Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 56

Fie, school of Patience, fie! Your lesson is
Far, far too long to learn it without book:
What, a whole week without one piece of look,
And think I should not your large precepts miss?
When I might read those letters fair of bliss,
Which in her face teach virtue, I could brook
Somewhat thy leaden counsels, which I took
As of a friend that meant not much amiss:
But now that I, alas, do want her sight,
What, dost thou think that I can ever take
In thy cold stuff a phlegmatic delight?
No, Patience, if thou wilt my good, then make
Her come, and hear with patience my desire,
And then with patience bid me bear my fire.

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: “What,” at the start of lines 3 and 10 is the Elizabethan common interjection, not the start of a question, so the comma must be observed.  And “phlegmatic” in line 11 (originally “phlegmatique”) has an unusual pronunciation in which the third syllable is stressed, rather than the second, for the sake of the meter.

Apparently a week away from Stella is an unusually long time, and the poem sort of captures the tedium of such a lonely week, by its several repetitions of words (fie, far, and patience, and matching (in structure and general meaning) two-line sets at 3-4 and 10-11, giving that vaguely Godot-like feeling of just going in circles.

As in the following sonnet, we meet a new personification here, Patience. Patience is a counselor and teacher but, like Polonius, a rather dull, sententious, and tedious one. She gives “long lessons,” “large precepts,” and “leaden counsels”—in short, “cold stuff,” like a cold shower for the speaker’s passions.

The metaphorical scene that the poem creates has the speaker as a restless schoolboy in a classroom where the teacher’s lesson has taken on new urgency, but the teacher has lost her chief teaching aid, the textbook, which in the conceit is Stella herself. Imagine trying to master a complex subject by listening to lectures alone, with no recourse to printed explanations, illustrations, charts, and so forth; on top of that, imagine trying to do it when one’s mind is constantly elsewhere. In the octave, the speaker argues that he tried to be a good student of Patience as long as Stella herself was contributing to the lesson; with the consolation of her sight, he could “brook” those endless, tedious lectures.

“But now” (the fulcrum comes on cue, in the most predictable place) the lecture by (and on) Patience stands alone. If the point of poetry (as Sidney argues elsewhere) is both to teach and to delight, the lectures of Patience are decidedly unpoetic, offering instruction only, without the other half. How could he possibly be expected to keep paying attention?

So the final tercet offers an alternative course of action that is both appropriate and complex. If Patience wants the speaker to be patient, and has his best interests at heart (“wilt my good”), she should exert some influence over Stella also, and make her come back and listen patiently while the speaker lays out his claim for her love. The verb “bid” in the final line is deliberately and deliciously ambiguous. In a more neutral and somewhat less interesting reading it parallels “make,” and simply returns to the idea (running through the whole poem) of Patience trying to get the speaker to “chill out.” But if the subject of this verb is “Her” (Stella), and it parallels “come” and “hear,” then the line becomes a challenge: let’s just see if she can still bid me to contain the heat of my passion (“bear my fire”) when I have had a fair opportunity to present my case. For the sake of the strong ending of this sonnet, let’s just pretend, for the moment, that we don’t know the answer to that dare!

Next time (weekend of September 5): Sonnet 57
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 23

The curious wits, seeing dull pensiveness
Bewray itself in my long settled eyes,
Whence those same fumes of melancholy rise
With idle pains, and missing aim, do guess.
Some, that know how my spring I did address,
Deem that my Muse some fruit of knowledge plies;
Others, because the Prince my service tries,
Think that I think state errors to redress.
But harder judges judge ambition’s rage,
Scourge of itself, still climbing slippery place,
Holds my young brain captived in golden cage.
O fools, or over-wise: alas, the race
Of all my thoughts hath neither stop nor start,
But only Stella’s eyes and Stella’s heart.

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.

A central concern of Hamlet had been a standard component of poetry and drama for years before: the difficulty of explaining a young man’s melancholy when he is young, healthy, and gifted. While our own age considers depression to be a commonplace of minor mental impairment, its Medieval/Renaissance equivalent engendered a sort of awe and mystery, even though (or perhaps because?) there is clearly no place for melancholy within a life governed by reason. In 1621, Robert Burton would publish a monumental and detailed study titled The Anatomy of Melancholy, and he had a plethora of literary sources for his examples.

So here the “curious wits”—perhaps the very same friends who have been criticizing and counseling the speaker in many of these sonnets—find themselves in roughly the same position as Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, trying to explain the speaker’s strange melancholy and the “dull pensiveness” that has, of late, crept into his “long settled eyes”; that is, something has changed, and the “wits” are no better than those characters in Hamlet at diagnosing what it is. With “idle pains” (efforts) and a “missing aim,” they merely “guess.”

So now (lines 5-11), predictably, we’re going to hear what their wrong guesses are: basically, three in number, they occupy two, two, and three lines respectively. First (5-6) they guess that since the speaker was devoted to poetry in youth (“spring”), he is preoccupied with his Muse, or pondering a poem (this one actually has a bit of indirect truth in it). Second (7-8), that, as trusted ambassador, he has been given some thorny diplomatic problem to solve.  The third guess (9-11), offered by “harder judges,” is considerably less flattering to the speaker: like so many young noblemen in Elizabeth’s reign, he is deemed to be too ambitious for his own good, and is plotting some Machiavellian way to advance himself. Brooding melancholy is indeed the period’s stereotype for plotting or revenge, as in Hieronymo in The Spanish Tragedy, or Caesar’s view of Cassius, or Edmund, Aaron, Don John, or other villains in Shakespeare’s plays. But such ambition is aptly described in the 10th line, even as it is brought up: “Scourge of itself, still climbing slippery place.”

The poem’s fulcrum comes after the eleventh line. Having given free rein to all these opinions, the speaker now dismisses the wits as “fools, or overwise” (i.e., the second possibility is that they are over-analyzing a very simple case).  That which preoccupies the speaker (“the race of all my thoughts”) begins and ends with Stella. Or, to complicate that simple truth with a chiasmic structure, it “starts” with Stella’s eyes and “stops” with her heart. Complicate it, indeed: there are three possibilities for that simple idea:

  1. Neutral, or innocent: Stella is first and last, beginning and end, of the speaker’s preoccupations.
  2. Optimistic: his quest of Stella began with (the flash of) her eyes (see Sonnets 17 and 20) and its end or goal will be the conquest of her heart.
  3. Pessimistic: (cf. Sonnets 11 and 12) the quest of Stella started with her eyes, but will be stopped short by her heart.

Next time (weekend of May 31): Sonnet 24

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