But not alone sunshine: the fourth line has the double meaning that the astrological alignment is propitious for such a river trip, or that “those fair planets,” Stella’s eyes, are casting their light on the scene.

The remainder of the poem deals with the breezes that play with Stella’s hair, probably stirred up as the boat “dances” into motion. These winds (“Aeol’s youth”*) are made “wanton” as they are “ravished” by Stella’s beauty, and cannot resist being “twined” in the “sweetest prison” of her hair. (The parenthetical phrase in line 8 is a “misplaced” appositive by the modern rules of grammar, to which Sidney was not bound.) There they would gladly stay, but it is in the “nature” of winds to keep moving, and so, with a final “puffing kiss” that disarranges Stella’s hair, they move on.

The final view of Stella thus finds her slightly “disheveled,” and therefore blushing a bit; and this is turned into a charming little candid snapshot of her beauty. The final idea, that this small “disgrace” honors her more than honor itself, is in the spirit of “Honi soit qui mal y pense” (the motto of the Order of the Garter), or of a charming later poem by Robert Herrick, “Delight in Disorder”:

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthralls the crimson stomacher:
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly:
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoestring, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.

Both poems celebrate the human departure from “perfection” which only makes a beautiful woman more desirable.

*i.e., the children or minions of Aeolus, god of the winds

Next time (weekend of June 24): Sonnet 104
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.