Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 86 and the Fifth through Ninth Songs

Alas, whence came this change of looks? If I
Have changed desert, let mine own conscience be
A still-felt plague, to self-condemning me:
Let woe gripe on my heart, shame load mine eye.
But if all faith, like spotless ermine, lie
Safe in my soul, which only doth to thee
(As his sole object of felicity)
With wings of love in air of wonder fly,
O ease your hand, treat not so hard your slave;
In justice pains come not till faults do call;
Or if I needs, sweet judge, must torments have,
Use something else to chasten me withal
Than those blessed eyes, where all my hopes do dwell.
No doom should make one’s heaven become his 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.

Reading notes: in the final couplet, both “blessed” and “heaven” are one syllable. 

Stella is angry again, perhaps in response to the overly blunt and persistent wooing of the Fourth Song? In any event, we are about to take our longest leave of sonnet-making in the whole sequence, as (following this one) Sidney wrestles with the problematic relationship over five long songs, before settling back into sonnets.

“Those blessed eyes” begin and end this sonnet and, perhaps for added emphasis, the opening rhyme is the homophonic “I” and “eye.” Stella’s dark and flashing eyes have taken on that look of menace, and the speaker tries to extricate himself from her apparent wrath. If I really have become less deserving (“changed desert”), he says, let my own conscience punish me; the quatrain ends with the sound effect of two “heavy” (i.e., spondaic) feet: “shame load mine eye.”

But that “if” was clearly rhetorical; the speaker (faithful lover that he is) could not possibly have offended! In contrast to the heavy ending of the first quatrain, the second trips ever so lightly through enjambed lines, carrying all the way into the sestet before its thought is completed. This second “if” argument runs: if I have been faithful and true to you, please treat me (“your slave”) more leniently. It is simple justice (says line 10) not to punish where there is no fault.

The third and final “if,” in the last four lines of the poem, goes beyond justice to plead for mercy. If, after all (the speaker argues), I must be punished, please choose some other scourge “Than those blessed eyes” to punish me with—because, of course, these are the very eyes that spark his love. Line 14 parallels line 10 as an apparent principle of jurisprudence, but here the statement becomes both metaphysical (heaven and hell) and poignantly reflective of physical discomfort in a state of alienation from one’s love. 

Fifth Song

While favour fed my hope, delight with hope was brought,
Thought waited on delight, and speech did follow thought;
Then drew my tongue and pen records unto thy glory;
I thought all words were lost, that were not spent of thee;
I thought each place was dark but where thy lights would be,
And all ears worse than deaf, that heard not out thy story.

I said thou wert most fair, and so indeed thou art;
I said thou wert most sweet, sweet poison to my heart;
I said my soul was thine—O that I then had lied!
I said thine eyes were stars, thy breasts the milken way,
Thy fingers Cupid’s shafts, thy voice the angels’ lay,
And all I said so well, as no man it denied.

But now that hope is lost, unkindness kills delight,
Yet thought and speech do live, though metamorphosed quite;
For rage now rules the reins, which guided were by pleasure.
I think now of thy faults, who late thought of thy praise;
That speech falls now to blame, which did thy honour raise;
The same key open can, which can lock up a treasure.

Thou then, whom partial heavens conspired in one to frame,
The proof of beauty’s worth, th’inheritrix of fame,
The mansion seat of bliss, and just excuse of lovers;
See now those feathers plucked, wherewith thou flew’st most high;
See what clouds of reproach shall dark thy honour’s sky;
Whose own fault casts him down, hardly high seat recovers.

And O my Muse, though oft you lulled her in your lap,
And then, a heavenly child, gave her ambrosian pap,
And to that brain of hers your hiddenest gifts infused;
Since she, disdaining me, doth you in me disdain,
Suffer not her to laugh, while we both suffer pain;
Princes in subjects wronged, must deem themselves abused.

Your client poor myself, shall Stella handle so?
Revenge, revenge, my muse; defiance’ trumpet blow;
Threaten what may be done, yet do more than you threaten.
Ah, my suit granted is; I feel my breast to swell;
Now child, a lesson new you shall begin to spell:
Sweet babes must babies have, but shrewd girls must be beaten.

Think now no more to hear of warm fine-odored snow,
Nor blushing lilies, nor pearls’ ruby-hidden row,
Nor of that golden sea, whose waves in curls are broken:
But of thy soul, so fraught with such ungratefulness,
As where thou soon might’st help, most faith dost most oppress;
Ungrateful who is called, the worst of evils is spoken.

Yet worse than worst, I say thou art a thief. A thief?
No God forbid. A thief, and of worst thieves the chief;
Thieves steal for need, and steal but goods, which pain recovers,
But thou, rich in all joys, dost rob my joys from me,
Which cannot be restored by time nor industry.
Of foes the spoil is evil, far worse of constant lovers.

Yet gentle English thieves do rob, but will not slay;
Thou English murdering thief, wilt have hearts for thy prey;
The name of murderer now on thy fair forehead sitteth;
And even while I do speak, my death wounds bleeding be,
Which, I protest, proceed from only cruel thee.
Who may, and will not, save, murder in truth committeth.

But murder, private fault, seems but a toy to thee;
I lay then to thy charge, unjustest tyranny,
If rule by force without all claim a tyrant showeth.
For thou dost lord my heart, who am not born thy slave;
And which is worse, makes me, most guiltless, torments have;
A rightful prince by unright deeds a tyrant groweth.

Lo, you grow proud with this, for tyrants make folk bow.
Of foul rebellion then I do appeach thee now;
Rebel by nature’s law, rebel by law of reason.
Thou, sweetest subject, wert born in the realm of love,
And yet against thy prince thy force dost daily prove;
No virtue merits praise, once touched with blot of treason.

But valiant rebels oft in fools’ mouths purchase fame;
I now then stain thy white with vagabonding shame,
Both rebel to the son, and vagrant from the mother:
For wearing Venus’ badge in every part of thee
Unto Diana’s train thou, runaway, didst flee:
Who faileth one, is false, though trusty to another.

What, is not this enough? Nay, far worse cometh here:
A witch I say thou art, though thou so fair appear;
For I protest, my sight never thy face enjoyeth,
But I in me am changed; I am alive and dead;
My feet are turned to roots; my heart becometh lead;
No witchcraft is so evil, as which man’s mind destroyeth.

Yet witches may repent; thou art far worse than they;
Alas, that I am forced such evil of thee to say!
I say thou art a devil, though clothed in angel’s shining;
For thy face tempts my soul to leave the heaven for thee,
And thy words of refuse, do pour even hell on me.
Who tempt, and tempted plague, are devils in true defining.

You then, ungrateful thief, you murdering tyrant, you;
You rebel runaway, to lord and lady untrue;
You witch, you devil, alas—you still of me beloved,
You see what I can say; mend yet your froward mind,
And such skill in my muse you, reconciled, shall find,
That all these cruel words your praises shall be proved.

Reading notes: because of the pattern of feminine endings at the end of the third and sixth lines of each stanza, the final syllables should be pronounced in “lied” and “denied” (stanza 2), “infused” and “abused” (5), and “beloved” and “proved” (15); both “murdering” and “murderer” in stanza 9 are elided to two syllables; and “even” in the penultimate line of stanza 14 is elided to one.

This song can be compared to the Third, in its use of six-hexameter-line stanzas; and my comments there on how hexameters translate into singable song verses are also relevant here. The rhyme scheme (AABCCB), however, is new, and the feminine rhymes here come in the “B” lines, 3 and 6.

The first stanza employs an auxesis paralleling that which opens the whole sequence in Sonnet 1, and in fact it recapitulates the process by which the speaker came to write of Stella (lines 1-3), as well as the importance he attached to this writing (4-6). But by the second half of the second line in the second stanza, the poet is having second thoughts! The regret of having given himself over to this project creeps into the verse as a “sweet poison,” even as he maintains the truth of all the praise his sonnets have contained.

The third stanza makes the disappointment more direct and explicit. He fairly bluntly states that his love has turned to hate (“rage now rules the reins”) or at least anger and reproach. In context, the metaphor of the key in the last line of the stanza is a reference to the use of his own talents (i.e., he is threatening to “lock up” any further praise); but it is also a sly hint at how Stella could have chosen to “open” rather than “lock up” her “treasure,” where the speaker is concerned.

Stanzas 4-6 go from vaguely hostile and threatening (“clouds of reproach”) to downright ugly (“shrewd [i.e., shrewish] girls must be beaten”). The general idea is that the poet’s muse is invoked, not for the usual inspiration, but as a force of “revenge” for Stella’s ingratitude; and rather unusually, the muse appears to be responsive to this, in the second half of stanza 6. In the most unappealing passage of the entire Astrophil and Stella, Sidney makes a point of Penelope Devereux’s relatively young age, suggesting she can be a “good girl” and have the “reward” of “babies,” but (a mere “babe” herself) if she is bad, she must, like a bad child, be “beaten.”

Stanza 7 makes the pivot into the second half of the song, starting with the slightly odd poetic gifts (“warm, fine-odored snow . . . etc.”) that Stella is now to lose, and ending with the announcement that her sin is ingratitude, and that this is the “worst of evils.” But this is merely the start of a ratcheting-up game in which such announcements are followed quickly by some version of: “Did I say worst? No, even worse than that, she is ____________.” And with this somewhat tedious and overwrought method, Stella advances from mere ingrate to thief, murderer, tyrant, rebel (worse than tyrant in the peculiar anti-democratic spirit of the Elizabethans), and traitor. By stanza 13, she has morphed all the way up to “witch,” and in 14 she tops out at “devil.”

The final stanza gives a brief recap of the sequence, from ingratitude up to devil, and then acknowledges in a half-line (“You see what I can say”) that all this extreme venting was just an exercise in persuasion. Hope springs eternal! In the last two-and-a-half lines of a nasty ninety-line diatribe, he promises that if she will stop being “froward” (a favorite Elizabethan adjective for uppity, unyielding, or shrewish women) the muse will return to singing her praises.

Sixth Song

O you that hear this voice,
O you that see this face,
Say whether of the choice
Deserves the former place:
Fear not to judge this ’bate,
For it is void of hate.

This side doth Beauty take,
For that doth Music speak,
Fit orators to make
The strongest judgments weak:
The bar to plead their right
Is only true delight.

Thus doth the voice and face
These gentle lawyers wage
Like loving brothers’ case
For father’s heritage:
That each, while each contends,
Itself to other lends.

For Beauty beautifies
With heavenly hue and grace
The heavenly harmonies;
And in this faultless face
The perfect beauties be
A perfect harmony.

Music more lofty swells
In speeches nobly placed;
Beauty as far excels
In action aptly graced;
A friend each party draws
To countenance his cause.

Love more affected seems
To Beauty’s lovely light,
And Wonder more esteems
Of Music’s wondrous might;
But both to both so bent,
As both in both are spent.

Music doth witness call
The ear, his truth to try;
Beauty brings to the hall
The judgment of the eye:
Both in their objects such,
As no exceptions touch.

The Common Sense, which might
Be arbiter of this,
To be forsooth upright,
To both sides partial is:
He lays on this chief praise,
Chief praise on that he lays.

The Reason, princess high,
Whose throne is in the mind,
Which Music can in sky
And hidden beauties find:
Say whether thou wilt crown
With limitless renown.

Reading note: each “heavenly” in the fourth stanza is elided to two syllables.

By sharp contrast to the Fifth Song, the lines of this one are half as long (iambic trimeter), and the poem itself is a rather simple allegory of abstract properties engaged in an open-ended “debate” that is not resolved. It ends in a sort of “question d’amor,” a medieval device for ending a love story with an unanswerable riddle about love—as in, for example, The Franklin’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The overall effect here is bland flattery of Stella, as if in apology for the critical blast of the previous song.

The word “whether” in the third line means roughly “if either,” so the question is if either Stella’s voice or face deserves the favored position it once held. But sensing a return to the nastiness of the Fifth Song, the speaker hastens to assure that the debate (“’bate”) will be “void of hate.” And it certainly is. “Beauty” is the advocate for the face, and “Music” for the voice, but they are such “gentle lawyers” and “loving brothers” that there is absolutely no heat or contention in the dispute. Stanzas 4 and 5 explain that it is hard to tell their arguments apart. Beauty is all about harmony, and the music of the spheres (the sixteenth-century understanding of “heavenly harmonies”); so probably some form of vice-versa is also true, though Music gets only two lines of its own, making this less explicit.

It gradually turns out that four judges will be called on to settle the issue: Love, Wonder (or Admiration), Common Sense, and Reason. Love leans a little to Beauty, and Wonder to Music, but in truth (last two lines of Stanza 6) they can’t completely swing one way. Common Sense should be counted on for a straight answer, but he does what should be impossible, laying “chief praise” on both contestants. And the “witnesses”—ear for Music and eye for Beauty—merely affirm that their respective “objects” (i.e., Stella’s voice and face) are unsurpassed (“no exceptions touch”).

The song finally appeals to Reason—theoretically the highest authority on issues of debate—to say “whether” (i.e., which) she will choose. But this appeal ends the song; Reason’s answer is left to us to give—or perhaps we are to suspend judgment while we consider the case further in the Seventh Song.

Seventh Song

Whose senses in so ill consort, their stepdame Nature lays,
That ravishing delight in them most sweet tunes do not raise;
Or if they do delight therein, yet are so cloyed with wit,
As with sententious lips to set a title vain on it;
O let them hear these sacred tunes, and learn in wonder’s schools
To be, in things past bounds of wit, fools, if they be not fools.

Who have so leaden eyes, as not to see sweet beauty’s show,
Or seeing, have so wooden wits, as not that worth to know;
Or knowing, have so muddy minds, as not to be in love;
Or loving, have so frothy thoughts, as easily thence to move:
O let them see these heavenly beams, and in fair letters read
A lesson fit, both sight and skill, love and firm love to breed.

Hear then, but then with wonder hear; see, but adoring see;
No mortal gifts, no earthly fruits, now here descended be;
See, do you see this face? A face? Nay, image of the skies,
Of which the two life-giving lights are figured in her eyes.
Hear you this soul-invading voice, and count it but a voice?
The very essence of their tunes, when angels do rejoice.

Reading notes: “easily” and “heavenly” in the second stanza are both elided to two syllables.

Now we have stretched all the way out to heptameter lines, but (similar to my earlier notes on hexameter “songs”) I must point out that heptameter lines in rhyming couplets can be sung simply as “common meter” or “ballad” stanzas (four feet in the first and third lines, three feet in the second and fourth), with each couplet representing such a stanza. Again by contrast to the Fifth Song, this one is just three six-line stanzas (not fifteen) long. And it continues the friendly “contention” between Music (Stella’s voice) and Beauty (her face) that was the subject of the Sixth Song. But the poetry here is tighter and carefully balanced, and the flattery is less bland.

The essential thesis is that Stella’s voice and face are not of this world, but heavenly, and the case is made with Sidney’s tight, paradoxical logic. The first stanza, focused on music, anticipates Lorenzo’s well-known speech on “that man that hath not music in his soul” in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice; Sidney concludes his version with the neat paradox that only a fool would not be made a fool by music.

Then beauty is featured in the second stanza, with the now-familiar auxesis that looks back to Plato and forward to Wordsworth (see notes on Sonnet 81). Here, each step of the process is framed negatively, again (as in the first stanza) imagining the fool who might ignore or resist Stella’s charms. But the song pivots in the final two lines of this stanza, calling on anyone with eyes to see to look on Stella’s “heavenly beams,” and thus perforce have “love and firm love” (a figure called a diacope) bred in him.

The final stanza artfully combines the music of voice and beauty of face, first intertwined in the opening couplet, then parallel in the other two. Rhetorical questions establish that the face is the “image of the skies”—fitting the association of her eyes with stars—and the voice belongs to the angels.

Eighth Song

In a grove most rich of shade,
Where birds wanton music made,
May, then young, his pied weeds showing,
New perfumed with flowers fresh growing,

Astrophil with Stella sweet
Did for mutual comfort meet,
Both within themselves oppressed,
But each in the other blessed.

Him great harms had taught much care:
Her fair neck a foul yoke bare:
But her sight his cares did banish,
In his sight her yoke did vanish.

Wept they did, but now betwixt
Sighs of woe were glad sighs mixed,
With arms crossed, yet testifying
Restless rest, and living dying.

Their ears hungry of each word,
Which the dear tongue would afford,
But their tongues restrained from walking,
Till their hearts had ended talking.

But when their tongues could not speak,
Love itself did silence break;
Love did set his lips asunder,
Thus to speak in love and wonder:

‘Stella, sovereign of my joy,
Fair triumpher of annoy,
Stella, star of heavenly fire,
Stella, lodestar of desire;

‘Stella, in whose shining eyes
Are the lights of Cupid’s skies;
Whose beams, where they once are darted,
Love therewith is straight imparted;

‘Stella, whose voice when it speaks,
Senses all asunder breaks;
Stella, whose voice when it singeth
Angels to acquaintance bringeth;

‘Stella, in whose body is
Writ each character of bliss;
Whose face all, all beauty passeth,
Save thy mind, which yet surpasseth:

‘Grant, O grant—but speech, alas,
Fails me, fearing on to pass;
Grant—O me, what am I saying?
But no fault there is in praying:

‘Grant, O dear, on knees I pray’—
(Knees on ground he then did stay)
‘That not I, but since I love you,
Time and place for me may move you.

‘Never season was more fit,
Never room more apt for it;
Smiling air allows my reason;
These birds sing, “Now use the season”;

‘This small wind, which so sweet is,
See how it the leaves doth kiss,
Each tree in his best attiring,
Sense of love to love inspiring.

‘Love makes earth the water drink,
Love to earth makes water sink;
And if dumb things be so witty,
Shall a heavenly grace want pity?’

There his hands in their speech fain
Would have made tongue’s language plain;
But her hands his hands repelling,
Gave repulse, all grace excelling.

Then she spake; her speech was such
As not ears, but heart did touch;
While such wise she love denied,
As yet love she signified.

‘Astrophil,’ said she, ‘my love,
Cease in these effects to prove:
Now be still, yet still believe me,
Thy grief more than death would grieve me.

‘If that any thought in me
Can taste comfort but of thee,
Let me, fed with hellish anguish,
Joyless, hopeless, endless languish.

‘If those eyes you praised be
Half so dear as you to me,
Let me home return, stark blinded
Of those eyes, and blinder minded.

‘If to secret of my heart
I do any wish impart
Where thou art not foremost placed,
Be both wish and I defaced.

‘If more may be said, I say,
All my bliss in thee I lay;
If thou love, my love content thee,
For all love, all faith is meant thee.

‘Trust me, while I thee deny,
In myself the smart I try;
Tyrant honour thus doth use thee;
Stella’s self might not refuse thee.

‘Therefore, dear, this no more move,
Lest, though I leave not thy love,
Which too deep in me is framed,
I should blush when thou art named.’

Therewithal away she went,
Leaving him so passion-rent
With what she had done and spoken,
That therewith my song is broken.

Reading notes: “flowers” in the final line of the first stanza is one syllable; “heavenly” is two syllables in the seventh and fifteenth stanzas; and because of the song’s established pattern (see metrical discussion below) the “-ed” of “placed” and “defaced” in Stanza 21, and “framed” and “named” in Stanza 24, must be pronounced as an extra syllable.

See my metrical notes on the Fourth Song, which came after Sonnet 85. Here the first two lines of each stanza have that same “incomplete” structure, but because the last two in each stanza have feminine rhymes, the whole effect is trochaic, or a tumbling rhythm, rather than the more typical relaxed beat of iambs.

The song is arcadian and pastoral, harking back to Sidney’s Old Arcadia, possibly the last thing he wrote before starting this sonnet sequence. The season is May, the flowers (May’s “pied weeds” or clothing) are blooming, and—at least in the poet’s fancy—Astrophil and Stella are young lovers taking “mutual comfort” from each other while both are “oppressed” by others. Indeed, this is the rare moment in the whole sequence when Astrophil is given his name, and is not the speaker of the poem, that job being here assigned to an omniscient third-person narrator.

Stella’s “foul yoke” (Stanza 3) is of course her betrothal or marriage to Lord Rich, and this encounter (perhaps imaginary) quickly takes on the oxymoronic nature of such forbidden love: “Sighs of woe” mixed with “glad sighs”; finding “restless rest” and “living dying” in their togetherness. They find themselves tongue-tied, but their “hearts” communicate, and the poet skirts the issue of Astrophil’s boldness in finally speaking by blaming “Love” for “set[ting] his lips asunder.” His plea occupies stanzas 7 to 15. He is clearly intent on adultery, and the extremity of what he desires gives him momentary pause in Stanza 11, but with “knees on ground” he pushes on with his plea that she give in to his passion, citing the perfect ripeness of their opportunity.

In the pivotal sixteenth stanza, Astrophil tries to act on his plea with his hands, but her own hands “Gave repulse, all grace excelling.” Her answer to his speech is set up in Stanza 17; conveniently, she will speak silently, so the poet is able to interpret the “love she signified” as well. Her silent speech occupies stanzas 18-24 and it repeats in many different ways the basic idea that she loves him, but cannot love him: “Trust me, while I thee deny,/In myself the smart I try” (i.e., the pain I feel).

Finally, in Stanza 24, she says that since she continues to love him deeply, he must keep his distance so that she is not caught blushing at the mere sound of his name. This message leaves Astrophil so “passion-rent” that the song cannot go on, and so, in spite of having lasted for twenty-five stanzas, is quite abruptly “broken.” 

Ninth Song

Go, my flock, go get you hence,
Seek a better place of feeding,
Where you may have some defence
From the storms in my breast breeding,
And showers from my eyes proceeding.

Leave a wretch, in whom all woe
Can abide to keep no measure;
Merry flock, such one forego,
Unto whom mirth is displeasure,
Only rich in mischief’s treasure.

Yet, alas, before you go,
Hear your woeful master’s story,
Which to stones I else would show:
Sorrow only then hath glory,
When ‘tis excellently sorry.

Stella, fiercest shepherdess,
Fiercest, but yet fairest ever;
Stella, whom, O heavens, do bless,
Though against me she persever,
Though I bliss inherit never;

Stella hath refused me,
Stella, who more love hath proved
In this caitiff heart to be
Than can in good ewes be moved
Toward lambkins best beloved.

Stella hath refused me;
Astrophil, that so well served,
In this pleasant spring must see,
While in pride flowers be preserved,
Himself only winter-starved.

Why, alas, doth she then swear
That she loveth me so dearly,
Seeing me so long to bear
Coals of love, that burn so clearly,
And yet leave me helpless merely?

Is that love? Forsooth, I trow,
If I saw my good dog grieved,
And a help for him did know,
My love should not be believed
But he were by me relieved.

No, she hates me, wellaway,
Feigning love somewhat, to please me;
For she knows, if she display
All her hate, death soon would seize me,
And of hideous torments ease me.

Then adieu, dear flock, adieu:
But alas, if in your straying
Heavenly Stella meet with you,
Tell her, in your piteous blaying,
Her poor slave’s unjust decaying.

Reading notes: “heavens” in Stanza 4 and “heavenly” in Stanza 10 are elided in the usual way; and the “-ed” syllable is pronounced in “refused,” “proved,” “moved,” and “beloved” (Stanza 5), “refused,” “served,” “preserved,” and “starved” (6), “grieved,” believed,” and “relieved” (8); and “hideous” in Stanza 9 and “piteous” in Stanza 10 are elided to two syllables.

As the song is taken up again, in the same trochaic rhythm, but now in 5-line ABABB stanzas with all the B-rhymes feminine, Astrophil has become a shepherd and Stella a shepherdess. We have completed the movement into the pastoral mode and its suffering swain motif, lovingly mocked by Shakespeare in his portrayal of Silvius and Phebe in As You Like It. The song also returns to the customary first-person, though once again Astrophil’s name is given.

The microcosm/macrocosm analogy is at work in the opening lines, so the “storms” in Astrophil’s breast and the “showers” from his eyes are a meteorological threat from which the otherwise “merry” flock should seek shelter. But, before they go, he will make them hear his tale of woe, since it’s either them or no one (i.e., “stones”), and sorrow cannot be “excellently sorry” without an audience.

The tale is the familiar one about Stella’s seemingly contradictory behavior, summed up most succinctly in Stanza 7. As usual in pastoral poetry, the season is spring (Stanza 6) when even the lilies of the field (so to speak) are taken care of by nature, but the good, faithful shepherd Astrophil is “starved” as if it were still winter. In Stanza 5, for the sake of his audience, he uses a home-spun sheep analogy: there’s more constant love in his wretched (“caitiff”) heart for Stella than ewes have for their lambs. And another in Stanza 8: Astrophil would show more love to his faithful dog than Stella is showing to him.

This rustic simplicity is modestly challenged by a complication in the final two stanzas. Although Stella clearly “hates” him (“wellaway” can mean either “a great deal” or, as an interjection, “alas!”), it sounds at first as if she “feign[s] love” out of a sort of kindness, to keep him from dying of grief; but the last line of the penultimate stanza implies that she just sadistically wants to prolong his “torments.” But having decided that she in fact “hates” him, nothing remains but his death, which in turn will cast the flock adrift; and in their “straying,” their “piteous baying” will convey to Stella the message of his “unjust decaying.”

Next time (weekend of October 30): Sonnet 87
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 84

Highway, since you my chief Parnassus be,
And that my muse, to some ears not unsweet,
Tempers her words to trampling horse’s feet
More oft than to a chamber melody;
Now, blessed you, bear onward blessed me
To her, where I my heart safeliest shall meet.
My muse and I must you of duty greet,
With thanks and wishes, wishing thankfully.
Be you still fair, honoured by public heed,
By no encroachment wronged, nor time forgot;
Nor blamed for blood, nor shamed for sinful deed.
And that you know I envy you no lot
Of highest wish, I wish you so much bliss,
Hundreds of years you Stella’s feet may kiss.

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: “blessed” (both times) in line 5 has two syllables; and “safeliest” in line 6 is elided to two.

This sonnet is a gentle hymn to a highway, in the form of a “blessing” with a verse preceding it that describes the occasion for the blessing. I am reminded, for example, of the old McGuire Sisters New Year’s song “May You Always,” that begins “This special time, this special place . . . .” The song goes on for eight lines of recitative establishing the context, before swinging into “May you always walk in sunshine . . .,” the more memorable “aria” part of the blessing. Here, in very conventional sonnet form, the “verse” that sets up the blessing is the octave, and the blessing itself is the sestet.

The poem is ostensibly composed on horseback, the speaker/poet traveling toward Stella (in contrast to Sonnets 87-89, where he is forced to leave her). In the first quatrain he suggests that such propitious travel inspires more of his poetry (including supplying the rhythm of horses’ feet) than does chamber music.

The second quatrain completes the picture by gratefully imagining the journey’s end. The fifth line has a very subtle antanaclasis between “blessed you” (as in “Aren’t you wonderful?”) and “blessed me” (as in “I am so fortunate”). And line 8 similarly has a subtle chiasmus on words rooted in “thank” and “wish.”

The actual blessing starts with line 9. We might think of the familiar Irish Blessing which begins “May the road rise to greet you . . .,” except in this case the recipient of the blessing is the road! A blessing for any road might include the wishes that it be well-maintained (line 9 and the last two feet of line 10) and free of crime (first part of line 10, and line 11). But the final “capper” for this blessing, freely offered in the last three lines by an unenvious lover, is that it may “kiss” Stella’s feet for a hyperpolic “hundreds of years.”

Next time (weekend of October 2): Sonnet 85
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 77

Those looks, whose beams be joy, whose motion is delight;
That face, whose lecture shows what perfect beauty is;
That presence, which doth give dark hearts a living light;
That grace, which Venus weeps that she herself doth miss;
That hand, which without touch holds more than Atlas might:
Those lips, which make death’s pay a mean price for a kiss;
That skin, whose past-praise hue scorns this poor term of ‘white’;
Those words, which do sublime the quintessence of bliss;
That voice, which makes the soul plant himself in the ears:
That conversation sweet, where such high comforts be,
As construed in true speech, the name of heaven it bears,
Makes me in my best thoughts and quiet’st judgment see
That in no more but these I might be fully blessed:
Yet ah, my maiden muse doth blush to tell the rest.

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:  “heaven” in line 11 is (as usual) one syllable, and “quiet’st” in line 12 is two, divided “qui” and “et’st.” Somewhat unusual word senses are “lecture”—meaning “reading”—in line 2, and “sublime”—a transitive verb meaning “distill” or “extract”—in line 8. And given the vagaries of Elizabethan punctuation, the phrase “Atlas might” can be understood two ways: the more obvious is with “might” as an auxiliary verb for an understood “do”; but we can also imagine an apostrophe after “Atlas,” making “might” the noun that means “strength.”

The second of a pair of sonnets in hexameters, the extra length provides spaciousness for an extended blazon, running eleven lines and combining tangible bodily features (face, hands, lips, skin) with intangible actions (looks, words, voice) and abstract qualities (presence, grace, conversation) to make up the entire picture of perfection:

–looks (i.e., from those blazing, darting eyes) that create “joy” and “delight”;
–a face, the reading (“lecture”) of which defines “perfect beauty”;
–a presence which lights up even “dark hearts”;
–a grace envied even by Venus herself;
–a hand that exercises enormous sway even “without touch”;
–lips literally to die for; that is, even death would be a low (“mean”) price to pay for a kiss;
–skin that is fairer than fair (“white”);
–words which distill (“sublime”) the rarest form (“quintessence”) of “bliss”;
–a voice which makes the “soul” (ordinarily the aloof immortal part within the mortal) want to take up residence in the relatively humble place of the ears;
–and conversation (given a two-line description to finish the series) that puts the listener in heaven.

The verb “Makes” at the start of line 12, despite its singularity in modern grammar, clearly has as subjects all the ten features named above, and starts a two-line thought that, by his acquaintance with Stella, the speaker is quite “fully,” quite thoroughly, “blessed.” It is another of Sidney’s sonnets (like 71 and 72) where a perfectly romantic ideal is achieved in thirteen lines, with a “but”—or in this case “Yet”—opening the poem’s final line. All the qualities mentioned are those that can, with honor, be acknowledged by an admirer in public; but the speaker dreams of other “blessings” from Stella, of a kind to make a “maiden muse . . . blush.”

Next time (weekend of June 26): Sonnet 78
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 70

My muse may well grudge at my heavenly joy,
If still I force her in sad rhymes to creep;
She oft hath drunk my tears, now hopes to enjoy
Nectar of mirth, since I Jove’s cup do keep.
Sonnets be not bound prentice to annoy;
Trebles sing high, as well as basses deep:
Grief but Love’s winter livery is, the boy
Hath cheeks to smile, as well as eyes to weep.
Come then, my muse, show thou height of delight
In well-raised notes; my pen the best it may
Shall paint out joy, though but in black and white.
Cease, eager muse; peace, pen, for my sake stay;
I give you here my hand for truth of this:
Wise silence is best music unto bliss.

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: “heavenly” in line 1 is two syllables, and “to enjoy” in line 3 must be elided to “t’enjoy.”

This sonnet seeks to hold on to the blissful moment of the previous one, with a more modest and quiet reflection. It resumes the on-and-off conversation with the muse that started in Sonnet 1, and opens with the assumption that this long-suffering muse will be expecting some happy poetry now, for a change. The somewhat obscure reference in line 4 to keeping “Jove’s cup” may be a footnote reference to Sidney’s honorary office of cupbearer to the Queen, but since this was neither new nor the source of his bliss, the more important symbolism is the suggestion of his finding favor with a deity.

The second quatrain comments on the range or versatility of the sonnet, and could be read as a rebuke of the cult of Petrarch—of which Sidney himself is a prominent member—for its single-minded focus on unrequited love. “Annoy” at the end of line 5 is a noun, meaning grief, and a “bound prentice” is an apprentice who has been signed over (by a parent or guardian) to a master for a period of time in return for learning a trade. So the sense of the line is that sonnets do not just serve to express grief or disappointment. They have “high” notes as well as low (line 6); they wear different clothing (“livery”) for different seasons (7); Cupid (“Love,” or “the boy”) can smile as well as weep (8).

Lines 9-11 make a rather tentative effort to put this new poetic principle into practice, looking a bit like the ever-sober prude Malvolio at the moment when the planted letter instructs him to smile. The very first thing the muse is told to show is “height of delight,” a comical internal rhyme, with a “reverse” foot (trochee) paired with a normal one—like an unsure person trying to buck himself up for a new direction. And it doesn’t go so well: “my pen the best it may/Shall paint out joy . . .” hardly inspires confidence!

By the end of this very halting and hesitant invocation, the speaker has abruptly changed his mind, and the final tercet suggests that perhaps sonnets should be “bound prentice to annoy.”  After all, the successful lover should not boast of his triumph (such as it is); wisely, he should just enjoy his “bliss” in silence.

Next time (weekend of March 20): Sonnet 71
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 63, and First Song

O grammar-rules, O now your virtues show;
So children still read you with awful eyes,
As my young dove may, in your precepts wise,
Her grant to me by her own virtue know;
For late, with heart most high, with eyes most low,
I craved the thing which ever she denies;
She, lightning Love displaying Venus’ skies,
Lest once should not be heard, twice said, No, No!
Sing then, my muse, now Io Pæan sing;
Heavens envy not at my high triumphing,
But grammar’s force with sweet success confirm;
For grammar says (O this, dear Stella, weigh),
For grammar says (to grammar who says nay?)
That in one speech two negatives affirm!

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: “Heavens” in line 10 is one syllable. In line 9, “Io” is the muse, and a “Pæan” is a hymn of praise; both words are two-syllable, the first syllable stressed and the second unstressed in both cases.

This sonnet is downright childish in its playfulness, deflecting the speaker’s frustration in a rather nerdy way. The scene depicted is one in which Stella, notes the speaker’s rising excitement (“heart most high”) as he casts his “eyes most low” (i.e., he’s not looking her in the face!). While her beauty (“displaying Venus’ skies”) seems (to him, at least) to egg him on, she exercises a woman’s prerogative of using her voice to say No!—not just once, but twice.

The “grammar-rules” the poem speaks of are Latin grammar rules, the chief cause of children’s headaches in the grammar schools; hence, the second line, where “awful” has its original sense of “full of awe.” The idea of teaching a grammar for English has not really appeared yet, and, as we are frequently reminded by Shakespeare, at this time the double negative in English intensifies the negativity, rather than canceling it out. But in Latin teaching, a stricter logic would apply. Perhaps I should also point out that, strictly speaking, “No, no!” is not a double negative in the usual logical application of that phrase; it is merely repetition for emphasis.

But the speaker leaps on the opportunity with a self-consciously sappy voice of triumph: the first tercet of the sestet is deliberately bad, overwrought poetry, culminating in the ridiculous apotheosis of grammar, the schoolboy’s bane. Then, in the final three lines, he knows perfectly well he is being puerile, and milks the moment, with his two parenthetical interruptions stalling the springing of the trap until the final line.

First Song

Doubt you to whom my Muse these notes intendeth,
Which now my breast o’ercharged to music lendeth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only in you my song begins and endeth.
 
Who hath the eyes which marry state with pleasure,              5
Who keeps the key of Nature’s chiefest treasure?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only for you the heaven forgat all measure.
 
Who hath the lips, where wit in fairness reigneth,
Who womankind at once both decks and staineth?               10
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only by you Cupid his crown maintaineth.
 
Who hath the feet, whose step all sweetness planteth,
Who else for whom Fame worthy trumpets wanteth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;                                15
Only to you her scepter Venus granteth.
 
Who hath the breast, whose milk doth passions nourish,
Whose grace is such, that when it chides doth cherish?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only through you the tree of life doth flourish.                     20
 
Who hath the hand which without stroke subdueth,
Who long dead beauty with increase reneweth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only to you all envy hopeless rueth.
 
Who hath the hair which, loosest, fastest tieth,                      25
Who makes a man live, then glad when he dieth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only of you the flatterer never lieth.

Who hath the voice, which soul from senses sunders,
Whose force but yours the bolts of beauty thunders?                        30
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only with you are miracles not wonders.
 
Doubt you to whom my Muse these notes intendeth,
Which now my breast o’ercharg’d to music lendeth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;                                35
Only in you my song begins and endeth.

What strikes me most immediately about this first “song” after sixty-three sonnets is the pervasive use of feminine rhymes, used nowhere in the sonnets themselves. Lines 1, 2, and 4 of each stanza rhyme this way, while line 3, which functions as the song’s refrain, is the same perfectly regular iambic pentameter line all the way through. This refrain rather obviously states the song’s theme and purpose.

In the literal, biographical sense, we could imagine the songs being offered up musically (a version of the serenade) when Sidney and Penelope are together. In the artistic sense, a song like this could be called the antithesis of a sonnet. Instead of very close logic and dense complexity of ideas in tightly restricted space, we have the lengthy spinning out of a single idea as a refrain with a succession of not terribly interesting iterations.

There is not, for example, a closely connected thought running through any single stanza—except for the identical first and last stanzas (each illustrating its final line) which explain the point of the song. Instead, the song’s ingenuity lies in the way first lines are connected to one another (a blazon of physical features), second lines to one another (abstract hyperboles of praise), and fourth lines to one another (parallel extensions of the idea in the refrain).

A few lines that might be obscure or difficult for a reader:

10: “Who womankind at once both decks and staineth?”; i.e., she improves (“decks”) her gender and yet puts it to shame by the comparison of all other women to her.

14: “Who else for whom Fame worthy trumpets wanteth?”; i.e., even Fame itself is not up to the task of honoring her.

22:  “Who long dead beauty with increase reneweth?”; i.e., the “glory of Helen” or other ancient, supposedly matchless, beauty, is not only reborn, but actually improved in her. (Duncan-Jones’s note on this line is misleading.)

24: “Only to you all envy hopeless rueth”; slightly odd grammar here, but the general point seems to be that, while any beauty creates envy in the less beautiful, in her case, others despair even of their envy, as achieving her level is so hopeless.

26: “Who makes a man live, then glad when he dieth?”; i.e., she makes a man feel he is alive for the first time; the second half could be innocently interpreted as hyperbolically suggesting men are happy to die for her, but more immediate to the renaissance ear is the slang use of “die” for sexual intercourse (apparently stemming from the belief that each orgasm shortened one’s life a bit).

Next time (weekend of December 12): Sonnet 64
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 34

Come, let me write. ‘And to what end?’  To ease
A burdened heart. ‘How can words ease, which are
The glasses of thy daily vexing care?’
Oft cruel fights well pictured forth do please.
‘Art not ashamed to publish thy disease?’
Nay, that may breed my fame, it is so rare.
‘But will not wise men think thy words fond ware?’
Then be they close, and so none shall displease.
‘What idler thing, than speak and not be heard?’
What harder thing than smart and not to speak?
Peace, foolish Wit; with wit my wit is marred.
Thus write I while I doubt to write, and wreak
My harms on ink’s poor loss; perhaps some find
Stella’s great powers, that so confuse my mind.

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, if it were found outside the sequence, might have the title “A Dialogue Between the Poet and his Wit.”  As I have noted before, “wit” here means “wisdom,” or the reasoning part of the brain, as opposed to the passions or fancies. As I’m sure the reader has already detected, the speeches of Wit are in quotation marks, and the speaker—obviously here identified with the poet—says all the rest. Thus (at the one point of possible confusion) line 10 is the poet’s direct response to line 9, while line 11 (the poet still speaking) is a general shushing of Wit, who, we may imagine, has drawn breath to continue the argument.

The setting of the poem is the poet’s writing desk, where he has come (as must be his routine) to write another sonnet.  But instead of being visited by the Muse—every poet’s hope in that setting—he is interrupted immediately by his Wit, who turns out to be the very opposite of encouraging. Wit argues that writing about unrequited passion is hardly the best way to get over it (since the words are “glasses”—i.e., mirrors—of the woe), but the poet answers (line 4) as an artist, not a psychiatrist; in fact, the idea that poetic treatment of “cruel fights” can bring pleasure, despite the subject matter, is very much that of Sidney in his Defense of Poesy.

So Wit sharpens his attack in the second quatrain with an appeal to shame.  The word “disease” was at this time in transition from an older, more literal meaning of “unease” or “discomfort,” to its modern meaning of “illness,” and Sidney makes a subtle play on the difference: Wit means the word in the older sense, but the poet jests that people become famous for having rare diseases. Then, in a parallel shaming question, Wit again uses a transitioning word in its older sense, i.e., “fond” as “foolish.”  The poet does not directly respond to that word choice (though the reader will certainly catch a word-play because of the word’s modern meaning), but instead says O.K., I won’t share the poems with anyone. (“Close” in line 8 means “secret” or “closeted.”)

Wit (being, of course, an expert in logic) now senses that the poet’s argument has fallen apart, since everything said to this point assumes sharing or publishing of the poems. So line 9 could be loosely translated “So what’s the point, if you’re just writing them for yourself?”  The poet has no real answer to that, and instead just whines that he has to speak up if he has been wounded (“smart”); the poetry, in other words, has no logical explanation, but is just an animalistic cry of pain. The dialogue comes to an end in line 11 with a confession that “with wit my wit is marred,” an admission of defeat in a logical debate.

The final tercet is like a “recap” of the contest, a reflection on what is happening here. The dialogue apparently characterizes a very real confusion in the poet’s mind, and doubts about the wisdom of writing these love sonnets. “Wreak/My harms on ink’s poor loss” means take out my injuries on poor, defenseless words. The seemingly simple verb “find” is actually an important word-play; the words might manage to “find (= capture) the subject matter of Stella’s hold on him, or the words might “find” (= make their way to) Stella’s powers and exercise some persuasion on them. In any case, the sonnet again ends in paradox, since the doubtful, confused mind has perfectly and poetically spelled out its own confusion.

Next time (weekend of November 1): Sonnet 35
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.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 3

Let dainty wits cry on the sisters nine,
That, bravely masked, their fancies may be told;
Or Pindar’s apes flaunt they in phrases fine,
Enam’ling with pied flowers their thoughts of gold;
Or else let them in statelier glory shine,
Ennobling new-found tropes with problems old;
Or with strange similes enrich each line,
Of herbs or beasts, which Ind or Afric hold.
For me, in sooth, no Muse but one I know;
Phrases and problems from my reach do grow,
And strange things cost too dear for my poor sprites.
How then?  even thus: in Stella’s face I read
What love and beauty be; then all my deed
But copying is, what in her Nature writes.

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.

Written in the same vein as Sonnet 1, this poem, like 1, makes use of the poetic fancies that it mocks.  Thus, we read of “sisters nine,” “Enam’ling with pied flowers,” and “herbs or beasts which Ind or Afric hold,” as practices  which (sarcastically) “enrich each line,” while their less-than-original poets are described as “Pindar’s apes” (i.e., imitators).  Lines 5 to 8, while parallel to the first four in describing the third and fourth problematic practices, take us to an opposite extreme from imitation (hence “Or else”), two forms of excessive new-fangledness. The first (lines 5-6) is using fancy rhetorical “tropes” to dress up the same old “problems” (i.e., subject matter), while the second refers to the Euphuean barbarism of drawing strange or forced comparisons with nature.  And as with Sonnet 1 there is irony here that Sidney hopes we won’t notice, since he is guilty of every one of these practices himself—though every artist needs to be aware of the outer limits of the current fashions or trends in his own art.  It is also good to remind ourselves that “artificiality” was considered a good quality by the Elizabethans, and was embraced fulsomely even in the poetic discussion of “natural” passion and sincerity.*

Structurally, the octave is a series of four equal and parallel phrases saying what we are to “let” the lesser poets do—“let” being in this case both the verb “allow” and a conventional way of posing a hypothetical, roughly equivalent to “Let’s say that some poets do this: ______________ etc.” Then the fulcrum comes in the expected place for an Italian sonnet, at the start of the ninth line as the speaker offers the contrast of himself, with the added double-meaning emphasis of “in sooth” (i.e., the mere expletive intensifier on the one hand, but the literal meaning on the other: his writing, unlike theirs, is actually true). In a mere three lines, he strips himself bare of everything it took eight lines to describe before, so sound is admirably imitating sense here, and the poem’s second full end stop further forces that comparison. So now there is a “sub-fulcrum” and line 12 is a perfect echoing response of line 9: “For me, in sooth” = “How then? Even [pronounced e’en] thus”; “no muse but one” = “in Stella’s face” (this of course is the most crucial echo); and, “I know” = “I read.” The final two lines have similar significant parallels, but in a chiasmic**, or crossing, pattern.  The “frontwards” clause “What love and beauty be” is perfectly matched at the other end by the partly inverted clause “what in her nature writes” (again emphasizing that Stella requires no fancy ornamentation), while (focusing on the poet’s job) the “frontwards” “then all my deed” is echoed by the inverted “but copying is.”  We might be reminded here of Keats’s famous dictum: “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body.” The speaker of this poem is professing such Negative Capability and such self-effacement, but of course with considerable irony since Stella would essentially not “exist” at all without the considerable poetic efforts and, yes, the artifice, of Philip Sidney.

* Duncan-Jones’s note on the octave offers help on the actual writers involved in the trends being mocked: imitation of Pindar and other ancients: Ronsard and other Pleiade writers; rhetorical elaboration: Thomas Watson, Hekatompathia (1582); and the exotic similes: of course Lyly, Euphues, in prose, but also employed by Petrarch and all his imitators.  Finally she notes: “Sidney himself uses all four kinds of elaboration in [The Old Arcadia] poems; rhetorical and logical complexity is the only one used persistently in A&S.”

**Chiasmus, named for the Greek letter chi (X), is a pattern of parallel statements or phrases in which the elements are in reverse order (so that if you drew lines connecting the individual elements that were parallel, you would draw an X). So, crudely:
I went to the fair,
Then home came I.
Or more elegantly, by Keats:
Out went the taper
as
she hurried in.
In theory, you could have a chiasmus based on sound only:
Bam! went the
sea-rent dam.

 Next time (weekend of September 7): Sonnets 4 and 10

 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.