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.