Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 92 and Tenth Song

Be your words made, good sir, of Indian ware,
That you allow me them by so small rate?
Or do you cutted Spartans imitate?
Or do you mean my tender ears to spare
That to my questions you so total are?
When I demand of Phoenix Stella’s state,
You say, forsooth, you left her well of late:
O God, think you that satisfies my care?
I would know whether she did sit or walk;
How clothed, how waited on? Sighed she or smiled?
Whereof, with whom, how often did she talk?
With what pastime time’s journey she beguiled?
If her lips deigned to sweeten my poor name?
Say all, and all well said, still say the same.

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 pictures one of Shakespeare’s favorite comic devices, the uncommunicative messenger, such as Biondello in Taming of the Shrew 3.2 or the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet 2.4. The speaker is receiving news of the absent Stella, and the messenger is far from satisfactory, though the sonnet suggests that (like Rosalind with the messenger Celia in As You Like It 3.2) it is the speaker’s own impatience that prevents the tale from being told. This is indicated structurally at the end of the first quatrain, where we might logically expect a pause for reply, and instead we have the quite unusual running on of the idea through line 5. “Indian ware” is extremely rare and pricey, while “cutted Spartans” are a nation known for their terseness in speech. And the messenger being “total” is (contrary to how it may sound) his being extremely brief.

I am stumped as to why the speaker should call the messenger “Phoenix”—and Duncan-Jones offers no explanatory note either. It seems the riddling Sphinx might be more what he had in mind, or perhaps Phoebus Apollo, whose oracle famously gave misinterpreted messages. Donne mentions the “Phoenix riddle,” but he presumably means a paradox rather than “riddle” in the usual sense of withheld information. Can my readers shed any light on this?

In any case, the messenger is guilty of giving the sort of bland report we might expect from any objective observer: he “left her well of late.” But the speaker hardly wants an objective observer; he wants, in effect, a second self in Stella’s presence (like the “thought” he sends to visit her in the song following), studying her in minute, obsessive detail. But beyond that, as he lets slip in line 13, he wants the news to be all “good news” for his romantic quest. Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra in the marvelous comic scenes where she learns of Antony’s marriage (2.5 and 3.3), the speaker will entertain the messenger graciously, and listen all day, if all is “well said”—but not if otherwise.

Tenth Song

O dear life, when shall it be
That mine eyes thine eyes may see,
And in them thy mind discover,
Whether absence have had force
Thy remembrance to divorce
From the image of thy lover?

Or if I myself find not,
After parting, aught forgot,
Nor debarred from beauty’s treasure,
Let no tongue aspire to tell,
In what high joys I shall dwell;
Only thought aims at the pleasure.

Thought, therefore, I will send thee
To take up the place for me;
Long I will not after tarry.
There unseen thou may’st be bold
Those fair wonders to behold
Which in them my hopes do carry.

Thought, see thou no place forbear,
Enter bravely everywhere,
Seize on all to her belonging;
But if thou wouldst guarded be,
Fearing her beams, take with thee
Strength of liking, rage of longing.

Think of that most grateful time
When my leaping heart will climb
In her lips to have his biding:
There those roses for to kiss,
Which do breath a sugared bliss,
Opening rubies, pearls dividing.

Think of my most princely power,
When I blessed shall devour
With my greedy lickerous senses
Beauty, music, sweetness, love,
While she doth against me prove
Her strong darts but weak defenses.

Think, think of those dallyings,
When with dove-like murmurings,
With glad moaning passed anguish,
We change eyes, and heart for heart,
Each to other do impart,
Joying till joy make us languish.

O my thought, my thoughts surcease;
Thy delights my woes increase,
My life melts with too much thinking.
Think no more, but die in me,
Till thou shalt revived be
At her lips my nectar drinking.

Reading notes: in the sixth stanza, “power” in the first line is one syllable, and “lickerous” in the third line is elided to two; “passed” in the third line of the seventh stanza has two syllables, and “revived” in the song’s penultimate line has three.

Another of Sidney’s metrically complicated songs. I refer you to my earlier discussions at the Fourth Song (after Sonnet 85) and the Eighth Song (after Sonnet 86), both of which have the irregular seven syllables in most of their lines. Because, like the Eighth Song, each stanza has a feminine rhyme (in this case the “B” rhyme in an AABCCB structure) we might expect to settle into a trochaic rhythm, but some lines seem naturally iambic (e.g., line 2 is more naturally That  + mine eyes/ thine eyes/ may see, than That mine/ eyes thine/ eyes may + see), while others, especially the “B” lines, may be read as four troches or (in those with seven syllables) three troches plus an extra syllable.

The real concern about Stella’s long absence is revealed in the song’s first stanza: the speaker has absolutely no idea whether she misses him, thinks about him at all, or has completely forgotten him. On the other hand, says stanza 2, if it turns out she still thinks favorably of him, he will dwell in “high joys.”

But he can carry on this conversation only in thought, so, at the start of the third stanza, he sends “Thought” as his emissary to Stella, promising to follow quickly in person. And the rest of the stanzas all start with reference to “Thought” as a personification, or the process of thinking. Thought can “enter bravely” places the speaker himself would not dare go. The “liking” and “longing” that put him on thin ice with Stella can actually work to fortify Thought.

So, in stanzas 5-7, the speaker’s thinking carries him through the fantasizing of a sexual encounter, from a kiss to the arousing of “lickerous (i.e., lecherous) senses,” to the “glad moaning” and subsequent “joy [that makes] us languish.”

But just as Orlando can “no longer live by thinking” near the end of As You Like It, our speaker more elegantly concludes “My life melts with too much thinking,” hinting at the weakness of melancholy (as it was termed then) or depression (as we call it now). A man of action can not lose himself in thought (as Hamlet most notably discovers), so the speaker kills off the thinking, and resolves to reach his romantic goal.

Next time (weekend of January 22): Sonnet 93
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 8

Love, born in Greece, of late fled from his native place,
Forced by a tedious proof that Turkish hardened heart
Is no fit mark to pierce with his fine pointed dart;
And, pleased with our soft peace, stayed here his flying race.
But, finding these north climes too coldly him embrace,
Not used to frozen clips, he strave to find some part
Where with most ease and warmth he might employ his art.
At length he perched himself in Stella’s joyful face,
Whose fair skin, beamy eyes, like morning sun on snow,
Deceived the quaking boy, who thought, from so pure light
Effects of lively heat must needs in nature grow:
But she, most fair, most cold, made him thence take his flight
To my close heart; where, while some firebrands he did lay,
He burnt unwares his wings, and cannot fly away.

I suggest you click here to open the sonnet in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to it as you read on through the analysis.

The hexameters here reflect the “transfer” of a Greek figure (various ancient Greek poets wrote in hexameters) to an alien clime.  This poem makes quite a complex conceit from that fairly simple idea, and also makes explicit for the first time in the sequence its central tragic fact: that Stella is “cold” to the speaker’s love.

The poem’s conceit is that Greece, having lately fallen under control of the Ottoman Empire, is no longer hospitable to the god of love, Eros (Cupid, to Sidney, and often simply called “Love” in Renaissance verse), whose arrows can no longer pierce the Turk-hardened hearts. The word “proof” in the second line is the word we use in “fire-proof” or that Romeo uses when he says he is “proof” against his enemies if he is armed merely be Juliet’s smiles. And the word “heart” there is the first of two puns on that word (or even three, if you want to press the case that Cupid in line 7 was also employing his “heart” (“art”) when he sought out Stella, so that his own case is parallel to the speaker’s), since the hart (deer) was the most common game animal for gentlemen hunters.

So Cupid has relocated to England, a more peaceful place—but also a chilly climate for a Greek who doesn’t wear much! Sidney is again foreshadowing the metaphysical rhetoric of John Donne, in which a seemingly trivial detail of one trope opens up a whole new idea of even greater interest than the last (think of moth to a flame–>phoenix–>”die and rise again”–>canonization).  Here the (seemingly trivial) cold climate drives Cupid to seek warmth in Stella’s “beamy eyes” (those eyes again!), but alas they turn out to be “like morning sun on snow”—i.e., all bright light and no heat. For the first time in the sonnet sequence, the essential Stella is described: “most fair, most cold.”  This coldness is, from her perspective, her “virtue” or the dictate of Reason, while, from the speaker’s perspective, it is both ingratitude and folly—and of course (with just a few happy interruptions) constantly frustrating.

I should pause to point out a metrical rarity: you can almost count on one hand (there are six) the sonnets in A & S that do not have a strong stop after the eighth line, and this is one (the others being 79, 86, 89, 98, and 108). The effect is a “clipped” stay—lines 5-7, rather than the whole quatrain—in the cold (the word “clips” in line 6 has multiple meanings; the most direct is “hugs,” referring back to “embrace,” but in context it also evokes clips that might be on Cupid’s hunting weapons or on his tunic, or the blow of cold winds) and an elongated one—lines 8-11—in the promised heat of Stella’s eyes. Lines 5-11, almost always in Sidney divided 4-3, are here divided 3-4 by punctuation, despite the rhyme.

But we are back on familiar ground with a strong break and a fulcrum after the eleventh line. That line (content-wise) brings us to what we might have expected was the “end” of any previous sonnet in the sequence, and the end of Cupid’s journey: yes, of course, Love comes to reside in Stella’s beautiful face, as who wouldn’t?

But the fulcrum is a “but” (as fulcrums so often are; sonnets tend to turn on their buts), and in the remaining three lines we get yet another twist in Cupid’s strange eventful history: naturally he finds a more receptive place in the heart* of the speaker, but in laying on the fire there, he accidentally (like a “fly” with a “taper,” as Donne might say) burns his wings, and thus has to settle in permanently.  The “trembling voice” that undercut the speaker’s bold, blunt words in the last line of Sonnet 6 has now been fully embodied in that most pathetic of figures: the Petrarchan lover whose unremitting love is also unrequited.

* The word-play in and around the simple phrase “close heart” is so delicious I need extra space to talk about it. At the simplest level, his heart is “close” because it is always with Stella, but “close” (=closet) also means a small sitting room, and “heart” is clearly intended to suggest “hearth.”  Thus we are set up for the final image of Cupid clumsily piling logs on a fire.  But how the mighty have fallen, from the heart-pun in the second line to the heart-pun in the second-to-last line!  In the former he was a lord hunting in his own deer-park, perhaps; in the latter he is an unattended shivering boy in a small, cold room, trying to get a fire going.  Stella has reduced him too.

Next time (weekend of November 16): Sonnet 9

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