Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 40

As good to write, as for to lie and groan,
O Stella dear, how much thy power hath wrought,
That hast my mind, none of the basest, brought,
My still-kept course, while others sleep, to moan.
Alas, if from the height of Virtue’s throne
Thou canst vouchsafe the influence of a thought
Upon a wretch that long thy grace hath sought,
Weigh then how I by thee am overthrown;
And then think thus—although thy beauty be
Made manifest by such a victory,
Yet noblest conquerors do wrecks avoid.
Since then thou hast so far subdued me,
That in my heart I offer still to thee,
O, do not let thy temple be destroyed.

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: “power” in line 2 is one syllable, while “subduëd” in line 12 has three.

Now we have Part III of this triptych of bed-time reflections. Sonnet 38 began promisingly with a very life-like dream of Stella, which sadly destroyed itself and chased sleep away for the speaker. In Sonnet 39 he appealed, apparently without success, to Sleep to return, so now he turns his thoughts straight to Stella herself, since it is clearly her fault that he lies awake. I might as well write a sonnet, he says, as lie here groaning. Line 3 suggests the speaker is not ordinarily slave or subject to anyone, but a proud man in most circumstances. But Stella has the singular “power” to make him “moan” his “still-kept course”—i.e., his constant obsession. In other words, he is lamenting not just the lack or loss of the woman he loves, but also the way in which his passion has reduced him.

The second quatrain takes the same abject position toward Stella, high on “Virtue’s throne” (cf. Sonnets 4, 9, 25, 31, 52, etc.), as the same portion of the previous sonnet had taken toward Sleep. As Sleep was a conquering emperor who could cause civil wars to cease, Stella is a proud conqueror who has “overthrown” the speaker, and clearly has the power to destroy him.

In the sestet, where the previous sonnet offered forms of “tribute” to the conqueror, this one offers a simple plea: do not destroy what you have conquered. Obviously tyrants can make a demonstration of power by laying waste the lands they conquer, but the “noblest conquerors” recognize that their own glory is enhanced by the grandeur of the states and structures within their sway. The speaker is a “temple” to his own love and Stella’s beauty, and that temple should not be destroyed. Handel wrote a wonderful oratorio—“Alexander’s Feast”—on the counter-example of Alexander the Great unwisely destroying the great city of Persepolis after celebrating his great victory there. This plea to the “conqueror” is an idea that Sidney will reprise—with essentially the same intent—at the start of Sonnet 67.
Next time (weekend of January 24): Sonnet 41
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.