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 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.