Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 95

Yet sighs, dear sighs, indeed true friends you are,
That do not leave your least friend at the worst;
But as you with my breast I oft have nursed,
So grateful now you wait upon my care.
Faint coward joy no longer tarry dare,
Seeing hope yield when this woe strake him first;
Delight protests he is not for the accurst,
Though oft himself my mate-in-arms he sware.
Nay, sorrow comes with such main rage, that he
Kills his own children, tears, finding that they
By love were made apt to consort with me.
Only, true sighs, you do not go away;
Thank may you have for such a thankful part,
Thank-worthiest yet, when you shall break my heart.

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Reading notes: “the accurst” in line 7 is elided to “th’accurst,” and “worthiest” in line 14 is elided to two syllables.

This song is a nearly perfect antithesis to Shakespeare’s song “Sigh no More” in Much Ado About Nothing, as here it is argued that sighing is the only appropriate response left to the grieving speaker. A sigh comes from the depths, in physical terms from the diaphragm upward; thus it is fair to say it is “nursed” at the “breast,” which of course also implies that it comes from the heart. And sighs alone have been faithful to the speaker in his abandonment.

The second quatrain deals with the more obvious emotions of a promising love-life that have long since departed: joy, hope, and delight. More interestingly, in the first half of the sestet, we learn that sorrow has even “killed his own children, tears,” as these were too associated with a love that does not actually exist. Wordsworth’s phrasing comes to mind: “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

So, at the end, we return to the simple message of the start, that sighs are the only “friends” that remain. The speaker is quite simply grateful for this, but must add the twist in the final clause that he will be still more grateful for the final “sigh” that puts him out of his misery.

Next time (weekend of March 4): Sonnet 96
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 93

O fate, O fault, O curse, child of my bliss;
What sobs can give words grace my grief to show?
What ink is black enough to paint my woe?
Through me, wretch me, even Stella vexed is.
Yet Truth—if caitiff’s breath may call thee—this
Witness with me; that my foul stumbling so
From carelessness did in no manner grow;
But wit, confused with too much care, did miss.
And do I then myself this vain ‘scuse give?
I have (live I, and know this?) harmed thee;
Though worlds ’quit me, shall I myself forgive?
Only with pains my pains thus eased be,
That all thy hurts in my heart’s wrack I read;
I cry thy sighs, my dear; thy tears I bleed.

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 line 4 has one syllable, while “vexed” (line 4), “harmed” (10), and “eased” (12) all have two.

To whom is he speaking as the poem opens? The phrase “child of my bliss” tips us off that the clear evil addressed as fate, fault, and curse stems from the speaker’s adoration of Stella. Line 4 makes clear that he has again caused her offense, while the intervening lines 2 and 3 seek an outlet in poetry—in this very poem—to make it right with her.

It is no easy task. He makes his strongest effort in the second quatrain, calling on Truth herself as a character witness, and pleading that his mistake can not be called “careless” (literally, a lack of caring), but rather a misunderstanding (weakness of “wit,” or intellect) caused by “too much care.”

This comes out, of course, rather lamely, like Claudio’s “Yet sinned I not but in mistaking,” in Much Ado About Nothing 5.1. The first half of the sestet acknowledges the feebleness of the effort: his “’scuse” (excuse) is “vain”; how can he go on living if he has caused her harm?; in that circumstance, if “worlds” should “’quit” (acquit) him of wrongdoing, he could still not forgive himself.

The final, paradoxical tercet is the argument he hopes will trump all: since her hurts, sighs, and tears are all perforce his as well, he shares her pain—and indeed, more than shares it, since the poem ends with a clever trope that is both chiasmus and catachresis: “I cry thy sighs, my dear, thy tears I bleed.”

Next time (weekend of February 5): Sonnet 94
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

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.