Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 100

O tears, no tears, but rain from beauty’s skies,
Making those lilies and those roses grow,
Which aye most fair, now more than most fair show,
While graceful pity beauty beautifies:
O honeyed sighs, which from that breast do rise,
Whose pants do make unspilling cream to flow,
Winged with whose breath, so pleasing zephyrs blow,
As can refresh the hell where my soul fries:
O plaints, conserved in such a sugared phrase
That eloquence itself envies your praise,
While sobbed-out words a perfect music give:
Such tears, sighs, plaints, no sorrow is but joy;
Or if such heavenly signs must prove annoy,
All mirth farewell, let me in sorrow live.

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 focus shifts abruptly to Stella, in what Shakespeare’s Rosalind would call a “more coming-on disposition”—or at least in visible sorrow at the plight that separates her from the speaker’s love. Her tears, sighs, and plaints (subjects of first quatrain, second quatrain, and first half of sestet, respectively) are all hyperbolized, and imagined as promising signs of her hidden love.

The first quatrain manages a “super-superlative” in three of its four lines (1,3, and 4). The tears are more than tears, a “rain” from Plato’s realm of “beauty” watering the red and white flowers of Stella’s cheeks. Those flowers are always (“aye”) “most fair,” but now (in defiance of the meaning of “most”) become “more than most fair,” and in a typical Sidney antanaclasis, this show of “pity” by a “beauty” makes beauty still more beautiful.

Though we move on from super-superlatives, the conceit of the second quatrain is even more over the top. Sighs, of course, rise from the lungs, which means from the “breast” of a beautiful woman. Thus they represent both “cream” and such cool breezes (“so pleasing zephyrs”) that the speaker is “refresh[ed].” But wait—let me state that as extremely as I can: the speaker’s “soul” which “fries” in “hell” is refreshed. This may be over the top, but it is also the crux of the poem. The previous sonnets have made clear how tormented the speaker’s thoughts are, and a small indication of sympathy or pity from Stella can go a long way in relief.

Lines 9-11 return to a more conventional hyperbole in covering the “plaints,” i.e., the actual words Stella uses to express sympathy. These are eloquent beyond eloquence, and (again evoking Platonic ideals) “perfect music.”

The final tercet is, predictably, a summing up and a mild paradoxical twist. Such clear signs of sorrow on Stella’s part bring joy to the speaker; OR, if they must be regarded negatively (“prove annoy”), then the speaker will foreswear “all mirth” to bask in such sorrow.

Next time (weekend of May 13): Sonnet 101
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 91

Stella, while now by honour’s cruel might,
I am from you, light of my life, misled,
And that fair you, my sun, thus overspread
With absence’ veil, I live in sorrow’s night;
If this dark place yet show, like candle light
Some beauty’s piece, as amber-coloured head,
Milk hands, rose cheeks, or lips more sweet, more red,
Or seeing jets, black, but in blackness bright;
They please, I do confess, they please mine eyes.
But why? Because of you they models be,
Models such be wood globes of glistering skies.
Dear, therefore be not jealous over me;
If you hear that they seem my heart to move,
Not them, O no, but you in them I 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 note: “glistering” in line 11 is elided to two syllables.

This sonnet resumes the “absence” theme that began in Sonnet 87, and the opening quatrain indicates that “honour” is to blame—presumably either some diplomatic or military assignment for Philip Sidney, or simply Stella’s “honour” as a married woman, necessitating distance. As usual, Stella is associated with light for her worshipper, and thus her absence with “sorrow’s night.”

The second quatrain is a mini-blazon (head, hands, cheeks, lips, eyes) albeit indirectly applied to Stella herself. The hypothetical condition (the “If . . .”) is that her features would somehow be replicated by another or others in her absence (hinting at the heresy that other women might share Stella’s beauty) and thus draw the speaker’s eye. This dangerous situation for a would-be faithful lover is freely confessed in line 9: “They please, I do confess, they please mine eyes.” And as we would expect, the man who has made this confession needs to start paddling furiously to stay afloat. The rest of the first half of the sestet (in Sidney’s customary two-tercet division) uses the conventional Renaissance shadow/substance dichotomy, in which—following Plato’s concept of ideal forms—lesser entities are seen as shadows or “models” of the real thing. The other attractive women are seen as wooden “globes”—not the more familiar models of the earth, but a sort of spherical planetarium model of the skies,* while Stella’s star quality is the real thing.

The final tercet makes a direct appeal to Stella to be understanding and forgiving if she hears rumors of a roving eye. The rumors presumably have some basis in reality—suggesting the long-frustrated speaker might be hedging his bets—but he somewhat lamely pleads that this is yet another sign of his devotion to her.

* The meaning of “globe” as a spherical map of the world did not come into common use until the seventeenth century, though the object itself existed earlier; indeed, both types of “globe” are well illustrated in Hans Holbein’s famous 1553 painting “The Ambassadors,” which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Next time (weekend of January 8): Sonnet 92
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

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 81

O kiss, which dost those ruddy gems impart,
Or gems, or fruits of new-found Paradise,
Breathing all bliss, and sweetening to the heart,
Teaching dumb lips a nobler exercise;
O kiss, which souls, even souls, together ties
By links of love, and only nature’s art:
How fain would I paint thee to all men’s eyes,
Or of thy gifts at least shade out some part.
But she forbids; with blushing words, she says
She builds her fame on higher-seated praise;
But my heart burns, I cannot silent be.
Then since (dear life) you fain would have me peace,
And I, mad with delight, want wit to cease,
Stop you my mouth with still, still kissing me.

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.

Like Sonnet 79, this one begins as an apostrophe to a kiss, the topic that has preoccupied our poet for a while. As if to compensate for the structural departure in 79, this one has rock-solid conventional Italian sonnet structure, with a full stop after line 8, and the pivotal “But” to start line 9.*

Furthermore, Sidney’s own favorite two-part sestet form receives special emphasis, with two carefully paralleled three-line sentences, rhymed CCD EED. In the first, the “camera” is on Stella for two lines, and then shifts to the speaker for the third; in the second, it stays on the speaker for two lines, and then shifts back to Stella. The CC and EE couplets are linked by consonance in the rhymes, and a But/Then contrast between what Stella does do and what the speaker would like her to do. And in the two “D” lines, “heart” and “mouth” are antitheses, while the subject of silence occupies the final three feet of each line.

Assuming a similar parallelism in the two quatrains of the octave is instructive. While the “nobler exercise” taught by the kiss might remain vague in isolation, it becomes clear from lines 7-8 that it refers to the artistic challenge of capturing Stella’s “gifts” in poetry. The painting metaphor here is the same as in Sonnets 1 and 2 (and see also Sonnets 70, 93, and 98); to “shade out” is a step beyond sketching out, so the point is he would like to “paint” her, or “at least” capture her essence in the shaded sketch. The octave also employs auxesis in building a process that looks back to Plato and forward to Wordsworth, in which the external encounter with beauty triggers a sympathetic reaction (“all bliss and sweetening”) in the heart, leading in turn to poetic inspiration and the sharing of beauty with “all men.”

But. The speaker has taken his best shot at idealizing the outcome of an illicit kiss, but the big “But” at the poem’s swivel point announces that the virtuous Stella is having none of it. “She builds her fame in higher-seated praise” implies that it is the virtuous soul, not the gorgeous flesh, that she would like to be remembered for. The conflict between her aspirations and his is familiar to all readers of the whole sequence.

So, thwarted in his frontal attempt to bestow honor on kissing, the speaker must now stoop to a clever (or so he hopes) ploy instead: if she would keep him from singing her praise, she must stop his mouth—with kissing! (as Beatrice tells her cousin Hero to do in Much Ado, to keep Claudio from speaking). The repeated “still” in the last line, sometimes printed with no comma between, could be thus understood as stretching the moment through sheer repetition, as in the phrase “for ever and ever.” But given Sidney’s fondness for antanaclasis, in which the sense of the repeated word changes a bit, a better reading might be that, while the second “still” is the common adverb, the first is a spoken “still” (as in “be still”) by Stella, to make him hold his peace. Again in Shakespeare’s Much Ado, Verges comes to mind, telling the watch to bid the nurse to “still” a crying child. In any case, the noble Platonic sentiment of the octave has been reduced by Stella’s stout virtue to a puerile gambit at the end.

*Somewhat paradoxically, the oddly-shaped 79 (as noted there) has Sidney’s most common rhyme scheme, while this very conventionally shaped one has the rare rhyme scheme (used just three times in the whole sequence) of ABABBABACCDEED; the palindromic octave is the unusual element.

Next time (weekend of August 21): Sonnet 82
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 71

Who will in fairest book of Nature know
How virtue may best lodged in beauty be,
Let him but learn of love to read in thee,
Stella, those fair lines which true goodness show.
There shall he find all vices’ overthrow,
Not by rude force, but sweetest sovereignty
Of reason, from whose light those night-birds fly;
That inward sun in thine eyes shineth so.
And not content to be perfection’s heir
Thyself, dost strive all minds that way to move,
Who mark in thee what is in thee most fair;
So while thy beauty draws the heart to love,
As fast thy virtue bends that love to good.
But, ah, Desire still cries: “Give me some food.”  

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 continues discussion of the Platonic idea most recently brought up in Sonnet 69 (but also in 61 and 62, and earlier on in 5, 9, 21, and 25), that beauty is meant to draw us “upward” toward virtue. The opening is an answer to the understood question, “What’s the best source for understanding how virtue and beauty may be found together?” A “book of Nature” is a book created or “authored” by Nature, rather than a human author.

The answer, of course, is Stella, and here she is praised for the very quality the speaker usually resents, her reason and virtue. He is, for the moment, trying to live up to the challenge she gave him in Sonnet 69, where she gave him sovereignty of her heart so long as he behaved virtuously. So those familiar flashes from Stella’s eyes, which have heretofore mostly excited passion, here come from her “inward sun” (i.e., soul) and are employed in chasing away the “night-birds” which are metaphors for “all vices.”

The first five lines of the sestet continue in the same vein, extending the general thought with the more immediately pertinent idea that she is not only perfect in herself, but a teacher of virtue to others, by that Platonic process of beauty “drawing” us to become better.

As a thirteen-line sonnet, this would pass muster at a revival meeting; but the speaker has been a good boy for just about as long as he can stand. The fourteenth line undoes all the rest, saying, in effect: “Get serious! I’m a man with an appetite! And this virtue stuff is pretty thin broth!”

Next time (weekend of April 3): Sonnet 72
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 61

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

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

Reading notes: In line 1, “uncalled” has three syllables, while “Driven” in line 13 has just one.

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

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

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

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

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 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 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 21

Your words, my friend, right healthful caustics, blame
My young mind marred, whom love doth windlass so
That mine own writings like bad servants show,
My wits, quick in vain thoughts, in virtue lame;
That Plato I read for nought, but if he tame
Such coltish gyres; that to my birth I owe
Nobler desires, lest else that friendly foe,
Great expectation, wear a train of shame.
For since mad March great promise made of me,
If now the May of my years much decline,
What can be hoped my harvest time will be?
Sure you say well; your wisdom’s golden mine
Dig deep with learning’s spade; now tell me this,
Hath this world aught so fair as Stella 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.

Once again we have a sonnet that is very “contextual”; i.e., while it can certainly be understood standing alone, it is also very clearly part of an ongoing conversation, ostensibly between the poet and his skeptical friends, either reflected or invented in several sonnets in this stretch of the sequence. This one parallels Sonnet 18 rather closely, for instance (with the auditor there turning into a medical doctor here), and the reference to reading Plato anticipates Sonnet 25. Every critical argument against the infatuation listed here is found in one or more of the sonnets nearby.

The auditor of Sonnet 18 has turned into a medical doctor here, at least for the first line. The phrase “right healthful caustics” is an oxymoron (indeed, “caustics” is an oxymoronic word by itself) because the effect of caustics is both to heal and to burn, or sting. And that, of course, is the effect of the critical friend’s well-intended words.

The wise friend is described at the end of the poem as well-spoken and a deep mine of wisdom and learning; the complexity of the single sentence that makes up the octave would seem to reflect this description. A rough outline of its dependencies looks like:

Your words . . .blame … my mind
WHOM love doth windlass so
THAT mine own writings . . . show/My wits
QUICK in . . . etc.
THAT Plato I read for nought
BUT IF [i.e., unless] he tame . . . gyres
THAT to my birth . . . Nobler desires
LEST ELSE . . . foe . . . wear . . . shame.
GREAT EXPECTATION

[My apologies that the formatter for this blog will simply not allow me to align these lines as intended to show the dependencies; you are on your own, gentle reader, in determining which part of the previous line each new line “hangs” from!]

The friend’s message, despite the medical start, turns out to be the opposite of a consistent conceit; it is more like a series of varied and interesting “stabs” at some way to get through to the besotted speaker. First, the blunt phrase: “young mind marred.” That’s obviously not enough, and complicated elaboration follows as the friend fishes for an effective approach. The verb “windlass” offers several visual possibilities at once. It was used to refer to any sort of mechanical device, and specifically to (1) the winding mechanism on a cross-bow, (2) a trap or snare used in hunting, or (3) an instrument of torture; so any or all of these are plausible images of what love is doing to the speaker. (And by now we also know well that “love” itself offers the double possibility of the god Cupid or, more abstractly, the emotion.)

In any case (or I should say in all cases, since simultaneous multiple meanings are the stuff of great poetry) the effect of love’s windlassing is that the speaker’s writings—the very sonnets we are reading—are behaving like “bad servants,” who are notorious for giving away their masters’ secrets and foibles. Here these servants, in a wonderfully crafted line, reveal “My wits, [which are] quick in vain thoughts, [to be] in virtue lame.” The line is a compressed, effective version of the usually-clunky parallel structure of Euphuism. The adjectives “quick” and “lame” are opposites, as are the alliterative noun phrases “vain thoughts” and “virtue”; so there is a full chiasmus within 4/5 of a pentameter line. And just incidentally, Sidney is bragging on the art of his own sonnets, while questioning their virtue and wisdom.

The friend renews his attack in the second quatrain, making reference to the speaker’s education (reading Plato), which seems to be wasted, since it is having no practical effect (it is not subjecting “coltish gyres”—the beastly gyrations of appetite—to reason); and to his pedigree and upbringing which should promise better things. Sidney reveals himself in the sonnets to be particularly sensitive to his own image among his highly placed connections; to the “Great expectation” which proves to be a “friendly foe” in that it challenges him to greatness, but also offers a critical measure when he comes up short, not unlike, in fact, the critical friend who is making this argument. A “train of shame” not only echoes “vain” and “lame” (and doubles up the assonance found there) but it is a wonderful image for the way such shame among one’s peers may attach itself like a bad odor and follow one wherever he goes.

The first half of the sestet sticks with this concern about expectations, perhaps making reference (“mad March great promise made of me”) to a specific moment of significant praise in Sidney’s life: as Duncan-Jones’s note suggests, this may be his “embassy to the Holy Roman Emperor in the spring of 1577.”  We shift from a promising March that may be both literal and figurative to a May that is definitely metaphorical; i.e., the speaker is still young, and should be enjoying his great promise. But in his “May,” according to his friends, he is disgracing himself; so how could he possibly have honor in his “harvest time” of later life?

The friend’s argument concludes with line 11, and the speaker uses more than a line and a half of what remains to give the argument its just due as “wisdom’s golden mine [dug] deep with learning’s spade.”* The most immediate meaning of this metaphor, given the word “golden,” is the modern understanding of a “mine” where one would dig for gold. But there is also the subtle undertone of a soldier’s understanding of “mine” as that which is dug to undermine or break open a city’s walls—another obvious way to look at the friend’s argument. Either way, the argument is not getting through to the speaker, of course. With his customary simplicity (or obtuseness, in the eyes of his friends), he counters the entire carefully crafted case with a single line of rhetorical question: “Hath this world aught so fair as Stella is?”

* Grammatically, “Dig deep” is parallel with “say well” in a compound verb phrase; i.e., it’s [Sure you] dig deep your wisdom’s etc.

Next time (week of April 29): Sonnet 22

(The timing for next two posts will be altered slightly by my trip to England)

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.