Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 85 and Fourth Song

I see the house; my heart, thyself contain;
Beware full sails drown not thy tottering barge,
Lest joy, by nature apt sprites to enlarge,
Thee to thy wrack beyond thy limits strain;
Nor do like lords, whose weak confused brain,
Not pointing to fit folks each undercharge,
While every office themselves will discharge,
With doing all, leave nothing done but pain.
But give apt servants their due place; let eyes
See beauty’s total sum summed in her face;
Let ears hear speech, which wit to wonder ties;
Let breath suck up those sweets; let arms embrace
The globe of weal, lips love’s indentures make;
Thou but of all the kingly tribute take.

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: “tottering” in line 2 is elided to two syllables.

The first four words indicate a continuation of the story from the previous sonnet, and the arrival at Stella’s house, or whatever home she is in. This of course creates high excitement in the speaker’s “heart,” and the sonnet is an apostrophe to the heart counseling self-control. In the metaphor of the first quatrain, the heart is likened to a sailing “barge” which can be toppled over if the sails are allowed to become too full of wind. The wind is a metaphor for the “joy” that can over-inflate eager spirits (“apt sprites”). In an older man, like Gloucester in King Lear, we might imagine the resulting “wrack” as a physical overflow in which the heart might “burst smilingly.” For our young healthy suitor, the “wrack” envisioned is more likely the cold water of reality thrown on a too-obvious joy (see the Fourth Song, which follows).

In the second quatrain, the heart is counseled not to be like those foolish “lords” who have trouble delegating; they try to “discharge” all the lesser tasks themselves, rather than appointing (“pointing”) them to underlings more “fit” to do them—and thus accomplish “nothing” but “pain.”

The wiser course of delegating tasks to the lesser parts of the body is spelled out through most of the sestet. The eyes are there to admire the “sum” of all beauty in Stella’s face; the ears soak up her wise and wonderful speech; the lungs will absorb her sweetness. The arms will “embrace/The globe of weal,” which at first blush does not sound terribly flattering to Stella’s anatomy! But “globe” must be understood as macrocosm or universe; she is the self-contained universe of all well-being.

Finally, there is a word-play that makes the pivot to the poem’s “bottom line”: the lips make love’s “indentures.” The word could just refer to the physical impression made by the lips in kissing, but “indentures” are also debts or obligations owed to love. Far from being wracked, the speaker’s heart, in acting thus wisely, has become a “lord” or “king” ready to claim his due.

Fourth Song

Only joy, now here you are,
Fit to hear and ease my care:
Let my whispering voice obtain
Sweet reward for sharpest pain:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

Night hath closed all in her cloak,
Twinkling stars love-thoughts provoke;
Danger hence good care doth keep;
Jealousy itself doth sleep:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

Better place no wit can find
Cupid’s yoke to loose or bind;
These sweet flowers on fine bed too,
Us in their best language woo:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

This small light the moon bestows
Serves thy beams but to disclose,
So to raise my hap more high;
Fear not else, none can us spy:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

That you heard was but a mouse;
Dumb sleep holdeth all the house;
Yet asleep, methinks, they say,
Young folks, take time while you may:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

Niggard time threats, if we miss
This large offer of our bliss,
Long stay ere he grant the same;
Sweet, then, while each thing doth frame:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

Your fair mother is abed,
Candles out and curtains spread;
She thinks you do letters write;
Write, but let me first indite:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

Sweet, alas, why strive you thus?
Concord better fitteth us.
Leave to Mars the force of hands,
Your power in your beauty stands:
Take me to thee, and thee to me.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

Woe to me, and do you swear
Me to hate, but I forbear?
Cursed be my destinies all,
That brought me so high, to fall;
Soon with my death I will please thee.
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

Reading notes: “whispering” in line 3 is elided to two syllables; the third line of the final stanza, “Cursed be my destinies all,” is a challenge to the poem’s metrical pattern; the best solution is two syllables (stressed, unstressed) on “Cursed” and two (stressed, unstressed) on “destinies,” eliding it to “dest’nies.”

This song has a deceptively simple verse form in which each verse has conventional—not to say trite—wooing for four lines and then a two-line refrain in which a proposition is met with a parrot-like frustrating refusal—until the final verse, in which the singer “tricks” the parrot into saying something remotely encouraging.

The first four lines of each verse are seven syllables long, typically stressed on syllables 1, 3, 5, and 7 and unstressed on 2, 4, and 6. So the meter could be understood as trochaic and lacking a final syllable; but in context it probably makes more sense to understand these lines as iambic, after a somewhat awkward and explosive first syllable. In any event, the final two lines are simple iambic tetrameter, notwithstanding that “No, no, no, no” can be stressed however one likes! It is also worth noting that the song is largely monosyllabic, with, for example, just two two-syllable words in the first stanza, none at all in the fourth, and small numbers in the others.

As with the other songs, Sidney eschews poetic subtlety or complexity for blunt and simple wooing: My love, we’re alone together at last (stanza 1); it’s dark and no one else can see us (2 and 4); we have the perfect place for love-making (3); sleeping older folks would want younger folks like us to entertain ourselves (5); time is ripe now and is not likely to provide such opportunity again (6); your mother thinks you’ve stayed up to write letters—do that but let’s do this too (7). All of these entreaties are of course unsuccessful. In the eighth stanza, he finally takes note of her resistance and argues, in effect, that they should make love, not war—no luck there either. So in a final melodramatic flourish, he claims that with a life so blighted he should just end it all, thus gaining the minimal satisfaction of having her say “No, no, no, no, my dear, let be” to that as well.

Next time (weekend of October 16): Sonnet 86
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.