Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 38

This night, while sleep begins with heavy wings
To hatch mine eyes, and that unbitted thought
Doth fall to stray, and my chief powers are brought
To leave the scepter of all subject things,
The first that straight my fancy’s error brings
Unto my mind, is Stella’s image, wrought
By Love’s own self, but with so curious draught,
That she, methinks, not only shines, but sings.
I start, look, hark; but what in closed-up sense
Was held, in opened sense it flies away,
Leaving me nought but wailing eloquence.
I, seeing better sights in sight’s decay,
Called it anew, and wooed sleep again:
But him her host that unkind guest had slain.

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:  “wooed” in line 13 is two syllables: woo-ed.

As we begin a three-sonnet series of “bed-time” thoughts—when sleep closes (“hatch[es]”) the speaker’s eyes with its “heavy wings”—we have one of Sidney’s little lessons on Renaissance commonplace understandings; that is, the relationship between Reason and Fancy in the waking and sleeping states. For a more direct, yet poetic, explanation, we can look forward to Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Adam explains to Eve:

But know that in the Soul
Are many lesser Faculties that serve
Reason as chief; among these Fancy next
Her office holds; of all external things,
Which the five watchful Senses represent,
She forms Imaginations, aery shapes,
Which Reason joining or disjoining, frames
All what we affirm or what deny, and call
Our knowledge or opinion; then retires
Into her private cell when Nature rests [i.e., when we go to sleep].
Oft in her absence mimic Fancy wakes
To imitate her; but misjoining shapes,
Wild work produces oft, and most in dreams,
Ill matching words and deeds long past or late.

Sidney’s briefer version in the first quatrain here parallels this explanation precisely, since “chief powers” refers to Reason, which yields up its “scepter” in sleep, leaving unbridled (“unbitted”) and “straying” Fancy to take over. And, as we might expect, the first thing Fancy produces (line 5) is the image of Stella, drawn (“wrought”) by mischievous Cupid (“Love”), but she is depicted so miraculously (we might think of a movie-goer in the 1920’s who attends the first film with sound) that she not only looks like an angel (“shines”) but also has a sound-track: she sings!

The fulcrum between octave and sestet in this poem represents an actual change from sleeping to waking state; “I start, look, hark” means “I wake up, look, and listen.”  But awake, the dream is fled; “fled is that music,” as Keats would say. The image could only stay while the actual senses were “closed-up” in sleep. So, paradoxically, the sweet music of the dream has served only (returning to Keats) “to toll me back from thee to my sole self”—a far less satisfying vision! Indeed, the “wailing eloquence” of line 11 might be an apt description of all these sonnets.

To sort out pronouns or vague references in the final lines, “it” in line 13 refers to the “better sight” the speaker has lost, “him” (to which “her host” is an appositive) is sleep, and Stella is the “unkind guest” who slew him. Slaying one’s host is of course an “unkind” thing for a guest to do, but the OED gives additional historical senses of “unkind”: “strange, foreign,” “contrary to the usual course of nature,” “lacking in natural gratitude,” and “undutiful”; all of which may be applied to Stella here. The bottom line in the poem’s story is obvious: there’s no going back to sleep after that experience!

Next time (weekend of December 27): Sonnet 39
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.