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 57

Woe, having made with many fights his own
Each sense of mine; each gift, each power of mind
Grown now his slaves, he forced them out to find
The thoroughest words, fit for Woe’s self to groan,
Hoping that when they might find Stella alone,
Before she could prepare to be unkind,
Her soul, armed but with such a dainty rind,
Should soon be pierced with sharpness of the moan.
She heard my plaints, and did not only hear,
But them (so sweet is she) most sweetly sing,
With that fair breast making woe’s darkness clear:
A pretty case! I hoped her to bring
To feel my griefs, and she with face and voice
So sweets my pains, that my pains me rejoice.

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 line 4, “thouroughest” must be elided to two syllables, “thorough’st”; and “hoped” in line 12 has two syllables.

As we have seen Love (frequently), Virtue, and Reason personified, now for the first time it is Woe, who after “many fights” (presumably the speaker’s valiant attempts to keep his spirits up) has taken over (made “slaves” of) every single one of the speaker’s faculties, starting, naturally enough, with the “external” parts, the senses. And once installed in power, Woe starts ordering the “slaves” to bring him “words” with which to “groan,” obviously Woe’s favorite thing to do; so we are once again talking about the process by which this woeful poetry comes into being.

This discussion in the first quatrain runs right on into the second, but the verbal “Hoping” that starts line 5 is ambiguous: it should modify “Woe’s self,” but it gradually becomes clear that the character Woe has been forgotten, and the poem has segued into talking only about the speaker/poet and his poetry. And the hope we’re talking about here is the same expressed all the way back in Sonnet 1, the hope

That she (dear she) might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know;
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain. . .

. . . with the specific additions here that if she were alone (thus able to be unguarded and sincere in her response), her “dainty rind” or lovely exterior would likely be sensitive and susceptible to the appeal.

Then, as the sestet begins, a new turn of events! For the first time in the sequence we are told that Stella is not only paying attention, but is actually sharing the sonnets aloud (“sing” should surely be understood as hyperbole for simply reading, reflecting how the poet would feel about such a performance). Note the small “sound effect” in line 11: the line “stumbles” a bit on the four syllables “making woe’s dark-,” since “making” is a “backwards” foot (trochee rather than iamb) and “woe’s dark-” is, in effect, a spondee. But on “-ness clear,” iambic order is restored, as if by Stella’s perfect voice; the sound of the line imitates its sense.

“A pretty case!” is Elizabethan jargon for a dilemma or paradox, though the phrase obviously has double meaning here, because of the bodily form in which the “case” has been presented. The paradox is that by recognizing and celebrating the speaker’s woe, Stella has obliterated it; the pain itself, in her sweet voice, perforce must give him joy.

Next time (weekend of September 19): Sonnet 58
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.