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 31

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies;
How silently, and with how wan a face.
What, may it be that even in heav’nly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?
Sure, if that long-with-love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case;
I read it in thy looks; thy languished grace
To me, that feel the like, thy state descries.
Then even of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deemed there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be loved, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?

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 both lines 3 and 9 is one syllable.

“What” at the start of line 3 is an expletive (common in Renaissance verse); resist the urge to ignore the comma and read “What may it be . . .”

“Above” in line 12 modifies “they,” and should therefore be followed by a slight lift before reading on; this also adds emphasis to the bevy of rhymes right there.

The inversion in the final line will be discussed below.

This is one of the best-known, oft-anthologized Sidney poems, and for good reason—although reading it outside the context of the whole sequence, or following only other popular ones such as Sonnets 1 and 10, might make a reader wonder why the speaker has “suddenly” taken such a dim view of Stella. Those of us who have been carefully following the whole sonnet sequence, of course, are right at home with these complaints.

Personifying the moon is a cliché of poetry and song, and Sidney was by no means the first to focus on paleness as the moon’s most noticeable feature. But this poem is a world apart from “Shine on, harvest moon” or even “Blue moon, you saw me standing alone,” in the closeness it achieves with the personified object. With the phrase “even of fellowship,” we realize we are looking at two guys who find themselves otherwise alone, in the pub on a Friday night, when everyone else has a date. The shared confidence between strangers, the immediate assumption that the other guy’s “case” is precisely the same as yours—this is the realism in the midst of utter fantasy that makes this one of the greatest poems in the language.

Structurally, the poem is as typical a model of Sidney’s sonnets as there could be: his favorite octave, sestet, and whole rhyme scheme; a fulcrum after line 8 (though not with a u-turn, just a “new departure” in the conversation); and a quiet division of the sestet, indicated simply by having each tercet start with a two-line question, and follow with a one-line question. The poem is a structural equivalent of a little black dress, simple and understated but elegant and classic.

The opening line establishes a literal scene, but also subtly indicates the speaker’s lonely condition and state of mind: is this a slow evening, or what? (Watching a moon rise, when you remove the poetry, must be akin to watching grass grow or paint dry.) The “wan face” is, from old, stereotypical for a courtly lover, so the mental association immediately bumps the speaker away from natural observation to the mythology of love, specifically his favorite tormentor, Cupid.

As a lover’s acquaintances are all too apt to do, the speaker leaps at once (“Sure”) to the answer to his own question, and the assumption that the moon must suffer the same affliction as himself. “If that” means “if it be that,” or simply “if,” so the unstressed “that” is barely a hiccup in the reading. The hyphens in the phrase that follows are crucial to the reading. Strictly speaking, we use one-word modifiers before nouns in English, and multi-word modifiers (such as prepositional phrases or relative clauses) after; so hyphens are crucial to turn many words into one. If you don’t believe me, take the hyphens out (as some editors, alas, do) and put the poem in front of a class of first-time viewers, and see how this line turns out! “Eyes” is of course a conventional synecdoche* for the speaker himself, who feels he is precisely the fellow-sufferer who can best judge the moon’s symptoms: just like him, the moon “feelst a lover’s case.”  This is a metaphysical claim, and like most such claims (in poetry, at least) it is both preposterous and totally convincing (slow steps, wan face . . .) at the same time.

Readers of the whole sequence to this point know that the speaker has been getting precious little sympathy or empathy from his friends. In catch-phrases from the world of 20th-century entertainment, while he “can’t get no satisfaction” in his love-life, he also “can’t get no respect” from those who know him best. So his recognition of a fellow-sufferer on whom he can disburden himself (albeit indirectly, through more questions) is heart-felt. The four questions to the moon in the sestet reveal the deep bitterness he feels at Stella’s response to his love, and at least his view of the complexity or hypocrisy of that response. She could, after all, just tell him to drop dead, and put an end to all this foolishness. Instead, she just questions his sanity (“wit”); instead, she “loves to be loved,” and appears to take pride in both the attention and her virtuous rejection of it.

The final line almost certainly needs to be read as a tortured inversion meaning (in normal order) “Do they call ungratefulness virtue there?” I say “almost” because a case might be made that the speaker has shifted to a comparison with himself, and might be admitting that he refers to Stella’s “virtue” as “ungratefulness.” But such a reading disrupts a consistent pattern, established in the sestet, of describing the attitudes of “proud” beauties, by implication the attitude of Stella. And the most logical extension, in particular, of lines 12 and 13, is that Stella takes mere ingratitude and dresses it up with the name of “virtue.”

So the poem has moved seamlessly from natural description to fanciful conversation to a set of questions that reveal more than they ask.

* the poetic figure in which a part stands for a whole, and quite often taking the form of part of the body representing the whole person.

Next time (weekend of September 20): Sonnet 32

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 29

Like some weak lords, neighbored by mighty kings,
To keep themselves and their chief cities free,
Do easily yield, that all their coasts may be
Ready to store their camps of needful things:
So Stella’s heart, finding what power Love brings,
To keep itself in life and liberty,
Doth willing grant, that in the frontiers he
Use all to help his other conquerings.
And thus her heart escapes; but thus her eyes
Serve him with shot, her lips his heralds are;
Her breasts his tents, legs his triumphal car;
Her flesh his food, her skin his armor brave;
And I, but for because my prospect lies
Upon that coast, am given up for a slave.

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: somewhat confusingly, the pronoun “their” in lines 2 and 3 refers to the “weak lords,” while the same pronoun in line 4 refers to the “mighty kings.”

“Power” in line 5 and “given” in line 14 are each one syllable.

Sonnet 29 is a perfect illustration of a conceit, an elaborate analogy often extended over many lines or, in this case, the entire poem. Here Stella is compared to the delicate geopolitical situation in which “weak lords” surrender to “mighty kings” without a fight, in order to keep their own subjection from being even worse. The poem envisions that the yielders would thus retain their basic freedoms, keep their cities intact, and go on about their business, while the conquerors would make use of the countryside and the coasts to maintain their supply lines. The “weak lords” are thus both conquered and free at the same time, the essential paradox that pertains to what is being said about Stella.

Stella, to keep her heart “in life and liberty” from the power of Love, has yielded up the “frontiers,” or all her outward parts—a similar distinction to that drawn in the sestet of Sonnet 12. And Love (i.e., personified love, or Cupid) uses all those outlying areas—Stella’s attractive features—“to help his other conquering,” i.e. (consistent with the conceit) to assist him in conquering other people.

As we move into the sestet, a blazon of those external features—familiar to us already from Sonnets 9, 12, and 13—is called for, with each being given a supply-line use more or less appropriate to either its form or its function. We have seen already (e.g., Sonnet 17), for instance, how Stella’s darting, dark, and shining eyes supply Cupid with his arrows (“shot”); and the others really require no explanation.

The final focus on the speaker is limited to two lines, so we might expect Sidney to have arranged the rhymes (as he often does) to produce a couplet here; but of course he does not, so the point about the speaker’s proximity to Stella (the outward Stella, not her heart; compare with the endings of Sonnets 17 and 20) is not a separate one, but is integrated with the other effects (collateral damage, we might call it) of Stella’s surrender.

Which brings me, finally, to what intrigues me most about this sonnet. The political side of the analogy is easy enough to understand; while giving up one’s freedom in order to remain free is a paradox, it is a semantic one only, by no means an impossibility, or even unusual. And we dealt in Sonnet 12 with the idea of Cupid setting out to conquer Stella’s heart, but not getting past her outward parts. But what does it mean that “Stella’s heart, finding what power Love brings,” should yield, even partially, to that power? That strikes me as a different statement about Stella than Sonnet 12 makes, unless we just shrug and say “No, he doesn’t really mean it that way”—which I’m not inclined to do. The paradox of being enslaved in order to remain free may be merely semantic for kingdoms and cities, but a woman who has surrendered to Love in order to remain free of love is a very Escher print of a paradox—an insight, perhaps, into the real-life contradiction (a woman who loves him but refuses to love him) that “Stella” presents to the poet.

Next time (weekend of August 23): Sonnet 30

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 28

You that with allegory’s curious frame
Of others’ children changelings use to make,
With me those pains, for God’s sake, do not take;
I list not dig so deep for brazen fame.
When I say “Stella,” I do mean the same
Princess of beauty for whose only sake
The reins of love I love, though never slake,
And joy therein, though nations count it shame.
I beg no subject to use eloquence,
Nor in hid ways do guide philosophy;
Look at my hands for no such quintessence.
But know that I, in pure simplicity
Breathe out the flames which burn within my heart,
Love only reading unto me this art.

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.

It’s not unusual, in an introductory literature course, for a student to tell me something like this: “I’ve never been any good at reading poetry, because I can’t find those hidden meanings.”  At such times I have to insist that there are no “hidden” meanings; if a meaning can not be found in, and supported by, the words of the poem, then it’s not there. Poets write to reveal truths, not to conceal them. One of the first slogans I write large on my blackboard is: POETRY IS WRITTEN TO MAKE SENSE.

But I may be at least partly to blame for the defeatist attitude, because I also write on the board: EVERYTHING MEANS SOMETHING ELSE. This is not just a statement about poetry; it is, indeed, a statement about everything. A student’s posture in my classroom has meaning. Whether a man does or does not wear a tie to work has meaning. Posture is still posture and a tie is still a tie, but we ignore the symbolism of the details of our life at our peril. The meanings may not be obvious, but that is why developing symbolic literacy is just as important as other basic kinds of learning, and incidentally why the study of poetry is a good preparation for life.

But say I wore a red tie to work one day, and someone said to me that this color tie indicated my affiliation with a local gang whose chosen color was red. This would of course be a preposterous assignment of meaning, based only on coincidence, and having nothing to do with either the conventional symbolism of ties or the context in which I was wearing the tie. Conventional understandings (e.g., Venus = love, Mars = war) and specific context are what we use to identify the “extra” meanings of things.

Now, Stella is the name chosen for a specific (apparently lovely) woman, and that Stella is rich in additional meaning is evident from the fact that 108 sonnets are addressed to her, and written about her. But if someone said, “When Sidney writes about Stella, he is really writing about his lost religious faith, and his strong desire to get it back,” I would have to blow the whistle on that one! I can’t deny that one of these poems might make that thought come into your head, but if so, a lot of other people’s poems would make the same thought come into your head, because the thought is already in your head, and not in the poem itself. This is an example of imposing an allegorical meaning that is supported neither by convention nor context.

And fortunately for me and my profession, Sidney himself has addressed such allegorical reading in this sonnet. The allegorists, he says, “Of others’ children changelings use to make.” The “children” here are clearly the poet’s offspring, or poems, and “changelings” (the most notable of which is at the center of the plot of Midsummer Night’s Dream) are babies exchanged by fairies during the night, so that fairies have the most beautiful babies and mortals are left with the ugly ones. (“Use to” is the archaic idiom meaning “are accustomed to.”) That is, such people are making a poem something it is not, by digging “deep” below what the poem actually says on its surface. There is wonderful word-play in both of the rhyming phrases “curious frame” and “brazen fame.” The “frame” into which the poem is being unnaturally squeezed is “curious” in that it is very carefully studied and inquisitive, but also in being odd or strange. And in rejecting “brazen fame,” the poet/speaker is saying both that he is not reaching so high (brazen = arrogant) and that such meaning cheapens his actual intent (brazen = brass, inferior to gold or silver).

The second quatrain states the simple and obvious about the sonnets, but also acknowledges the challenge and complexity of the speaker’s situation: he loves the “reins” (the control over him, or his thralldom) of love, though these reins are never slack (“slake”) or easy; and though everybody (“nations”) tries to talk him out of this shameful infatuation (as we have already seen repeatedly).

The first tercet of the sestet is fairly clear in its full meaning, though the specific wording may be a bit obscure. I think “subject” in line 9, like “philosophy” in line 10, can be understood as a special rhetorical purpose beyond what the poems directly say; and note that line 10 explicitly rejects “hid” meanings! (Students please take note!) “Quintessence” in line 11 is literally the “fifth element” of which only celestial objects were made. (The periodic chart for our own planet had only four elements at this point in history.) The word implies strongly that the poems are not pretending to be something they aren’t.

The fulcrum comes after line 11, as the poet/speaker shifts from the somewhat elaborated statement of what he is not doing to a simpler account of what he is doing, which is following the dictates of the Muse in Sonnet 1: “Look in thy heart and write.”

Next time (weekend of August 9): Sonnet 29
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 27

Because I oft, in dark abstracted guise
Seem most alone in greatest company,
With dearth of words, or answers quite awry,
To them that would make speech of speech arise,
They deem, and of their doom the rumor flies,
That poison foul of bubbling pride doth lie
So in my swelling breast that only I
Fawn on myself, and others do despise.
Yet pride, I think, doth not my soul possess,
Which looks too oft in his unflatt’ring glass;
But one worse fault, ambition, I confess,
That makes me oft my best friends overpass,
Unseen, unheard, while thought to highest place
Bends all his powers, even unto Stella’s grace.

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 lines 7-8 “only” modifies “Fawn,” not “I”; so there is a slight lift after “only,” followed by “I fawn on myself” as a connected clause.

Both “powers” and “even” in the final line are single-syllable.

Notice also that “company,” “awry,” “lie,” and “I” are all supposed to rhyme, although this is observed only mentally (not vocally) in modern reading. Oddly enough, it is most likely the final sound in “company” that was heard in all four; the Great Vowel Shift was still in process when Sidney was writing.

This sonnet is such a close companion to Sonnet 23—the poem on melancholy—that one could almost be a superseded draft for the other, except there is no clear “winner.”  Instead, we must consider that the particular topic presented Sidney with enough matter for two fine sonnets, not to mention a number of others (e.g., Sonnet 30) in which the speaker’s self-absorption is at least mentioned.

Both 23 and this one depict concerned friends pondering reasons why the speaker seems so aloof and distracted, and get it wrong; and both of course end with the speaker giving the “right” answer. Both sonnets use the whole first quatrain to set the scene, although there is a closer grammatical link between lines 4 and 5 in this one than in the other. The second quatrain begins the list of reasons, but now observe carefully how the poet’s thought process on the same stimulus takes a new direction. In Sonnet 23, there were three reasons offered, with the third, ambition, occupying the first half of the sestet, the fulcrum coming after line 11, and the speaker’s response taking only the final three lines. In Sonnet 27, the sole reason given by the friends, the “poison foul of bubbling pride,” fills the second quatrain, and the speaker uses the entire sestet to respond. In fact, not only is the fulcrum after line 8 (the most typical place for an Italian sonnet), but this is a relatively rare sonnet in which Sidney does not make a strong break after line 11, but runs the whole argument of the sestet together. As in 23, the sestet brings up ambition as an issue, but it’s as if the speaker is saying “Wait a minute—come to think of it, it IS ambition, but not the way you thought.” And the sonnet ends with the customary fixation on Stella, here framed as the speaker’s aiming higher than is his due.

Let’s walk through it more carefully:

Again we are reminded of Hamlet, not just by the speaker’s “dark abstracted guise,” but also by the alternative possibilities of either “dearth of words” or “answers quite awry.” And the friends are described dismissively as “them that would make speech of speech arise”—i.e. people who engage in small talk, and think that when they have said anything, they are owed a response. Surely the speaker’s attitude is an exaggerated description for the polished courtier Sidney, but one can’t help wondering if the poet Sidney shares some of the shyness and introversion of the much later poet John Keats, and that poet’s impatience with clever acquaintances.

The sentence begun in line 1 continues right through the octave, and we do not reach the main clause until line 5, a line with wonderful sound effects: “They deem, and of their doom the rumor flies.” First I should explain that “doom” originally meant simply “judgment” (before it underwent pejoration to mean “condemnation”) so a paraphrase of this line is “They judge, and of their judgment, the popular opinion is formed that starts to spread around.”  But the sounds of the line, by themselves, paint a picture of how rumor departs by steady steps from truth. The steps are (1) “they deem,” connected by alliteration and consonance to (2) “their doom,” which is echoed and weakened in (3) “the rumor” (assonance, or in effect, given the successive stresses on “doom” and “rum-“, an internal rhyme, as if one slightly misheard the first word and repeated it as the second).

What their judgment, and the subsequent rumor, is, of course, is that it is the speaker’s pride and egotism (“that only I/Fawn on myself”) that make him so aloof. But that could hardly be the case, he protests, because his soul sees nothing good when it looks in the mirror. We might interpret that metaphor as meaning he feels some guilt over his misplaced passion, or, alternatively, translating “soul” more loosely as “self,” that his ego takes regular poundings in his encounters with the woman he loves.

And here, as discussed above, he allows of the possibility that the fault really is ambition after all—just not the political sort of ambition that his critics would expect. In his distracted daydreaming, the speaker aspires to the “highest place” imaginable: “Stella’s grace”; i.e., Stella’s showering divine blessings on him figuratively, while literally giving in to his will.

Next time (weekend of July 26): Sonnet 28

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 24

Rich fools there be, whose base and filthy heart
Lies hatching still the goods wherein they flow,
And damning their own selves to Tantal’s smart,
Wealth breeding want, more blest, more wretched grow.
Yet to those fools heaven such wit doth impart,
As what their hands do hold, their heads do know,
And knowing, love, and loving, lay apart
As sacred things, far from all danger’s show.
But that rich fool, who by blind fortune’s lot
The richest gem of love and life enjoys,
And can with foul abuse such beauties blot,
Let him, deprived of sweet but unfelt joys,
Exiled for aye from those high treasures which
He knows not, grow in only folly rich!

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.

Insofar as Astrophil and Stella is a sort of roman à clef, this sonnet is one of the clefs, punning a little too obviously on the title of Lord Rich, the man to whom Penelope Devereux was married, presumably for his better financial prospects.

The first two lines appear to be a multiple mixed metaphor, only partially extenuated by the facts that “hearts” can “hatch” things such as ideas, and the sense of the verb “flow” here is “to be affluent in.” Nevertheless, the basic idea of the first quatrain is clear enough: for these “rich fools,” the heart is set only on getting still richer, which leads them (lines 3 and 4) to the fate of Tantalus, never being able to reach as much as they want, and thus growing more “wretched” even as they grow richer (“more blest”).

And yet (second quatrain) such fools can be capable of love, if only love of material things (presumably gems and such) which they hide away for themselves. This quatrain seems to point toward the idea that Lord Rich is keeping “Stella” (Penelope) away from the poet/speaker. But the sestet goes still another way: this particular “rich fool” (Lord Rich), who, “by blind fortune’s lot” (Dame Fortune was sometimes depicted as blindfolded while turning her randomizing wheel) has gotten the speaker’s girl, might be too stupid to know what sort of “gem” he has in his own possession, and that is the fate the speaker wishes for him (“Let him . . .”), so that he (Rich) will grow only in folly, not in love.

(What follows is my first reading:)

The pun on Lord Rich’s name, in addition to limiting the poem’s vocabulary, makes the personal nature of the sonnet a little too obvious, and the tightness of the logic or the conceit suffers as a result. Granted, the fate envisioned for the “rich fool” at the end of the poem relates reasonably well to the folly described in the first quatrain—a “heart” that can focus only on increasing wealth, and thus is doomed to frustration—but the path between the two is wandering and obscure. Sidney seems to want to explore a second possibility, that even a rich fool whose heart is set on wealth can recognize the value of a rare gem, and keep it in a safe place, and that such possessiveness could be a (presumably debased) form of love. This implies a frustration on the speaker’s (and Sidney’s) part that he is denied access to the woman he loves by a jealous husband.

But this implication is at least partly misleading, because the real point turns out to be an irony: even rich fools have enough sense to know when they have a gem, but Lord Rich is perhaps not even that smart. It’s a big “perhaps,” though. The second quatrain has already conceded the possibility that he does know, and therefore the final three lines express a wish, rather than a certainty. Reality is muddying the clear waters of poetry here.

(Now, on returning to the sonnet many months later, I am struck with the possibility that I, too, have missed the worth of the gem I have before me. Following my principle that poetry is written to make sense, let me try again:)

The sonnet is best understood by the “innocent” reader who does not realize that a person named Rich is Stella’s husband until reaching the end. The “Rich fools” named in the opening line and discussed in the octave are an entirely different, generic, set of people, first described by their folly (first quatrain), and then (second quatrain) by their one slightly redeeming bit of intelligence. If the speaker has been led to the topic by his rival’s name, he is, for this much of the poem, simply saying “If he is a typical rich fool, this is what he’s supposed to be like.”

It is only with the words “that rich fool” and the perfectly clear relative clause that describes him in lines 9-11, that we are talking specifically about Stella’s husband, and, as discussed above, he lacks even the slight redeeming grace of knowing the worth of what he’s got.

Next time (weekend of June 14): Sonnet 25

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 22

In highest way of heaven the Sun did ride,
Progressing then from fair twins’ golden place:
Having no scarf of clouds before his face,
But shining forth of heat in his chief pride,
When some fair ladies, by hard promise tied,
On horseback met him in his furious race;
Yet each prepared with fan’s well-shading grace,
From that foe’s wounds their tender skins to hide.
Stella alone with face unarmed marched.
Either to do like him which open shone,
Or careless of the wealth because her own:
Yet were the hid and meaner beauties parched,
Her daintiest bare went free. The cause was this:
The Sun, which others burned, did her but kiss.

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: Line 9: “unarmèd” is three syllables, while “marched” is one.

A change of pace from many of the sonnets surrounding it, as this one again focuses entirely on the glory that is Stella, instead of on the speaker’s folly in loving her. This is a charming little tale, which is definitely allegorical, but also reads as if it might be based on a real incident.  The opening quatrain sets the scene as mid-day (the sun is at the “highest way of heaven”) in the hottest time of year (late June or July, when the sun is in Gemini) and with no clouds in the sky.

In other words, it is a terrible time for ladies who are concerned about their complexions to be traveling out of doors; but this particular group of ladies (Stella among them) are committed (“by hard promise tied”) to an outing on horseback, despite the adverse sunshine. As the octave ends, we learn that “each” lady has brought a fan with which to shield her face . . .

. . . except for Stella, we learn in the sestet, after the fulcrum. She marches “unarmed” into what we might now call a face-off with the sun; she faces the sun down because she shines just as bright, and the sun’s “wealth” is actually her own.

So several ladies protected by sun-screens, Stella recklessly uncovered, and what is the outcome? The other ladies were sun-burned, while Stella was not. And why? Even the sun is drawn to Stella’s brightness, and can only meekly “kiss” her, despite his power.

Next time (week of May 27): Sonnet 23

(The timing of these posts has been altered slightly by my trip to England)

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 21

Your words, my friend, right healthful caustics, blame
My young mind marred, whom love doth windlass so
That mine own writings like bad servants show,
My wits, quick in vain thoughts, in virtue lame;
That Plato I read for nought, but if he tame
Such coltish gyres; that to my birth I owe
Nobler desires, lest else that friendly foe,
Great expectation, wear a train of shame.
For since mad March great promise made of me,
If now the May of my years much decline,
What can be hoped my harvest time will be?
Sure you say well; your wisdom’s golden mine
Dig deep with learning’s spade; now tell me this,
Hath this world aught so fair as Stella is?

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.

Once again we have a sonnet that is very “contextual”; i.e., while it can certainly be understood standing alone, it is also very clearly part of an ongoing conversation, ostensibly between the poet and his skeptical friends, either reflected or invented in several sonnets in this stretch of the sequence. This one parallels Sonnet 18 rather closely, for instance (with the auditor there turning into a medical doctor here), and the reference to reading Plato anticipates Sonnet 25. Every critical argument against the infatuation listed here is found in one or more of the sonnets nearby.

The auditor of Sonnet 18 has turned into a medical doctor here, at least for the first line. The phrase “right healthful caustics” is an oxymoron (indeed, “caustics” is an oxymoronic word by itself) because the effect of caustics is both to heal and to burn, or sting. And that, of course, is the effect of the critical friend’s well-intended words.

The wise friend is described at the end of the poem as well-spoken and a deep mine of wisdom and learning; the complexity of the single sentence that makes up the octave would seem to reflect this description. A rough outline of its dependencies looks like:

Your words . . .blame … my mind
WHOM love doth windlass so
THAT mine own writings . . . show/My wits
QUICK in . . . etc.
THAT Plato I read for nought
BUT IF [i.e., unless] he tame . . . gyres
THAT to my birth . . . Nobler desires
LEST ELSE . . . foe . . . wear . . . shame.

[My apologies that the formatter for this blog will simply not allow me to align these lines as intended to show the dependencies; you are on your own, gentle reader, in determining which part of the previous line each new line “hangs” from!]

The friend’s message, despite the medical start, turns out to be the opposite of a consistent conceit; it is more like a series of varied and interesting “stabs” at some way to get through to the besotted speaker. First, the blunt phrase: “young mind marred.” That’s obviously not enough, and complicated elaboration follows as the friend fishes for an effective approach. The verb “windlass” offers several visual possibilities at once. It was used to refer to any sort of mechanical device, and specifically to (1) the winding mechanism on a cross-bow, (2) a trap or snare used in hunting, or (3) an instrument of torture; so any or all of these are plausible images of what love is doing to the speaker. (And by now we also know well that “love” itself offers the double possibility of the god Cupid or, more abstractly, the emotion.)

In any case (or I should say in all cases, since simultaneous multiple meanings are the stuff of great poetry) the effect of love’s windlassing is that the speaker’s writings—the very sonnets we are reading—are behaving like “bad servants,” who are notorious for giving away their masters’ secrets and foibles. Here these servants, in a wonderfully crafted line, reveal “My wits, [which are] quick in vain thoughts, [to be] in virtue lame.” The line is a compressed, effective version of the usually-clunky parallel structure of Euphuism. The adjectives “quick” and “lame” are opposites, as are the alliterative noun phrases “vain thoughts” and “virtue”; so there is a full chiasmus within 4/5 of a pentameter line. And just incidentally, Sidney is bragging on the art of his own sonnets, while questioning their virtue and wisdom.

The friend renews his attack in the second quatrain, making reference to the speaker’s education (reading Plato), which seems to be wasted, since it is having no practical effect (it is not subjecting “coltish gyres”—the beastly gyrations of appetite—to reason); and to his pedigree and upbringing which should promise better things. Sidney reveals himself in the sonnets to be particularly sensitive to his own image among his highly placed connections; to the “Great expectation” which proves to be a “friendly foe” in that it challenges him to greatness, but also offers a critical measure when he comes up short, not unlike, in fact, the critical friend who is making this argument. A “train of shame” not only echoes “vain” and “lame” (and doubles up the assonance found there) but it is a wonderful image for the way such shame among one’s peers may attach itself like a bad odor and follow one wherever he goes.

The first half of the sestet sticks with this concern about expectations, perhaps making reference (“mad March great promise made of me”) to a specific moment of significant praise in Sidney’s life: as Duncan-Jones’s note suggests, this may be his “embassy to the Holy Roman Emperor in the spring of 1577.”  We shift from a promising March that may be both literal and figurative to a May that is definitely metaphorical; i.e., the speaker is still young, and should be enjoying his great promise. But in his “May,” according to his friends, he is disgracing himself; so how could he possibly have honor in his “harvest time” of later life?

The friend’s argument concludes with line 11, and the speaker uses more than a line and a half of what remains to give the argument its just due as “wisdom’s golden mine [dug] deep with learning’s spade.”* The most immediate meaning of this metaphor, given the word “golden,” is the modern understanding of a “mine” where one would dig for gold. But there is also the subtle undertone of a soldier’s understanding of “mine” as that which is dug to undermine or break open a city’s walls—another obvious way to look at the friend’s argument. Either way, the argument is not getting through to the speaker, of course. With his customary simplicity (or obtuseness, in the eyes of his friends), he counters the entire carefully crafted case with a single line of rhetorical question: “Hath this world aught so fair as Stella is?”

* Grammatically, “Dig deep” is parallel with “say well” in a compound verb phrase; i.e., it’s [Sure you] dig deep your wisdom’s etc.

Next time (week of April 29): Sonnet 22

(The timing for next two posts will be altered slightly by my trip to England)

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 20

Fly, fly, my friends, I have my death wound, fly;
See there that boy, that murth’ring boy, I say,
Who like a thief hid in dark bush doth lie,
Till bloody bullet get him wrongful prey.
So tyrant he no fitter place could spy,
Nor so fair level in so secret stay
As that sweet black which veils the heav’nly eye;
There himself with his shot he close doth lay.
Poor passenger, pass now thereby I did,
And stayed, pleased with the prospect of the place,
While that black hue from me the bad guest hid:
But straight I saw motions of lightning grace,
And then descried the glist’ring of his dart:
But ere I could fly thence, it pierced my 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.

If the “friends” being warned to save themselves here are the same friends who have been counseling reason, trying to talk the speaker out of his infatuation, and so on, the seemingly altruistic opening of this poem becomes also, in the context of the whole sequence, a witty and lighthearted way of saying (again) “Get off my back!”

The poem is a conceit, in which the speaker, in his (metaphorical) death throes, reports on how he received his fatal wound. The little tale is outlined as follows:

First quatrain: Dramatic recap of an “ambush” (i.e., briefly summarizes the “whole” event)
Second quatrain: How the ambusher came to be in place
Sestet: How the victim (the speaker) came to be victimized

I can’t absolutely prove it, but i suspect that the opening line is a conventional formula on the Medieval/Renaissance battlefield for the noble warrior who knows he has received his death wound and doesn’t want anyone else to die trying to rescue him; Sidney, as soldier, might actually have heard some form of it. Notice, for example, the recurrent pattern in Shakespeare:

Fly, father, fly! For all your friends are fled . . . 3 Henry VI, 2.5.125

Fly, lords, and save yourselves . . . 3 Henry VI, 5.2.48

Fly further off, my lord, fly further off.
Mark Antony is in your tents, my lord:
Fly, therefore, noble Cassius, fly further off. Julius Caesar 5.3.9-11

Fly, goodf Fleance, fly, fly, fly! Macbeth 3.3.25

The “murth’ring” (murdering) boy is of course Cupid, and the “bloody bullet” is his iconic arrow, which has (as we now know all too well!) been aimed at the wrong man (“wrongful prey”).

After the brief abstract, we go back to the beginning, as it were, with line 5. “So tyrant he” needs to be understood as “So great a tyrant as he . . . ,” and the word “tyrant” is not so much the despot of a whole nation as the OED’s extended sense of “Any one who acts in a cruel, violent, or wicked manner; a ruffian, desperado; a villain.” Nevertheless, there is a certain resemblance between Sidney’s Cupid and Wyatt’s personified “long love” (translated, in turn, from Petrarch) who with similar rudeness takes up residence in human features:

The long love that in my thought doth harbor
And in mine hert doth keep his residence,
Into my face presseth with bold pretence
And therein campeth, spreading his banner.

The general sense of the second quatrain is clear enough—the fittest place Cupid could find to hide was in Stella’s dark eyes—but the grammatical specifics are a little more challenging, chiefly because both “level” and “stay” in line 6 could be parsed defensibly as either nouns or verbs. “Stay,” for example, could reasonably be a verb in a parallel structure with “spy.” But as nouns, level = “aim” and stay = “support,” and I think the line is best read as a noun phrase in parallel with “place.” Thus, Cupid could find no fitter place, with no better aim (for his target) and no more secret support (for his weapon) than Stella’s dark eyes. All of these individual pieces add metaphorical richness to the conceit of a “tyrant” Cupid hidden in a woman’s eyes.

In line 9, “passenger” is used in the older, more literal sense of the word, merely a passer-by. The conceit goes forward in a fairly predictable way here, but we also, perhaps, learn something about Stella/Penelope and the speaker/Sidney’s reaction to her. He is “pleased with the prospect” when he merely looks at her, but it is only the animated Stella, the Stella who is looking back at him with “motions of lightning [also literal, growing more light] grace,” who actually allows Cupid to fire his “dart.” The flashing of those dark eyes in conversation is synonymous with the arrows of Cupid, and the speaker has been shot through the heart.

Next time (weekend of April 19): Sonnet 21

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


Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 18

With what sharp checks I in myself am shent,
When into Reason’s audit I do go:
And by just counts myself a bankrupt know
Of all those goods, which heaven to me hath lent:
Unable quite to pay even Nature’s rent,
Which unto it by birthright I do owe:
And which is worse, no good excuse can show,
But that my wealth I have most idly spent.
My youth doth waste, my knowledge brings forth toys,
My wit doth strive those passions to defend
Which for reward spoil it with vain annoys.
I see my course to lose myself doth bend:
I see and yet no greater sorrow take,
Than that I lose no more for Stella’s sake.

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 5, “even” is one syllable (“e’en”), and unstressed.

Sonnet 18 is related to the sonnets mentioned at Sonnet 14 in picturing a situation (likely a reality for Sidney) in which “cooler heads” counsel the speaker against his hopeless passion for Stella, though in this case (as in Sonnet 10) it is personified Reason, rather than flesh-and-blood friends, who makes this case.  And here Reason is not only personified, but is specifically an auditor, come to check “the books” in a financial conceit similar to one Shakespeare uses in his Sonnet 4; indeed, Shakespeare almost seems to have Sidney’s sonnet in mind as he writes his first eight lines:

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thy self thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free:
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?

The Shakespearean sonnet diverges greatly in its ultimate message, which is that the speaker’s young friend is wasting his gifts if he does not fall in love, but strictly on the topic of Nature’s “bounteous largesse” and the corresponding bankruptcy of the subject, the two sonnets are quite close.

The audit, needless to say, does not go well. The speaker is “shent” (“shend” being a good old Anglo-Saxon verb meaning to thoroughly disgrace) with sharp rebukes (“checks”) because he has spent or wasted all of his heavenly gifts, which would be chiefly the gifts that separate us from the beasts, such as soul and reason; these the speaker has abandoned.  Further (in the second quatrain), he is not even able to repay Nature’s “rent,” owed by “birthright.”  This has meaning on two quite distinct levels.  On a very basic, biological level, Nature gives us life at birth, and what we “owe” is simply to provide for ourselves the basic necessities to keep living; the speaker in his hopeless passion is barely able to do even this.*  But “Nature” and “birthright” for a Renaissance man in Sidney’s position also invoke the idea of the “natural” place we are born into, and what we “owe” in order to fulfill the demands of one’s pedigree.  The speaker, in his misplaced love, is “letting down the team” by not being all he was born to be.  The “wealth” he has squandered is of course everything but wealth in the conventional sense of the word; it is all the gifts bestowed on him by birth and Nature, including the “youth,” “knowledge,” and “wit” (i.e., wisdom) mentioned in the first half of the sestet. Those same lines (9-11), if we assume the “toys” brought forth by “knowledge” are these very sonnets, spell out the futile process of his poetry, so different from the hopeful one described in Sonnet 1. Now we see that he is left needing to “defend” the passions of the sonnets, with nothing positive offered by way of “reward.”

In short—as line 12 summarizes—his passion has put him on a path to self-destruction.  The charge is suicidal madness; how does the accused plead?  Like Nathan Hale, he regrets he has but one life to throw away in pursuit of his madness.

* Unlike some other modern editors, Duncan-Jones gives the second word of line 5 as “quit,” rather than “quite,” although her gloss (treating the word as an adverb) is then not satisfactory.  “Quite” makes easier sense to a modern ear—just an adverb modifying “unable”—but “quit,” an adjective meaning “freed from an obligation,” creates a subtle paradox: even though the debt we owe Nature costs us nothing at all, the speaker is unable to pay even that.  Think of this reading as: “Unable, quit, to pay even Nature’s rent.”

Next time (weekend of March 22): Sonnet 19

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