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 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.