Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 102

Where be those roses gone, which sweetened so our eyes?
Where those red cheeks, which oft with fair increase did frame
The height of honour in the kindly badge of shame?
Who hath the crimson weeds stol’n from my morning skies?
How doth the colour vade of those vermilion dyes,
Which nature’s self did make, and self engrained the same?
I would know by what right this paleness overcame
That hue, whose force my heart still unto thraldom ties.
Galen’s adoptive sons, who by a beaten way
Their judgments hackney on, the fault on sickness lay,
But feeling proof makes me say they mistake it far:
It is but love, which makes his paper perfect white
To write therein more fresh the story of delight,
While beauty’s reddest ink Venus for him doth stir.

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: “vade” in line 5 is simply an archaic form of “fade,” used presumably for the pleasing chiasmic alliteration of “doth . . . vade . . . vermilion . . . dies.”

Still on the subject of Stella’s illness, this is the last of six hexameter sonnets in the sequence. As if to dwell further on the number six, there is a sort of six-line “stanza” opening the poem, with alternating one- and two-line questions. And, as usual, the answer comes in the sestet at the other end. The unattached two lines in the middle state the thesis of the poem: in what is definitely not Sidney’s finest poetry, he wonders for twenty-four rather awkward syllables why the paleness of disease has been permitted to take away Stella’s customary color (color which enslaves the speaker’s heart).

Having said that, I must admit that the first six lines, the four questions which could be paraphrased “Where have all the flowers gone?” are neither witty nor melodic as poetry either. Is it possible that, this near the end of a long set of sonnets, Sidney has run out of fresh ways to compliment his would-be mistress? Or is he deliberately trying to be to poetry what Stella’s physicians are to medicine, in line 10; i.e., “hackney[ed].” Stella’s cheeks have lost their “roses,” or “crimson weeds” or “vermilion dyes”; where redness of the cheeks often indicates shame, Stella’s color is “engrained” by Nature herself and is therefore the “height of honour.”

The imaginative part of the sonnet, relatively speaking, comes in the sestet, where the speaker ventures an answer to his own questions. The phrase “Galen’s adoptive sons,” meaning the doctors (the implication of “adoptive” being “quacks”), recalls various disparaging remarks about derivative poets (e.g., “Pindar’s apes”) in early sonnets such as 3 and 15. Like those poets, these physicians “take wrong ways” (Sonnet 15) by sticking to the “beaten way” of medical practice and laying the blame for Stella’s paleness on—surprise!—her sickness. But with no medical training, the speaker by instinct (“feeling proof”) knows what the actual answer must be, and gives it in the final three lines. It is perhaps not the cleverest or most plausible sort of poetic trick, but it does at last and at least provide a positive spin for the illness. Love (Cupid or Eros) needed a fresh, white sheet of paper on which to write anew his “story of delight” with a fresh supply of “reddest ink” provided by his mother Venus.

Next time (weekend of June 10): Sonnet 103
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 31

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies;
How silently, and with how wan a face.
What, may it be that even in heav’nly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?
Sure, if that long-with-love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case;
I read it in thy looks; thy languished grace
To me, that feel the like, thy state descries.
Then even of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deemed there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be loved, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?

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 both lines 3 and 9 is one syllable.

“What” at the start of line 3 is an expletive (common in Renaissance verse); resist the urge to ignore the comma and read “What may it be . . .”

“Above” in line 12 modifies “they,” and should therefore be followed by a slight lift before reading on; this also adds emphasis to the bevy of rhymes right there.

The inversion in the final line will be discussed below.

This is one of the best-known, oft-anthologized Sidney poems, and for good reason—although reading it outside the context of the whole sequence, or following only other popular ones such as Sonnets 1 and 10, might make a reader wonder why the speaker has “suddenly” taken such a dim view of Stella. Those of us who have been carefully following the whole sonnet sequence, of course, are right at home with these complaints.

Personifying the moon is a cliché of poetry and song, and Sidney was by no means the first to focus on paleness as the moon’s most noticeable feature. But this poem is a world apart from “Shine on, harvest moon” or even “Blue moon, you saw me standing alone,” in the closeness it achieves with the personified object. With the phrase “even of fellowship,” we realize we are looking at two guys who find themselves otherwise alone, in the pub on a Friday night, when everyone else has a date. The shared confidence between strangers, the immediate assumption that the other guy’s “case” is precisely the same as yours—this is the realism in the midst of utter fantasy that makes this one of the greatest poems in the language.

Structurally, the poem is as typical a model of Sidney’s sonnets as there could be: his favorite octave, sestet, and whole rhyme scheme; a fulcrum after line 8 (though not with a u-turn, just a “new departure” in the conversation); and a quiet division of the sestet, indicated simply by having each tercet start with a two-line question, and follow with a one-line question. The poem is a structural equivalent of a little black dress, simple and understated but elegant and classic.

The opening line establishes a literal scene, but also subtly indicates the speaker’s lonely condition and state of mind: is this a slow evening, or what? (Watching a moon rise, when you remove the poetry, must be akin to watching grass grow or paint dry.) The “wan face” is, from old, stereotypical for a courtly lover, so the mental association immediately bumps the speaker away from natural observation to the mythology of love, specifically his favorite tormentor, Cupid.

As a lover’s acquaintances are all too apt to do, the speaker leaps at once (“Sure”) to the answer to his own question, and the assumption that the moon must suffer the same affliction as himself. “If that” means “if it be that,” or simply “if,” so the unstressed “that” is barely a hiccup in the reading. The hyphens in the phrase that follows are crucial to the reading. Strictly speaking, we use one-word modifiers before nouns in English, and multi-word modifiers (such as prepositional phrases or relative clauses) after; so hyphens are crucial to turn many words into one. If you don’t believe me, take the hyphens out (as some editors, alas, do) and put the poem in front of a class of first-time viewers, and see how this line turns out! “Eyes” is of course a conventional synecdoche* for the speaker himself, who feels he is precisely the fellow-sufferer who can best judge the moon’s symptoms: just like him, the moon “feelst a lover’s case.”  This is a metaphysical claim, and like most such claims (in poetry, at least) it is both preposterous and totally convincing (slow steps, wan face . . .) at the same time.

Readers of the whole sequence to this point know that the speaker has been getting precious little sympathy or empathy from his friends. In catch-phrases from the world of 20th-century entertainment, while he “can’t get no satisfaction” in his love-life, he also “can’t get no respect” from those who know him best. So his recognition of a fellow-sufferer on whom he can disburden himself (albeit indirectly, through more questions) is heart-felt. The four questions to the moon in the sestet reveal the deep bitterness he feels at Stella’s response to his love, and at least his view of the complexity or hypocrisy of that response. She could, after all, just tell him to drop dead, and put an end to all this foolishness. Instead, she just questions his sanity (“wit”); instead, she “loves to be loved,” and appears to take pride in both the attention and her virtuous rejection of it.

The final line almost certainly needs to be read as a tortured inversion meaning (in normal order) “Do they call ungratefulness virtue there?” I say “almost” because a case might be made that the speaker has shifted to a comparison with himself, and might be admitting that he refers to Stella’s “virtue” as “ungratefulness.” But such a reading disrupts a consistent pattern, established in the sestet, of describing the attitudes of “proud” beauties, by implication the attitude of Stella. And the most logical extension, in particular, of lines 12 and 13, is that Stella takes mere ingratitude and dresses it up with the name of “virtue.”

So the poem has moved seamlessly from natural description to fanciful conversation to a set of questions that reveal more than they ask.

* the poetic figure in which a part stands for a whole, and quite often taking the form of part of the body representing the whole person.

Next time (weekend of September 20): Sonnet 32

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