Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 86 and the Fifth through Ninth Songs

Alas, whence came this change of looks? If I
Have changed desert, let mine own conscience be
A still-felt plague, to self-condemning me:
Let woe gripe on my heart, shame load mine eye.
But if all faith, like spotless ermine, lie
Safe in my soul, which only doth to thee
(As his sole object of felicity)
With wings of love in air of wonder fly,
O ease your hand, treat not so hard your slave;
In justice pains come not till faults do call;
Or if I needs, sweet judge, must torments have,
Use something else to chasten me withal
Than those blessed eyes, where all my hopes do dwell.
No doom should make one’s heaven become his hell.

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 the final couplet, both “blessed” and “heaven” are one syllable. 

Stella is angry again, perhaps in response to the overly blunt and persistent wooing of the Fourth Song? In any event, we are about to take our longest leave of sonnet-making in the whole sequence, as (following this one) Sidney wrestles with the problematic relationship over five long songs, before settling back into sonnets.

“Those blessed eyes” begin and end this sonnet and, perhaps for added emphasis, the opening rhyme is the homophonic “I” and “eye.” Stella’s dark and flashing eyes have taken on that look of menace, and the speaker tries to extricate himself from her apparent wrath. If I really have become less deserving (“changed desert”), he says, let my own conscience punish me; the quatrain ends with the sound effect of two “heavy” (i.e., spondaic) feet: “shame load mine eye.”

But that “if” was clearly rhetorical; the speaker (faithful lover that he is) could not possibly have offended! In contrast to the heavy ending of the first quatrain, the second trips ever so lightly through enjambed lines, carrying all the way into the sestet before its thought is completed. This second “if” argument runs: if I have been faithful and true to you, please treat me (“your slave”) more leniently. It is simple justice (says line 10) not to punish where there is no fault.

The third and final “if,” in the last four lines of the poem, goes beyond justice to plead for mercy. If, after all (the speaker argues), I must be punished, please choose some other scourge “Than those blessed eyes” to punish me with—because, of course, these are the very eyes that spark his love. Line 14 parallels line 10 as an apparent principle of jurisprudence, but here the statement becomes both metaphysical (heaven and hell) and poignantly reflective of physical discomfort in a state of alienation from one’s love. 

Fifth Song

While favour fed my hope, delight with hope was brought,
Thought waited on delight, and speech did follow thought;
Then drew my tongue and pen records unto thy glory;
I thought all words were lost, that were not spent of thee;
I thought each place was dark but where thy lights would be,
And all ears worse than deaf, that heard not out thy story.

I said thou wert most fair, and so indeed thou art;
I said thou wert most sweet, sweet poison to my heart;
I said my soul was thine—O that I then had lied!
I said thine eyes were stars, thy breasts the milken way,
Thy fingers Cupid’s shafts, thy voice the angels’ lay,
And all I said so well, as no man it denied.

But now that hope is lost, unkindness kills delight,
Yet thought and speech do live, though metamorphosed quite;
For rage now rules the reins, which guided were by pleasure.
I think now of thy faults, who late thought of thy praise;
That speech falls now to blame, which did thy honour raise;
The same key open can, which can lock up a treasure.

Thou then, whom partial heavens conspired in one to frame,
The proof of beauty’s worth, th’inheritrix of fame,
The mansion seat of bliss, and just excuse of lovers;
See now those feathers plucked, wherewith thou flew’st most high;
See what clouds of reproach shall dark thy honour’s sky;
Whose own fault casts him down, hardly high seat recovers.

And O my Muse, though oft you lulled her in your lap,
And then, a heavenly child, gave her ambrosian pap,
And to that brain of hers your hiddenest gifts infused;
Since she, disdaining me, doth you in me disdain,
Suffer not her to laugh, while we both suffer pain;
Princes in subjects wronged, must deem themselves abused.

Your client poor myself, shall Stella handle so?
Revenge, revenge, my muse; defiance’ trumpet blow;
Threaten what may be done, yet do more than you threaten.
Ah, my suit granted is; I feel my breast to swell;
Now child, a lesson new you shall begin to spell:
Sweet babes must babies have, but shrewd girls must be beaten.

Think now no more to hear of warm fine-odored snow,
Nor blushing lilies, nor pearls’ ruby-hidden row,
Nor of that golden sea, whose waves in curls are broken:
But of thy soul, so fraught with such ungratefulness,
As where thou soon might’st help, most faith dost most oppress;
Ungrateful who is called, the worst of evils is spoken.

Yet worse than worst, I say thou art a thief. A thief?
No God forbid. A thief, and of worst thieves the chief;
Thieves steal for need, and steal but goods, which pain recovers,
But thou, rich in all joys, dost rob my joys from me,
Which cannot be restored by time nor industry.
Of foes the spoil is evil, far worse of constant lovers.

Yet gentle English thieves do rob, but will not slay;
Thou English murdering thief, wilt have hearts for thy prey;
The name of murderer now on thy fair forehead sitteth;
And even while I do speak, my death wounds bleeding be,
Which, I protest, proceed from only cruel thee.
Who may, and will not, save, murder in truth committeth.

But murder, private fault, seems but a toy to thee;
I lay then to thy charge, unjustest tyranny,
If rule by force without all claim a tyrant showeth.
For thou dost lord my heart, who am not born thy slave;
And which is worse, makes me, most guiltless, torments have;
A rightful prince by unright deeds a tyrant groweth.

Lo, you grow proud with this, for tyrants make folk bow.
Of foul rebellion then I do appeach thee now;
Rebel by nature’s law, rebel by law of reason.
Thou, sweetest subject, wert born in the realm of love,
And yet against thy prince thy force dost daily prove;
No virtue merits praise, once touched with blot of treason.

But valiant rebels oft in fools’ mouths purchase fame;
I now then stain thy white with vagabonding shame,
Both rebel to the son, and vagrant from the mother:
For wearing Venus’ badge in every part of thee
Unto Diana’s train thou, runaway, didst flee:
Who faileth one, is false, though trusty to another.

What, is not this enough? Nay, far worse cometh here:
A witch I say thou art, though thou so fair appear;
For I protest, my sight never thy face enjoyeth,
But I in me am changed; I am alive and dead;
My feet are turned to roots; my heart becometh lead;
No witchcraft is so evil, as which man’s mind destroyeth.

Yet witches may repent; thou art far worse than they;
Alas, that I am forced such evil of thee to say!
I say thou art a devil, though clothed in angel’s shining;
For thy face tempts my soul to leave the heaven for thee,
And thy words of refuse, do pour even hell on me.
Who tempt, and tempted plague, are devils in true defining.

You then, ungrateful thief, you murdering tyrant, you;
You rebel runaway, to lord and lady untrue;
You witch, you devil, alas—you still of me beloved,
You see what I can say; mend yet your froward mind,
And such skill in my muse you, reconciled, shall find,
That all these cruel words your praises shall be proved.

Reading notes: because of the pattern of feminine endings at the end of the third and sixth lines of each stanza, the final syllables should be pronounced in “lied” and “denied” (stanza 2), “infused” and “abused” (5), and “beloved” and “proved” (15); both “murdering” and “murderer” in stanza 9 are elided to two syllables; and “even” in the penultimate line of stanza 14 is elided to one.

This song can be compared to the Third, in its use of six-hexameter-line stanzas; and my comments there on how hexameters translate into singable song verses are also relevant here. The rhyme scheme (AABCCB), however, is new, and the feminine rhymes here come in the “B” lines, 3 and 6.

The first stanza employs an auxesis paralleling that which opens the whole sequence in Sonnet 1, and in fact it recapitulates the process by which the speaker came to write of Stella (lines 1-3), as well as the importance he attached to this writing (4-6). But by the second half of the second line in the second stanza, the poet is having second thoughts! The regret of having given himself over to this project creeps into the verse as a “sweet poison,” even as he maintains the truth of all the praise his sonnets have contained.

The third stanza makes the disappointment more direct and explicit. He fairly bluntly states that his love has turned to hate (“rage now rules the reins”) or at least anger and reproach. In context, the metaphor of the key in the last line of the stanza is a reference to the use of his own talents (i.e., he is threatening to “lock up” any further praise); but it is also a sly hint at how Stella could have chosen to “open” rather than “lock up” her “treasure,” where the speaker is concerned.

Stanzas 4-6 go from vaguely hostile and threatening (“clouds of reproach”) to downright ugly (“shrewd [i.e., shrewish] girls must be beaten”). The general idea is that the poet’s muse is invoked, not for the usual inspiration, but as a force of “revenge” for Stella’s ingratitude; and rather unusually, the muse appears to be responsive to this, in the second half of stanza 6. In the most unappealing passage of the entire Astrophil and Stella, Sidney makes a point of Penelope Devereux’s relatively young age, suggesting she can be a “good girl” and have the “reward” of “babies,” but (a mere “babe” herself) if she is bad, she must, like a bad child, be “beaten.”

Stanza 7 makes the pivot into the second half of the song, starting with the slightly odd poetic gifts (“warm, fine-odored snow . . . etc.”) that Stella is now to lose, and ending with the announcement that her sin is ingratitude, and that this is the “worst of evils.” But this is merely the start of a ratcheting-up game in which such announcements are followed quickly by some version of: “Did I say worst? No, even worse than that, she is ____________.” And with this somewhat tedious and overwrought method, Stella advances from mere ingrate to thief, murderer, tyrant, rebel (worse than tyrant in the peculiar anti-democratic spirit of the Elizabethans), and traitor. By stanza 13, she has morphed all the way up to “witch,” and in 14 she tops out at “devil.”

The final stanza gives a brief recap of the sequence, from ingratitude up to devil, and then acknowledges in a half-line (“You see what I can say”) that all this extreme venting was just an exercise in persuasion. Hope springs eternal! In the last two-and-a-half lines of a nasty ninety-line diatribe, he promises that if she will stop being “froward” (a favorite Elizabethan adjective for uppity, unyielding, or shrewish women) the muse will return to singing her praises.

Sixth Song

O you that hear this voice,
O you that see this face,
Say whether of the choice
Deserves the former place:
Fear not to judge this ’bate,
For it is void of hate.

This side doth Beauty take,
For that doth Music speak,
Fit orators to make
The strongest judgments weak:
The bar to plead their right
Is only true delight.

Thus doth the voice and face
These gentle lawyers wage
Like loving brothers’ case
For father’s heritage:
That each, while each contends,
Itself to other lends.

For Beauty beautifies
With heavenly hue and grace
The heavenly harmonies;
And in this faultless face
The perfect beauties be
A perfect harmony.

Music more lofty swells
In speeches nobly placed;
Beauty as far excels
In action aptly graced;
A friend each party draws
To countenance his cause.

Love more affected seems
To Beauty’s lovely light,
And Wonder more esteems
Of Music’s wondrous might;
But both to both so bent,
As both in both are spent.

Music doth witness call
The ear, his truth to try;
Beauty brings to the hall
The judgment of the eye:
Both in their objects such,
As no exceptions touch.

The Common Sense, which might
Be arbiter of this,
To be forsooth upright,
To both sides partial is:
He lays on this chief praise,
Chief praise on that he lays.

The Reason, princess high,
Whose throne is in the mind,
Which Music can in sky
And hidden beauties find:
Say whether thou wilt crown
With limitless renown.

Reading note: each “heavenly” in the fourth stanza is elided to two syllables.

By sharp contrast to the Fifth Song, the lines of this one are half as long (iambic trimeter), and the poem itself is a rather simple allegory of abstract properties engaged in an open-ended “debate” that is not resolved. It ends in a sort of “question d’amor,” a medieval device for ending a love story with an unanswerable riddle about love—as in, for example, The Franklin’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The overall effect here is bland flattery of Stella, as if in apology for the critical blast of the previous song.

The word “whether” in the third line means roughly “if either,” so the question is if either Stella’s voice or face deserves the favored position it once held. But sensing a return to the nastiness of the Fifth Song, the speaker hastens to assure that the debate (“’bate”) will be “void of hate.” And it certainly is. “Beauty” is the advocate for the face, and “Music” for the voice, but they are such “gentle lawyers” and “loving brothers” that there is absolutely no heat or contention in the dispute. Stanzas 4 and 5 explain that it is hard to tell their arguments apart. Beauty is all about harmony, and the music of the spheres (the sixteenth-century understanding of “heavenly harmonies”); so probably some form of vice-versa is also true, though Music gets only two lines of its own, making this less explicit.

It gradually turns out that four judges will be called on to settle the issue: Love, Wonder (or Admiration), Common Sense, and Reason. Love leans a little to Beauty, and Wonder to Music, but in truth (last two lines of Stanza 6) they can’t completely swing one way. Common Sense should be counted on for a straight answer, but he does what should be impossible, laying “chief praise” on both contestants. And the “witnesses”—ear for Music and eye for Beauty—merely affirm that their respective “objects” (i.e., Stella’s voice and face) are unsurpassed (“no exceptions touch”).

The song finally appeals to Reason—theoretically the highest authority on issues of debate—to say “whether” (i.e., which) she will choose. But this appeal ends the song; Reason’s answer is left to us to give—or perhaps we are to suspend judgment while we consider the case further in the Seventh Song.

Seventh Song

Whose senses in so ill consort, their stepdame Nature lays,
That ravishing delight in them most sweet tunes do not raise;
Or if they do delight therein, yet are so cloyed with wit,
As with sententious lips to set a title vain on it;
O let them hear these sacred tunes, and learn in wonder’s schools
To be, in things past bounds of wit, fools, if they be not fools.

Who have so leaden eyes, as not to see sweet beauty’s show,
Or seeing, have so wooden wits, as not that worth to know;
Or knowing, have so muddy minds, as not to be in love;
Or loving, have so frothy thoughts, as easily thence to move:
O let them see these heavenly beams, and in fair letters read
A lesson fit, both sight and skill, love and firm love to breed.

Hear then, but then with wonder hear; see, but adoring see;
No mortal gifts, no earthly fruits, now here descended be;
See, do you see this face? A face? Nay, image of the skies,
Of which the two life-giving lights are figured in her eyes.
Hear you this soul-invading voice, and count it but a voice?
The very essence of their tunes, when angels do rejoice.

Reading notes: “easily” and “heavenly” in the second stanza are both elided to two syllables.

Now we have stretched all the way out to heptameter lines, but (similar to my earlier notes on hexameter “songs”) I must point out that heptameter lines in rhyming couplets can be sung simply as “common meter” or “ballad” stanzas (four feet in the first and third lines, three feet in the second and fourth), with each couplet representing such a stanza. Again by contrast to the Fifth Song, this one is just three six-line stanzas (not fifteen) long. And it continues the friendly “contention” between Music (Stella’s voice) and Beauty (her face) that was the subject of the Sixth Song. But the poetry here is tighter and carefully balanced, and the flattery is less bland.

The essential thesis is that Stella’s voice and face are not of this world, but heavenly, and the case is made with Sidney’s tight, paradoxical logic. The first stanza, focused on music, anticipates Lorenzo’s well-known speech on “that man that hath not music in his soul” in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice; Sidney concludes his version with the neat paradox that only a fool would not be made a fool by music.

Then beauty is featured in the second stanza, with the now-familiar auxesis that looks back to Plato and forward to Wordsworth (see notes on Sonnet 81). Here, each step of the process is framed negatively, again (as in the first stanza) imagining the fool who might ignore or resist Stella’s charms. But the song pivots in the final two lines of this stanza, calling on anyone with eyes to see to look on Stella’s “heavenly beams,” and thus perforce have “love and firm love” (a figure called a diacope) bred in him.

The final stanza artfully combines the music of voice and beauty of face, first intertwined in the opening couplet, then parallel in the other two. Rhetorical questions establish that the face is the “image of the skies”—fitting the association of her eyes with stars—and the voice belongs to the angels.

Eighth Song

In a grove most rich of shade,
Where birds wanton music made,
May, then young, his pied weeds showing,
New perfumed with flowers fresh growing,

Astrophil with Stella sweet
Did for mutual comfort meet,
Both within themselves oppressed,
But each in the other blessed.

Him great harms had taught much care:
Her fair neck a foul yoke bare:
But her sight his cares did banish,
In his sight her yoke did vanish.

Wept they did, but now betwixt
Sighs of woe were glad sighs mixed,
With arms crossed, yet testifying
Restless rest, and living dying.

Their ears hungry of each word,
Which the dear tongue would afford,
But their tongues restrained from walking,
Till their hearts had ended talking.

But when their tongues could not speak,
Love itself did silence break;
Love did set his lips asunder,
Thus to speak in love and wonder:

‘Stella, sovereign of my joy,
Fair triumpher of annoy,
Stella, star of heavenly fire,
Stella, lodestar of desire;

‘Stella, in whose shining eyes
Are the lights of Cupid’s skies;
Whose beams, where they once are darted,
Love therewith is straight imparted;

‘Stella, whose voice when it speaks,
Senses all asunder breaks;
Stella, whose voice when it singeth
Angels to acquaintance bringeth;

‘Stella, in whose body is
Writ each character of bliss;
Whose face all, all beauty passeth,
Save thy mind, which yet surpasseth:

‘Grant, O grant—but speech, alas,
Fails me, fearing on to pass;
Grant—O me, what am I saying?
But no fault there is in praying:

‘Grant, O dear, on knees I pray’—
(Knees on ground he then did stay)
‘That not I, but since I love you,
Time and place for me may move you.

‘Never season was more fit,
Never room more apt for it;
Smiling air allows my reason;
These birds sing, “Now use the season”;

‘This small wind, which so sweet is,
See how it the leaves doth kiss,
Each tree in his best attiring,
Sense of love to love inspiring.

‘Love makes earth the water drink,
Love to earth makes water sink;
And if dumb things be so witty,
Shall a heavenly grace want pity?’

There his hands in their speech fain
Would have made tongue’s language plain;
But her hands his hands repelling,
Gave repulse, all grace excelling.

Then she spake; her speech was such
As not ears, but heart did touch;
While such wise she love denied,
As yet love she signified.

‘Astrophil,’ said she, ‘my love,
Cease in these effects to prove:
Now be still, yet still believe me,
Thy grief more than death would grieve me.

‘If that any thought in me
Can taste comfort but of thee,
Let me, fed with hellish anguish,
Joyless, hopeless, endless languish.

‘If those eyes you praised be
Half so dear as you to me,
Let me home return, stark blinded
Of those eyes, and blinder minded.

‘If to secret of my heart
I do any wish impart
Where thou art not foremost placed,
Be both wish and I defaced.

‘If more may be said, I say,
All my bliss in thee I lay;
If thou love, my love content thee,
For all love, all faith is meant thee.

‘Trust me, while I thee deny,
In myself the smart I try;
Tyrant honour thus doth use thee;
Stella’s self might not refuse thee.

‘Therefore, dear, this no more move,
Lest, though I leave not thy love,
Which too deep in me is framed,
I should blush when thou art named.’

Therewithal away she went,
Leaving him so passion-rent
With what she had done and spoken,
That therewith my song is broken.

Reading notes: “flowers” in the final line of the first stanza is one syllable; “heavenly” is two syllables in the seventh and fifteenth stanzas; and because of the song’s established pattern (see metrical discussion below) the “-ed” of “placed” and “defaced” in Stanza 21, and “framed” and “named” in Stanza 24, must be pronounced as an extra syllable.

See my metrical notes on the Fourth Song, which came after Sonnet 85. Here the first two lines of each stanza have that same “incomplete” structure, but because the last two in each stanza have feminine rhymes, the whole effect is trochaic, or a tumbling rhythm, rather than the more typical relaxed beat of iambs.

The song is arcadian and pastoral, harking back to Sidney’s Old Arcadia, possibly the last thing he wrote before starting this sonnet sequence. The season is May, the flowers (May’s “pied weeds” or clothing) are blooming, and—at least in the poet’s fancy—Astrophil and Stella are young lovers taking “mutual comfort” from each other while both are “oppressed” by others. Indeed, this is the rare moment in the whole sequence when Astrophil is given his name, and is not the speaker of the poem, that job being here assigned to an omniscient third-person narrator.

Stella’s “foul yoke” (Stanza 3) is of course her betrothal or marriage to Lord Rich, and this encounter (perhaps imaginary) quickly takes on the oxymoronic nature of such forbidden love: “Sighs of woe” mixed with “glad sighs”; finding “restless rest” and “living dying” in their togetherness. They find themselves tongue-tied, but their “hearts” communicate, and the poet skirts the issue of Astrophil’s boldness in finally speaking by blaming “Love” for “set[ting] his lips asunder.” His plea occupies stanzas 7 to 15. He is clearly intent on adultery, and the extremity of what he desires gives him momentary pause in Stanza 11, but with “knees on ground” he pushes on with his plea that she give in to his passion, citing the perfect ripeness of their opportunity.

In the pivotal sixteenth stanza, Astrophil tries to act on his plea with his hands, but her own hands “Gave repulse, all grace excelling.” Her answer to his speech is set up in Stanza 17; conveniently, she will speak silently, so the poet is able to interpret the “love she signified” as well. Her silent speech occupies stanzas 18-24 and it repeats in many different ways the basic idea that she loves him, but cannot love him: “Trust me, while I thee deny,/In myself the smart I try” (i.e., the pain I feel).

Finally, in Stanza 24, she says that since she continues to love him deeply, he must keep his distance so that she is not caught blushing at the mere sound of his name. This message leaves Astrophil so “passion-rent” that the song cannot go on, and so, in spite of having lasted for twenty-five stanzas, is quite abruptly “broken.” 

Ninth Song

Go, my flock, go get you hence,
Seek a better place of feeding,
Where you may have some defence
From the storms in my breast breeding,
And showers from my eyes proceeding.

Leave a wretch, in whom all woe
Can abide to keep no measure;
Merry flock, such one forego,
Unto whom mirth is displeasure,
Only rich in mischief’s treasure.

Yet, alas, before you go,
Hear your woeful master’s story,
Which to stones I else would show:
Sorrow only then hath glory,
When ‘tis excellently sorry.

Stella, fiercest shepherdess,
Fiercest, but yet fairest ever;
Stella, whom, O heavens, do bless,
Though against me she persever,
Though I bliss inherit never;

Stella hath refused me,
Stella, who more love hath proved
In this caitiff heart to be
Than can in good ewes be moved
Toward lambkins best beloved.

Stella hath refused me;
Astrophil, that so well served,
In this pleasant spring must see,
While in pride flowers be preserved,
Himself only winter-starved.

Why, alas, doth she then swear
That she loveth me so dearly,
Seeing me so long to bear
Coals of love, that burn so clearly,
And yet leave me helpless merely?

Is that love? Forsooth, I trow,
If I saw my good dog grieved,
And a help for him did know,
My love should not be believed
But he were by me relieved.

No, she hates me, wellaway,
Feigning love somewhat, to please me;
For she knows, if she display
All her hate, death soon would seize me,
And of hideous torments ease me.

Then adieu, dear flock, adieu:
But alas, if in your straying
Heavenly Stella meet with you,
Tell her, in your piteous blaying,
Her poor slave’s unjust decaying.

Reading notes: “heavens” in Stanza 4 and “heavenly” in Stanza 10 are elided in the usual way; and the “-ed” syllable is pronounced in “refused,” “proved,” “moved,” and “beloved” (Stanza 5), “refused,” “served,” “preserved,” and “starved” (6), “grieved,” believed,” and “relieved” (8); and “hideous” in Stanza 9 and “piteous” in Stanza 10 are elided to two syllables.

As the song is taken up again, in the same trochaic rhythm, but now in 5-line ABABB stanzas with all the B-rhymes feminine, Astrophil has become a shepherd and Stella a shepherdess. We have completed the movement into the pastoral mode and its suffering swain motif, lovingly mocked by Shakespeare in his portrayal of Silvius and Phebe in As You Like It. The song also returns to the customary first-person, though once again Astrophil’s name is given.

The microcosm/macrocosm analogy is at work in the opening lines, so the “storms” in Astrophil’s breast and the “showers” from his eyes are a meteorological threat from which the otherwise “merry” flock should seek shelter. But, before they go, he will make them hear his tale of woe, since it’s either them or no one (i.e., “stones”), and sorrow cannot be “excellently sorry” without an audience.

The tale is the familiar one about Stella’s seemingly contradictory behavior, summed up most succinctly in Stanza 7. As usual in pastoral poetry, the season is spring (Stanza 6) when even the lilies of the field (so to speak) are taken care of by nature, but the good, faithful shepherd Astrophil is “starved” as if it were still winter. In Stanza 5, for the sake of his audience, he uses a home-spun sheep analogy: there’s more constant love in his wretched (“caitiff”) heart for Stella than ewes have for their lambs. And another in Stanza 8: Astrophil would show more love to his faithful dog than Stella is showing to him.

This rustic simplicity is modestly challenged by a complication in the final two stanzas. Although Stella clearly “hates” him (“wellaway” can mean either “a great deal” or, as an interjection, “alas!”), it sounds at first as if she “feign[s] love” out of a sort of kindness, to keep him from dying of grief; but the last line of the penultimate stanza implies that she just sadistically wants to prolong his “torments.” But having decided that she in fact “hates” him, nothing remains but his death, which in turn will cast the flock adrift; and in their “straying,” their “piteous baying” will convey to Stella the message of his “unjust decaying.”

Next time (weekend of October 30): Sonnet 87
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 78

O how the pleasant airs of true love be
Infected by those vapours which arise
From out that noisome gulf, which gaping lies
Between the jaws of hellish jealousy:
A monster, others’ harm, self-misery,
Beauty’s plague, virtue’s scourge, succour of lies;
Who his own joy to his own hurt applies,
And only cherish doth with injury;
Who since he hath, by nature’s special grace,
So piercing paws as spoil when they embrace,
So nimble feet, as stir still, though on thorns;
So many eyes aye seeking their own woe,
So ample ears, as never good news know:
Is it not ill that such a devil wants horns?

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: “devil” in the final line is elided to a single syllable “de’il,” creating in effect an internal rhyme with “ill.” This is sometimes made more obvious in editing with the use of “evil” instead of “ill,” in which case both words require elided—or at least rushed—pronunciations.

In a “breathless” (literally) opening quatrain, using a metaphor of pleasant or noxious air, the poem establishes that the very opposite of “true love” is “hellish jealousy.” Iago’s “green-eyed monster” comes to mind, and indeed heads the list that starts in line 5, but by the end of the poem it is clear that we are not just talking about an abstract passion, but rather a jealous person. Has Lord Rich perhaps taken some action to keep Penelope out of Sidney’s company? Or has the poet merely projected jealousy onto his rival, as the cause of his own thwarted designs?

Whatever the cause, the process towards ad hominem attack begins in the second quatrain. A list of six short derogatory phrases gives way in line seven and eight—the middle of the poem—to a two-line clause which suddenly uses the personal pronoun “his.” And the sense of this clause is somewhat specific: personified Jealousy is only capable of deriving “hurt” from his love, and “injures” the one he professes to “cherish.” (The ostensibly de-personalized “succour” at the end of line six need not be, as there was a sense of the word that essentially meant “succorer”; i.e., an enabler of duplicity.)

The sestet pushes personification on into beastialization, as the jealous one is endowed by “nature” with “piercing paws,” “nimble [i.e., nervous or pacing?] feet,” the multiple eyes of Argus, and “ample ears.” This is not just a beast but a monster! And the final line—a very clever punch line—makes clear that the personified Jealousy is specifically the jealous husband himself. Such a monster, the line says, has all the devil’s features except horns. So far, he lacks the horns of a cuckold, an “ill” that the speaker would love to redress!

Next time (weekend of July 10): Sonnet 79
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 63, and First Song

O grammar-rules, O now your virtues show;
So children still read you with awful eyes,
As my young dove may, in your precepts wise,
Her grant to me by her own virtue know;
For late, with heart most high, with eyes most low,
I craved the thing which ever she denies;
She, lightning Love displaying Venus’ skies,
Lest once should not be heard, twice said, No, No!
Sing then, my muse, now Io Pæan sing;
Heavens envy not at my high triumphing,
But grammar’s force with sweet success confirm;
For grammar says (O this, dear Stella, weigh),
For grammar says (to grammar who says nay?)
That in one speech two negatives affirm!

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: “Heavens” in line 10 is one syllable. In line 9, “Io” is the muse, and a “Pæan” is a hymn of praise; both words are two-syllable, the first syllable stressed and the second unstressed in both cases.

This sonnet is downright childish in its playfulness, deflecting the speaker’s frustration in a rather nerdy way. The scene depicted is one in which Stella, notes the speaker’s rising excitement (“heart most high”) as he casts his “eyes most low” (i.e., he’s not looking her in the face!). While her beauty (“displaying Venus’ skies”) seems (to him, at least) to egg him on, she exercises a woman’s prerogative of using her voice to say No!—not just once, but twice.

The “grammar-rules” the poem speaks of are Latin grammar rules, the chief cause of children’s headaches in the grammar schools; hence, the second line, where “awful” has its original sense of “full of awe.” The idea of teaching a grammar for English has not really appeared yet, and, as we are frequently reminded by Shakespeare, at this time the double negative in English intensifies the negativity, rather than canceling it out. But in Latin teaching, a stricter logic would apply. Perhaps I should also point out that, strictly speaking, “No, no!” is not a double negative in the usual logical application of that phrase; it is merely repetition for emphasis.

But the speaker leaps on the opportunity with a self-consciously sappy voice of triumph: the first tercet of the sestet is deliberately bad, overwrought poetry, culminating in the ridiculous apotheosis of grammar, the schoolboy’s bane. Then, in the final three lines, he knows perfectly well he is being puerile, and milks the moment, with his two parenthetical interruptions stalling the springing of the trap until the final line.

First Song

Doubt you to whom my Muse these notes intendeth,
Which now my breast o’ercharged to music lendeth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only in you my song begins and endeth.
 
Who hath the eyes which marry state with pleasure,              5
Who keeps the key of Nature’s chiefest treasure?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only for you the heaven forgat all measure.
 
Who hath the lips, where wit in fairness reigneth,
Who womankind at once both decks and staineth?               10
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only by you Cupid his crown maintaineth.
 
Who hath the feet, whose step all sweetness planteth,
Who else for whom Fame worthy trumpets wanteth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;                                15
Only to you her scepter Venus granteth.
 
Who hath the breast, whose milk doth passions nourish,
Whose grace is such, that when it chides doth cherish?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only through you the tree of life doth flourish.                     20
 
Who hath the hand which without stroke subdueth,
Who long dead beauty with increase reneweth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only to you all envy hopeless rueth.
 
Who hath the hair which, loosest, fastest tieth,                      25
Who makes a man live, then glad when he dieth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only of you the flatterer never lieth.

Who hath the voice, which soul from senses sunders,
Whose force but yours the bolts of beauty thunders?                        30
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;
Only with you are miracles not wonders.
 
Doubt you to whom my Muse these notes intendeth,
Which now my breast o’ercharg’d to music lendeth?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due;                                35
Only in you my song begins and endeth.

What strikes me most immediately about this first “song” after sixty-three sonnets is the pervasive use of feminine rhymes, used nowhere in the sonnets themselves. Lines 1, 2, and 4 of each stanza rhyme this way, while line 3, which functions as the song’s refrain, is the same perfectly regular iambic pentameter line all the way through. This refrain rather obviously states the song’s theme and purpose.

In the literal, biographical sense, we could imagine the songs being offered up musically (a version of the serenade) when Sidney and Penelope are together. In the artistic sense, a song like this could be called the antithesis of a sonnet. Instead of very close logic and dense complexity of ideas in tightly restricted space, we have the lengthy spinning out of a single idea as a refrain with a succession of not terribly interesting iterations.

There is not, for example, a closely connected thought running through any single stanza—except for the identical first and last stanzas (each illustrating its final line) which explain the point of the song. Instead, the song’s ingenuity lies in the way first lines are connected to one another (a blazon of physical features), second lines to one another (abstract hyperboles of praise), and fourth lines to one another (parallel extensions of the idea in the refrain).

A few lines that might be obscure or difficult for a reader:

10: “Who womankind at once both decks and staineth?”; i.e., she improves (“decks”) her gender and yet puts it to shame by the comparison of all other women to her.

14: “Who else for whom Fame worthy trumpets wanteth?”; i.e., even Fame itself is not up to the task of honoring her.

22:  “Who long dead beauty with increase reneweth?”; i.e., the “glory of Helen” or other ancient, supposedly matchless, beauty, is not only reborn, but actually improved in her. (Duncan-Jones’s note on this line is misleading.)

24: “Only to you all envy hopeless rueth”; slightly odd grammar here, but the general point seems to be that, while any beauty creates envy in the less beautiful, in her case, others despair even of their envy, as achieving her level is so hopeless.

26: “Who makes a man live, then glad when he dieth?”; i.e., she makes a man feel he is alive for the first time; the second half could be innocently interpreted as hyperbolically suggesting men are happy to die for her, but more immediate to the renaissance ear is the slang use of “die” for sexual intercourse (apparently stemming from the belief that each orgasm shortened one’s life a bit).

Next time (weekend of December 12): Sonnet 64
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 37

My mouth doth water, and my breast doth swell,
My tongue doth itch, my thoughts in labor be;
Listen then, lordings, with good ear to me,
For of my life I must a riddle tell.
Towards Aurora’s court a nymph doth dwell,
Rich in all beauties which man’s eye can see;
Beauties so far from reach of words, that we
Abase her praise, saying she doth excel;
Rich in the treasure of deserved renown;
Rich in the riches of a royal heart;
Rich in those gifts which give the eternal crown;
Who though most rich in these, and every part
Which make the patents of true worldly bliss,
Hath no misfortune, but that Rich she 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.

Reading note: In line 11, “the eternal” must be elided: “th’eternal.”

Like sonnets 24 and 35 (and possibly 9), this one makes a direct real-life connection to Penelope Devereux by punning on her married name, Rich. As I mentioned with the previous sonnet, the speaker is in a three-sonnet stretch of renewed passion and strong emotion. I don’t know if there’s a long tradition of telling riddles at such moments of emotion, and especially frustration, but there is a slightly later parallel in Middleton and Dekker’s 1611 play, The Roaring Girl, when the greedy father, Sir Alexander, who disapproves of his son’s chosen bride, begins a lengthy riddling tale to his peers this way:

Last day I met
An aged man, upon whose head was scored
A debt of just so many years as these
Which I owe to my grave: the man you all know.

When his friends ask for the “aged man’s” name, he responds:

Nay, you shall pardon me:
But when he saw me, with a sigh that brake,
Or seemed to break, his heart-strings, thus he spake:
O my good knight, says he (and then his eyes
Were richer even by that which made them poor,
They’d spent so many tears they had no more). . .

and goes on to tell the story of an aging father with a disobedient son, obviously using the riddle to describe himself in a state of high dudgeon.

The word “lordings” in line three suggests the speaker is talking with close friends, possibly the same group as those who are by turns critical or mystified by his infatuation in sonnets 14, 18, 20, 21, and 27. The word can be a mildly contemptuous diminutive, but can also simply demonstrate intimacy and mutual regard. The clause “my thoughts in labor be,” at the end of the second line, recalls the same metaphor near the end of Sonnet 1, but there the emphasis was on the frustrated hopefulness of labor, and here it is clearly on the pain.

Since the first quatrain serves as introduction to the riddle, the riddle itself has the somewhat unusual form of ten lines, divided 4-3-3. The first seven of these lines establish the presence of a “rich” nymph living toward the east (Aurora being Homer’s “rosy-fingered” goddess of dawn; I’ll assume Lord Rich’s home is to the east of Sidney’s until I can confirm that.)  She is chiefly rich, as Sidney’s readers are so often told, in “beauties,” and the quatrain dwells fully on that idea, with a hyperbole similar to those in sonnet 36: by seeking to praise Stella, we only (as Regan says of Goneril) “come too short,” in our mortal fallibility. Having established this chief way in which Stella is “rich” in four lines, the speaker now grabs the word itself and offers three other ways she is rich, in each line of the first tercet. These too are idealistic, carefully skirting the more obvious material sense of the word. They are, in turn, fame (“renown”), and greatness of “heart” and soul (that which aspires to “the eternal crown”).

So far the sonnet, despite the introduction of the hated married name, could take its place with others that are steadfast in their praise of Stella—but we haven’t really gotten to the enigmatic part of the riddle. The word “though” in line 12 tips us off that a change of direction is coming, and the word “but” in the bottom line confirms it. While being fortunate in every conceivable way (the word “patents” suggests unique models; i.e., Plato’s ideal forms), Stella’s one misfortune is to bear the name Rich; she has (of course) married the wrong man.

Next time (weekend of December 13): Sonnet 38
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 36

Stella, whence doth this new assault arise,
A conquered, yelden, ransacked heart to win?
Whereto long since through my long battered eyes,
Whole armies of thy beauties entered in;
And there, long since, Love, thy lieutenant lies;
My forces razed, thy banners raised within.
Of conquest, do not these effects suffice,
But wilt new war upon thine own begin?
With so sweet voice, and by sweet nature so,
In sweetest strength, so sweetly skilled withal,
In all sweet stratagems sweet art can show,
That not my soul, which at thy foot did fall,
Long since, forced by thy beams, but stone nor tree,
By sense’s privilege, can ‘scape from thee.

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.

It is tempting to read an autobiographical moment into the phrases “new assault” in the opening line and “new war” in line 8. Has there been a thaw?  Is Penelope Devereux suddenly showing renewed interest in Philip Sidney?  But there is nothing else in this or the surrounding sonnets to suggest that her behavior has changed in any way, so it makes more sense (insofar as we allow of autobiography at all) to see the phrases subjectively; i.e., that his passion for her seems to have come on with renewed force.

The conceit of the poem is the well-worn one of siege warfare, though it is perhaps a little more typical to picture the male as the besieging army (as in, for example, sonnets 12 and 29).  The male as the “occupied” territory recalls, in particular, Petrarch’s Sonnet 140 (“Amor, che nel penser . . .”) and the very familiar translations of it by Wyatt (“The Long Love”) and Surrey (“Love that Doth Reign”). The speaker’s heart has long since been surrendered (“yelden” is an archaic inflected form of “yielded”), having (in the courtly love tradition) been stormed through the eyes by “armies of thy beauties”—which does not mean a bevy of “Stella’s Angels,” of course, but rather the multiple ways in which she herself is beautiful.  In the second quatrain, the speaker makes the whining appeal that is central to the poem’s message: Why do you set about to re-conquer what you already own?

The sestet departs somewhat from the military conceit. True, it makes a connection by using the word “stratagems,” but these are now enumerated in very non-military language as Stella’s feminine beauty and, particularly her “sweetness”—in another antanaclasis (see previous post), the word is repeated six times in three lines!

The final tercet is one of those “Yes . . . and” bottom lines. It returns to the poem’s opening question—why this new assault?—and suggests it is hardly surprising that the speaker has been “conquered,” since even senseless things (“By sense’s privilege” is a very tight way of saying “by the fact that they are free of sense”) must come under her divine “beams” and her sway. The phrase “not my soul” needs to be understood as “not just my soul,” as well. There may be a sacrilegious echo here of Luke 19:40, where Jesus says during his triumphal entry to Jerusalem that even if his followers were silent, “the stones would shout out”—but let’s not go there.

Next time (weekend of November 29): Sonnet 37
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.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 24

Rich fools there be, whose base and filthy heart
Lies hatching still the goods wherein they flow,
And damning their own selves to Tantal’s smart,
Wealth breeding want, more blest, more wretched grow.
Yet to those fools heaven such wit doth impart,
As what their hands do hold, their heads do know,
And knowing, love, and loving, lay apart
As sacred things, far from all danger’s show.
But that rich fool, who by blind fortune’s lot
The richest gem of love and life enjoys,
And can with foul abuse such beauties blot,
Let him, deprived of sweet but unfelt joys,
Exiled for aye from those high treasures which
He knows not, grow in only folly rich!

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.

Insofar as Astrophil and Stella is a sort of roman à clef, this sonnet is one of the clefs, punning a little too obviously on the title of Lord Rich, the man to whom Penelope Devereux was married, presumably for his better financial prospects.

The first two lines appear to be a multiple mixed metaphor, only partially extenuated by the facts that “hearts” can “hatch” things such as ideas, and the sense of the verb “flow” here is “to be affluent in.” Nevertheless, the basic idea of the first quatrain is clear enough: for these “rich fools,” the heart is set only on getting still richer, which leads them (lines 3 and 4) to the fate of Tantalus, never being able to reach as much as they want, and thus growing more “wretched” even as they grow richer (“more blest”).

And yet (second quatrain) such fools can be capable of love, if only love of material things (presumably gems and such) which they hide away for themselves. This quatrain seems to point toward the idea that Lord Rich is keeping “Stella” (Penelope) away from the poet/speaker. But the sestet goes still another way: this particular “rich fool” (Lord Rich), who, “by blind fortune’s lot” (Dame Fortune was sometimes depicted as blindfolded while turning her randomizing wheel) has gotten the speaker’s girl, might be too stupid to know what sort of “gem” he has in his own possession, and that is the fate the speaker wishes for him (“Let him . . .”), so that he (Rich) will grow only in folly, not in love.

(What follows is my first reading:)

The pun on Lord Rich’s name, in addition to limiting the poem’s vocabulary, makes the personal nature of the sonnet a little too obvious, and the tightness of the logic or the conceit suffers as a result. Granted, the fate envisioned for the “rich fool” at the end of the poem relates reasonably well to the folly described in the first quatrain—a “heart” that can focus only on increasing wealth, and thus is doomed to frustration—but the path between the two is wandering and obscure. Sidney seems to want to explore a second possibility, that even a rich fool whose heart is set on wealth can recognize the value of a rare gem, and keep it in a safe place, and that such possessiveness could be a (presumably debased) form of love. This implies a frustration on the speaker’s (and Sidney’s) part that he is denied access to the woman he loves by a jealous husband.

But this implication is at least partly misleading, because the real point turns out to be an irony: even rich fools have enough sense to know when they have a gem, but Lord Rich is perhaps not even that smart. It’s a big “perhaps,” though. The second quatrain has already conceded the possibility that he does know, and therefore the final three lines express a wish, rather than a certainty. Reality is muddying the clear waters of poetry here.

(Now, on returning to the sonnet many months later, I am struck with the possibility that I, too, have missed the worth of the gem I have before me. Following my principle that poetry is written to make sense, let me try again:)

The sonnet is best understood by the “innocent” reader who does not realize that a person named Rich is Stella’s husband until reaching the end. The “Rich fools” named in the opening line and discussed in the octave are an entirely different, generic, set of people, first described by their folly (first quatrain), and then (second quatrain) by their one slightly redeeming bit of intelligence. If the speaker has been led to the topic by his rival’s name, he is, for this much of the poem, simply saying “If he is a typical rich fool, this is what he’s supposed to be like.”

It is only with the words “that rich fool” and the perfectly clear relative clause that describes him in lines 9-11, that we are talking specifically about Stella’s husband, and, as discussed above, he lacks even the slight redeeming grace of knowing the worth of what he’s got.

Next time (weekend of June 14): Sonnet 25

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 14

Alas, have I not pain enough, my friend,
Upon whose breast a fiercer gripe doth tire
Than did on him who first stole down the fire,
While Love on me doth all his quiver spend,
But with your rhubarb words you must contend
To grieve me worse, in saying that desire
Doth plunge my well-formed soul even in the mire
Of sinful thoughts, which do in ruin end?
If that be sin, which doth the manners frame,
Well stayed with truth in word, and faith of deed,
Ready of wit, and fearing nought but shame:
If that be sin which in fixed hearts doth breed
A loathing of all loose unchastity,
Then love is sin, and let me sinful be.

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.

Duncan-Jones says of this: “First of many sonnets showing Astrophil with an uncomprehending or disapproving friend; cf. 20, 21, 23, 27, 51, 88, 92, and 104.”  Again, Donne’s pugilistic “For God’s sake, hold thy tongue” comes to mind, but of that lengthy list, only 21 and 51 suggest such a direct confrontation as we have here—unless, when the speaker argues with “Reason” (e.g., 10 and 18), he has an actual person in mind as the voice of reason. The other sonnets in the list refer more generally to an uncomprehending circle of friends (no direct confrontation is pictured, and they are not necessarily disapproving) or, in the case of sonnet 92, to a friend who has seen Stella but, like Juliet’s nurse, is too balky in giving news about her.

The first quatrain is an “innie” (ABBA) that focuses on the speaker’s existing pain, independent of the new wrinkle of the friend’s interference. The love-pain is compared to (and deemed “fiercer” than) that of Prometheus, whose punishment for giving fire to mortals was to have his liver eaten out by a vulture daily, forever. The word chosen for vulture, “gripe,” is rich in additional meaning, starting with “clutch” or “grasp” (suggesting the clutches of Love), but also a severe inner-body pain, such as liver-pain (and we moderns need to remind ourselves that for Elizabethans the liver was the seat of the emotions; cf. “This wins him, liver and all” in Twelfth Night); and finally, to make a subtle link between the parallel annoyances in the two quatrains, a “gripe” is a covetous or envious person.

So he’s got this gut-wrenching pain already, and “Is that not enough?,” he suggests, “but [second quatrain] you have to add insult to injury?” “Rhubarb” is an appropriately ambiguous answer to “gripe,” since rhubarb was famous as a cure for liver illness, but also synonymous with bitterness (and modern readers can add a sense not known to Sidney, since “rhubarb words” can now mean “nonsense words,” such as those muttered by extras in a crowd scene). With such words the friend seems to be very much on the side of Virtue (sonnet 4) and Reason (sonnet 10), arguing that appetite (“desire”) can drag the speaker’s soul down into sin and damnation (“ruin”).

Each of the tercets in the sestet opens with an “If” argument, the first occupying all three lines, the second two, with the “then” answer to both coming in the final line. The gist of both “If” arguments is that the speaker’s love for Stella actually ennobles him in every way: (1) makes him a better gentleman, more truthful, faithful, wise, and discreet; and (2) (more to the point, but with pointed irony) in his single-minded devotion, makes him “[loathe] all loose unchastity.”  This is the key to the black-is-white, up-is-down argument that ends the poem.  The love he envisions with Stella is of course sinful by any conventional view, the very opposite of faithfulness, truth, and chastity. But by his reasoning, because Stella is the “fixed star” of his devotion, and he will give his love to no other, sin and virtue have switched places.

Next time (weekend of January 25): Sonnet 15

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 9

Queen Virtue’s court, which some call Stella’s face,
Prepared by Nature’s choicest furniture,
Hath his front built of alabaster pure;
Gold is the covering of that stately place.
The door, by which, sometimes, comes forth her grace,
Red porphyr is, which lock of pearl makes sure;
Whose porches rich (which name of ‘cheeks’ endure)
Marble, mixed red and white, do interlace.
The windows now, through which this heavenly guest
Looks o’er the world, and can find nothing such
Which dare claim from those lights the name of ‘best,’
Of touch they are, that without touch doth touch,
Which Cupid’s self, from Beauty’s mind did draw:
Of touch they are, and poor I am their straw.

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.

Another conceit poem, and one that eventually rings all the changes of Sidney’s wit and verbal dexterity.  Insofar as we can trust the clichés of Petrarchan love poetry—which, we know from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun . . .”), is not much—we get something of a physical description of Stella (in fact, a very abbreviated blazon,* starting with the hair and not reaching the chin) in the palace of Queen Virtue: golden hair (“covering”), alabaster forehead (“front”), fiery red lips (“door”), pearl teeth (“lock”), and damasked (“mixed red and white”) cheeks (“porches,” and these alone are explicitly identified, perhaps to make sure we have not missed the whole point of the conceit).

All of this is conventional flattery, but unconventionally, Stella’s distinctive eyes are black (“touch”=touchstone, a type of black basalt), and the entire sestet is devoted to a careful and clever analysis of them.

First, we have already been introduced, in line 1 and again in line 5, to this exalted personage “Queen Virtue,” who lives here. Line 5 tells us that “her grace” steps out the front door (i.e., passes through Stella’s lips) “sometimes.” “Sometimes” is hardly a romantic or poetic adverb, and it is a significant qualifier of all this flattery.  In the real world of the poet, “her grace” refers simply to any kind or encouraging words Stella might bestow on him.  Within the trope, “her grace” is an appropriate form of address for a royal personage, but on yet another level of meaning it suggests divinity.  Line 9 picks up on that hint with a reference to Queen Virtue as a “heavenly guest,” thus identifying her with the soul (a temporary visitor to mortal flesh), or with the soul’s alter ego, Reason.  And we know already (see earlier discussion of sonnets 4 and 10) that the speaker does not like to play on the same team as Reason.  Critical Virtue/Reason/Soul, looking out through the windows of the eyes (which, as we know, are paradoxically dark and bright), cannot find anyone qualified to be “best” in show.  This is a two-edged dig at Stella: first, simply that she is too aloof and will not acknowledge and return the speaker’s love; but also, if we assume she spends more of her time with the man to whom she is betrothed (Lord Rich, in the case of Penelope Devereux), that her eyes are not usually seeing the “best” man for her!

The sonnet wraps up with a flurry of fairly esoteric word-play.  The eyes are of touchstone, which, as the colloquial name implies, must definitely be touched in order to perform its function (testing the purity of precious metals).  But paradoxically, these touchstone eyes touch others (specifically, the speaker, in the second, emotional, sense of the verb touch) without allowing themselves to be touched (in either the physical or emotional sense).  Further, the touchstone was mined by no less a personage than Cupid himself (who, as miner, seems to be sinking ever lower on the social scale!**), from the highest Platonic place of ideal forms: the “mind” (a pun with “mine”) of Beauty; i.e., Beauty herself cannot imagine anything more perfect than Stella’s touchstone eyes.  But this perfect, aloof, spiritual, divine beauty has the decidedly imperfect effect of enflaming the speaker’s all too fleshly passions.  “Touch” is not only short for touchstone, but also for touchwood, the light kindling with which it is quite easy to start a fire—especially if what’s above it is made of nothing more substantial than straw.

* I feel conflicted about the spelling of this word. Some literature handbooks have used blason for the poetic device, to distinguish between that and the heraldic description which is the original sense of blazon. But the words have the same etymology, and common or dictionary usage makes no such distinction, so I’ll go along with that.

**See the footnote to the blog on Sonnet 8.

Next time (weekend of November 30): Sonnet 11 (Sonnet 10 covered already in earlier blog.)

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 2

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 2

Not at first sight, nor with a dribbed shot,
Love gave the wound which while I breathe will bleed;
But known worth did in mine of time proceed,
Till by degrees it had full conquest got.
I saw, and liked; I liked, but loved not;
I loved, but straight did not what love decreed;
At length to love’s decrees I, forced, agreed,
Yet with repining at so partial lot.
Now even that footstep of lost liberty
Is gone, and now like slave-born Muscovite
I call it praise to suffer tyranny;
And now employ the remnant of my wit
To make myself believe that all is well,
While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.

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, on the one hand, one of the simplest, commonest Petrarchan clichés—love  has forced me to take leave of my wits and reason, but what can I do?—and, on the other, so clever and witty as to run the risk of being downright obscure in its ambiguity.

Let’s start with what is most clear and accessible.  The sonnet’s idea is laid out in a 3-step outline, similar to the way Shakespeare makes a case in three quatrains, except in this Italian sonnet the third section fills the sestet, and is further subdivided 3-3, Sidney’s typical pattern (though, as discussed in my first post, with the “hybrid” couplet again evoking the Shakespearean pattern). The outline reads: 1. General description of the problem; 2. shifting to “I” as the repeated subject of active verbs, a specific and succinct summary of how the speaker got to where he is; and 3. Where he is “now,” subdivided (a) how he is characterized (a slave enamored of his own slavery); and (b) what he does about it (tries to rationalize).

Three of the most striking, yet accessible, devices in the poem:

First, the over-punctuation in the second quatrain (to be fair, some of it introduced by modern editing), forcing a halting rhythm that imitates a man being dragged into something against his will.  Notice, for example, breaks after each of the first three feet in line 5, and then, when the two-syllable “lovèd” starts to make a smoother (and more optimistic) two-foot phrase, it comes crashing to earth with “not.” Or the even more disruptive break in the middle of a would-be iambic foot in line 7: if (by contrast) “I forced” were a simple subject-verb phrase, the line would read simply dĕ crées Ĭ fórced, but in this case, with “forced” as a past-participial postnominal modifier, the break forces a virtual spondee, dĕ crées Í, fórced; reader and speaker are, in effect, both stopped in their tracks at the same time.

Second, the wonderfully quiet-but-dramatic transition from the end of the octave to the start of the sestet. In line 8 the speaker retains some shred of his dignity as he comes to the conclusion of the dragging process: “Yet with repining at so partial lot.”  Imagine here a man being locked in a cell, while still protesting his innocence to his jailer. But apparently, the jailer ignores him, clangs the bars shut, and stalks off down an echoing hallway. The next poignant thought is: “Now even that footstep of lost liberty is gone.” The prisoner is on his own to adjust to the terms of his imprisonment, and typically (like the stereotypical Russian under the Tsars) he will find a way to embrace it. The suddenly concrete image of a footstep following the entirely abstract description of lines 5-8 is poetry at its greatest.

Third, the humorous reference to the “remnant” of the speaker’s wit (line 12), when he has not yet explicitly mentioned losing his wit—an almost homespun joke, but also a clever and understated way to “double” the meaning contained within an otherwise merely functional lead-in to an idea.

So where is the difficulty and the obscurity? Lines 3 and 14. The problems are not closely related, and do not seriously undercut the simple pattern discussed above, so I will just discuss them in isolation:

Line 3: The subject phrase “known worth” is itself a bit of a pauser, and may require the footnote information that this is an autobiographical reference to the fact that Sidney knew a great deal about Penelope Devereux before he considered her a love interest, but even without that knowledge, the phrase is a reasonably clear opposite to love at “first sight” or the “dribbed” (i.e., mistaken or misfired) shot of Cupid’s arrow mentioned in line 1. But the real puzzler is the adverbial phrase in the middle of the verb phrase, “in mine of time.” The first instinct, given all the self-preoccupation here, might be to think “mine” is the possessive meaning “my wound,” as in: “Love breaks some hearts, but has utterly smashed mine.”  But that instinct can be quickly dismissed: looking backward, the “wound” in line 2 was already “mine,” so saying “mine” in a “But” clause would be clumsy; and looking forward, the wound is certainly not the object of “had full conquest got”;  the speaker is, and indeed the wound is the instrument of the speaker’s defeat. The word “conquest,” in fact, is the key clue here. Conquest of a fortified city was as likely to be attempted by “mining” (= tunneling under the wall, hence our modern abstract term “undermining”) as by direct assault, though the latter was certainly more honorable and more likely to be admired. This is part of the point for the dashing soldier Sidney: Love has, in effect, gotten to him by “underhanded,” sneaky means, when he wasn’t properly armed against it.  So the “in mine” part of the phrase has nothing to do with a possessive, but refers to the method by which Love has used “known worth” to gain the “conquest.”  But that still leaves the seemingly simple phrase “of time,” which to me is just as hard to sort out.  Is it connected to “proceed,” meaning something as simple as “in time proceed”? If so, why not say “in time proceed,” since the meter is the same and “of time” is not idiomatic for “in time”?  Is it, alternatively, connected to “mine,” so that time is the entity that is actually being mined? That, too, does not make sense, since time is surely a “winner” not a “loser” in the construction that follows.  So let’s try this: it’s connected to “mine,” but the “of” indicates ownership, so mining is Time’s instrument for furthering the cause of Love; now that makes more sense, does it not?  But it is hardly an intuitive reading!

Line 14: The general sense of the final couplet is a paradox similar to Shakespeare’s “I do believe her though I know she lies,” only here the idea is “I do believe me though I know I’m crazy.”  The somewhat hard part is the apparent paradox-within-a-paradox of “While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.”  I think it is safe to say that “feeling skill” is an oxymoron, reflecting the same clash between passion and personal control that is a running theme of the whole sonnet sequence. But what, exactly, is the speaker doing with his passion-affected intellect?; what does it mean to “paint my hell”? There are at least two distinct possibilities, and in this case I think we do well to accept both, and thus enrich the poem’s meaning through ambiguity; as Benedick says, “There’s a double meaning in that!” Duncan-Jones’s endnote opts for Hamlet’s understanding of “paint” as giving “a false colouring or complexion to,” or in the crude American political vernacular, “putting lipstick on a pig.” So in that sense, the speaker admits to using optimistic descriptions of a love relationship to “pretty up” what is really a hellish state he has gotten into. It could similarly be said that line 5 of Sonnet 1, “I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe” refers to putting false make-up on an ugly face (blackness being equated with ugliness in Renaissance-speak). But just as clearly, that line occurs in the midst of a description of the struggle to create art, so it carries the ambiguity of “paint” as “create art.” The verb is used in this sense in several other sonnets (70, 81, 93, 98), unambiguously so in 81 (for example), where the speaker seeks to “paint” poetically a kiss he has received from Stella. So, the “simple” end of what is already a complex idea—“I am deluding myself and putting a false front on a hellish situation”—is given still more complexity, depth, and meaning with the layered suggestions (extending Sonnet 1’s role as “preface” to a lengthy sonnet sequence) that (1) the hellish situation is about to be turned into a work of art; and (2) (as Marlowe, Milton, and other writers have variously affirmed), “hell” is a place between a pair of human ears, and the “hell” the speaker has described himself as being reluctantly dragged into is in fact a hell of his own making.

Next time (weekend of August 24): Sonnet 3

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