Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 107

Stella, since thou so right a princess art
Of all the powers which life bestows on me,
That ere by them aught undertaken be
They first resort unto that sovereign part;
Sweet, for a while give respite to my heart,
Which pants as though it still should leap to thee;
And on my thoughts give thy lieutenancy
To this great cause, which needs both use and art;
And as a queen, who from her presence sends
Whom she employs, dismiss from thee my wit,
Till it have wrought what thy own will attends.
On servant’s shame oft master’s blame doth sit;
O let not fools in me thy works reprove,
And scorning say, ‘See what it is 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.

Did Sidney arrive at the intended end of his sonnet sequence, or did he just give up and stop? Neither of the final two sonnets by itself seems to reach the clear resolution of an intended end. But of course the intended end in the love relationship—expressed from Sonnet 1 onward—has not and will not come about; and these two sonnets, read together, do form a sort of “summing up” of where this failure has left the speaker/the poet/possibly Sidney himself.* This one, specifically, rather plaintively asks Stella to sanction, or at least acknowledge, the passions and poetic efforts of the speaker, lest all this poetry be dismissed as the ravings of a madman.

Needless to say, this is a delicate request to pose to the woman who has dismissed all overtures of love. How is she to remain true to herself while acknowledging, and in some sense sanctioning, the poetic efforts for which these final sonnets serve as an envoi?

The speaker approaches the task with great care. The basis of Stella’s objection throughout the sequence (see especially Sonnets 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 18 etc.) is that she stands for Reason, and the opening quatrain addresses her in this light: she is the “princess” of all his powers (i.e., including will and appetite, the senses, etc.), but she represents “that sovereign part” which properly governs all these powers, i.e., the soul as directed by reason.

Having acknowledged this sovereignty, he turns back to his lesser “powers”—passions, lustful “thoughts,” a “heart” which “pants”—and says, in effect, don’t sovereigns find employment for lesser beings? Do they not send them out as servants, lieutenants, emissaries? And, line 12 suggests, the sovereign might remain perfect, and yet share in the blame for the follies of the servants. So if Stella has now “dismissed” the speaker and all his romantic pretensions—as it appears she has—could it not be with at least an acknowledgement that these “servants”—i.e., the sonnets—are working to please her will?

There is a certain amount of desperation in this carefully-worded plea, as the more bluntly stated final couplet makes clear. If the dismissal does not have this qualified blessing, then all of these sonnets represent only folly, the ravings of a love-sick lunatic, exposed to the scorn even of fools, rather than high art with a noble intent.

*Though as we come to the end of this journey and resurface from our suspended disbelief, we should remember the caveat that the “story lines” of renaissance sonnets can be entirely artificial and fictional.

Next time (weekend of August 19): Sonnet 108
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 104 and Eleventh Song

Envious wits, what hath been mine offence,
That with such poisonous care my looks you mark,
That to each word, nay, sigh, of mine you hark,
As grudging me my sorrow’s eloquence?
Ah, is it not enough that I am thence,
Thence, so far thence, that scarcely any spark
Of comfort dare come to this dungeon dark,
Where rigor’s exile locks up all my sense?
But if I by a happy window pass,
If I but stars upon mine armor bear;
Sick, thirsty, glad, though but of empty glass;
Your moral notes straight my hid meaning tear
From out my ribs, and puffing prove that I
Do Stella love.   Fools, who doth it deny?

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 first word of the poem (somewhat unusually in Sidney’s poetry) requires all three syllables, while “poisonous” in the second line has the more usual two.

It has become apparent, near the end of the sequence, that Sidney’s sonnets to Stella are being more widely read, and have inevitably become subject to carping criticism. The phrase “Envious wits” suggests not merely the censorious friends of Sonnets 14, 20, 21, 23, 27, etc., but perhaps rival poets who envy the success of the poetry and therefore seize on the immoral subject matter and “hid meaning” as something to criticize.

The octave consists of two four-line questions, more or less parallel: (1) Why do you carp at me?; and (2) Especially when I am unhappy or unfortunate to begin with? The speaker/poet’s “eloquence” springs from “sorrow,” and this sorrow comes from being “thence,” i.e., separated from Stella and thus denied physically (“sense”) what the poetry muses upon.

The sestet complains of the critics’ tendency to “read into” every gesture of the speaker—even such trivialities as being glad to have quenched his thirst, or having stars on his armor*—some hidden expression of his love for Stella. The irony of this, and bottom line of the poem, is that they are falling all over themselves to prove an accusation that the speaker would never deny.

* Duncan-Jones offers evidence that Sidney did indeed display stars on his armor, with no connection to Stella.

Eleventh Song

“Who is it that this dark night
Underneath my window plaineth?”
It is one who from thy sight
Being, ah, exiled, disdaineth
Every other vulgar light.
 
‘Why, alas, and are you he?
Be not yet those fancies changed?’
Dear, when you find change in me,
Though from me you be estranged,
Let my change to ruin be.
 
‘Well, in absence this will die.
Leave to see, and leave to wonder.’
Absence sure will help, if I
Can learn how myself to sunder
From what in my heart doth lie.
 
‘But time will these thoughts remove;
Time doth work what no man knoweth.’
Time doth as the subject prove;
With time still the affection growth
In the faithful turtledove.
 
‘What if you new beauties see?
Will they not stir new affection?’
I will think they pictures be,
Image-like of saint’s perfection,
Poorly counterfeiting thee.
 
‘But your reason’s purest light
Bids you leave such minds to nourish.’
Dear, do reason no such spite;
Never doth thy beauty flourish
More than in my reason’s sight.

‘But the wrongs love bears will make
Love at length leave undertaking.’
No, the more fools it do shake,
In a ground of so firm making
Deeper still they drive the stake.
 
‘Peace, I think that some give ear;
Come no more, lest I get anger.’
Bliss, I will my bliss forbear,
Fearing, sweet, you to endanger,
But my soul shall harbour there.
 
‘Well, be gone, be gone, I say,
Lest that Argus’ eyes perceive you.’
O unjust is fortune’s sway,
Which can make me thus to leave you,
And from louts to run away!

Reading notes: Consistent with the feminine rhymes in other stanzas, the –ed syllable in “changed” and “exchanged” in the second stanza is pronounced; in the fourth stanza, “the affection” is elided to three syllables, i.e., “th’affection.”

See my previous metrical notes on Songs, especially the Fourth, Eighth, and Ninth, after Sonnets 85 and 86. This most resembles the Ninth Song, with a five-line stanza containing one feminine rhyme which dictates a trochaic rhythm throughout, even in the lines that are one syllable “short.” Here the rhyme scheme changes from ABABB (in the Ninth Song) to ABABA, the effect being that the speaker of the last three lines “matches” the challenge of the first two lines, and then is able to “top” it with one additional line.

Like most of the songs, the format allows a looser, more open-ended version of the constant debate between Stalla—the self-styled voice of reason—and her impatient and importunate lover. This particular version seems to foreshadow Romeo beneath Juliet’s window, drawn to the “light” that shines there; except that this Juliet is never going to let her lover in. The debate whips back and forth rapidly, with Stella posing question or challenge in the first two lines of each stanza, and the speaker giving his come-back in the final three.

Absence, she says in Stanza 3, should surely make him forget her; only if he is separated from his own heart, he replies. To her thought that the passage of time will help him forget, he gives a Rosalind-like answer that time works differently with different beings (“Time doth in the subject prove”); with the turtledove, for example, affection only grows with time. If his eye is caught by new beauties? Shadow versus substance; other beauties are but the poor shadows of Stella’s ideal form. The old trump card reason? As we have heard many times, reason itself must acknowledge Stella’s beauty. Somewhat in contradiction of that stanza, the one that follows acknowledges the speaker’s folly, anticipating Einstein’s definition of madness as repeating the same exercise over and over while expecting a different result: fools, on the “ground” of the “wrongs” brought by their love, just keep driving the “stake” deeper.

This game could theoretically go on all night, if not broken off by some practical concern. And so, in the penultimate stanza, Stella either senses or pretends to sense that they are being overheard (“some give ear”). This must be by her husband, since he would be the only one from whom she could “get anger.” The speaker agrees to withdraw rather than endanger her, but neither (at least in Sidney’s view) can resist taking one last dig at Lord Rich, as our final song comes to an end. Stella describes him as the odious see-all guard Argus, while the speaker laments the unjust fortune that forces a brave soldier like himself to flee from “louts.”

Next time (weekend of July 8): Sonnet 105
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 68

Stella, the only planet of my light,
Light of my life, and life of my desire,
Chief good, whereto my hope doth only aspire,
World of my wealth, and heaven of my delight:
Why dost thou spend the treasure of thy sprite,
With voice more fit to wed Amphion’s lyre,
Seeking to quench in me the noble fire
Fed by thy worth, and kindled by thy sight?
And all in vain, for while thy breath most sweet,
With choicest words, thy words with reasons rare,
Thy reasons firmly set on virtue’s feet,
Labour to kill in me this killing care:
Oh, think I then, what paradise of joy
It is, so fair a virtue to enjoy.

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 3, “only aspire” needs to be elided to three syllables: “onl’aspire.”

Like Sonnet 66 (though not identical in form), this one mimics the structure of an English sonnet, building an argument in three quatrains and giving a snappy response to it in the final couplet, rather than having Sidney’s more customary evenly divided sestet.

The first quatrain functions only as a hyperbolic version of “Dear Stella,” and is a rather subtle auxesis (like the opening of Sonnet 1), starting out explicit (with repetitions of “light” and “life”) and turning implicit as “desire” turns into “good” and “world” and “wealth” step up to “heaven” and “delight.”

The second quatrain asks the rhetorical question that is the central message of the poem: why is she so determined to “quench” the very passion that her person ignites? Why does she use a voice “more fit” to be singing along with Amphion (the lyrist who could move stones with his music, and thus built Thebes) to instead preach cold reason? The “third quatrain” (in our faux-English form) extends this thought: her preaching efforts are “all in vain” because the more she gives voice to her virtue, the more convinced he is of her perfection, and the more he desires her!

“Enjoy” (the final word of the sonnet) is a word with an explicit sexual sense, so the speaker is coming close to the peculiar corruption of Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: being aroused by the very purity that he would violate. A more generous interpretation might focus on the Platonic idea of being drawn to better ourselves by the force of beauty; but however generous we might want to be to our long-suffering speaker, we must still accept the ambiguity of that attraction. The “bottom line” of the poem is the paradox that Stella’s virtuous pleading has the very opposite of its intended effect.

Next time (weekend of February 20): Sonnet 69
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 62

Late tired with woe, even ready for to pine,
With rage of love, I called my love unkind;
She in whose eyes love, though unfelt, doth shine,
Sweet said that I true love in her should find.
I joyed, but straight thus watered was my wine,
That love she did, but loved a love not blind,
Which would not let me, whom she loved, decline
From nobler course, fit for my birth and mind:
And therefore by her love’s authority,
Willed me these tempests of vain love to fly,
And anchor fast myself on virtue’s shore.
Alas, if this the only metal be
Of Love, new-coined to help my beggary,
Dear, love me not, that you may love me more.

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: As usual, “even” in line 1 is a single syllable. The word “fly” in line 10, for Sidney, would have rhymed with “be” and the final syllable of “authority” and “beggary,” but this need only be noted mentally in modern reading.

This is a companion sonnet to the previous one, and we might borrow Wordsworth’s title “The Tables Turned” for at least its final line, where the paradox that ended Sonnet 61 is reversed.

Like Sonnet 61, there is an “extroverted” rhyme scheme in the octave, and here the near-rhymes of the A’s and B’s reflects two “loves” that also sound alike but aren’t. Line 4, at first blush, sounds as if it might be the breakthrough moment we have waited for throughout the sequence: Stella sweetly says she DOES love me after all!

The joyful response lasts for exactly two words, or two syllables, or one brief foot, before the other shoe begins to drop, beginning with a teaser metaphor of watered wine. It turns out she has a sincere, pure, Platonic love for the speaker—not the “blind,” passionate love of Cupid, but the heavenly kind that sees clearly by the light of reason. And in the spirit of love, she wishes him to be as perfect as he can be, and as his pedigree (“birth”) and talents (“mind”) promise for him. The first tercet of the sestet continues the main idea of the sonnet by giving the clear implication of this special “love’s authority”: as in Sonnet 61, she shows her form of love by urging him to abandon his.

The fulcrum comes after line 11, as the final three lines give the speaker’s response. Setting it up with the metaphor of love as a “metal” from which improving ideas are “coined,” he says that if that’s the way it has to be, he wishes she would stop “loving” him that way, so that she could “love” him the other way. The two words “love” in the final line obviously mean two different things, and the meaning of the word has in fact been subtly shifting all through the poem, especially in line 6, where the meaning shifts over from his to hers, and here at the end, where it shifts back, referring at the end to the passionate relationship the speaker would like to have.

Next time (weekend of November 28): Sonnet 63
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 59

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 59

Dear, why make you more of a dog than me?
If he do love, I burn, I burn in love;
If he wait well, I never thence would move;
If he be fair, yet but a dog can be.
Little he is, so little worth is he;
He barks, my songs thine own voice oft doth prove:
Bidden, perhaps, he fetcheth thee a glove,
But I unbid, fetch even my soul to thee.
Yet while I languish, him that bosom clips,
That lap doth lap, nay lets in spite of spite
This sour-breathed mate taste of those sugared lips.
Alas, if you grant only such delight
To witless things, then love I hope (since wit
Becomes a clog) will soon ease me of it.

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: “even” in line 8 is the customary one-syllable elision.

Apparently the speaker has the pleasure of an extended visit with Stella. But she has gone from the delightful highlight of reading his poetry (previous sonnet) to now showering more affection on the family dog than on him. So, demeaning as it might seem, he spends 11 of his 14 lines comparing himself favorably to a dog. We might think of a rough paraphrase of Shakespeare’s much better known Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”):

Shall I compare me to a mangy mutt?
I am more lovely and more temperate. . .

After an opening-line question gives the premise of the poem, the remainder of the first quatrain is three parallel “If” statements, seeking to “one-up” three of the dog’s virtues, his loving, his “wait[ing] well,” and his beauty, respectively. In the second quatrain, he sharpens the criticism and tries to heighten the contrast to his own benefit: the dog’s small size matches its “worth”; the dog barks, the speaker provides Stella with songs; and in a two-line culmination of the octave, the dog can “perhaps” fetch a trivial object such as a glove, while the speaker fetches his very “soul” to Stella.

The “Yet” at the start of line 9 announces that we will now get the full indignity of the injustice being committed, described in just three very tight, antithetical lines. The dog has everything the speaker lacks: Stella’s “bosom” embraces (the oldest meaning of “clips”) it; her “lap” enfolds (“laps”) it; and without necessarily even enjoying it (“in spite of spite”—line 10 is a brilliant double-antanaclasis), the “sour-breathed” pooch receives the sweet kisses the speaker long has craved.

In the final three lines, this little home-spun anecdote turns into a reflection—albeit a jesting one—on the Chain of Being. What separates the speaker from the beast, ultimately is his human gift of reason, which, we have seen in other contexts (e.g., Sonnet 10) also happens to be what keeps Stella and him apart. So now reason (or “wit”) has become an obstacle (“clog”) in another sense; if he lacked it, and were a mere beast like the dog, Stella could safely pour out all that affection on him. Not to worry, he jokes: through the force of love, he will very soon lose whatever reason he has left!

Next time (weekend of October 17): Sonnet 60
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 51

Pardon mine ears, both I and they do pray,
So may your tongue still fluently proceed,
To them that do such entertainment need,
So may you still have somewhat new to say.
On silly me do not the burden lay,
Of all the grave conceits your brain doth breed;
But find some Hercules to bear, in steed
Of Atlas tired, your wisdom’s heavenly sway.
For me, while you discourse of courtly tides,
Of cunning’st fishers in most troubled streams,
Of straying ways, when valiant error guides;
Meanwhile my heart confers with Stella’s beams,
And is even irked that so sweet comedy,
By such unsuited speech should hindered be.

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: “even” in line 13 is one syllable; and “in steed” (line 7) was a 16th and 17th century form of “instead,” whose use here creates a pun.

This is another sonnet (like 14 and 21) in the vein of John Donne’s “Canonization” (“For God’s sake, hold thy tongue, and let me love”), responding with sarcasm to the friends who are carping critics of the speaker’s infatuation. Take note that, with this sonnet, we enter the longest stretch of formal uniformity in the whole sequence: seven sonnets in a row with Sidney’s favorite rhyme scheme and, with exceptions at 53 and 54, his typical 4-4-3-3 structure. We might say, optimistically and artistically, that the poet has found his groove; or, pessimistically and biographically, that the stagnation in the relationship is starting to rub off on his poetry!

The first eleven lines here offer a witty array of parodic or sarcastic techniques. In the first quatrain, the speaker’s ears are turned into victims, so that switches him right away from being the “accused” to being the champion of the oppressed. The friend’s criticisms are sarcastically turned to “entertainment,” and the suggestion that a new audience may give him something new to say is a backhanded way of saying that the friend’s criticisms are growing repetitive and tedious.

The sarcasm takes the form of hyperbole in the second quatrain, with a couple of word-plays triggering the device. In the sixteenth century, “silly” was a word in transition from its medieval meaning of “innocent” to the modern sense “foolish.” The speaker’s friend would clearly think of him in the latter sense, but the speaker presents himself as childishly unable to handle such vast wisdom. Secondly, “grave” means serious, but it is a weight-related term (as in the double meaning of “gravity”), so now we are set up for the hyperbolic contrast between the enormous weight of the friend’s “wisdom” and the childish incapacity of the speaker to bear it. The wordplay is compounded by the classical allusion to Hercules briefly standing in for Atlas in holding up the earth (with the choice of “in steed” for “instead” punningly making him a beast of burden), and this is exaggerated still further by making the weight here not just the earth but “heavenly sway”—a veiled reference also to the understanding of Reason as God’s will (see the entry on Sonnets 4 and 10).

Starting with “courtly tides,” we get subtle reference to the sort of sententious preaching being rejected: the repeated similitudes drawn from nature that are characteristic of the faddish euphuistic prose of the day: the “tides” of courtly opinion, fishing in troubled waters, or choosing “error” for a trail guide. As in line 6 of Sonnet 10, the tenth line here captures the difficulty of the weighty arguments with a tongue-twister, three separate “st” combinations in short space, for instance.

By contrast to those first eleven lines, the final three lines are clear and simple, as if the light of “Stella’s beams” has broken through. By contrast to his ears in line 1, the speaker’s heart is focused solely on his prize; and by contrast to the “entertainment” in line 3, this is “sweet comedy,” obviously in the Dantean sense of a story with a heavenly ending, rather than a trivial reference to amusement. The speaker’s critic is dismissed as a noisome distraction from a constant pursuit.

Next time (weekend of June 27): Sonnet 52
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 38

This night, while sleep begins with heavy wings
To hatch mine eyes, and that unbitted thought
Doth fall to stray, and my chief powers are brought
To leave the scepter of all subject things,
The first that straight my fancy’s error brings
Unto my mind, is Stella’s image, wrought
By Love’s own self, but with so curious draught,
That she, methinks, not only shines, but sings.
I start, look, hark; but what in closed-up sense
Was held, in opened sense it flies away,
Leaving me nought but wailing eloquence.
I, seeing better sights in sight’s decay,
Called it anew, and wooed sleep again:
But him her host that unkind guest had slain.

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:  “wooed” in line 13 is two syllables: woo-ed.

As we begin a three-sonnet series of “bed-time” thoughts—when sleep closes (“hatch[es]”) the speaker’s eyes with its “heavy wings”—we have one of Sidney’s little lessons on Renaissance commonplace understandings; that is, the relationship between Reason and Fancy in the waking and sleeping states. For a more direct, yet poetic, explanation, we can look forward to Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Adam explains to Eve:

But know that in the Soul
Are many lesser Faculties that serve
Reason as chief; among these Fancy next
Her office holds; of all external things,
Which the five watchful Senses represent,
She forms Imaginations, aery shapes,
Which Reason joining or disjoining, frames
All what we affirm or what deny, and call
Our knowledge or opinion; then retires
Into her private cell when Nature rests [i.e., when we go to sleep].
Oft in her absence mimic Fancy wakes
To imitate her; but misjoining shapes,
Wild work produces oft, and most in dreams,
Ill matching words and deeds long past or late.

Sidney’s briefer version in the first quatrain here parallels this explanation precisely, since “chief powers” refers to Reason, which yields up its “scepter” in sleep, leaving unbridled (“unbitted”) and “straying” Fancy to take over. And, as we might expect, the first thing Fancy produces (line 5) is the image of Stella, drawn (“wrought”) by mischievous Cupid (“Love”), but she is depicted so miraculously (we might think of a movie-goer in the 1920’s who attends the first film with sound) that she not only looks like an angel (“shines”) but also has a sound-track: she sings!

The fulcrum between octave and sestet in this poem represents an actual change from sleeping to waking state; “I start, look, hark” means “I wake up, look, and listen.”  But awake, the dream is fled; “fled is that music,” as Keats would say. The image could only stay while the actual senses were “closed-up” in sleep. So, paradoxically, the sweet music of the dream has served only (returning to Keats) “to toll me back from thee to my sole self”—a far less satisfying vision! Indeed, the “wailing eloquence” of line 11 might be an apt description of all these sonnets.

To sort out pronouns or vague references in the final lines, “it” in line 13 refers to the “better sight” the speaker has lost, “him” (to which “her host” is an appositive) is sleep, and Stella is the “unkind guest” who slew him. Slaying one’s host is of course an “unkind” thing for a guest to do, but the OED gives additional historical senses of “unkind”: “strange, foreign,” “contrary to the usual course of nature,” “lacking in natural gratitude,” and “undutiful”; all of which may be applied to Stella here. The bottom line in the poem’s story is obvious: there’s no going back to sleep after that experience!

Next time (weekend of December 27): Sonnet 39
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 35

What may words say, or what may words not say,
Where truth itself must speak like flattery?
Within what bounds can one his liking stay,
Where nature doth with infinite agree?
What Nestor’s counsels can my flames allay,
Since Reason’s self doth blow the coal in me?
And ah, what hope that hope should once see day,
Where Cupid is sworn page to chastity?
Honor is honored, that thou dost possess
Him as thy slave, and now long-needy Fame
Doth even grow rich, naming my Stella’s name.
Wit learns in thee perfection to express;
Not thou by praise, but praise in thee is raised;
It is a praise to praise, when thou art praised.

 

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.

For two sonnets now, Sidney resorts to the less common (for him) use of the ABAB open-ended, or “outie,” pattern for the octave, suggesting a more relaxed discussion for that part of the poem.*  Here we see the speaker “rambling on” in Stella’s praise, piling hyperbole on hyperbole, almost as if by free association, rather than any tightly logical conceit. Twelve of the fourteen lines are in this glowing vein; only the exact center of the poem, lines seven and eight, interrupts for a “reality check,” reminding us (and presumably the speaker himself) how hopelessly unobtainable this paragon is.  But unlike many other sonnets (e.g. 29, 31, 33, 34) in which this frustration builds steadily to the end, in this case it is almost as if the speaker claps his hands over his ears and shouts “LA LA LA,” so that never might be heard a discouraging word. He goes right back to the almost manic string of praises, as if there had been no interruption at all, or as if in a hurry to drown it out.  Also, oddly, as he resumes in line nine he makes his addresses directly to Stella (“that thou dost possess”) as if (1) he has previously been talking within his mind and now finds the courage to speak directly; or (2) the mental musings become increasingly charged and manic, as the object of his love fills his mind.

So, setting aside that central “downer” for a moment, we are left with the three 2-line ideas before it, and two 3-line ideas after, and if there is a unifying thread (besides hyperbolic praise of Stella), it is in the use of paradox. Let’s consider these four ideas in turn:

What may words say, or what may words not say,
Where truth itself must speak like flattery?

The main paradox here is that truth and flattery are supposed to be, by definition, mutually exclusive, but in this case they sound exactly the same. This makes a mind-bending riddle out of a cliché such as “words cannot convey . . .,” since in one way (“What can words say?”) the cliché seems perfectly true, but in another (“what may words not say?”) it is disproved by the paradox of the second line: words can convey the glory of Stella if the simple truth will suffice.

Within what bounds can one his liking stay,
Where nature doth with infinite agree?

Again, the anchor paradox is in the second line: if there was one thing Sidney’s contemporaries learned from the “laws” of nature, it was to accept limitations and avoid extremes; the “golden mean” was what Nature insisted on. But in the case of Stella, Nature has allowed infinity as a reality. (The word “infinite” is used as a noun here, or conceivably as an adjective in quotation marks; i.e. Nature has agreed to use “infinite” to describe Stella.)  From that grand paradox it is an easy step back to the fact that the speaker cannot keep (“stay”) his love (“liking”) within any reasonable boundaries (“bounds”).

What Nestor’s counsels can my flames allay,
Since Reason’s self doth blow the coal in me?

This is a fairly easy paradox to understand, in the wake of our study of sonnets 2, 4,5, and especially 10 and 18. As I have said there, Reason is the very opposite—and rightfully the squelcher—of passion, but where Stella is concerned, Reason itself fans the flames (“doth blow the coal”) of passion, so what help does the proverbial human wisdom of Nestor have against such a force?

Moving ahead now to lines 9-11:

Honor is honored, that thou dost possess
Him as thy slave, and now long-needy Fame
Doth even grow rich, naming my Stella’s name.

The central paradoxes here—and indeed throughout the sestet—are that the qualities we aspire to (honor, fame, praise, etc.) are commonly regarded as ideal ceilings to measure mortal attainment against, with mortals by definition always falling short. But what if the “ceiling”—the ideal quality itself—is somehow short of what it could be, and thus expandable?  What if honor can make itself yet more honorable by honoring Stella?; that is the proposition here. That fame is “long-needy” doubles down on the paradox: it is a commonplace of every age that all the greatest soldiers, writers, statesmen, artists, or whatever, existed only in the past; so Stella is stretching the limits not just of a “Hall of Fame” already filled, but of one that started as sort of dusty and archaic! (The fact that Fame grows “rich” in naming Stella is a sidelong reference to her married name.)

Wit learns in thee perfection to express;
Not thou by praise, but praise in thee is raised;
It is a praise to praise, when thou art praised.

These final lines continue in the same vein. Wisdom (“wit”) ordinarily knows not to expect perfection, but suddenly one can talk wisely and of perfection, too. And the final couplet, where praise, like honor, gains by praising Stella, finds a way to sum up the whole accomplishment of the poem, and the poet, who becomes more praiseworthy for praising her. We have a notable example here of a favorite poetic trick of Sidney’s, called antanaclasis, or close repetition of a word while changing its senses; for other examples, see sonnets 9 (lines 12-14), 10 (13-14), 12 (6), 26 (4) 31 (12-13), 34 (11), 36 (9-11), 37 (10, in particular), 38 (12), 39 (5), 59 (10), and 79 (1-3).

Now, what about the “heart” of this sonnet, those two lines in the exact center that threaten to undo all the rest?:

And ah, what hope that hope should once see day,
Where Cupid is sworn page to chastity?

Stella adds praise to praise and honor to honor, but hope she only makes more hopeless. Like the opening two lines of the sonnet that follows (Stella, whence doth this new assault arise,/A conquered, yelden, ransacked heart to win?), these suggest the context in which a flurry of wooing by various means takes place in this trio of sonnets: hyperbolic flattery in this one is followed by whining of her cruelty in 36, and sarcastically mocking her marriage in 37. Only with the “bedtime” sonnets 38, 39, and 40 does Sidney back off from this relatively direct confrontation.

* The full rhyme scheme of this poem is actually unique, because of the arrangement of the sestet, where each tercet ends with a couplet. As I have noted before, the variety Sidney achieves within the strict form of the Italian sonnet is amazing!

Next time (weekend of November 15): Sonnet 36
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.