Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 45

Stella oft sees the very face of woe
Painted in my beclouded stormy face,
But cannot skill to pity my disgrace,
Not though thereof the cause herself she know;
Yet hearing late a fable, which did show
Of lovers never known a grievous case,
Pity thereof gat in her breast such place
That, from that sea derived, tears’ spring did flow.
Alas, if fancy drawn by imaged things,
Though false, yet with free scope more grace doth breed
Than servant’s wrack, where new doubts honor brings;
Then think, my dear, that you in me do read
Of lover’s ruin some sad tragedy.
I am not I; pity the tale of 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.

One of the better-known and oft-anthologized sonnets in the sequence, as it is both an excellent example of Sidney’s wit and artistry, and an illustration of the spirit of the age: that wonderful mix of increased reading (especially among women), lingering medieval clichés in love, and raw human emotions that are timeless.

Two evenly matched and inward-looking (ABBA) quatrains make up the octave, with the linchpin of their comparison (and echo of the previous sonnet)—the word “pity”—coming in the third line of each. The first quatrain recites the now-familiar tale of woe for our speaker: his love-sick pining for Stella is written all over his face, but she appears oblivious to it, even though she knows perfectly well (line 4) that she causes it. In the third line, both “skill” and “disgrace” have older meanings; “cannot skill” means she lacks the ability, or in this context the imagination, to understand and thus pity his need for grace from another; that is, “disgrace” originally and more literally meant the loss of standing in the eyes of another, whether deserved or not; it gradually evolved to its closer connection with the subject’s own behavior.

On the other hand, Stella in the second quatrain is apparently quite a fan of the “chick-lit” of the day, the romantic tales, for example, from which Shakespeare may have drawn the plots of Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and various other plays: tales of “lovers never known,” which here has the double meaning that these lovers are fictitious to begin with, and that, of course, they are people Stella has not even met. And her imaginative response to these fictitious beings is everything a writer could ask for: the tears flow freely.

“Alas,” indeed!  What’s a real, flesh-and-blood lover to do, against such competition? The problem is that she has “free scope”—with no taint to her honor—to pour out pity on creatures of fiction, whereas honor requires aloofness (“new doubts”) to the “wrack” of her present and visible “servant,” the speaker. In despair, the speaker seeks to undo his physical presence (“I am not I”—a clever metrical pun, since “I am” is in fact not the iamb that it is supposed to be) and be replaced by the sad, romantic “tale” of himself, so that Stella might show “pity” without loss of honor. That this sentiment is expressed in a Petrarchan sonnet—and among many other such sonnets—may be a sort of self-fulfillment of the wish to present lover as “tale.”

Next time (weekend of April 4): Sonnet 46
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 8

Love, born in Greece, of late fled from his native place,
Forced by a tedious proof that Turkish hardened heart
Is no fit mark to pierce with his fine pointed dart;
And, pleased with our soft peace, stayed here his flying race.
But, finding these north climes too coldly him embrace,
Not used to frozen clips, he strave to find some part
Where with most ease and warmth he might employ his art.
At length he perched himself in Stella’s joyful face,
Whose fair skin, beamy eyes, like morning sun on snow,
Deceived the quaking boy, who thought, from so pure light
Effects of lively heat must needs in nature grow:
But she, most fair, most cold, made him thence take his flight
To my close heart; where, while some firebrands he did lay,
He burnt unwares his wings, and cannot fly away.

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 hexameters here reflect the “transfer” of a Greek figure (various ancient Greek poets wrote in hexameters) to an alien clime.  This poem makes quite a complex conceit from that fairly simple idea, and also makes explicit for the first time in the sequence its central tragic fact: that Stella is “cold” to the speaker’s love.

The poem’s conceit is that Greece, having lately fallen under control of the Ottoman Empire, is no longer hospitable to the god of love, Eros (Cupid, to Sidney, and often simply called “Love” in Renaissance verse), whose arrows can no longer pierce the Turk-hardened hearts. The word “proof” in the second line is the word we use in “fire-proof” or that Romeo uses when he says he is “proof” against his enemies if he is armed merely be Juliet’s smiles. And the word “heart” there is the first of two puns on that word (or even three, if you want to press the case that Cupid in line 7 was also employing his “heart” (“art”) when he sought out Stella, so that his own case is parallel to the speaker’s), since the hart (deer) was the most common game animal for gentlemen hunters.

So Cupid has relocated to England, a more peaceful place—but also a chilly climate for a Greek who doesn’t wear much! Sidney is again foreshadowing the metaphysical rhetoric of John Donne, in which a seemingly trivial detail of one trope opens up a whole new idea of even greater interest than the last (think of moth to a flame–>phoenix–>”die and rise again”–>canonization).  Here the (seemingly trivial) cold climate drives Cupid to seek warmth in Stella’s “beamy eyes” (those eyes again!), but alas they turn out to be “like morning sun on snow”—i.e., all bright light and no heat. For the first time in the sonnet sequence, the essential Stella is described: “most fair, most cold.”  This coldness is, from her perspective, her “virtue” or the dictate of Reason, while, from the speaker’s perspective, it is both ingratitude and folly—and of course (with just a few happy interruptions) constantly frustrating.

I should pause to point out a metrical rarity: you can almost count on one hand (there are six) the sonnets in A & S that do not have a strong stop after the eighth line, and this is one (the others being 79, 86, 89, 98, and 108). The effect is a “clipped” stay—lines 5-7, rather than the whole quatrain—in the cold (the word “clips” in line 6 has multiple meanings; the most direct is “hugs,” referring back to “embrace,” but in context it also evokes clips that might be on Cupid’s hunting weapons or on his tunic, or the blow of cold winds) and an elongated one—lines 8-11—in the promised heat of Stella’s eyes. Lines 5-11, almost always in Sidney divided 4-3, are here divided 3-4 by punctuation, despite the rhyme.

But we are back on familiar ground with a strong break and a fulcrum after the eleventh line. That line (content-wise) brings us to what we might have expected was the “end” of any previous sonnet in the sequence, and the end of Cupid’s journey: yes, of course, Love comes to reside in Stella’s beautiful face, as who wouldn’t?

But the fulcrum is a “but” (as fulcrums so often are; sonnets tend to turn on their buts), and in the remaining three lines we get yet another twist in Cupid’s strange eventful history: naturally he finds a more receptive place in the heart* of the speaker, but in laying on the fire there, he accidentally (like a “fly” with a “taper,” as Donne might say) burns his wings, and thus has to settle in permanently.  The “trembling voice” that undercut the speaker’s bold, blunt words in the last line of Sonnet 6 has now been fully embodied in that most pathetic of figures: the Petrarchan lover whose unremitting love is also unrequited.

* The word-play in and around the simple phrase “close heart” is so delicious I need extra space to talk about it. At the simplest level, his heart is “close” because it is always with Stella, but “close” (=closet) also means a small sitting room, and “heart” is clearly intended to suggest “hearth.”  Thus we are set up for the final image of Cupid clumsily piling logs on a fire.  But how the mighty have fallen, from the heart-pun in the second line to the heart-pun in the second-to-last line!  In the former he was a lord hunting in his own deer-park, perhaps; in the latter he is an unattended shivering boy in a small, cold room, trying to get a fire going.  Stella has reduced him too.

Next time (weekend of November 16): Sonnet 9

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