Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 81

O kiss, which dost those ruddy gems impart,
Or gems, or fruits of new-found Paradise,
Breathing all bliss, and sweetening to the heart,
Teaching dumb lips a nobler exercise;
O kiss, which souls, even souls, together ties
By links of love, and only nature’s art:
How fain would I paint thee to all men’s eyes,
Or of thy gifts at least shade out some part.
But she forbids; with blushing words, she says
She builds her fame on higher-seated praise;
But my heart burns, I cannot silent be.
Then since (dear life) you fain would have me peace,
And I, mad with delight, want wit to cease,
Stop you my mouth with still, still kissing 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.

Like Sonnet 79, this one begins as an apostrophe to a kiss, the topic that has preoccupied our poet for a while. As if to compensate for the structural departure in 79, this one has rock-solid conventional Italian sonnet structure, with a full stop after line 8, and the pivotal “But” to start line 9.*

Furthermore, Sidney’s own favorite two-part sestet form receives special emphasis, with two carefully paralleled three-line sentences, rhymed CCD EED. In the first, the “camera” is on Stella for two lines, and then shifts to the speaker for the third; in the second, it stays on the speaker for two lines, and then shifts back to Stella. The CC and EE couplets are linked by consonance in the rhymes, and a But/Then contrast between what Stella does do and what the speaker would like her to do. And in the two “D” lines, “heart” and “mouth” are antitheses, while the subject of silence occupies the final three feet of each line.

Assuming a similar parallelism in the two quatrains of the octave is instructive. While the “nobler exercise” taught by the kiss might remain vague in isolation, it becomes clear from lines 7-8 that it refers to the artistic challenge of capturing Stella’s “gifts” in poetry. The painting metaphor here is the same as in Sonnets 1 and 2 (and see also Sonnets 70, 93, and 98); to “shade out” is a step beyond sketching out, so the point is he would like to “paint” her, or “at least” capture her essence in the shaded sketch. The octave also employs auxesis in building a process that looks back to Plato and forward to Wordsworth, in which the external encounter with beauty triggers a sympathetic reaction (“all bliss and sweetening”) in the heart, leading in turn to poetic inspiration and the sharing of beauty with “all men.”

But. The speaker has taken his best shot at idealizing the outcome of an illicit kiss, but the big “But” at the poem’s swivel point announces that the virtuous Stella is having none of it. “She builds her fame in higher-seated praise” implies that it is the virtuous soul, not the gorgeous flesh, that she would like to be remembered for. The conflict between her aspirations and his is familiar to all readers of the whole sequence.

So, thwarted in his frontal attempt to bestow honor on kissing, the speaker must now stoop to a clever (or so he hopes) ploy instead: if she would keep him from singing her praise, she must stop his mouth—with kissing! (as Beatrice tells her cousin Hero to do in Much Ado, to keep Claudio from speaking). The repeated “still” in the last line, sometimes printed with no comma between, could be thus understood as stretching the moment through sheer repetition, as in the phrase “for ever and ever.” But given Sidney’s fondness for antanaclasis, in which the sense of the repeated word changes a bit, a better reading might be that, while the second “still” is the common adverb, the first is a spoken “still” (as in “be still”) by Stella, to make him hold his peace. Again in Shakespeare’s Much Ado, Verges comes to mind, telling the watch to bid the nurse to “still” a crying child. In any case, the noble Platonic sentiment of the octave has been reduced by Stella’s stout virtue to a puerile gambit at the end.

*Somewhat paradoxically, the oddly-shaped 79 (as noted there) has Sidney’s most common rhyme scheme, while this very conventionally shaped one has the rare rhyme scheme (used just three times in the whole sequence) of ABABBABACCDEED; the palindromic octave is the unusual element.

Next time (weekend of August 21): Sonnet 82
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.