Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 105

Unhappy sight, and hath she vanished by,
So near, in so good time, so free a place?
Dead glass, dost thou thy object so embrace
As what my heart still sees, thou canst not spy?
I swear by her I love and lack, that I
Was not in fault, who bent thy dazzling race
Only unto the heaven of Stella’s face,
Counting but dust what in the way did lie.
But cease, mine eyes, your tears do witness well
That you, guiltless thereof, your nectar missed.
Cursed be the page from whom the bad torch fell,
Cursed be the night which did your strife resist,
Cursed be the coachman which did drive so fast,
With no worse curse than absence makes me taste.

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: “heaven” in line 7 is one syllable.

Stella has left the speaker at night, and this poem laments the speed with which she “vanished” from sight though still nearby. Adding to the frustration, the second line suggests, is that she leaves at the very time, and in the very place, where the speaker’s fortunes in love might have advanced. Because of some vague word choices (glass, race) and the obscurity of lines 3 and 4, the poem’s exact story line has been disputed over the years, though its overall message is clear enough.

The “dead glass,” different readers have argued, could be a mirror, a telescope, or a lantern. I could make a case for the speaker trying to extend his view of Stella with a telescope, except that I have seen no evidence that the telescope existed that early! If Shakespeare’s use of “glass” could be helpful, apart from when he refers to the brittle substance itself, the noun most commonly refers to a mirror, with a drinking vessel or an hour-glass (or metaphorically, an hour) as other possibilities. But King Lear, in his madness (IV.6), has a line more useful to us here; speaking to blind Gloucester, he says: “Get thee glass eyes,/And like a scurvy politician seem/To see the things thou dost not.” The OED cites this line as the first use of “glass eyes” to mean spectacles, and the Arden editor follows that reading, noting that the use of “glass eye” to mean a fake, or prosthetic, eyeball does not appear in English until later in the century. But the glass eyeball itself was being manufactured in Venice by the time of Sidney and Shakespeare, so how can we be sure that Shakespeare—and by extension, Sidney—was not referring to it? Admittedly Lear is mad, so he might speak nonsense, but seeming to see things one doesn’t is more easily done by a man with fake eyes than by one with glasses over empty eye sockets! So in both the Lear line and Sidney’s sonnet, a better reading results from assuming these authors were aware of Venetian glass eye-balls. Such an assumption is not far-fetched, given the range of knowledge in both cases, but if it can be proven false, the “Plan B” in the interpretation that follows would be to treat “dead glass” as referring to spectacles.

Back to the sonnet: a cursory first reading is likely to understand “Unhappy sight” as referring to a scene which makes the viewer unhappy. But essential to understanding the sonnet is to grasp that it opens with an apostrophe to the speaker’s own sense of sight, which has failed him at this crucial moment. His eyeballs are no better than “dead glass” (i.e., glass eyes), and “dost thou thy object so embrace” is said ironically, i.e., is that the best you can do at your only job? To underscore this failure of function, line 4 points out that the speaker’s heart can still see Stella, so why not the eyes? The second quatrain continues this attack by insisting that the speaker himself was not to blame, having done everything he could to train the “race” of sight—i.e., the family, i.e., eyes, with “dazzling” continuing the sarcasm—onto the object of his love. The point is further emphasized by the Platonic insistence that he had trained his sight on the eternal (“Heaven”) rather than the mortal distractions (“dust”) that get in the way.

But if our subtitle here is “A Dialogue between a Lover and his own Sense of Sight,” we may imagine that it is time for the sense of sight to speak up in protest; and that is more or less what happens in lines 9 and 10. Having paused from his rebuke of “unhappy sight,” the speaker realizes that his eyes, in response, have filled up with tears, so he says, in effect, say no more (“But cease”), I can see you’re hurting too. The eyes have missed their “nectar” just as the speaker has lost his “heaven.”

All is forgiven between the speaker and his sight, but someone must be blamed, and it turns out there was a rather comical cast of culprits in the rapid disappearance of Stella*–the boy who dropped the torch, the coachman who drove too fast, the dark night itself—all defeating the efforts (“your strife”) of the sense of sight. All must be “cursed,” but no curse can be found stronger than what the speaker feels at the loss of Stella’s company.

*I am reminded of Grumio’s report of what he will “not” tell Curtis in Taming of the Shrew IV.1: “But had thou not crossed me, thou shouldst have heard how her horse fell and she under her horse; thou shouldst have heard in how miry a place, how she was bemoiled . . . etc.”

Next time (weekend of July 22): Sonnet 106
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 85 and Fourth Song

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

I suggest you click here to open the sonnet in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to it as you read on through the analysis.

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth Song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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