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 98

Ah bed, the field where joy’s peace some do see,
The field where all my thoughts to war be trained,
How is thy grace by my strange fortune stained!
How thy lee shores by my sighs stormed be!
With sweet soft shades thou oft invitest me
To steal some rest; but, wretch, I am constrained
(Spurr’d with love’s spur, though galled and shortly reined
With care’s hard hand) to turn and toss in thee,
While the black horrors of the silent night
Paint woe’s black face so lively to my sight,
That tedious leisure marks each wrinkled line.
But when Aurora leads out Phoebus’ dance,
Mine eyes then only wink, for spite perchance,
That worms should have their sun, and I want mine.

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: “stormed” in line 4 has two syllables; and since “sighs” is almost impossible to read as an unstressed syllable (especially given the rhyme with “my”), the sound here imitates the sense of a buffeting storm, with three straight strong syllables, “my sighs storm-.”

This poem should be compared to Sonnet 39, which it almost echoes. The first line of 39, for example:

Come sleep, O sleep, the certain knot of peace,

comes easily to mind as we read:

Ah bed, the field where joy’s peace some do see . . .

Both poems discuss war and peace, and speak of sleep as the natural refuge of peace. But what a falling off is here! To read the two poems side-by-side is to go from hope to despair, from the speaker’s idealized vision of a future with Stella—when he could entice sleep with a promise that “Stella’s image” would appear there—to the dark tormented thoughts he has been discussing for the past two sonnets.

The hypnotic opening line of Sonnet 39 (quoted above) is developed for a full, leisurely quatrain, adding five parallel phrases to “the certain knot of peace” (“The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe,” etc.). But here, after the word “field” is repeated, the poem turns right away in the opposite direction, stressing that the speaker has got things backwards, and thus is “staining” sleep, or giving it a bad name. The normal “lee shores” of sleep—i.e., the sheltered shores, facing away from the bad weather—are being unaccustomedly buffeted by the speaker’s misery. Like a horse with an incompetent rider, his love spurs him on and “galls,” or checks, him at the same time.

Notice the poetic illustration of “turn and toss” (line 8): the moment where an Italian sonnet customarily comes to rest is right after “in thee” at the end of this line. But this one keeps churning on for another three lines, a “sound” imitation of the “sense” of one being kept up well past one’s bedtime.

The fulcrum comes at the start of line 12, and the fairly pathetic twist on the poem’s main idea is that at dawn (“when Aurora leads out Phoebus’ dance”) he finally nods off (“eyes . . . wink”) as if to spite the whole rest of the natural world—down to even the lowly worms—which welcomes the “sun” (think: son) he cannot have.

Next time (weekend of April 15): Sonnet 99
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 97

Dian, that fain would cheer her friend the night,
Shows her oft at the full her fairest race,
Bringing with her those starry nymphs, whose chase
From heavenly standing hits each mortal wight.
But ah, poor night, in love with Phoebus’ light,
And endlessly despairing of his grace,
Herself (to show no other joy hath place)
Silent and sad, in mourning weeds doth dight:
Even so, alas, a lady, Dian’s peer,
With choice delights and rarest company
Would fain drive clouds from out my heavy cheer.
But woe is me, though joy itself were she,
She could not show my blind brain ways of joy,
While I despair my sun’s sight to enjoy.

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” at the start of line 9 is elided to one syllable.
The last two words of line 3 plus line 4 is a particularly obscure passage. It helps to remember that Diana, goddess of the moon, is a famed huntress, and the “chase” is the groove or furrow of the crossbow, from which the arrows are fired. We also need to remember that these sonnets have often mentioned Stella’s (the “star”) flashing eyes as projectiles which strike the speaker; this suggests the subject of the relative pronoun “whose” is not the nymphs (as we would expect from position) but rather Diana. So the somewhat complicated sense of the passage is that Diana is using the “starry nymphs” as arrows, with which from on high she “hits” every man (“each mortal wight”). This of course parallels the way in which Stella’s flashing eyes subdue every man who sets eyes on her.

This is the second of four “bedtime” sonnets, with the nighttime setting also becoming the subject. Diana, goddess of the moon, has a natural association with Stella, not only for her celestial light, but also (less pleasant for the speaker) her famed chastity.  And both the previous sonnet and the sestet of this one make clear that Diana’s “friend the night” is to be associated or at least paralleled with the speaker, despite the feminine pronoun at the start of line 7. We know from earlier sonnets that Stella frequently offers friendly and well-intended counsel to the speaker, but her calls to reason run counter to the passions she inspires. That is the essential background for the tale told here, though this one has some differences.

In the first quatrain, Diana (“Dian”) tries to cheer “her friend the night” by often showing herself fully (i.e. being a full moon or perhaps any stages close to that). But (says the second quatrain) the night has a hopeless and even paradoxical love for the light of the sun (“Phoebus” is Phoebus Apollo, god of the sun), and so dresses constantly in dark clothing (“mourning weeds”) and is “silent and sad” (i.e., melancholic).

To this point the story makes little sense, to be honest. In what mythical structure would night be in love with the sun, and take no comfort from the moon? That seems entirely backwards. But like some parables that make little sense internally, once we hear what the “real-world” parallels are, it all falls into place. And the sestet of this sonnet makes those connections fairly explicit: Stella (“a lady, Dian’s peer”) is both the moon and, potentially, the speaker’s “star” and “sun” (not to mention would-be mother of the speaker’s son, as that pun is repeated from the previous sonnet). She is always a perfectly good friend, and tries to cheer him “with choice delights and rarest company,” but he cannot be content with reflected light; the star must be his own.

Next time (weekend of April 1): Sonnet 98
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 25

The wisest scholar of the wight most wise,
By Phoebus’ doom, with sugared sentence says,
That virtue, if it once met with our eyes,
Strange flames of love it in our souls would raise;
But for that man with pain his truth descries,
While he each thing in sense’s balance weighs,
And so nor will, nor can, behold those skies
Which inward sun to heroic mind displays:
Virtue of late, with virtuous care to stir
Love of herself, takes Stella’s shape, that she
To mortal eyes might sweetly shine in her.
It is most true, for since I her did see,
Virtue’s great beauty in that face I prove,
And find the effect, for I do burn in 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:  the third and fourth feet of the eighth line require elision, and I think the best course is to join the word “to” with the first syllable of “heroic”; and similarly, the second foot of the final line is an elided “th’effect.”

Structurally, the entire poem has “outie” (ABAB) rhymes and weak fulcrums (primarily after line 11, secondarily after line 8) with no real change of direction in the argument; the (quite deliberate) result is something that roughly parallels a dialogue of Plato, moving inexorably toward a logical conclusion. This impression is of course undercut by the humor and irony of the poem’s “punch line.”

As Duncan-Jones’s note on the poem details, the first line refers to Plato, the “scholar” of Socrates, the wisest man (“wight”) in the view of the Delphic Oracle, i.e., the priestess of Phoebus Apollo (who, by the way, is god of both the sun and wisdom).  Lines 3 and 4 (gently mocked as “sugared sentence”) express the well-known Platonic idea from The Apology,* that the soul is drawn toward its own good by falling in love with virtue, when drawn to it by its beauty.

The second quatrain is a generalization about “mankind” (“his truth” could arguably refer back to Plato, but on reflection, it makes more sense that it refers to the generic “man” earlier in line 5) which obviously applies to the speaker himself: since “sense” (= appetite, or the life of the senses) filters everything, it is very difficult (“pain”) to get at the soul’s “truth,” or the “skies/Which inward sun [the soul, connected back to Apollo by this metaphor] to heroic mind [i.e., the mind that can overrule “sense”] displays.”

That whole idea, in turn, is contained within a “because” clause (introduced by “for that,” which idiomatically means “because”), which is answered in the first half of the sestet; thus, to paraphrase: Because an ordinary man (like the speaker) has trouble grasping wisdom or virtue, Virtue herself (personified) tries to take more visible form by assuming “Stella’s shape.”  As a result, Plato’s point is proved, but only in a joking way. We know already (from previous sonnets) that Stella’s virtue is not at all a quality the speaker admires, and the well-chosen verb “burn in love” (also linked in jest to the earlier sun imagery) is the very opposite of the Platonic wisdom it is superficially claiming to illustrate.

* Duncan-Jones suggests that Sidney may actually have received the idea second-hand, from Cicero.

Next time (weekend of June 28): Sonnet 26

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 13

Phoebus was judge between Jove, Mars, and Love,
Of those three gods, whose arms the fairest were:
Jove’s golden shield did eagle sables bear,
Whose talons held young Ganymede above:
But in vert field Mars bare a golden spear,
Which through a bleeding heart his point did shove.
Each had his crest: Mars carried Venus’ glove,
Jove on his helm the thunderbolt did rear.
Cupid then smiles, for on his crest there lies
Stella’s fair hair, her face he makes his shield,
Where roses gules are borne in silver field.
Phoebus drew wide the curtains of the skies
To blaze these last, and sware devoutly then,
The first, thus matched, were scarcely gentlemen.

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.

Sonnet 13 is a lesson in Elizabethan heraldry. . .

But before I get to that, let me point out something I did not notice right away, which is that the rhyme scheme of this poem is absolutely unique among the Astrophil and Stella sonnets. Initially I had counted its octave among Sidney’s most common ABBAABBA set. When I needed an illustration of that pattern for a talk I was giving, I pulled this sonnet out almost randomly, and then of course was forced to take a closer look: ABBA . . . BAAB. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and in a rush of self-doubt quickly flipped through all the other sonnets opening ABBA—and not a single one had this second-quatrain flip-flop; only this one.*  Is it just an accident? I can’t rule that out, but carelessness in form is hardly a Sidney trait. Notice that this octave opens with a two-line premise, and closes with a two-line comparison of the crests of Mars and Jupiter (“Jove”). In between are two parallel two-line statements—one for each god—and the unique rhyme-scheme reversal makes these more precisely parallel, the first line being a general description ending in rhyme B:

Jove’s golden shield did eagle sables bear,
But in vert field Mars bare a golden spear,

while the second line is a relative clause adding an active detail and ending in rhyme A:

Whose talons held young Ganymede above:
Which through a bleeding heart his point did shove:

One might reasonably ask why, if this is so carefully structured, he never found opportunity to do this again—but I think it is deliberate.

So, what about the heraldry lesson? The little fable here is that Phoebus Apollo (god of wisdom and enlightenment) has been called on to judge the “arms”—i.e., coats of arms, the symbols of gentility or higher—of the three other gods named. There is an obvious echo here of Paris judging the relative beauty of three goddesses, but thankfully no war hangs on the outcome!

In an Italian sonnet (somewhat as in a joke that begins “three guys walked into a bar”), if the octave is entirely devoted to two of a threesome, we already know that the third will be the “winner.” The curious thing here is that there is an additional tip-off in the coats-of-arms of Jove and Mars: of all the exploits that might have been featured there, both have chosen moments when they have gotten giddy in love—as if paying homage to their opponent before the contest has even begun! On the shields, in the characteristic jargon of heraldry, Jove has a black (“sables”) eagle on a gold field, holding the boy Ganymede with whom Jove was so smitten that he adopted the eagle disguise to kidnap him; Jove’s crest (the device above the shield, originally the plumage or other decoration atop a Knight’s helmet), however, is the more predictable and assertive thunderbolt. Mars, conversely, has a more ambiguous shield depicting a golden spear through a bleeding heart on a green (“vert”) field, but almost comically undercut by the glove of Venus on his crest, at least hinting at the possibility that the pierced heart is actually his own! Carrying the glove of a mistress into battle is a courtly love cliché, but the notion of Venus even wearing gloves seems a bit ridiculous to contemplate.

The contest is no longer in suspense; the sestet opens with the simple statement of the inevitable outcome: “Cupid then smiles.” His coat of arms is simply Stella herself, her hair the crest and her face the shield, described heraldically as “roses gules [red] borne in silver field.”  This is the clincher, so announced by Apollo in the final tercet, where he “blazes” the winner across the skies—a multiple pun. On the simple level, he is (as sun-god) lighting up the sky with the image of Stella. But “blaze” is also what one does when one describes a coat-of-arms with all those funny French words, and such a description is called a blazon, from whence was borrowed the poetic term for a catalog of a lady’s beautiful features. Such a blazon (in miniature) is what the blazon of Cupid’s arms turned out to be.

There is one final put-down for the losing competitors, a sort of chain-of-being trope. It is of course ludicrous, to begin with, that gods would try to prove their worthiness with this form of human vanity, but in this case Jove and Mars have been so badly outclassed that they are “scarcely gentlemen”; i.e., they barely qualify to have coats-of-arms at all!

*Six of the ABAB sonnets, however, flip the second quatrain to give the palindromic ABABBABA.  I have not yet checked Sidney’s sonnets outside A and S for the ABBABAAB pattern. I invite readers to find one, or else we shall conclude Sonnet 13 is unique in his works.

Next time (weekend of January 11): Sonnet 14

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