Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 15

You that do search for every purling spring
Which from the ribs of old Parnassus flows;
And every flower, not sweet perhaps, which grows
Near thereabouts into your poesy wring;
You that do dictionary’s method bring
Into your rhymes, running in rattling rows;
You that poor Petrarch’s long-deceased woes
With new-born sighs and denizened wit do sing:
You take wrong ways, those far-fet helps be such
As do bewray a want of inward touch,
And sure at length stol’n goods do come to light.
But if (both for your love and skill) your name
You seek to nurse at fullest breasts of fame,
Stella behold, and then begin to endite.

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: “denizened” in line 8 is two syllables (den’zened), and in line 14, “to endite” must be elided (t’endite); and “deceasèd” in line seven has all three syllables.

This sonnet is a piece of cake if one is already acquainted with sonnets 3 and 6.  The tenor is almost precisely the same, and the structure parallels sonnet 3 in particular, where the octave describes various “wrong ways” to do poetry, and the sestet says the only right way is (as the speaker is doing) to contemplate Stella.  The chief structural differences are (1) that sonnet 3 is a “them” vs. “me” discussion, while sonnet 15 is entirely addressed to “you”; and (2) while the sonnet 3 octave uses two “outie” (ABAB) quatrains for a continuous discussion, this one has two parallel “innies” (ABBA), so the discussion “starts over” in line 5.

Just as sonnets 3 and 6 begin with a reference to seeking the help of the classical muses, so too does this one talk about searching for the springs (i.e., the works of ancient poets) that flow from Mount Parnassus, home of the muses. A “purling” spring is simply a bubbling, flowing one, but there is a pun here, since the poets who so search are looking for “pearls” with which to decorate their verse, just as they are squeezing (“wringing”) the no-longer-fresh (“sweet”) flowers for some sad drops of stale perfume.

The second quatrain references somewhat more recent poetic fads, starting with “dictionary’s method.”  At first glance, since he says “into your rhymes,” we might think of the novice poet’s consulting of a rhyming dictionary; but I’m pretty sure such a thing had not been invented yet (thus, Benedick “can think of no rhyme for lady but baby”) and “rhymes” is used in the more general sense of “poems.”  In any case, as line 6 wonderfully illustrates, the method involves choosing as many neighboring words as possible from an alphabetized list; i.e., the fad of excessive alliteration.  And the fad of Petrarchan sonnets (in which, as discussed before, Sidney was very much a participant) closes this list, with the clever suggestion that the emotion may be home-grown (“new-born sighs”) but the method (“wit”) is imported (“denizened,” meaning naturalized or immigrant).

As in earlier poems (1, line 14, 3, line 9, and 6, line12), the rebuke, when it comes, is blunt and monosyllabic: “You take wrong ways.”  The rest of the first tercet is also quite plain and uncomplicated.  Likewise, the remedy in the final three lines is the same as in all the previous sonnets on this theme, but with a new and striking image: instead of nursing at the springs of now-skeletal (because ancient) Parnassus for inspiration, the would-be poet should “seek to nurse at fullest breasts of fame,” a synecdoche for Stella that is erotic—thus aspirational on Sidney’s part—as well as inspirational.

Next time (weekend of February 8): Sonnet 16

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