Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 106

O absent presence, Stella is not here;
False flattering hope, that with so fair a face
Bare me in hand, that in this orphan place,
Stella, I say my Stella, should appear:
What say’st thou now? Where is that dainty cheer
Thou told’st mine eyes should help their famished case?
But thou art gone, now that self-felt disgrace
Doth make me most to wish thy comfort near.
But here I do store of fair ladies meet,
Who may with charm of conversation sweet
Make in my heavy mould new thoughts to grow:
Sure they prevail as much with me, as he
That bade his friend, but then new maimed, to be
Merry with him, and not think of his woe.

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: “flattering” in line 2 is elided to two syllables.

And now she is gone—in body, at least, as the opening oxymoron reminds us that she is ever present in the speaker’s thoughts. The octave is addressed to a personified hope, who raised the possibility that Stella would in fact still be there, where she is not (“in this orphan [i.e., abandoned] place”). The speaker chides “hope” in lines 5 and 6, but then realizes the futility of this exercise, because hope, too, has abandoned him when he most needs its comfort; “disgrace,” at the end of line 7, has its older, more literal sense of being deprived of a grace one once had. In more conventional poetry, lines 7 and 8 might have been addressed to one’s lost love, but here they are addressed to hope.

In the sestet the speaker turns his attention to all the “fair ladies” still surrounding him, who surely promise to turn his mind away from the love he has lost. But in the final tercet he dismisses this possibility, with what is presumably a battle image: a hale and hearty soldier expecting his newly wounded comrade to be “merry” and “not think of his woe.”

Had this same sonnet appeared much earlier in the sequence, we might have read it as a temporary “down” in the see-saw fortunes and spirits of the speaker. But coming at this late point, and given the sense of the two final sonnets that follow, we must interpret this abandonment by “hope” as literal and past recovery. The physical departure by Stella in Sonnet 105 signified more than a change of location.

Next time (weekend of August 5): Sonnet 107
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 101

Stella is sick, and in that sickbed lies
Sweetness, that breathes and pants as oft as she;
And grace, sick too, such fine conclusions tries
That sickness brags itself best graced to be.
Beauty is sick, but sick in so fair guise
That in that paleness beauty’s white we see;
And joy, which is inseparate from those eyes,
Stella now learns (strange case!) to weep in thee.
Love moves thy pain, and like a faithful page,
As thy looks stir, runs up and down to make
All folks pressed at thy will thy pain to assuage;
Nature with care sweats for her darling’s sake,
Knowing worlds pass, ere she enough can find
Of such heaven stuff, to clothe so heavenly 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.

The poem opens with a plain factual statement, suggesting this is a situational sonnet. But Stella’s sickness, as we might expect, is adapted to the purpose of singing her praise. Her weakened body embodies the qualities of sweetness, grace*, beauty (in perhaps the most telling example of the technique, the natural pallor of ill health becomes the “white” or fair complexion of conventional Renaissance beauty), and joy—which Stella is strangely compelled to weep in, because her flashing eyes are unable to do otherwise. This exercise fills the octave.

The sestet shifts the perspective from these abstract qualities of the patient to two abstract attendants—divided between the two tercets—love and nature. The first clause in line nine is best understood as an inverted structure; i.e., in “frontwards” English it means “Thy pain moves love,” and thus metaphorically love is a very busy and attentive nurse, or more literally, love is inspired in everyone who sees Stella’s distress, so that they are “pressed” into duty caring for her.

Nature is of course the progenitor of all that is beautiful, and thus it follows that Stella is her favorite child, and not only favorite but irreplaceable. If she should lose this one, “worlds [will] pass” before she’ll have the right combination of materials to make such another. “Heaven stuff” presumably means either “heavenly stuff” or the “stuff of heaven,” and this is requisite to make such a soul (“mind”) as Stella’s. So Stella is bound to receive the most careful of care from both friends and nature, since she is simply too valuable to lose.

* There is some obscure language in lines 3 and 4, but the general point is the same: to “try conclusions” is to enter into a contest or test of skill; Stella’s grace, encountering sickness with her, gets the better of sickness, so that sickness itself can brag of being “graced”; i.e., endowed with grace.

Next time (weekend of May 27): Sonnet 102
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 90

Stella, think not that I by verse seek fame,
Who seek, who hope, who love, who live but thee;
Thine eyes my pride, thy lips mine history;
If thou praise not, all other praise is shame.
Nor so ambitious am I as to frame
A nest for my young praise in laurel tree;
In truth, I swear, I wish not there should be
Graved in mine epitaph a poet’s name.
Ne if I would, could I just title make,
That any laud to me thereof should grow,
Without my plumes from others’ wings I take.
For nothing from my wit or will doth flow,
Since all my words thy beauty doth endite,
And love doth hold my hand, and makes me 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.

Reading note: “Ne” at the start of line 9 is pronounced to rhyme with “key,” and since it simply means “nor,” there is no pause after it.

Every once in a while, there is a pause in the “story,” for the poet/speaker to remind us of the premise underlying the entire sonnet sequence. That is the case here, in a very conventional sonnet, following the sequence’s most predictable form: an Italian sonnet rhymed ABBAABBACDCDEE, the most common scheme (60 times) in the sequence. There are full end-stops at the expected places, after line 8 (separating octave from sestet) and line 11 (splitting the sestet into two tercets).

Artifice is valued positively by Renaissance poets, and Sidney is a master of artifice. We have also been told from time to time in the sequence that others read his sonnets and apparently admire them, if not the infatuation that inspires them. So the octave here—in this most artificial of sonnets—dismisses the plausible notion that the poet celebrates Stella only to gain fame for his art. The images of fame are also the most conventional: critical acclaim by readers (the first quatrain maintains that Stella is the only reader who counts), the classical laurel-leaf crown from which the phrase “poet laureate” derives, or the designation of “poet” on one’s gravestone (which anticipates the honor of being recognized in the “Poets’ Corner” of Westminster Abbey, though Chaucer occupied the space in lonely splendor as Sidney wrote).

The fulcrum comes at the predictable spot, and the sestet moves in the direction of what he might be famous for as a poet, and that is that he does not fly on “others’ wings,” i.e., steal from other poets—as he asserted repeatedly in the early sonnets. There is no need for that (the final tercet tells us), but paradoxically he does not rely on his own “wit or will” either. As we have known since the final line of the first sonnet, it is Stella’s beauty and his own love that inspires this poetry and makes it worthy of praise.

Next time (weekend of December 25): Sonnet 91
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 79

Sweet kiss, thy sweets I fain would sweetly indite,
Which even of sweetness sweetest sweet’ner art:
Pleasing’st consort, where each sense holds a part;
Which, coupling doves, guides Venus’ chariot right;
Best charge, and bravest retreat in Cupid’s fight,
A double key, which opens to the heart,
Most rich, when most his riches it impart;
Nest of young joys, schoolmaster of delight,
Teaching the mean at once to take and give;
The friendly fray, where blows both wound and heal;
The pretty death, while each in other live;
Poor hope’s first wealth, hostage of promised weal,
Breakfast of love: but lo! Lo, where she is:
Cease we to praise; now pray we for a 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: “even” in line 2 and “bravest” in line 5 are each elided to a single syllable; and the last syllable of “sweetly” in line 1 must be elided with the first syllable of “indite” so that the final foot in the line is “l’indite.”

Although this sonnet has Sidney’s favorite rhyme scheme (ABBAABBACDCDEE, used in 60 of the 108 sonnets), it has an unusual “grammar” or structure for an Italian sonnet. There is no full stop after line 8, and in fact lines 8 and 9 form a 2-line idea, just as lines 1 and 2 do. So, rather than an octave-sestet structure, this one could be described as two parallel and rhyming introductory lines (1 and 8), each followed by a sestet in a standard sestet form, the first (2-7) AABBCC, and the second (9-14) ABABCC.

Perhaps still recalling the stolen kiss of the Second Song (see Sonnet 72), the poet/speaker here spends twelve and a half lines addressing and expounding on that kiss with accelerating poetic exaggeration. There is no conceit tying the whole poem together, but each device or figure tends to connect to the next through some word-play that functions as a “hand-off.”

After an extravagant six-iteration antanaclasis on the word “sweet” (repeating a feat of Sonnet 36), the first metaphoric image is the rich word “consort.” This can mean one’s partner, or the partnership itself, or a pair of yoked animals, or a set of musicians, or the harmony such musicians might produce, or any form of pact or agreement—and all of these senses might be at the front or back of a reader’s mind in the lines that follow. Specifically, “holds a part” in line 3 evokes the musical meaning, while “coupling doves” points to the yoked animals; but the other meanings are raised by discussion of the kiss itself.

The ambiguity continues in line 5. It is Venus’ dove-powered chariot, of course, that is charging and retreating, but “charge” and “retreat” are also trumpet calls, so we still have music in mind as line 6 opens with “A double key.” But this becomes a “hand-off” as this key (“double” because of two lips) turns out to be the kind that unlocks and “opens to the heart,” the citadel where the “riches” of love are held close.

Moving into the second half of the poem, the speaker seems to grow more rambling and random in his leaps from image to image: “nest” in the sense of haven or home for “joys” turns into “schoolmaster” within a delightful kindergarten where sharing is the only lesson. Then we go completely abstract and oxymoronic: “friendly fray,” “pretty death,” “poor hope,” and so on. We can sense this recitation speeding up and becoming less coherent as the speaker needs to wrap it up. The lady herself approaches in the middle of line 13, and in the glow of her presence, after an initial stumble (“but lo! Lo . . .”) he lands on a perfectly structured line with a subtle and sophisticated chiasmus (in which “pray” echoes “praise” and “kiss” echoes “cease): “Cease we to praise, now pray we for a kiss.”

Next time (weekend of July 24): Sonnet 80
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 65

Love, by sure proof I may call thee unkind,
That giv’st no better ear to my just cries;
Thou whom to me such my good turns should bind,
As I may well recount, but none can prize;
For when, naked boy, thou could’st no harbour find
In this old world, grown now so too too wise,
I lodged thee in my heart, and being blind
Bu nature born, I gave to thee mine eyes.
Mine eyes, my light, my heart, my life, alas;
If so great services may scorned be,
Yet let this thought thy tigerish courage pass:
That I perhaps am somewhat kin to thee,
Since in thine arms, if learn’d fame truth hath spread,
Thou bear’st the arrow, I the arrowhead.

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: the “As” that begins line 4 is tied back to “such” in line 3, so the sense is “the good deeds that I am able to list (‘recount’)—though I won’t boast of them (‘prize’)—should be enough to put you in my debt.”
“Naked” in line 5 is one syllable (“nak’d”); “scorned” in line 10 is two, and “tigerish” in line 11 is elided to two.
The word “arms” in line 13 refers to a coat of arms, in heraldry.

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cassius, while having a tempestuous spat with his long-time pal Brutus, pleads: “A friend should bear his friend’s infirmities; but Brutus makes mine greater than they are.”  The point is that mere friendship—let alone past favors—should buy one a certain level of indulgence for one’s peccadilloes. Cassius’s charge against Brutus is similar to what the speaker says of Love (i.e., Cupid) here: if he really is a spirit of love, he should think of the speaker in terms of all the “good turns” or favors that the speaker has done for him. The poem starts modestly listing these in the second quatrain (with “outie” quatrains, the argument flows straight through the octave): when Cupid could no longer find a home in a “world grown wise”—wisdom, as we know, being the implacable adversary of love—the speaker made him welcome, even going so far as to provide “eyes” for the blind Cupid; i.e., the speaker sees entirely through the eyes of love.

As the octave ends, the speaker realizes he has been far too modest in the claims of obligation he has made on Love. He has not merely taken him in and provided him with eyes, but has given over his entire being to Love. The line that makes this transition and takes us “up a level” (in the current vernacular) is a lovely pair of explicit synecdoches: eyes = light (which could mean consciousness or intellect), while heart = life itself. The other two lines of the first tercet are used to set up the “clincher” argument in the final three lines. If you can’t honor me as a friend, he says, my trump card is that we’re actually related. How do you tell if aristocratic Englishmen are in the same family? You look for overlapping imagery in the coats of arms. It takes a footnote (such as that of Duncan-Jones) at this point to alert us that the Sidney arms feature arrowheads, while Cupid is obviously associated with arrows. That is the fairly arcane and specific meaning of the  final couplet, but the more general (and possibly erotic) sense is just as important: Cupid’s arrows would be useless (I was about to say “pointless”) without the speaker’s additions.

Next time (weekend of January 9): Sonnet 66
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 64

No more, my dear, no more these counsels try;
O give my passions leave to run their race;
Let Fortune lay on me her worst disgrace;
Let folk o’ercharged with brain against me cry;
Let clouds bedim my face, break in mine eye;
Let me no steps but of lost labor trace;
Let all the earth with scorn recount my case;
But do not will me from my love to fly.
I do not envy Aristotle’s wit,
Nor do aspire to Cæsar’s bleeding fame;
Nor aught do care though some above me sit,
Nor hope nor wish another course to frame,
But that which once may win thy cruel heart:
Thou art my wit, and thou my virtue art.

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: “cruel” in line 13 has two syllables.

This is another of Sidney’s quasi-Shakespearean hybridized Italian sonnets (like Sonnets 30 and 54, for example), in which the sestet is a quatrain and a couplet, and the customary strong break after line 11 is lacking. The Italian designation is still unmistakable, though, because of the single rhyme scheme for the whole octave, and the change from “innie” (ABBA) to “outie” (ABAB) structure in the third quatrain. And for further confirmation of 8-6 as the dominant structure, the poem is just two sentences long, eight and six lines respectively, with the fulcrum quite clearly between the two.

The sonnet is a gentle response to Stella’s repeated attempts to talk the speaker out of his passion for her. Since “try” in line 1 means “test out,” the speaker imagines (or observes) that she has taken many different approaches to the problem, six to be exact, sandwiched between lines 1 and 8, which together form the “thesis” of the octave. Since “give . . . leave” in line 2 is synonymous with “let,” the middle of the octave’s sandwich is comprised of six perfectly parallel appeals reviewing themes we have seen earlier in the sequence:  the dominance of passion over reason in the speaker (line 2); the loss of worldly status because of his infatuation (3); the desperate attempt of wiser friends to talk him out of it (4); his own depression and distraction (5); the futility of all his wooing efforts (6); and the general disapproval with which his sad “case” is met by all (7). All this he is willing to accept, and asks Stella to accept, so that he can remain constant to his ill-fated love.

This is his life’s “course,” and in the sestet he lists two alternate model courses—the wisdom of Aristotle and the military or political prowess of Caesar (neither of which is hopelessly far-fetched for the Renaissance man Sidney)—before generalizing that he is not so ambitious, nor wishes to be other than he is.

This idea continues into the final couplet, ending with the connection that Stella herself alone supplies, for the speaker, wisdom (“wit”) in lieu of Aristotle’s, and manliness (the root meaning of “virtue”) in lieu of Caesar’s.

Next time (weekend of December 26): Sonnet 65
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 55

Muses, I oft invoked your holy aid,
With choicest flowers my speech to engarland so
That it, despised in true but naked show,
Might win some grace in your sweet grace arrayed;
And oft whole troops of saddest words I stayed,
Striving abroad a-foraging to go,
Until by your inspiring I might know
How their black banner might be best displayed.
But now I mean no more your help to try,
Nor other sugaring of my speech to prove,
But on her name incessantly to cry;
For let me but name her whom I do love,
So sweet sounds straight mine ear and heart do hit,
That I well find no eloquence like it. 

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: “to engarland” in line 2 is elided “”t’engarland”; “sugaring” in line 10 is two syllables; and the “So” that begins line 13 is the adverb meaning “such,” not the conjunctive “so.”

It seems unlikely that Sidney knew while writing how many sonnets he would end up with, but this one that starts the second half of the sequence is strikingly complementary with the start of the first half: in Sonnet 1, the muse came unbidden to urge the poet to “look in thy heart, and write,” while here the poet dismisses his muses because Stella is the only inspiration he needs. In other words, the story line is more or less reversed, but the point remains exactly the same!

The octave describes metaphorically a poetic process: since his own unvarnished protestations of love would surely be “despised,” he has, in the past, depended on the muses to “engarland” or decorate his words. Similarly (second quatrain), like a military general, he has kept his restless “troops” (the words) from venturing out before they have been properly “inspired” by the muses—lest (again) they be caught unprepared (as if while “foraging,” the classic time for unarmed troops to be ambushed) and shot down.

That was “then,” or the entire half-sequence already written. “But now” signals the obvious fulcrum and transition into the “answer” of the sestet, the poet’s declaration of independence. He will no longer rely on the muses to decorate his sad overtures; Stella’s name alone will be enough. As I said above, this is arriving by the opposite direction at essentially the same message in Sonnet 1; and with 53 more sonnets to go, we can be sure that it is a blatant falsehood!

Next time (weekend of August 22): Sonnet 56
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 43

Fair eyes, sweet lips, dear heart, that foolish I
Could hope by Cupid’s help on you to prey;
Since to himself he doth your gifts apply,
As his main force, choice sport, and easeful stay.
For when he will see who dare him gainsay,
Then with those eyes he looks; lo, by and by
Each soul doth at Love’s feet his weapons lay,
Glad if for her he give them leave to die.
When he will play, then in her lips he is,
Where, blushing red, that Love’s self doth them love,
With either lip he doth the other kiss;
But when he will for quiet’s sake remove
From all the world, her heart is then his room,
Where well he knows, no man to him can come.

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.

Editing note:  Duncan-Jones (without explanation) ends the third line with a period, beginning the fourth, now a fragment, with the word “And” instead of “As.”  This is surely an error, which I have not seen elsewhere.

The full rhyme scheme of this sonnet is shared with only two others (5 and 10) in the sequence, and the palindromic ABABBABA octave appears in only five others.

The poem is a sort of mini-blazon, on just three of Stella’s physical features, listed in its first three feet. The word “that” that follows is obscure as a relative pronoun, technically explained with some arcane Latin-grammar structure, “with blank and blank and blank omitted but understood . . .”  I’ll just cut to the chase and say the best way to understand the first two lines is: Given your eyes, lips, and heart, how foolish I am to hope I could have Cupid’s help to prey on you.

Why? Cupid himself is the speaker’s rival (cf. Sonnets 11, 12, and 13) and is making use (“applying”) those same features “As his main force, choice sport, and easeful stay”; those three phrases precisely parallel eyes, lips, and heart, and will be developed, respectively, in the second quatrain of the octave and the two tercets of the sestet. As in a well-constructed freshman essay, the outline is succinctly conveyed in the opening “paragraph.” The poem’s fulcrum, unusual for an Italian sonnet, comes after the first quatrain, and what remains are three parallel “when” clauses showing Cupid in combative, sportive, and reflective moods respectively.

The progression from eyes to heart is (as explained in Sonnet 11) from superficial to deep, or from distance to intimacy, but the shape of Sidney’s sonnet means the eyes get the most coverage—which is, alas, fitting, since that is apparently as close as his own knowledge goes.  And here, as so often in the sequence, Stella’s eyes are seen as weapons, the “looks that kill,” so to speak. It is a hoary Petrarchan cliché, and if the reader would seek a healthy antidote to this preoccupation of Sidney’s, I recommend Phebe’s speech to Silvius at As You Like It, III.5.8 ff. where it is sent up wonderfully. (A less skeptical view of the idea is found in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 139.) In the present instance, the quatrain is actually a rather complex interplay of vehicle and tenor. On the “real” level, it suggests that one look into Stella’s eyes makes any man fall at her feet (see, e.g., the previous sonnet); while the mythical story is that Cupid is using the eyes as weapons to subdue his rivals, thus (somewhat paradoxically) turning them into lovers but disabling them for the pursuit at the same time. But this paradoxical suggestion of futile passion is exactly the point, and is repeated in each of the other two steps, most tellingly in the poem’s “bottom line.”

The “choice sport” of Line 4 becomes Cupid playing teasingly with Stella’s lips, which are allowed to kiss only each other. The middle line of the tercet (line 10) is a typical example of Sidney’s use of what we nowadays call a dangling modifier, since it is obviously the lips themselves, not Cupid, that are “blushing” to be loved.

The final tercet is the mildly bitter twist on the blazon. Again there is some complexity in the suggestion that Cupid could actually occupy a place in Stella’s heart, an idea directly contradicted in Sonnet 11. But the witty, if melancholy, thrust here is that he would go there for peace and quiet, since no man ever enters there. The paradox of a woman who stirs passion in others while remaining as ice herself is complete.

Next time (weekend of March 7): Sonnet 44
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

 

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 42

O eyes, which do the spheres of beauty move,
Whose beams be joys, whose joys all virtues be,
Who, while they make Love conquer, conquer Love,
The schools where Venus hath learned chastity;
O eyes, whose humble looks most glorious prove
Only loved tyrants, just in cruelty,
Do not, O do not from poor me remove;
Keep still my zenith, ever shine on me.
For though I never see them, but straightways
My life forgets to nourish languished sprites;
Yet still on me, O eyes, dart down your rays;
And if from majesty of sacred lights,
Oppressing mortal sense, my death proceed,
Wracks triumphs be, which Love (high set) doth breed.

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 of course addressed to Stella’s now-famous (or infamous) eyes, and all of their symbolic complexity is reflected in the poem’s tight and thorny figurative language. The octave at first glance appears to be two parallel ABAB quatrains, similar to an English sonnet, because of the repeated apostrophe “O eyes”; but in fact, while six of the eight lines do modify “eyes,” the last two shift into the sentence’s main clause, making a plea to the subject.  The first six lines are broken down as follows:

  1. A relative clause implying that the eyes are Prime Movers in some sort of parallel Platonic universe, where the customary planetary spheres of the Ptolemaic universe are replaced by the figurative “spheres of beauty.”
  2. A pair of parallel relative clauses, using auxesis to get the required and uncomplicated compliments out of the way in a hurry.
  3. Another relative clause with an extremely tight chiasmus (or epanados) compressing an idea which takes many more words to explain: Stella’s eyes make a conquest of the men who fall in love with them, but simultaneously quash that same love.
  4. An appositive whose paradox (Venus herself learns chastity in the “schools” of these eyes) elaborates on the paradox of the previous line.
  5. and 6. After the repeated apostrophe, one more relative clause, enjambed over the two lines. The word “prove” at the end of line 5 means “turn out to be” (tyrants), and “Only” in line 6 can mean either “merely” or (attached more closely to “lov’d”) “solely” or “singularly.” The set ends with two more paradoxes, tyrants that are loved, and cruelty that is just.

The plea to the eyes in lines 7 and 8 is simply to stay where they are, a constancy reflected first metrically by five strong stresses in a row in line 7 (“do not from poor me”) and then by the image in line 8: the “zenith” is the high point in the sky, so “still” is here an adverb modifying “keep”; i.e., stay constantly the high point of my sky. The image is akin to the North Star as the “star to every wandering bark” in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, and obviously returns us to the symbolism of Stella’s name.

The sestet explains why the speaker wants the eyes to “ever shine on me,” despite their decidedly mixed benefits. The first tercet may be paraphrased: For although whenever I see those eyes, I immediately lose my spirit, yet still . . . (and the plea is repeated). And then at the end, the crowning paradox: even if those “sacred lights” sap so much of my strength that they kill me, I will have died triumphant if I died for love.

Next time (weekend of February 21): Sonnet 43
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 39

Come Sleep, O Sleep, the certain knot of peace,
The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release,
The indifferent judge between the high and low;
With shield of proof shield me from out the press
Of those fierce darts Despair at me doth throw;
O make in me those civil wars to cease;
I will good tribute pay, if thou do so.
Take thou of me smooth pillows, sweetest bed,
A chamber deaf to noise, and blind to light;
A rosy garland, and a weary head;
And if these things, as being thine by right,
Move not thy heavy grace, thou shalt in me,
Livelier than elsewhere, Stella’s image see.

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 indifferent” in line 4 is elided as “Th’indifferent.”

This sonnet, the second of three ostensibly written at bed-time, has a fairly simple outline for its message: the octave is an invocation to personified Sleep, while the sestet lists the inducements or “tribute” the speaker offers to make Sleep come. The second quatrain cleverly introduces a military conceit, to make the concept of tribute more logical than it would otherwise have been.

A reader is perhaps reminded of Macbeth’s rueful ode to sleep as he stands with Duncan’s blood on his hands in Act II, scene 2:

Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast . . .

The meaning of Sidney’s lines may not be immediately clear to a modern reader, because of older senses of some words. One needs to know that a “knot” is a small formal garden, so, read simply, sleep is a peaceful spot to retreat to; or, if we personify “peace,” we have the more complex suggestion that sleep is where Peace herself goes to find peace. “Bait” means a light snack (go figure!), so, in older parlance, a “baiting place” was what we now call a “rest stop” for travelers on the road, or in this instance a place where one’s brain (“wit”) can take some time off. The remaining phrases in lines 2 to 4 mean, respectively, a place where woes are healed, where the downtrodden (poor men and prisoners) can dream of better things, and (line 4) where all are alike, as status differences are not recognized (“In sleep a king,” says the speaker of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 87, “but waking no such matter”).

With shield of proof shield me from out the press
Of those fierce darts Despair at me doth throw;

Here we have a brief antanaclasis (“shield” as noun and then verb) and the pivotal word “press.”  When used as an unmodified noun in this period, the typical and expected reference would be to a crowd of people; so, for just a moment, we expect the speaker to be welcoming sleep as a break from other people, possibly those friends who keep telling him his infatuation is crazy. But this noun is modified (in an enjambed line), and the “press” turns out to be a shower of “darts,” i.e., arrows, of despair, a self-inflicted emotion of futility, warring with his hopes. And with that deft pivot, we are into the language of war:

O make in me those civil wars to cease;
I will good tribute pay, if thou do so.

(The last two feet of the line, “if thou do so” are uncharacteristically uneconomical, and not Sidney’s best poetry!)  Now he speaks to sleep as a sort of Emperor who might intervene in a vassal nation embroiled in internal conflict, and silence both sides. And, as one must do for such an Emperor, he offers the payments of “tribute” which he will go on to describe in the sestet.  For the first three lines (9-11) these are the same ordinary things you or I might offer as inducements to Sleep, a nice bed in a dark and quiet room, and so forth. I’m not sure where the rosy garland fits in; no doubt it is “proverbial” (as footnote writers say), but one of you will need to explain the proverb to me.

Then, as if the speaker recognizes how ordinary and pedestrian these offers are (merely “thine by right”), he ends the poem with the ultimate inducement, which happens to be the chief reason he is seeking sleep in the first place: it offers his best hope (“livelier than elsewhere”) of seeing Stella as he wishes her to be, in his dreams. The wish to recover that “lively” image makes this sonnet even more clearly the sequel to the previous one.

Next time (weekend of January 10): Sonnet 40
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.