Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 96

Thought, with good cause thou lik’st so well the night,
Since kind or chance gives both one livery;
Both sadly black, both blackly darkened be,
Night barred from sun, thou from thy own sun’s light.
Silence in both displays his sullen might;
Slow heaviness in both holds one degree;
That full of doubts, thou of perplexity;
Thy tears express night’s native moisture right.
In both a mazeful solitariness:
In night, of sprites the ghastly powers stir,
In thee, or sprites or sprited ghastliness.
But, but, alas, night’s side the odds hath far,
For that at length yet doth invite some rest,
Thou, though still tired, yet still dost it detest.

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: “That” at the start of line 7 is not the relative pronoun, but rather the demonstrative pronoun, referring back to “night,” by contrast to the pronoun “thou,” which refers to “thought.”

Here we begin a series of four bedtime sonnets, similar to the series of three back at 38-40. Probably most of us are familiar with the “dark thoughts” that keep us awake at night, even if by the light of day the same problems might seem perfectly manageable. This dark brooding is magnified for the would-be lover in the speaker’s situation, since bedtime is a time to be reminded of loneliness, a time for undistracted thinking and brooding, and indeed a time to be reminded that the bed itself is not the place of pleasure one has longed for. So almost by definition, a bedtime sonnet is an “ode on melancholy.”

The poem is an apostrophe to the speaker’s own thought, which either by kinship (“kind”) or by chance seems perfectly matched with the night: both are dark, silent, sullen, heavy, and full of “doubts” or “perplexity.” The “native moisture” (dew) of the night parallels the tears that spring from thought. And the night is “barred from sun,” while the thought is frustrated by the lack of its “own sun’s” (i.e., son’s) light. This pun occurs in the first three of this set of four poems, disappearing only as the actual sun approaches in Sonnet 99.

The first half of the sestet invites comparison with Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the recurring discussion there of how night plays tricks with the mind. “Mazeful solitariness” is a state of amazement, but more literally, the perplexity and isolation of being inside a maze. And while the night of folklore (and Dream) is full of the “ghastly powers” of “sprites,” thought is paranoid, and similarly populates itself with demons (“sprites or sprited ghastliness”).

The poem’s fulcrum comes late, at the start of line 12; and where a single “but” is usually all that is required, in the speaker’s muddled state it takes four syllables (“but, but, alas”) to make the turn, and acknowledge the chief way that night is preferable to thought: at some point night invites us to go to sleep, but thought resists it—as any of us who have struggled with night-thoughts know all too well!

Next time (weekend of March 18): Sonnet 97
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 66

And do I see some cause a hope to feed,
Or doth the tedious burden of long woe
In weakened minds, quick apprehension breed,
Of every image which may comfort show?
I cannot brag of word, much less of deed;
Fortune wheels still with me in one sort slow:
My wealth no more, and no whit less my need,
Desire still on the stilts of fear doth go.
And yet amid all fears a hope there is
Stol’n to my heart, since last fair night, nay day,
Stella’s eyes sent to me the beams of bliss,
Looking on me, while I looked other way:
But when mine eyes back to their heaven did move,
They fled with blush, which guilty seemed of 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: “heaven” in line 13 is one syllable.

For a stretch of twenty sonnets, starting with this one, there is a perceived warming toward the speaker by Stella, with the “high point,” perhaps, being a stolen kiss (while she is asleep) in Sonnet 73. This sonnet considers the perception itself, questioning whether it has any basis. The opening quatrain poses two possibilities: (1) there are indeed signs of hope (line 1); or (2) the speaker is being driven crazy by the long torment of his longing, and is starting to be delusional. “Lovers and madmen,” Theseus tells us in Midsummer Night’s Dream, “have such seething brains” that their “imagination bodies forth/The form of things unknown,” and “if it would but apprehend some joy,/It comprehends some bringer of that joy.” The speaker of our sonnet wonders if he has seen something real, or has suffered the affliction that Theseus describes; and what would-be lover has not wrestled with precisely that doubt at some point?

This sonnet, like the previous one, is in Sidney’s second-favorite form, which closely resembles English sonnet form because the sestet is divided by rhyme into quatrain and couplet—and indeed (unlike 65) this one is even closer to “English” in that it is a rare Sidney sonnet with no strong break after line 11. He uses this structure to explore the two sides of delusion vs. hope in the second quatrain and “quatrain three” of the faux-English form, respectively. The latter finally starts describing the specific moment that has started these musings, and the couplet wraps it up in all its lasting ambiguity.

Quatrain two is a small masterpiece of sonnet writing, perfectly capturing the mental struggle of the whole poem. It begins with the absolute admission that he has nothing (word nor deed) to show for his love-quest so far. The Wheel of Fortune (which classically tends to stay in motion and keep changing the fortunes of people) in this one matter (“one sort”) barely moves. Line seven is a lovely chiasmus with a twist. “Wealth” and “need” in the line are both relative to the prize of Stella, so the sense of the line is that he is just as needy and just as poor as ever in that respect. The chiasmus is between my-wealth-no-more and no-less-my-need, but one more syllable was needed, and “whit” creates yet another sound-play within the alliteration: in one side of line we have an M-W and an N-M; when we cross we get N-W and M-N, with initial sounds in the phrases swapping places. Finally (for this quatrain) we get the payoff image in line 8, where “stilts” must be understood in its renaissance meaning of “crutches”; so desire still stumbles along on the crutches of fear, a perfect and compact image of a hopeful but nervous and still unsuccessful lover. And the line has the added sound effect of a “stumble” in the second foot, where both syllables are unstressed.

And yet, and yet, and yet . . . In the “third quatrain” we get the hope-inducing incident itself, simpler to relate and again perhaps familiar to any hopeful lover. The night before (turned hyperbolic “day” by the rays emanating from Stella’s starry eyes) the speaker sensed, without exactly looking, that Stella was gazing at him. So of course he had to look, and of course, if she was looking at him, she had to look somewhere else, and this seemed to him to reflect the desired combination of interest and guilt on her part . . . . But we’ll have to wait for further evidence.

Next time (weekend of January 23): Sonnet 67
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.