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 35

What may words say, or what may words not say,
Where truth itself must speak like flattery?
Within what bounds can one his liking stay,
Where nature doth with infinite agree?
What Nestor’s counsels can my flames allay,
Since Reason’s self doth blow the coal in me?
And ah, what hope that hope should once see day,
Where Cupid is sworn page to chastity?
Honor is honored, that thou dost possess
Him as thy slave, and now long-needy Fame
Doth even grow rich, naming my Stella’s name.
Wit learns in thee perfection to express;
Not thou by praise, but praise in thee is raised;
It is a praise to praise, when thou art praised.

 

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.

For two sonnets now, Sidney resorts to the less common (for him) use of the ABAB open-ended, or “outie,” pattern for the octave, suggesting a more relaxed discussion for that part of the poem.*  Here we see the speaker “rambling on” in Stella’s praise, piling hyperbole on hyperbole, almost as if by free association, rather than any tightly logical conceit. Twelve of the fourteen lines are in this glowing vein; only the exact center of the poem, lines seven and eight, interrupts for a “reality check,” reminding us (and presumably the speaker himself) how hopelessly unobtainable this paragon is.  But unlike many other sonnets (e.g. 29, 31, 33, 34) in which this frustration builds steadily to the end, in this case it is almost as if the speaker claps his hands over his ears and shouts “LA LA LA,” so that never might be heard a discouraging word. He goes right back to the almost manic string of praises, as if there had been no interruption at all, or as if in a hurry to drown it out.  Also, oddly, as he resumes in line nine he makes his addresses directly to Stella (“that thou dost possess”) as if (1) he has previously been talking within his mind and now finds the courage to speak directly; or (2) the mental musings become increasingly charged and manic, as the object of his love fills his mind.

So, setting aside that central “downer” for a moment, we are left with the three 2-line ideas before it, and two 3-line ideas after, and if there is a unifying thread (besides hyperbolic praise of Stella), it is in the use of paradox. Let’s consider these four ideas in turn:

What may words say, or what may words not say,
Where truth itself must speak like flattery?

The main paradox here is that truth and flattery are supposed to be, by definition, mutually exclusive, but in this case they sound exactly the same. This makes a mind-bending riddle out of a cliché such as “words cannot convey . . .,” since in one way (“What can words say?”) the cliché seems perfectly true, but in another (“what may words not say?”) it is disproved by the paradox of the second line: words can convey the glory of Stella if the simple truth will suffice.

Within what bounds can one his liking stay,
Where nature doth with infinite agree?

Again, the anchor paradox is in the second line: if there was one thing Sidney’s contemporaries learned from the “laws” of nature, it was to accept limitations and avoid extremes; the “golden mean” was what Nature insisted on. But in the case of Stella, Nature has allowed infinity as a reality. (The word “infinite” is used as a noun here, or conceivably as an adjective in quotation marks; i.e. Nature has agreed to use “infinite” to describe Stella.)  From that grand paradox it is an easy step back to the fact that the speaker cannot keep (“stay”) his love (“liking”) within any reasonable boundaries (“bounds”).

What Nestor’s counsels can my flames allay,
Since Reason’s self doth blow the coal in me?

This is a fairly easy paradox to understand, in the wake of our study of sonnets 2, 4,5, and especially 10 and 18. As I have said there, Reason is the very opposite—and rightfully the squelcher—of passion, but where Stella is concerned, Reason itself fans the flames (“doth blow the coal”) of passion, so what help does the proverbial human wisdom of Nestor have against such a force?

Moving ahead now to lines 9-11:

Honor is honored, that thou dost possess
Him as thy slave, and now long-needy Fame
Doth even grow rich, naming my Stella’s name.

The central paradoxes here—and indeed throughout the sestet—are that the qualities we aspire to (honor, fame, praise, etc.) are commonly regarded as ideal ceilings to measure mortal attainment against, with mortals by definition always falling short. But what if the “ceiling”—the ideal quality itself—is somehow short of what it could be, and thus expandable?  What if honor can make itself yet more honorable by honoring Stella?; that is the proposition here. That fame is “long-needy” doubles down on the paradox: it is a commonplace of every age that all the greatest soldiers, writers, statesmen, artists, or whatever, existed only in the past; so Stella is stretching the limits not just of a “Hall of Fame” already filled, but of one that started as sort of dusty and archaic! (The fact that Fame grows “rich” in naming Stella is a sidelong reference to her married name.)

Wit learns in thee perfection to express;
Not thou by praise, but praise in thee is raised;
It is a praise to praise, when thou art praised.

These final lines continue in the same vein. Wisdom (“wit”) ordinarily knows not to expect perfection, but suddenly one can talk wisely and of perfection, too. And the final couplet, where praise, like honor, gains by praising Stella, finds a way to sum up the whole accomplishment of the poem, and the poet, who becomes more praiseworthy for praising her. We have a notable example here of a favorite poetic trick of Sidney’s, called antanaclasis, or close repetition of a word while changing its senses; for other examples, see sonnets 9 (lines 12-14), 10 (13-14), 12 (6), 26 (4) 31 (12-13), 34 (11), 36 (9-11), 37 (10, in particular), 38 (12), 39 (5), 59 (10), and 79 (1-3).

Now, what about the “heart” of this sonnet, those two lines in the exact center that threaten to undo all the rest?:

And ah, what hope that hope should once see day,
Where Cupid is sworn page to chastity?

Stella adds praise to praise and honor to honor, but hope she only makes more hopeless. Like the opening two lines of the sonnet that follows (Stella, whence doth this new assault arise,/A conquered, yelden, ransacked heart to win?), these suggest the context in which a flurry of wooing by various means takes place in this trio of sonnets: hyperbolic flattery in this one is followed by whining of her cruelty in 36, and sarcastically mocking her marriage in 37. Only with the “bedtime” sonnets 38, 39, and 40 does Sidney back off from this relatively direct confrontation.

* The full rhyme scheme of this poem is actually unique, because of the arrangement of the sestet, where each tercet ends with a couplet. As I have noted before, the variety Sidney achieves within the strict form of the Italian sonnet is amazing!

Next time (weekend of November 15): Sonnet 36
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 25

The wisest scholar of the wight most wise,
By Phoebus’ doom, with sugared sentence says,
That virtue, if it once met with our eyes,
Strange flames of love it in our souls would raise;
But for that man with pain his truth descries,
While he each thing in sense’s balance weighs,
And so nor will, nor can, behold those skies
Which inward sun to heroic mind displays:
Virtue of late, with virtuous care to stir
Love of herself, takes Stella’s shape, that she
To mortal eyes might sweetly shine in her.
It is most true, for since I her did see,
Virtue’s great beauty in that face I prove,
And find the effect, for I do burn in love.

I suggest you click here to open the sonnet in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to it as you read on through the analysis.

Reading notes:  the third and fourth feet of the eighth line require elision, and I think the best course is to join the word “to” with the first syllable of “heroic”; and similarly, the second foot of the final line is an elided “th’effect.”

Structurally, the entire poem has “outie” (ABAB) rhymes and weak fulcrums (primarily after line 11, secondarily after line 8) with no real change of direction in the argument; the (quite deliberate) result is something that roughly parallels a dialogue of Plato, moving inexorably toward a logical conclusion. This impression is of course undercut by the humor and irony of the poem’s “punch line.”

As Duncan-Jones’s note on the poem details, the first line refers to Plato, the “scholar” of Socrates, the wisest man (“wight”) in the view of the Delphic Oracle, i.e., the priestess of Phoebus Apollo (who, by the way, is god of both the sun and wisdom).  Lines 3 and 4 (gently mocked as “sugared sentence”) express the well-known Platonic idea from The Apology,* that the soul is drawn toward its own good by falling in love with virtue, when drawn to it by its beauty.

The second quatrain is a generalization about “mankind” (“his truth” could arguably refer back to Plato, but on reflection, it makes more sense that it refers to the generic “man” earlier in line 5) which obviously applies to the speaker himself: since “sense” (= appetite, or the life of the senses) filters everything, it is very difficult (“pain”) to get at the soul’s “truth,” or the “skies/Which inward sun [the soul, connected back to Apollo by this metaphor] to heroic mind [i.e., the mind that can overrule “sense”] displays.”

That whole idea, in turn, is contained within a “because” clause (introduced by “for that,” which idiomatically means “because”), which is answered in the first half of the sestet; thus, to paraphrase: Because an ordinary man (like the speaker) has trouble grasping wisdom or virtue, Virtue herself (personified) tries to take more visible form by assuming “Stella’s shape.”  As a result, Plato’s point is proved, but only in a joking way. We know already (from previous sonnets) that Stella’s virtue is not at all a quality the speaker admires, and the well-chosen verb “burn in love” (also linked in jest to the earlier sun imagery) is the very opposite of the Platonic wisdom it is superficially claiming to illustrate.

* Duncan-Jones suggests that Sidney may actually have received the idea second-hand, from Cicero.

Next time (weekend of June 28): Sonnet 26

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 15

You that do search for every purling spring
Which from the ribs of old Parnassus flows;
And every flower, not sweet perhaps, which grows
Near thereabouts into your poesy wring;
You that do dictionary’s method bring
Into your rhymes, running in rattling rows;
You that poor Petrarch’s long-deceased woes
With new-born sighs and denizened wit do sing:
You take wrong ways, those far-fet helps be such
As do bewray a want of inward touch,
And sure at length stol’n goods do come to light.
But if (both for your love and skill) your name
You seek to nurse at fullest breasts of fame,
Stella behold, and then begin to endite.

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: “denizened” in line 8 is two syllables (den’zened), and in line 14, “to endite” must be elided (t’endite); and “deceasèd” in line seven has all three syllables.

This sonnet is a piece of cake if one is already acquainted with sonnets 3 and 6.  The tenor is almost precisely the same, and the structure parallels sonnet 3 in particular, where the octave describes various “wrong ways” to do poetry, and the sestet says the only right way is (as the speaker is doing) to contemplate Stella.  The chief structural differences are (1) that sonnet 3 is a “them” vs. “me” discussion, while sonnet 15 is entirely addressed to “you”; and (2) while the sonnet 3 octave uses two “outie” (ABAB) quatrains for a continuous discussion, this one has two parallel “innies” (ABBA), so the discussion “starts over” in line 5.

Just as sonnets 3 and 6 begin with a reference to seeking the help of the classical muses, so too does this one talk about searching for the springs (i.e., the works of ancient poets) that flow from Mount Parnassus, home of the muses. A “purling” spring is simply a bubbling, flowing one, but there is a pun here, since the poets who so search are looking for “pearls” with which to decorate their verse, just as they are squeezing (“wringing”) the no-longer-fresh (“sweet”) flowers for some sad drops of stale perfume.

The second quatrain references somewhat more recent poetic fads, starting with “dictionary’s method.”  At first glance, since he says “into your rhymes,” we might think of the novice poet’s consulting of a rhyming dictionary; but I’m pretty sure such a thing had not been invented yet (thus, Benedick “can think of no rhyme for lady but baby”) and “rhymes” is used in the more general sense of “poems.”  In any case, as line 6 wonderfully illustrates, the method involves choosing as many neighboring words as possible from an alphabetized list; i.e., the fad of excessive alliteration.  And the fad of Petrarchan sonnets (in which, as discussed before, Sidney was very much a participant) closes this list, with the clever suggestion that the emotion may be home-grown (“new-born sighs”) but the method (“wit”) is imported (“denizened,” meaning naturalized or immigrant).

As in earlier poems (1, line 14, 3, line 9, and 6, line12), the rebuke, when it comes, is blunt and monosyllabic: “You take wrong ways.”  The rest of the first tercet is also quite plain and uncomplicated.  Likewise, the remedy in the final three lines is the same as in all the previous sonnets on this theme, but with a new and striking image: instead of nursing at the springs of now-skeletal (because ancient) Parnassus for inspiration, the would-be poet should “seek to nurse at fullest breasts of fame,” a synecdoche for Stella that is erotic—thus aspirational on Sidney’s part—as well as inspirational.

Next time (weekend of February 8): Sonnet 16

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 6

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

I suggest you click here to open the sonnet in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to it as you read on through the analysis.

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

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

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

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

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

Next time (weekend of October 19): Sonnet 7

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

INTRODUCTION AND SONNET 1

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sidney has two distinctive variations on the Italian pattern:

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

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

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

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 1

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

I suggest you click here to open the sonnet in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to it as you read on through the analysis.

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

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

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

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

Other odds and ends:

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

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

Next time (weekend of August 10): Sonnet 2

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