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 80

Sweet swelling lip, well may’st thou swell in pride,
Since best wits think it wit thee to admire;
Nature’s praise, virtue’s stall, Cupid’s cold fire,
Whence words, not words but heavenly graces slide;
The new Parnassus, where the Muses bide,
Sweetener of music, wisdom’s beautifier;
Breather of life, and fastener of desire,
Where beauty’s blush in honour’s grain is dyed.
Thus much my heart compelled my mouth to say,
But now, spite of my heart, my mouth will stay,
Loathing all lies, doubting this flattery is,
And no spur can his resty race renew,
Without how far this praise is short of you,
Sweet lip, you teach my mouth with one sweet 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: “heavenly” in line 4, “Sweetener” in line 6, and “fastener” in line 7 are all elided to two syllables; “doubting” in line 11 has the normal renaissance usage (i.e., “fearing that”) which makes the whole phrase sound to a modern ear the opposite of what it actually means; “resty” in line 12 means “restive” or “restless” (two words which paradoxically mean the same thing); and “Without” in line 13 is best understood as “Except.”

After a sonnet in praise of a single kiss, the poet’s “camera” now zooms in still further, to praise the lip that received it. Three of the first four lines use repeated words in antanaclasis, while line 3 slows us down emphatically with a “backwards” rhythm similar to line 6 of Sonnet 78*; all this in hyperbolic praise of Stella’s “swelling lip,” on which the speaker has focused for several sonnets now, since the stolen kiss of the Second Song.

But this is a sonnet of very mixed, or even confused, feelings. The oxymoronic “cold fire” of Cupid, and the intrusion of “virtue” and “honour” upon the more romantic themes of beauty and desire, temper the more conventional praise sprinkled through the octave; e.g., that even the wise (“best wits”) find it wise to admire Stella’s lips, her words are “heavenly graces,” her lips entertain the muses, sweeten music, speak wisdom, and so on.

Then, as if to further confuse us, in the sestet the speaker takes it all back! . . . sort of. First he suggests that his heart had “compelled” his mouth to say what he just said (so his heart was in it, but the mouth that spoke the actual words was not), and now his mouth will shut up (“stay”), rather than speak more “lies” or “flattery.”

Now he has dug himself into a pretty deep hole, and attempts to redeem himself in the final tercet. Nothing will make the praise resume, he says, except (“Without”) a kiss from that lip to teach him how far short of the truth his praise actually falls. It is not really clear whether he is acknowledging lessons learned from the “one sweet kiss” he has already had, or offering a sort of bribe for another. It is, in fact, an awkward poem, perhaps by design, reflecting the ambivalent and confused state of the speaker’s mind.

*The two lines are strikingly parallel:
(78.6)        Beauty’s plague, virtue’s scourge, succour of lies;
(80.3)      Nature’s praise, virtue’s stall, Cupid’s cold fire,
Where the normal iambic pentameter rhythm rolls forward da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM, each of these lines creates three separated “valley” shapes: DUM-da-DUM, DUM-da-DUM, DUM-da-da-DUM.

Next time (weekend of August 7): Sonnet 81
Jonathan Smith is 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 21

Your words, my friend, right healthful caustics, blame
My young mind marred, whom love doth windlass so
That mine own writings like bad servants show,
My wits, quick in vain thoughts, in virtue lame;
That Plato I read for nought, but if he tame
Such coltish gyres; that to my birth I owe
Nobler desires, lest else that friendly foe,
Great expectation, wear a train of shame.
For since mad March great promise made of me,
If now the May of my years much decline,
What can be hoped my harvest time will be?
Sure you say well; your wisdom’s golden mine
Dig deep with learning’s spade; now tell me this,
Hath this world aught so fair as Stella is?

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.

Once again we have a sonnet that is very “contextual”; i.e., while it can certainly be understood standing alone, it is also very clearly part of an ongoing conversation, ostensibly between the poet and his skeptical friends, either reflected or invented in several sonnets in this stretch of the sequence. This one parallels Sonnet 18 rather closely, for instance (with the auditor there turning into a medical doctor here), and the reference to reading Plato anticipates Sonnet 25. Every critical argument against the infatuation listed here is found in one or more of the sonnets nearby.

The auditor of Sonnet 18 has turned into a medical doctor here, at least for the first line. The phrase “right healthful caustics” is an oxymoron (indeed, “caustics” is an oxymoronic word by itself) because the effect of caustics is both to heal and to burn, or sting. And that, of course, is the effect of the critical friend’s well-intended words.

The wise friend is described at the end of the poem as well-spoken and a deep mine of wisdom and learning; the complexity of the single sentence that makes up the octave would seem to reflect this description. A rough outline of its dependencies looks like:

Your words . . .blame … my mind
WHOM love doth windlass so
THAT mine own writings . . . show/My wits
QUICK in . . . etc.
THAT Plato I read for nought
BUT IF [i.e., unless] he tame . . . gyres
THAT to my birth . . . Nobler desires
LEST ELSE . . . foe . . . wear . . . shame.

[My apologies that the formatter for this blog will simply not allow me to align these lines as intended to show the dependencies; you are on your own, gentle reader, in determining which part of the previous line each new line “hangs” from!]

The friend’s message, despite the medical start, turns out to be the opposite of a consistent conceit; it is more like a series of varied and interesting “stabs” at some way to get through to the besotted speaker. First, the blunt phrase: “young mind marred.” That’s obviously not enough, and complicated elaboration follows as the friend fishes for an effective approach. The verb “windlass” offers several visual possibilities at once. It was used to refer to any sort of mechanical device, and specifically to (1) the winding mechanism on a cross-bow, (2) a trap or snare used in hunting, or (3) an instrument of torture; so any or all of these are plausible images of what love is doing to the speaker. (And by now we also know well that “love” itself offers the double possibility of the god Cupid or, more abstractly, the emotion.)

In any case (or I should say in all cases, since simultaneous multiple meanings are the stuff of great poetry) the effect of love’s windlassing is that the speaker’s writings—the very sonnets we are reading—are behaving like “bad servants,” who are notorious for giving away their masters’ secrets and foibles. Here these servants, in a wonderfully crafted line, reveal “My wits, [which are] quick in vain thoughts, [to be] in virtue lame.” The line is a compressed, effective version of the usually-clunky parallel structure of Euphuism. The adjectives “quick” and “lame” are opposites, as are the alliterative noun phrases “vain thoughts” and “virtue”; so there is a full chiasmus within 4/5 of a pentameter line. And just incidentally, Sidney is bragging on the art of his own sonnets, while questioning their virtue and wisdom.

The friend renews his attack in the second quatrain, making reference to the speaker’s education (reading Plato), which seems to be wasted, since it is having no practical effect (it is not subjecting “coltish gyres”—the beastly gyrations of appetite—to reason); and to his pedigree and upbringing which should promise better things. Sidney reveals himself in the sonnets to be particularly sensitive to his own image among his highly placed connections; to the “Great expectation” which proves to be a “friendly foe” in that it challenges him to greatness, but also offers a critical measure when he comes up short, not unlike, in fact, the critical friend who is making this argument. A “train of shame” not only echoes “vain” and “lame” (and doubles up the assonance found there) but it is a wonderful image for the way such shame among one’s peers may attach itself like a bad odor and follow one wherever he goes.

The first half of the sestet sticks with this concern about expectations, perhaps making reference (“mad March great promise made of me”) to a specific moment of significant praise in Sidney’s life: as Duncan-Jones’s note suggests, this may be his “embassy to the Holy Roman Emperor in the spring of 1577.”  We shift from a promising March that may be both literal and figurative to a May that is definitely metaphorical; i.e., the speaker is still young, and should be enjoying his great promise. But in his “May,” according to his friends, he is disgracing himself; so how could he possibly have honor in his “harvest time” of later life?

The friend’s argument concludes with line 11, and the speaker uses more than a line and a half of what remains to give the argument its just due as “wisdom’s golden mine [dug] deep with learning’s spade.”* The most immediate meaning of this metaphor, given the word “golden,” is the modern understanding of a “mine” where one would dig for gold. But there is also the subtle undertone of a soldier’s understanding of “mine” as that which is dug to undermine or break open a city’s walls—another obvious way to look at the friend’s argument. Either way, the argument is not getting through to the speaker, of course. With his customary simplicity (or obtuseness, in the eyes of his friends), he counters the entire carefully crafted case with a single line of rhetorical question: “Hath this world aught so fair as Stella is?”

* Grammatically, “Dig deep” is parallel with “say well” in a compound verb phrase; i.e., it’s [Sure you] dig deep your wisdom’s etc.

Next time (week of April 29): Sonnet 22

(The timing for next two posts will be altered slightly by my trip to England)

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.


(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.)


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.