Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 104 and Eleventh Song

Envious wits, what hath been mine offence,
That with such poisonous care my looks you mark,
That to each word, nay, sigh, of mine you hark,
As grudging me my sorrow’s eloquence?
Ah, is it not enough that I am thence,
Thence, so far thence, that scarcely any spark
Of comfort dare come to this dungeon dark,
Where rigor’s exile locks up all my sense?
But if I by a happy window pass,
If I but stars upon mine armor bear;
Sick, thirsty, glad, though but of empty glass;
Your moral notes straight my hid meaning tear
From out my ribs, and puffing prove that I
Do Stella love.   Fools, who doth it deny?

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: The first word of the poem (somewhat unusually in Sidney’s poetry) requires all three syllables, while “poisonous” in the second line has the more usual two.

It has become apparent, near the end of the sequence, that Sidney’s sonnets to Stella are being more widely read, and have inevitably become subject to carping criticism. The phrase “Envious wits” suggests not merely the censorious friends of Sonnets 14, 20, 21, 23, 27, etc., but perhaps rival poets who envy the success of the poetry and therefore seize on the immoral subject matter and “hid meaning” as something to criticize.

The octave consists of two four-line questions, more or less parallel: (1) Why do you carp at me?; and (2) Especially when I am unhappy or unfortunate to begin with? The speaker/poet’s “eloquence” springs from “sorrow,” and this sorrow comes from being “thence,” i.e., separated from Stella and thus denied physically (“sense”) what the poetry muses upon.

The sestet complains of the critics’ tendency to “read into” every gesture of the speaker—even such trivialities as being glad to have quenched his thirst, or having stars on his armor*—some hidden expression of his love for Stella. The irony of this, and bottom line of the poem, is that they are falling all over themselves to prove an accusation that the speaker would never deny.

* Duncan-Jones offers evidence that Sidney did indeed display stars on his armor, with no connection to Stella.

Eleventh Song

“Who is it that this dark night
Underneath my window plaineth?”
It is one who from thy sight
Being, ah, exiled, disdaineth
Every other vulgar light.
‘Why, alas, and are you he?
Be not yet those fancies changed?’
Dear, when you find change in me,
Though from me you be estranged,
Let my change to ruin be.
‘Well, in absence this will die.
Leave to see, and leave to wonder.’
Absence sure will help, if I
Can learn how myself to sunder
From what in my heart doth lie.
‘But time will these thoughts remove;
Time doth work what no man knoweth.’
Time doth as the subject prove;
With time still the affection growth
In the faithful turtledove.
‘What if you new beauties see?
Will they not stir new affection?’
I will think they pictures be,
Image-like of saint’s perfection,
Poorly counterfeiting thee.
‘But your reason’s purest light
Bids you leave such minds to nourish.’
Dear, do reason no such spite;
Never doth thy beauty flourish
More than in my reason’s sight.

‘But the wrongs love bears will make
Love at length leave undertaking.’
No, the more fools it do shake,
In a ground of so firm making
Deeper still they drive the stake.
‘Peace, I think that some give ear;
Come no more, lest I get anger.’
Bliss, I will my bliss forbear,
Fearing, sweet, you to endanger,
But my soul shall harbour there.
‘Well, be gone, be gone, I say,
Lest that Argus’ eyes perceive you.’
O unjust is fortune’s sway,
Which can make me thus to leave you,
And from louts to run away!

Reading notes: Consistent with the feminine rhymes in other stanzas, the –ed syllable in “changed” and “exchanged” in the second stanza is pronounced; in the fourth stanza, “the affection” is elided to three syllables, i.e., “th’affection.”

See my previous metrical notes on Songs, especially the Fourth, Eighth, and Ninth, after Sonnets 85 and 86. This most resembles the Ninth Song, with a five-line stanza containing one feminine rhyme which dictates a trochaic rhythm throughout, even in the lines that are one syllable “short.” Here the rhyme scheme changes from ABABB (in the Ninth Song) to ABABA, the effect being that the speaker of the last three lines “matches” the challenge of the first two lines, and then is able to “top” it with one additional line.

Like most of the songs, the format allows a looser, more open-ended version of the constant debate between Stalla—the self-styled voice of reason—and her impatient and importunate lover. This particular version seems to foreshadow Romeo beneath Juliet’s window, drawn to the “light” that shines there; except that this Juliet is never going to let her lover in. The debate whips back and forth rapidly, with Stella posing question or challenge in the first two lines of each stanza, and the speaker giving his come-back in the final three.

Absence, she says in Stanza 3, should surely make him forget her; only if he is separated from his own heart, he replies. To her thought that the passage of time will help him forget, he gives a Rosalind-like answer that time works differently with different beings (“Time doth in the subject prove”); with the turtledove, for example, affection only grows with time. If his eye is caught by new beauties? Shadow versus substance; other beauties are but the poor shadows of Stella’s ideal form. The old trump card reason? As we have heard many times, reason itself must acknowledge Stella’s beauty. Somewhat in contradiction of that stanza, the one that follows acknowledges the speaker’s folly, anticipating Einstein’s definition of madness as repeating the same exercise over and over while expecting a different result: fools, on the “ground” of the “wrongs” brought by their love, just keep driving the “stake” deeper.

This game could theoretically go on all night, if not broken off by some practical concern. And so, in the penultimate stanza, Stella either senses or pretends to sense that they are being overheard (“some give ear”). This must be by her husband, since he would be the only one from whom she could “get anger.” The speaker agrees to withdraw rather than endanger her, but neither (at least in Sidney’s view) can resist taking one last dig at Lord Rich, as our final song comes to an end. Stella describes him as the odious see-all guard Argus, while the speaker laments the unjust fortune that forces a brave soldier like himself to flee from “louts.”

Next time (weekend of July 8): Sonnet 105
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 100

O tears, no tears, but rain from beauty’s skies,
Making those lilies and those roses grow,
Which aye most fair, now more than most fair show,
While graceful pity beauty beautifies:
O honeyed sighs, which from that breast do rise,
Whose pants do make unspilling cream to flow,
Winged with whose breath, so pleasing zephyrs blow,
As can refresh the hell where my soul fries:
O plaints, conserved in such a sugared phrase
That eloquence itself envies your praise,
While sobbed-out words a perfect music give:
Such tears, sighs, plaints, no sorrow is but joy;
Or if such heavenly signs must prove annoy,
All mirth farewell, let me in sorrow live.

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.

The focus shifts abruptly to Stella, in what Shakespeare’s Rosalind would call a “more coming-on disposition”—or at least in visible sorrow at the plight that separates her from the speaker’s love. Her tears, sighs, and plaints (subjects of first quatrain, second quatrain, and first half of sestet, respectively) are all hyperbolized, and imagined as promising signs of her hidden love.

The first quatrain manages a “super-superlative” in three of its four lines (1,3, and 4). The tears are more than tears, a “rain” from Plato’s realm of “beauty” watering the red and white flowers of Stella’s cheeks. Those flowers are always (“aye”) “most fair,” but now (in defiance of the meaning of “most”) become “more than most fair,” and in a typical Sidney antanaclasis, this show of “pity” by a “beauty” makes beauty still more beautiful.

Though we move on from super-superlatives, the conceit of the second quatrain is even more over the top. Sighs, of course, rise from the lungs, which means from the “breast” of a beautiful woman. Thus they represent both “cream” and such cool breezes (“so pleasing zephyrs”) that the speaker is “refresh[ed].” But wait—let me state that as extremely as I can: the speaker’s “soul” which “fries” in “hell” is refreshed. This may be over the top, but it is also the crux of the poem. The previous sonnets have made clear how tormented the speaker’s thoughts are, and a small indication of sympathy or pity from Stella can go a long way in relief.

Lines 9-11 return to a more conventional hyperbole in covering the “plaints,” i.e., the actual words Stella uses to express sympathy. These are eloquent beyond eloquence, and (again evoking Platonic ideals) “perfect music.”

The final tercet is, predictably, a summing up and a mild paradoxical twist. Such clear signs of sorrow on Stella’s part bring joy to the speaker; OR, if they must be regarded negatively (“prove annoy”), then the speaker will foreswear “all mirth” to bask in such sorrow.

Next time (weekend of May 13): Sonnet 101
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 92 and Tenth Song

Be your words made, good sir, of Indian ware,
That you allow me them by so small rate?
Or do you cutted Spartans imitate?
Or do you mean my tender ears to spare
That to my questions you so total are?
When I demand of Phoenix Stella’s state,
You say, forsooth, you left her well of late:
O God, think you that satisfies my care?
I would know whether she did sit or walk;
How clothed, how waited on? Sighed she or smiled?
Whereof, with whom, how often did she talk?
With what pastime time’s journey she beguiled?
If her lips deigned to sweeten my poor name?
Say all, and all well said, still say the same.

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.

This sonnet pictures one of Shakespeare’s favorite comic devices, the uncommunicative messenger, such as Biondello in Taming of the Shrew 3.2 or the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet 2.4. The speaker is receiving news of the absent Stella, and the messenger is far from satisfactory, though the sonnet suggests that (like Rosalind with the messenger Celia in As You Like It 3.2) it is the speaker’s own impatience that prevents the tale from being told. This is indicated structurally at the end of the first quatrain, where we might logically expect a pause for reply, and instead we have the quite unusual running on of the idea through line 5. “Indian ware” is extremely rare and pricey, while “cutted Spartans” are a nation known for their terseness in speech. And the messenger being “total” is (contrary to how it may sound) his being extremely brief.

I am stumped as to why the speaker should call the messenger “Phoenix”—and Duncan-Jones offers no explanatory note either. It seems the riddling Sphinx might be more what he had in mind, or perhaps Phoebus Apollo, whose oracle famously gave misinterpreted messages. Donne mentions the “Phoenix riddle,” but he presumably means a paradox rather than “riddle” in the usual sense of withheld information. Can my readers shed any light on this?

In any case, the messenger is guilty of giving the sort of bland report we might expect from any objective observer: he “left her well of late.” But the speaker hardly wants an objective observer; he wants, in effect, a second self in Stella’s presence (like the “thought” he sends to visit her in the song following), studying her in minute, obsessive detail. But beyond that, as he lets slip in line 13, he wants the news to be all “good news” for his romantic quest. Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra in the marvelous comic scenes where she learns of Antony’s marriage (2.5 and 3.3), the speaker will entertain the messenger graciously, and listen all day, if all is “well said”—but not if otherwise.

Tenth Song

O dear life, when shall it be
That mine eyes thine eyes may see,
And in them thy mind discover,
Whether absence have had force
Thy remembrance to divorce
From the image of thy lover?

Or if I myself find not,
After parting, aught forgot,
Nor debarred from beauty’s treasure,
Let no tongue aspire to tell,
In what high joys I shall dwell;
Only thought aims at the pleasure.

Thought, therefore, I will send thee
To take up the place for me;
Long I will not after tarry.
There unseen thou may’st be bold
Those fair wonders to behold
Which in them my hopes do carry.

Thought, see thou no place forbear,
Enter bravely everywhere,
Seize on all to her belonging;
But if thou wouldst guarded be,
Fearing her beams, take with thee
Strength of liking, rage of longing.

Think of that most grateful time
When my leaping heart will climb
In her lips to have his biding:
There those roses for to kiss,
Which do breath a sugared bliss,
Opening rubies, pearls dividing.

Think of my most princely power,
When I blessed shall devour
With my greedy lickerous senses
Beauty, music, sweetness, love,
While she doth against me prove
Her strong darts but weak defenses.

Think, think of those dallyings,
When with dove-like murmurings,
With glad moaning passed anguish,
We change eyes, and heart for heart,
Each to other do impart,
Joying till joy make us languish.

O my thought, my thoughts surcease;
Thy delights my woes increase,
My life melts with too much thinking.
Think no more, but die in me,
Till thou shalt revived be
At her lips my nectar drinking.

Reading notes: in the sixth stanza, “power” in the first line is one syllable, and “lickerous” in the third line is elided to two; “passed” in the third line of the seventh stanza has two syllables, and “revived” in the song’s penultimate line has three.

Another of Sidney’s metrically complicated songs. I refer you to my earlier discussions at the Fourth Song (after Sonnet 85) and the Eighth Song (after Sonnet 86), both of which have the irregular seven syllables in most of their lines. Because, like the Eighth Song, each stanza has a feminine rhyme (in this case the “B” rhyme in an AABCCB structure) we might expect to settle into a trochaic rhythm, but some lines seem naturally iambic (e.g., line 2 is more naturally That  + mine eyes/ thine eyes/ may see, than That mine/ eyes thine/ eyes may + see), while others, especially the “B” lines, may be read as four troches or (in those with seven syllables) three troches plus an extra syllable.

The real concern about Stella’s long absence is revealed in the song’s first stanza: the speaker has absolutely no idea whether she misses him, thinks about him at all, or has completely forgotten him. On the other hand, says stanza 2, if it turns out she still thinks favorably of him, he will dwell in “high joys.”

But he can carry on this conversation only in thought, so, at the start of the third stanza, he sends “Thought” as his emissary to Stella, promising to follow quickly in person. And the rest of the stanzas all start with reference to “Thought” as a personification, or the process of thinking. Thought can “enter bravely” places the speaker himself would not dare go. The “liking” and “longing” that put him on thin ice with Stella can actually work to fortify Thought.

So, in stanzas 5-7, the speaker’s thinking carries him through the fantasizing of a sexual encounter, from a kiss to the arousing of “lickerous (i.e., lecherous) senses,” to the “glad moaning” and subsequent “joy [that makes] us languish.”

But just as Orlando can “no longer live by thinking” near the end of As You Like It, our speaker more elegantly concludes “My life melts with too much thinking,” hinting at the weakness of melancholy (as it was termed then) or depression (as we call it now). A man of action can not lose himself in thought (as Hamlet most notably discovers), so the speaker kills off the thinking, and resolves to reach his romantic goal.

Next time (weekend of January 22): Sonnet 93
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 54

Because I breathe not love to everyone,
Nor do not use set colors for to wear,
Nor nourish special locks of vowed hair,
Nor give each speech a full point of a groan,
The courtly nymphs, acquainted with the moan
Of them who in their lips Love’s standard bear,
“What, he!” say they of me; “now I dare swear
He cannot love; no, no, let him alone.”
And think so still, so Stella know my mind!
Profess, indeed, I do not Cupid’s art;
But you, fair maids, at length this true shall find,
That his right badge is worn but in the heart.
Dumb swans, not chattering pies, do lovers prove;
They love indeed, who quake to say they 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.

Reading note:  “vowed” in line 3 is two syllables

While this is a conventional Italian sonnet, with fulcrum and change of rhyme scheme after the eighth line, it is more “hybridized” with the English sonnet form than most of Sidney’s sonnets. The customary division of the sestet into two tercets is here replaced with a quatrain and a couplet, although this third quatrain (CDCD) changes form from the two in the octave (ABBA).

The understanding of this sonnet is enhanced by a familiarity with Shakespeare’s As You Like It, specifically the several moments when characters describe what the typical lover is supposed to look like:

Rosalind (in disguise, challenging Orlando for lacking any of the “signs” of a lover):

A lean cheek, which you have not; a blue eye and sunken, which you have not; an unquestionable spirit, which you have not; a beard neglected, which you have not . . . . Then your hose should be ungartered, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbuttoned, your shoe untied and everything about you demonstrating a careless desolation; but you are no such man . . . . (3.2.278 ff.)

Silvius (to Corin, arguing that the older man cannot know what love is):

If thou rememb’rest not the slightest folly
That ever love did make thee run into,
Thou hast not loved.
Or if thou hast not sat as I do now,
Wearing thy hearer in thy mistress’ praise,
Thou hast not loved.
Or if thou hast not broke from company
Abruptly, as my passion now makes me,
Thou hast not loved. (2.4.26-34)

Jaques (describing one of the “ages of man”):

And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. (2.7.150-152)

If Rosalind were one of the real ladies of Elizabeth’s court in Sidney’s time—the “courtly nymphs” or “fair maids”—her skepticism, we are told here, would be aimed at the poet himself. The octave humorously describes how these court gossips, versed in such things, have determined that the speaker lacks all the requisite signs of a lover, and have therefore struck him from their lists of eligible bachelors.

This is just fine, he says, as long as Stella knows about his love, since she is the only one he wants. But he cannot resist offering himself as an example and trying to teach these shallow people a little lesson: true love is carried in the heart, not in the mouth. As in an English sonnet, the couplet is a tidy “bottom line” or moral of the story. It is the graceful, silent swans whose mating habits are suggestive of faithful love, not the noisy magpies who are chattering all the time. (Since the women themselves have spoken aloud in the poem, and none too gracefully, this dig is probably aimed back at them.) The word “indeed” in the final line is a pun, heard as “in deed,” the antithesis of “say.”

With Sonnet 54, I have reached the halfway point on my journey through the sonnets of Astrophil and Stella. I can take inventory of the formal features of these sonnets with some numbers. At this point, Sidney has employed 11 of the 15 different rhyme schemes used in the whole sequence. When this is broken down further, it appears that the blend of the familiar with the experimental is roughly the same on both sides of this dividing line:

  • Of the 79 occurrences of the two most common rhyme schemes, 40 have happened in the first half, while of the 8 schemes that appear only once, we have seen 5.
  • Of 23 cases (some arguable) where the sestet does not have the typical two-tercet division, we have seen 11.
  • The six occurrences of hexameter lines are divided 3 and 3.

This would argue for at least formal consistency of purpose over the whole sequence, were it not for a departure we have not seen at all yet: the introduction of “songs,” several with substantial length, in among the sonnets, which starts only after Sonnet 63. There are 11 of these in all, of varying meters and stanza structures, and lengths ranging from 18 to 104 lines. They are found one each after Sonnets 63, 72, 83 and 85, then five in a row after 86 (so it almost seems the sonnets are overwhelmed by other material in the “80s”), and one each after 92 and 104. I have no explanation for this change, and indeed have never really given it much thought, preoccupied as I am with the form and function of individual sonnets. But I will see if any new speculation comes to mind when I encounter the songs in a context of closely analyzing the sonnets that surround them.

As for the content of the 54 poems we have examined to date, I think it’s fair to confess that the Petrarchan fixation on unrequited love, and the Courtly Love tradition of worshipping an unattainable goddess-mistress (usually someone else’s wife) from a distance, are hoary poetic clichés; and that if Sidney were a close friend and these poems truly reflected his daily preoccupations, we would be thoroughly fed up with him! But Sidney’s is an age of artifice; originality of expression, not the uniqueness or confessional truth of the passions expressed, is what is valued in the arts. And Sidney has not ceased to amaze me in the non-repetitive inventiveness of his pen. Like great paintings on the wall of a museum, each of these sonnets offers another little “surprise” each time you walk past. If I have done anything at all to open a reader’s eyes to some of these surprises, I am doing what I set out to do.

Next time (weekend of August 8): Sonnet 55
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 43

Fair eyes, sweet lips, dear heart, that foolish I
Could hope by Cupid’s help on you to prey;
Since to himself he doth your gifts apply,
As his main force, choice sport, and easeful stay.
For when he will see who dare him gainsay,
Then with those eyes he looks; lo, by and by
Each soul doth at Love’s feet his weapons lay,
Glad if for her he give them leave to die.
When he will play, then in her lips he is,
Where, blushing red, that Love’s self doth them love,
With either lip he doth the other kiss;
But when he will for quiet’s sake remove
From all the world, her heart is then his room,
Where well he knows, no man to him can come.

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.

Editing note:  Duncan-Jones (without explanation) ends the third line with a period, beginning the fourth, now a fragment, with the word “And” instead of “As.”  This is surely an error, which I have not seen elsewhere.

The full rhyme scheme of this sonnet is shared with only two others (5 and 10) in the sequence, and the palindromic ABABBABA octave appears in only five others.

The poem is a sort of mini-blazon, on just three of Stella’s physical features, listed in its first three feet. The word “that” that follows is obscure as a relative pronoun, technically explained with some arcane Latin-grammar structure, “with blank and blank and blank omitted but understood . . .”  I’ll just cut to the chase and say the best way to understand the first two lines is: Given your eyes, lips, and heart, how foolish I am to hope I could have Cupid’s help to prey on you.

Why? Cupid himself is the speaker’s rival (cf. Sonnets 11, 12, and 13) and is making use (“applying”) those same features “As his main force, choice sport, and easeful stay”; those three phrases precisely parallel eyes, lips, and heart, and will be developed, respectively, in the second quatrain of the octave and the two tercets of the sestet. As in a well-constructed freshman essay, the outline is succinctly conveyed in the opening “paragraph.” The poem’s fulcrum, unusual for an Italian sonnet, comes after the first quatrain, and what remains are three parallel “when” clauses showing Cupid in combative, sportive, and reflective moods respectively.

The progression from eyes to heart is (as explained in Sonnet 11) from superficial to deep, or from distance to intimacy, but the shape of Sidney’s sonnet means the eyes get the most coverage—which is, alas, fitting, since that is apparently as close as his own knowledge goes.  And here, as so often in the sequence, Stella’s eyes are seen as weapons, the “looks that kill,” so to speak. It is a hoary Petrarchan cliché, and if the reader would seek a healthy antidote to this preoccupation of Sidney’s, I recommend Phebe’s speech to Silvius at As You Like It, III.5.8 ff. where it is sent up wonderfully. (A less skeptical view of the idea is found in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 139.) In the present instance, the quatrain is actually a rather complex interplay of vehicle and tenor. On the “real” level, it suggests that one look into Stella’s eyes makes any man fall at her feet (see, e.g., the previous sonnet); while the mythical story is that Cupid is using the eyes as weapons to subdue his rivals, thus (somewhat paradoxically) turning them into lovers but disabling them for the pursuit at the same time. But this paradoxical suggestion of futile passion is exactly the point, and is repeated in each of the other two steps, most tellingly in the poem’s “bottom line.”

The “choice sport” of Line 4 becomes Cupid playing teasingly with Stella’s lips, which are allowed to kiss only each other. The middle line of the tercet (line 10) is a typical example of Sidney’s use of what we nowadays call a dangling modifier, since it is obviously the lips themselves, not Cupid, that are “blushing” to be loved.

The final tercet is the mildly bitter twist on the blazon. Again there is some complexity in the suggestion that Cupid could actually occupy a place in Stella’s heart, an idea directly contradicted in Sonnet 11. But the witty, if melancholy, thrust here is that he would go there for peace and quiet, since no man ever enters there. The paradox of a woman who stirs passion in others while remaining as ice herself is complete.

Next time (weekend of March 7): Sonnet 44
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.


Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 6

Some lovers speak, when they their Muses entertain,
Of hopes begot by fear, of wot not what desires,
Of force of heavenly beams, infusing hellish pain,
Of living deaths, dear wounds, fair storms and freezing fires.
Someone his song in Jove, and Jove’s strange tales, attires,
Broidered with bulls and swans, powdered with golden rain;
Another, humbler, wit to shepherd’s pipe retires,
Yet hiding royal blood full oft in rural vein.
To some a sweetest plaint a sweetest style affords,
While tears pour out his ink, and sighs breathe out his words,
His paper pale despair, and pain his pen doth move.
I can speak what I feel, and feel as much as they,
But think that all the map of my state I display,
When trembling voice brings forth that I do Stella 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.

This poem is the second of six in hexameters (or alexandrines) in the sequence, and it shares its full rhyme scheme with only two other sonnets (81 and 87), neither of which is in hexameters; so it could claim structural uniqueness.  Perhaps befitting the subject—as in Sonnet 1, the interplay of the speaker with other poets—its form is “hybridized” in multiple ways:  quite typical of Sidney is the midway break in the sestet, creating the sense of English-sonnet logic in an Italian sonnet; much less typical (it happens in only six sonnets) is a rhyme reversal in the octave whereby two “outie” quatrains become a palindromic “innie” octave:  ABABBABA.

The sonnet parallels the message of Sonnet 1, but with a difference.  Where the speaker had sought to imitate other poets before, he simply catalogs them in a lightly mocking tone now.  And in the final three lines, where he had been “helpless,” and then surprised by the muse, he is now (despite the “trembling voice” reflecting the weakness of his position in the would-be relationship) confident and assertive about what he is doing poetically.

The thrust of the poem—the chronic Sidney paradox of a highly artificial poem decrying artificiality and embracing simplicity—is clear enough, and its parallel examples of overwrought love poetry can no doubt be appreciated without a gloss.  Nevertheless, Duncan-Jones’s notes on the actual poets or poems being mocked are a lagniappe worth enjoying, so I will paraphrase here:  The first quatrain relates to Petrarch and his imitators.  The phrase “wot not what” translates Petrarch’s fondness for “I know not what” constructions introducing hyperboles, and the culminating oxymoron in the series of four in line 4, “freezing fires,” had become a Petrarchan cliché.  (I need hardly add that Sidney himself is, with no intended irony, guilty of everything mentioned in this quatrain at some point in this sequence.)  Ronsard (an early champion of alexandrines) was the most notable of many poets comparing their love to the metamorphoses (bull, swan, shower of gold) of Jove (7-8), while lines 9-10 may reflect the vogue of pastoral poetry both in England(e.g., Spenser) and on the continent.  (Duncan-Jones does not specifically gloss the idea in line 8 of “hiding royal blood . . . in rural vein”—a witty combination of near-miss repetition with royal/rural and the double meaning of “vein”—but this harks back to Virgil’s Eclogues, and may be most familiar to modern readers in plays such as Green’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, or Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Winter’s Tale.)  For lines 9-11 (e.g., “sweetest plaint” and “sweetest style”), Duncan-Jones offers: “Perhaps a reference to the dolce stil nuovo of the Italian poets of the fourteenth century” (358).

This is quite an amalgam of other poets’ (presumably insincere) gambits, replacing the long and frustrating process of attempting to steal from them, described in Sonnet 1. All are of course treated as elaborate ways to avoid a direct statement of a simple truth, rather than what Sidney himself would defend as the purpose of indirection and metaphor in poetry: love is a complex and multi-dimensional emotion, and can stand to be looked at from many angles.  If “I do Stella love” were indeed the entire “map” of Sidney’s “state” (an apt metaphor in that great age of exploration and map-making, as well as a pun on the word “state”*), there would be no place for 108 sonnets and eleven songs on the subject!  The blunt simplicity is but one of many moods.

*Sidney certainly intended the phrase as a metaphor, but he may have here invented the abstract sense of “map” as the plan or layout of one’s mental state; this very line is given as the OED’s first example for that sense.

Next time (weekend of October 19): Sonnet 7

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