Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 108

When Sorrow, using mine own fire’s might,
Melts down his lead into my boiling breast,
Through that dark furnace to my heart oppressed
There shines a joy from thee, my only light;
But soon as thought of thee breeds my delight,
And my young soul flutters to thee, his nest;
Most rude despair, my daily unbidden guest,
Clips straight my wings, straight wraps me in his night,
And makes me then bow down my head and say:
‘Ah, what doth Phoebus’ gold that wretch avail
Whom iron doors do keep from use of day?’
So strangely, alas, thy works in me prevail,
That in my woes for thee thou art my joy,
And in my joys for thee my only annoy.

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 final y in “daily” (line 7), “strangely” (line 12) and “only” (line 14) becomes an apostrophe, or elided syllable, in the reading: “dail’ unbidden,” “strangel’, alas,” and “onl’ annoy”.

This is the final sonnet in the sequence, and like (or together with) Sonnet 107, it can be read as a summary of the whole poetic courtship, although without changing a word it could have been placed earlier and reflected only a momentary vicissitude. The bottom line is that Stella presents the impossible paradox of offering the only “joyful” reason to endure such agony, and the only agony that stands in the way of the speaker’s highest joy.

Appropriately the final sonnet, like the first and many others, is highly artificial and figurative. A complex set of images depict a back-and-forth struggle between sorrow and despair, on one side, and “thee” on the other. “Thee” offers the possibility of “gold” and “light,” while sorrow/despair brings only molten lead, “iron doors,” and “night.” But this summary simplifies the actual story line. To begin, the speaker’s heart is on fire with his passion for Stella. Since a “leaden heart” is a conventional image of melancholy, personified sorrow brings lead and melts it down on those same flames (thus passion creates melancholy) which in turn creates a “dark furnace” through which Stella’s “only light” (quickly identified as a “thought of thee”) may shine.

As the speaker’s “young soul” responds in the second quatrain, there is an abrupt change in imagery. The soul is now a young bird and “thee” has become the bird’s “nest” of safety and comfort—if only he can get there. But now sorrow’s alter-ego despair intervenes and, in line 8, brings the two metaphors together by both clipping the wings and “wrap[ping] me in his night.” This juxtaposition might be more awkward were it not for the oblique reference to the very popular sport of falconry: two of the most common training methods were clipping (or otherwise altering) wings and “hooding” or “scarfing” a bird (covering its eyes) to force it to find its prey in total darkness.

As the first sonnet built suspense with a series of dangling modifiers and a periodic sentence, this one keeps us in suspense by uncharacteristically stretching the octave into the ninth line before introducing the speaker’s final speech and then final thought, the speech metaphoric and the thought direct. “Phoebus’ gold” is sunshine, so the metaphoric expression of the paradox could be paraphrased: what good is a sunny day to the “wretch” locked up in an iron prison? In the final tercet, “thy works” most directly refers to Stella’s effects on the speaker, but “thy works” can also mean “all of these poems and songs I have written for thee,” and this is the summary of the result of both:

That in my woes for thee thou art my joy,
And in my joys for thee my only annoy.

This blog now comes to an end with this post, its 108th. I invite you to explore the sonnets of Philip Sidney in any of my earlier posts, I welcome your comments, questions, or alternative readings, and I wish you well. JCS

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 94

Grief, find the words; for thou hast made my brain
So dark with misty vapours, which arise
From out thy heavy mould, that inbent eyes
Can scarce discern the shape of mine own pain.
Do thou then (for thou canst), do thou complain
For my poor soul, which now that sickness tries,
Which even to sense, sense of itself denies,
Though harbingers of death lodge there his train.
Or if thy love of plaint yet mine forbears,
As of a caitiff, worthy so to die;
Yet wail thyself, and wail with causeful tears,
That though in wretchedness thy life doth lie,
Yet growest more wretched than thy nature bears,
By being placed in such a wretch as I.

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 7 and “growest” in line 13 are pronounced with one syllable. For the second straight sonnet, the speaker refers to himself as a “caitiff” (line 10), a criminal wretch beneath contempt.

The speaker is in an extremely dark mood, and, ever the instinctive (or opportunistic) poet, he personifies his grief and turns it into a sort of muse for his poetry, asking it to “find the words” that he himself cannot, because of the darkness in his brain. This internal struggle of grief, self, and brain is already a bit mind-bending after one quatrain, but simple in comparison to the welter of nouns and pronouns that interact in the rest.

The second quatrain is especially thorny, though the general meaning is just that “Grief” is being asked to “complain” on behalf of the speaker’s soul. In line 6, the relative pronoun “which” is surely an object, rather than a subject, meaning that the sickness of grief, or melancholy, “tries” (as in tests, challenges, or pesters) the soul, which otherwise ordinarily dwells in a state of denial: the soul—the highest, and immortal, part of the mental makeup—denies to sense—the lowest, and mortal, part—awareness (“sense,” a typical Sidney antanaclasis) of its own mortality, even though the evidence of that (“harbingers of death”) is obvious. The implication, then, is that Grief might speak up for a soul that is unwilling or unable to speak up for itself.

But now, in the sestet, the speaker faces a paradox: if it is in the nature of Grief to mope and complain, then Grief might be relatively happy in present circumstances! Or at least it will “forbear” the speaker’s complaining, as we tend to be more tolerant of a condemned prisoner’s sobs as he heads to the gallows (“a caitiff, worthy so to die”). This will not do; the paradox must be met with another: the one way to assure that Grief lives up to its name is to argue that it now inhabits someone—the speaker—who is more wretched than Grief itself! Thus Grief can become more wretched, thus . . . Oh, never mind; this is reductio ad absurdum.

Next time (weekend of February 19): Sonnet 95
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 62

Late tired with woe, even ready for to pine,
With rage of love, I called my love unkind;
She in whose eyes love, though unfelt, doth shine,
Sweet said that I true love in her should find.
I joyed, but straight thus watered was my wine,
That love she did, but loved a love not blind,
Which would not let me, whom she loved, decline
From nobler course, fit for my birth and mind:
And therefore by her love’s authority,
Willed me these tempests of vain love to fly,
And anchor fast myself on virtue’s shore.
Alas, if this the only metal be
Of Love, new-coined to help my beggary,
Dear, love me not, that you may love me more.

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: As usual, “even” in line 1 is a single syllable. The word “fly” in line 10, for Sidney, would have rhymed with “be” and the final syllable of “authority” and “beggary,” but this need only be noted mentally in modern reading.

This is a companion sonnet to the previous one, and we might borrow Wordsworth’s title “The Tables Turned” for at least its final line, where the paradox that ended Sonnet 61 is reversed.

Like Sonnet 61, there is an “extroverted” rhyme scheme in the octave, and here the near-rhymes of the A’s and B’s reflects two “loves” that also sound alike but aren’t. Line 4, at first blush, sounds as if it might be the breakthrough moment we have waited for throughout the sequence: Stella sweetly says she DOES love me after all!

The joyful response lasts for exactly two words, or two syllables, or one brief foot, before the other shoe begins to drop, beginning with a teaser metaphor of watered wine. It turns out she has a sincere, pure, Platonic love for the speaker—not the “blind,” passionate love of Cupid, but the heavenly kind that sees clearly by the light of reason. And in the spirit of love, she wishes him to be as perfect as he can be, and as his pedigree (“birth”) and talents (“mind”) promise for him. The first tercet of the sestet continues the main idea of the sonnet by giving the clear implication of this special “love’s authority”: as in Sonnet 61, she shows her form of love by urging him to abandon his.

The fulcrum comes after line 11, as the final three lines give the speaker’s response. Setting it up with the metaphor of love as a “metal” from which improving ideas are “coined,” he says that if that’s the way it has to be, he wishes she would stop “loving” him that way, so that she could “love” him the other way. The two words “love” in the final line obviously mean two different things, and the meaning of the word has in fact been subtly shifting all through the poem, especially in line 6, where the meaning shifts over from his to hers, and here at the end, where it shifts back, referring at the end to the passionate relationship the speaker would like to have.

Next time (weekend of November 28): Sonnet 63
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 61

Oft with true sighs, oft with uncalled tears,
Now with slow words, now with dumb eloquence
I Stella’s eyes assail, invade her ears;
But this at last is her sweet-breathed defense:
That who indeed infelt affection bears,
So captives to his saint both soul and sense,
That wholly hers, all selfness he forbears,
Thence his desires he learns, his life’s course thence.
Now since her chaste mind hates this love in me,
With chastened mind I straight must show that she
Shall quickly me from what she hates remove.
O Doctor Cupid, thou for me reply,
Driven else to grant by angel’s sophistry
That I love not, without I leave to 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: In line 1, “uncalled” has three syllables, while “Driven” in line 13 has just one.

This poem is the first of a pair based directly on the ideas of Plato, and it is a syllogism whose conclusion is a paradox.

The octave is in “outie” or extroverted (ABAB) quatrains, that roll continuously through the statement of the first premise. The first quatrain simply sets up the familiar scenario of the speaker’s futile wooing of Stella, leading to her “sweet-breathed defense” in the second quatrain. This is the Platonic idea that we learn from, and are made better by, the pursuit of beauty, or that which we desire or love; this turns us from “all selfness,” or mere selfish pursuits.

The second premise is a “But” that occupies lines 9-11: since “what she hates” is the speaker’s own love for her, in love she is trying to “teach” him to stop loving her.

Ergo (lines 12-14), to love her he must stop loving her; it is a Socratic syllogism (or, coming from her, an “angel’s sophistry”), leading to a paradoxical conclusion. The speaker seeks help to refute the argument, conferring an improbable Ph.D. on Cupid, who, as we have been told so many times, offers the only case to be made against reason.

Next time (weekend of November 14): Sonnet 62
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 60

When my good angel guides me to the place
Where all my good I do in Stella see,
That heaven of joys throws only down on me
Thundered disdains and lightnings of disgrace:
But when the ruggedest step of fortune’s race
Makes me fall from her sight, then sweetly she
With words, wherein the muses’ treasures be,
Shows love and pity to my absent case.
Now I, wit-beaten long by hardest fate,
So dull am, that I cannot look into
The ground of this fierce love and lovely hate:
Then some good body tell me how I do,
Whose presence absence, absence presence is;
Blest in my curse, and cursed in my bliss.

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: “heaven” in line 3 is one syllable; “ruggedest” is elided as two (“rugg’dest”); and “cursed” in line 14 has two.

The visit with Stella is turning out to be a decidedly mixed blessing, since the speaker’s advances are met with “disdains” and “disgrace” that are compared metaphorically to a stormy day. On the other hand, when he has the misfortune (“the ruggedest step of fortune’s race”) to be separated from her, she apparently writes sweet letters of “pity” and “love” (from the security of distance, we may surmise) that he takes to be much more encouraging, as they contain “the muses’ treasures”—the stuff of poetic inspiration.

In the first tercet of the sestet, he is being driven crazy by this confusing pattern! He is “wit-beaten” and has become so stupid (“dull”) that he cannot fathom the background (“ground,” a term from heraldry or embroidery) of “this fierce love and lovely hate”; i.e., he is being made moronic by her oxymoronic behavior!

“Tell me how I do” can be understood as “try to explain this strange state of being I am in”; and, in a marvelous chiasmus that ends the poem, he restates the paradox as downright existential: when he is “present,” he is actually (to her) “absent,” and vice versa. The “curse” of separation from Stella is actually a blessing, and the “bliss” of her presence is a curse. He’s living in a very strange twilight zone.

Next time (weekend of October 31): Sonnet 61
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 44

My words, I know, do well set forth my mind;
My mind bemoans his sense of inward smart;
Such smart may pity claim of any heart,
Her heart (sweet heart) is of no tiger’s kind:
And yet she hears, yet I no pity find;
But more I cry, less grace she doth impart.
Alas, what cause is there so overthwart,
That nobleness itself makes thus unkind?
I much do guess, yet find no truth save this:
That when the breath of my complaints doth touch
Those dainty doors unto the court of bliss,
The heavenly nature of that place is such
That once come there, the sobs of mine annoys
Are metamorphosed straight to tunes of joys.

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 auxesis of the opening quatrain closely echoes the opening of the entire sequence in 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;

But this hopeful aspiration has already over-shot reality, as the fifth and sixth lines of the present sonnet make certain:

And yet she hears, yet I no pity find;
But more I cry, less grace she doth impart.

The enterprise is not going well! And the very center of this sonnet, lines 7-8, poses the question of how this could be; what “overthwart” (literally, lying crosswise across; so figuratively, perverse or contrary to reason) cause could make such a noble mind (Stella) so oblivious to the speaker’s suffering, so incapable of pity or grace?

The sestet makes a very tentative and metaphorical stab at an explanation, and this explanation is, like the problem itself, a paradox, stretched out over the last five lines, since this is one of the very small number of Sidney sonnets without a full stop after line 11. Stella’s divinity (or “heavenly nature”) is of such a kind that it can instantly convert, or metamorphose, “sobs” of pain (“mine annoys”) to “tunes of joys.”* High praise, on the one hand, befitting a god—but, at the same time, a god who is coldly indifferent to the suffering of worshippers! The final couplet could be read as a veiled dig at the sadistic joy (as the speaker sees it) that Stella takes in making a lover miserable.

* On line 11, cf. Sonnet 9 for Stella as a “court,” not of bliss, but of virtue. Presumably here the metaphorical “doors” are her ears, not her mouth, as there.

Next time (weekend of March 21): Sonnet 45
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 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 34

Come, let me write. ‘And to what end?’  To ease
A burdened heart. ‘How can words ease, which are
The glasses of thy daily vexing care?’
Oft cruel fights well pictured forth do please.
‘Art not ashamed to publish thy disease?’
Nay, that may breed my fame, it is so rare.
‘But will not wise men think thy words fond ware?’
Then be they close, and so none shall displease.
‘What idler thing, than speak and not be heard?’
What harder thing than smart and not to speak?
Peace, foolish Wit; with wit my wit is marred.
Thus write I while I doubt to write, and wreak
My harms on ink’s poor loss; perhaps some find
Stella’s great powers, that so confuse my 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.

This sonnet, if it were found outside the sequence, might have the title “A Dialogue Between the Poet and his Wit.”  As I have noted before, “wit” here means “wisdom,” or the reasoning part of the brain, as opposed to the passions or fancies. As I’m sure the reader has already detected, the speeches of Wit are in quotation marks, and the speaker—obviously here identified with the poet—says all the rest. Thus (at the one point of possible confusion) line 10 is the poet’s direct response to line 9, while line 11 (the poet still speaking) is a general shushing of Wit, who, we may imagine, has drawn breath to continue the argument.

The setting of the poem is the poet’s writing desk, where he has come (as must be his routine) to write another sonnet.  But instead of being visited by the Muse—every poet’s hope in that setting—he is interrupted immediately by his Wit, who turns out to be the very opposite of encouraging. Wit argues that writing about unrequited passion is hardly the best way to get over it (since the words are “glasses”—i.e., mirrors—of the woe), but the poet answers (line 4) as an artist, not a psychiatrist; in fact, the idea that poetic treatment of “cruel fights” can bring pleasure, despite the subject matter, is very much that of Sidney in his Defense of Poesy.

So Wit sharpens his attack in the second quatrain with an appeal to shame.  The word “disease” was at this time in transition from an older, more literal meaning of “unease” or “discomfort,” to its modern meaning of “illness,” and Sidney makes a subtle play on the difference: Wit means the word in the older sense, but the poet jests that people become famous for having rare diseases. Then, in a parallel shaming question, Wit again uses a transitioning word in its older sense, i.e., “fond” as “foolish.”  The poet does not directly respond to that word choice (though the reader will certainly catch a word-play because of the word’s modern meaning), but instead says O.K., I won’t share the poems with anyone. (“Close” in line 8 means “secret” or “closeted.”)

Wit (being, of course, an expert in logic) now senses that the poet’s argument has fallen apart, since everything said to this point assumes sharing or publishing of the poems. So line 9 could be loosely translated “So what’s the point, if you’re just writing them for yourself?”  The poet has no real answer to that, and instead just whines that he has to speak up if he has been wounded (“smart”); the poetry, in other words, has no logical explanation, but is just an animalistic cry of pain. The dialogue comes to an end in line 11 with a confession that “with wit my wit is marred,” an admission of defeat in a logical debate.

The final tercet is like a “recap” of the contest, a reflection on what is happening here. The dialogue apparently characterizes a very real confusion in the poet’s mind, and doubts about the wisdom of writing these love sonnets. “Wreak/My harms on ink’s poor loss” means take out my injuries on poor, defenseless words. The seemingly simple verb “find” is actually an important word-play; the words might manage to “find (= capture) the subject matter of Stella’s hold on him, or the words might “find” (= make their way to) Stella’s powers and exercise some persuasion on them. In any case, the sonnet again ends in paradox, since the doubtful, confused mind has perfectly and poetically spelled out its own confusion.

Next time (weekend of November 1): Sonnet 35
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 33

I might (unhappy word), O me, I might,
And then would not, or could not, see my bliss;
Till now, wrapped in a most infernal night,
I find how heavenly day, wretch, I did miss.
Heart, rend thyself, thou dost thyself but right;
No lovely Paris made thy Helen his;
No force, no fraud, robbed thee of thy delight;
Nor Fortune of thy fortune author is;
But to myself myself did give the blow,
While too much wit, forsooth, so troubled me
That I respects for both our sakes must show,
And yet could not by rising morn foresee
How fair a day was near.  O punished eyes,
That I had been more foolish—or more wise!

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: “heavenly” in line 4 is elided to two syllables.

Since it seems to refer to a specific moment in the poet’s life, this sonnet seems obscure in the absence of a biography. Back when I was being schooled in the “new critics” (a hundred years ago, or so), the famous question for any text was, “What if it were anonymous?”  The obvious temptation here would be to answer, “Well, if it were, we’d just be out of luck, and we’d go on to the next one; and since it’s not, we need to look at the footnotes.”  But the new-critical hypothetical question might be more helpful (or less fatuous) than it appears at first blush, and I’d like to see what we can work out on this poem before I turn to the footnotes.

I’ll use a method I often use in class for a poem that presents any sort of difficulty, not just the biographical kind. At the top of different sections of the board, I write two simple questions, “What’s clear?” and “What’s not?”  Often by the time we have recognized everything that is clear about a poem, the other column has either shrunk into insignificance, or the possibilities for interpretation of the “unclear” parts have become a short, manageable, discussable list.  So let’s try that exercise here:

What’s clear?

–It is a poem about missed opportunity, or what you might call a “woulda-coulda-shoulda” poem.

–The speaker squarely blames himself for the missed opportunity, as opposed to Fate, Fortune, or the choices of others. A first-person pronoun is used three times in the first line; when used twice in line 4, one of them is in reverse-apposition with “wretch”; and after careful elaboration in the second quatrain, the thesis is bluntly stated in line 9 with a double reflexive pronoun: “But to myself myself did give the blow.” * (Remember, by the way, that the speaker is not always above blaming others for his woes in these sonnets!)

–The beginning and end of the poem use the conceit of a man whose previous life was spent entirely in darkness (associated with hell in the adjective “infernal”), who suddenly finds “heavenly” daylight, but does not recognize it, or know what advantage to take of it. This could be interpreted as the height of folly—who cannot tell day from night?—or, more generously, as the natural confusion of someone whose reality is turned upside down, or who is presented with a completely new experience. This range of possibility is helpful for seeing both how the event in question could easily happen and why the speaker feels extremely foolish that it did.

–Lines 6 and 7 make explicit what the general nature of the event, or the “loss,” was: the speaker has missed out on a “Helen” that would have given him “daylight,” and of course in the context of the whole sequence, we know that this is the speaker (or Sidney) missing an opportunity to make Stella (or Penelope) his own. And, as mentioned above, the whole quatrain is at pains to say (with Jimmy Buffet) “It’s my own damn fault.”

–Lines 10-11 suggest the speaker thinks he was overly cautious (“too much wit [i.e., wisdom] . . . so troubled me”), or was too “respect[ful]” to avail himself of the opening.

–And the poem ends (as so many Renaissance sonnets do) in paradox, with the speaker wishing he had been either “more foolish” (i.e., ignored his caution or his conscience) or “more wise” (i.e., been able to foresee the consequences of his inaction).

So what we know about the poem’s meaning is really quite a bit: at some particular moment in time, the speaker had what at least in hindsight was an opportunity to lay claim to Stella simply by taking positive action; and, to his lasting regret, through caution or indecision, he let the opportunity go by.

All that’s left that’s unclear (I think) is exactly what moment in Sidney’s life the sonnet might refer to. Duncan-Jones, sifting through opinions of earlier biographers, argues that the best guess is a possible first meeting between the poet and 13-year-old Penelope in 1576, when Sidney’s father was still alive and a betrothal could have been nailed down, but the reasons for feeling no great haste to do so would be obvious. This leads to an interpretation of the final line—“Would that I had been foolish enough to fall in love with Stella when I first saw her, or wise enough never to fall in love at all”—which readers may prefer to the one I offered above.

But does settling on a precise biographical moment actually enhance or diminish the poem’s meaning?  It seems to me that, first, there might have been other more subtle conversations in Sidney’s evolving acquaintance with Penelope when he might have sensed such an opening; secondly, all but the most brazen men probably recall with a bit of pain the moments when caution, modesty, or respect caused them to remain alone, while a bolder forwardness might have led to a relationship; and thirdly, however rooted in reality these sonnets may be, they are still products of imagination, and a poet (as Sidney himself asserted in his Defense) is as free to develop an imagined conversation as a real one. Sonnets 45 and 63, for example, refer to specific “incidents” in the relationship with Stella, but no one in his right mind would venture a footnote to track those to actual moments in Philip Sidney’s life; they are clearly poetic inventions. So, given the universality of the emotion captured and the license to use invention to capture it, the question “What if it were anonymous?” is perhaps, in this instance, a helpful one to ask.

* One of four instances of clever use of direct repetition within lines of this poem, in addition to “close” pairs such as “would not . . . could not” (2) or “No force, no fraud” (7), or contrastive juxtaposition such as “infernal night . . . heavenly day” (3-4) and “more foolish . . . more wise” (14).

Next time (weekend of October 18): Sonnet 34

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