Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 45

Stella oft sees the very face of woe
Painted in my beclouded stormy face,
But cannot skill to pity my disgrace,
Not though thereof the cause herself she know;
Yet hearing late a fable, which did show
Of lovers never known a grievous case,
Pity thereof gat in her breast such place
That, from that sea derived, tears’ spring did flow.
Alas, if fancy drawn by imaged things,
Though false, yet with free scope more grace doth breed
Than servant’s wrack, where new doubts honor brings;
Then think, my dear, that you in me do read
Of lover’s ruin some sad tragedy.
I am not I; pity the tale of me.

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One of the better-known and oft-anthologized sonnets in the sequence, as it is both an excellent example of Sidney’s wit and artistry, and an illustration of the spirit of the age: that wonderful mix of increased reading (especially among women), lingering medieval clichés in love, and raw human emotions that are timeless.

Two evenly matched and inward-looking (ABBA) quatrains make up the octave, with the linchpin of their comparison (and echo of the previous sonnet)—the word “pity”—coming in the third line of each. The first quatrain recites the now-familiar tale of woe for our speaker: his love-sick pining for Stella is written all over his face, but she appears oblivious to it, even though she knows perfectly well (line 4) that she causes it. In the third line, both “skill” and “disgrace” have older meanings; “cannot skill” means she lacks the ability, or in this context the imagination, to understand and thus pity his need for grace from another; that is, “disgrace” originally and more literally meant the loss of standing in the eyes of another, whether deserved or not; it gradually evolved to its closer connection with the subject’s own behavior.

On the other hand, Stella in the second quatrain is apparently quite a fan of the “chick-lit” of the day, the romantic tales, for example, from which Shakespeare may have drawn the plots of Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and various other plays: tales of “lovers never known,” which here has the double meaning that these lovers are fictitious to begin with, and that, of course, they are people Stella has not even met. And her imaginative response to these fictitious beings is everything a writer could ask for: the tears flow freely.

“Alas,” indeed!  What’s a real, flesh-and-blood lover to do, against such competition? The problem is that she has “free scope”—with no taint to her honor—to pour out pity on creatures of fiction, whereas honor requires aloofness (“new doubts”) to the “wrack” of her present and visible “servant,” the speaker. In despair, the speaker seeks to undo his physical presence (“I am not I”—a clever metrical pun, since “I am” is in fact not the iamb that it is supposed to be) and be replaced by the sad, romantic “tale” of himself, so that Stella might show “pity” without loss of honor. That this sentiment is expressed in a Petrarchan sonnet—and among many other such sonnets—may be a sort of self-fulfillment of the wish to present lover as “tale.”

Next time (weekend of April 4): Sonnet 46
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 44

My words, I know, do well set forth my mind;
My mind bemoans his sense of inward smart;
Such smart may pity claim of any heart,
Her heart (sweet heart) is of no tiger’s kind:
And yet she hears, yet I no pity find;
But more I cry, less grace she doth impart.
Alas, what cause is there so overthwart,
That nobleness itself makes thus unkind?
I much do guess, yet find no truth save this:
That when the breath of my complaints doth touch
Those dainty doors unto the court of bliss,
The heavenly nature of that place is such
That once come there, the sobs of mine annoys
Are metamorphosed straight to tunes of joys.

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.

The auxesis of the opening quatrain closely echoes the opening of the entire sequence in Sonnet 1:

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she (dear she) might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know;
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;

But this hopeful aspiration has already over-shot reality, as the fifth and sixth lines of the present sonnet make certain:

And yet she hears, yet I no pity find;
But more I cry, less grace she doth impart.

The enterprise is not going well! And the very center of this sonnet, lines 7-8, poses the question of how this could be; what “overthwart” (literally, lying crosswise across; so figuratively, perverse or contrary to reason) cause could make such a noble mind (Stella) so oblivious to the speaker’s suffering, so incapable of pity or grace?

The sestet makes a very tentative and metaphorical stab at an explanation, and this explanation is, like the problem itself, a paradox, stretched out over the last five lines, since this is one of the very small number of Sidney sonnets without a full stop after line 11. Stella’s divinity (or “heavenly nature”) is of such a kind that it can instantly convert, or metamorphose, “sobs” of pain (“mine annoys”) to “tunes of joys.”* High praise, on the one hand, befitting a god—but, at the same time, a god who is coldly indifferent to the suffering of worshippers! The final couplet could be read as a veiled dig at the sadistic joy (as the speaker sees it) that Stella takes in making a lover miserable.

* On line 11, cf. Sonnet 9 for Stella as a “court,” not of bliss, but of virtue. Presumably here the metaphorical “doors” are her ears, not her mouth, as there.

Next time (weekend of March 21): Sonnet 45
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 41

Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance,
Guided so well, that I obtained the prize,
Both by the judgment of the English eyes
And of some sent from that sweet enemy, France;
Horsemen my skill in horsemanship advance,
Town-folks my strength;  a daintier judge applies
His praise to sleight, which from good use doth rise;
Some lucky wits impute it but to chance;
Others, because of both sides I do take
My blood from them who did excel in this,
Think Nature me a man of arms did make.
How far they shoot awry!  The true cause is,
Stella looked on, and from her heavenly face
Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.

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Reading note: in line 4 “enemy” is two syllables: en’my.

This sonnet has an 11-3 division, with one complex sentence occupying the first 11 lines, and then, following the fulcrum, a simpler response in the final three. Or, to break it down a bit more specifically, the first four lines form a dependent phrase, establishing the speaker’s success in a jousting tournament (and, like the last three lines of Sonnet 1, demonstrating that the “dangling modifier” was an unknown error to Sidney and his age); the next seven form the main sentence, a compound series which, like the last three feet of line 1, is an asyndeton in that it lacks a conjunction; it gives a series of explanations, of varying lengths, that other people have given for this success; and the final three reject all these explanations, and give the “true cause.”

Duncan-Jones’s note on this sonnet suggests that the real event referred to in Sidney’s life was probably a tournament at Whitehall on May 15 and 16, 1581, at which 500 French courtiers were in attendance, because of ongoing negotiations to arrange a marriage between Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Alençon—a marriage which Sidney opposed, and delicately demonstrated against in the pageantry of symbolic flattery that accompanied the tournament; thus, perhaps, the reference to France as a “sweet enemy” in line 4 (though admittedly there were many historical and religious reasons to continue to see France as “enemy” even while entertaining its court as guests). An eyewitness account may be found in Duncan-Jones’s appendices, pages 299-311.

To explicate the “explanations”: fellow competitors who are chiefly “horsemen” maintain (“advance”) that his superior horsemanship was responsible—to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail—while the simple townsfolk who are spectators think it’s brute strength. These groups focus on what they can understand, while the “daintier,” or more refined, judge appreciates the finer points of the sport, the deftness (“sleight”) with lance that comes from practice (“good use”). The word “lucky” in line 8 seems to refer not so much to being fortunate as, more generally, to living by a philosophy that emphasizes luck more than skill or work; i.e., these “wits” are probably gamblers who attribute all wins and losses merely to “chance.” The final explanation forms the first half of the sestet, and is a specific autobiographical reference: Sidney’s father and grandfather were both tilters, as were his maternal uncles; so these “others” are attributing his victory to his pedigree on “both sides.”

The final tercet begins with an apt metaphor, converting these various theories to arrows that have missed their target. The true inspiration was of course that Stella looked on and, in keeping with her name, cast celestial light on his “race” or jousting contest.

Next time (weekend of February 7): Sonnet 42
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 37

My mouth doth water, and my breast doth swell,
My tongue doth itch, my thoughts in labor be;
Listen then, lordings, with good ear to me,
For of my life I must a riddle tell.
Towards Aurora’s court a nymph doth dwell,
Rich in all beauties which man’s eye can see;
Beauties so far from reach of words, that we
Abase her praise, saying she doth excel;
Rich in the treasure of deserved renown;
Rich in the riches of a royal heart;
Rich in those gifts which give the eternal crown;
Who though most rich in these, and every part
Which make the patents of true worldly bliss,
Hath no misfortune, but that Rich she is.

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Reading note: In line 11, “the eternal” must be elided: “th’eternal.”

Like sonnets 24 and 35 (and possibly 9), this one makes a direct real-life connection to Penelope Devereux by punning on her married name, Rich. As I mentioned with the previous sonnet, the speaker is in a three-sonnet stretch of renewed passion and strong emotion. I don’t know if there’s a long tradition of telling riddles at such moments of emotion, and especially frustration, but there is a slightly later parallel in Middleton and Dekker’s 1611 play, The Roaring Girl, when the greedy father, Sir Alexander, who disapproves of his son’s chosen bride, begins a lengthy riddling tale to his peers this way:

Last day I met
An aged man, upon whose head was scored
A debt of just so many years as these
Which I owe to my grave: the man you all know.

When his friends ask for the “aged man’s” name, he responds:

Nay, you shall pardon me:
But when he saw me, with a sigh that brake,
Or seemed to break, his heart-strings, thus he spake:
O my good knight, says he (and then his eyes
Were richer even by that which made them poor,
They’d spent so many tears they had no more). . .

and goes on to tell the story of an aging father with a disobedient son, obviously using the riddle to describe himself in a state of high dudgeon.

The word “lordings” in line three suggests the speaker is talking with close friends, possibly the same group as those who are by turns critical or mystified by his infatuation in sonnets 14, 18, 20, 21, and 27. The word can be a mildly contemptuous diminutive, but can also simply demonstrate intimacy and mutual regard. The clause “my thoughts in labor be,” at the end of the second line, recalls the same metaphor near the end of Sonnet 1, but there the emphasis was on the frustrated hopefulness of labor, and here it is clearly on the pain.

Since the first quatrain serves as introduction to the riddle, the riddle itself has the somewhat unusual form of ten lines, divided 4-3-3. The first seven of these lines establish the presence of a “rich” nymph living toward the east (Aurora being Homer’s “rosy-fingered” goddess of dawn; I’ll assume Lord Rich’s home is to the east of Sidney’s until I can confirm that.)  She is chiefly rich, as Sidney’s readers are so often told, in “beauties,” and the quatrain dwells fully on that idea, with a hyperbole similar to those in sonnet 36: by seeking to praise Stella, we only (as Regan says of Goneril) “come too short,” in our mortal fallibility. Having established this chief way in which Stella is “rich” in four lines, the speaker now grabs the word itself and offers three other ways she is rich, in each line of the first tercet. These too are idealistic, carefully skirting the more obvious material sense of the word. They are, in turn, fame (“renown”), and greatness of “heart” and soul (that which aspires to “the eternal crown”).

So far the sonnet, despite the introduction of the hated married name, could take its place with others that are steadfast in their praise of Stella—but we haven’t really gotten to the enigmatic part of the riddle. The word “though” in line 12 tips us off that a change of direction is coming, and the word “but” in the bottom line confirms it. While being fortunate in every conceivable way (the word “patents” suggests unique models; i.e., Plato’s ideal forms), Stella’s one misfortune is to bear the name Rich; she has (of course) married the wrong man.

Next time (weekend of December 13): Sonnet 38
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 34

Come, let me write. ‘And to what end?’  To ease
A burdened heart. ‘How can words ease, which are
The glasses of thy daily vexing care?’
Oft cruel fights well pictured forth do please.
‘Art not ashamed to publish thy disease?’
Nay, that may breed my fame, it is so rare.
‘But will not wise men think thy words fond ware?’
Then be they close, and so none shall displease.
‘What idler thing, than speak and not be heard?’
What harder thing than smart and not to speak?
Peace, foolish Wit; with wit my wit is marred.
Thus write I while I doubt to write, and wreak
My harms on ink’s poor loss; perhaps some find
Stella’s great powers, that so confuse my mind.

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This sonnet, if it were found outside the sequence, might have the title “A Dialogue Between the Poet and his Wit.”  As I have noted before, “wit” here means “wisdom,” or the reasoning part of the brain, as opposed to the passions or fancies. As I’m sure the reader has already detected, the speeches of Wit are in quotation marks, and the speaker—obviously here identified with the poet—says all the rest. Thus (at the one point of possible confusion) line 10 is the poet’s direct response to line 9, while line 11 (the poet still speaking) is a general shushing of Wit, who, we may imagine, has drawn breath to continue the argument.

The setting of the poem is the poet’s writing desk, where he has come (as must be his routine) to write another sonnet.  But instead of being visited by the Muse—every poet’s hope in that setting—he is interrupted immediately by his Wit, who turns out to be the very opposite of encouraging. Wit argues that writing about unrequited passion is hardly the best way to get over it (since the words are “glasses”—i.e., mirrors—of the woe), but the poet answers (line 4) as an artist, not a psychiatrist; in fact, the idea that poetic treatment of “cruel fights” can bring pleasure, despite the subject matter, is very much that of Sidney in his Defense of Poesy.

So Wit sharpens his attack in the second quatrain with an appeal to shame.  The word “disease” was at this time in transition from an older, more literal meaning of “unease” or “discomfort,” to its modern meaning of “illness,” and Sidney makes a subtle play on the difference: Wit means the word in the older sense, but the poet jests that people become famous for having rare diseases. Then, in a parallel shaming question, Wit again uses a transitioning word in its older sense, i.e., “fond” as “foolish.”  The poet does not directly respond to that word choice (though the reader will certainly catch a word-play because of the word’s modern meaning), but instead says O.K., I won’t share the poems with anyone. (“Close” in line 8 means “secret” or “closeted.”)

Wit (being, of course, an expert in logic) now senses that the poet’s argument has fallen apart, since everything said to this point assumes sharing or publishing of the poems. So line 9 could be loosely translated “So what’s the point, if you’re just writing them for yourself?”  The poet has no real answer to that, and instead just whines that he has to speak up if he has been wounded (“smart”); the poetry, in other words, has no logical explanation, but is just an animalistic cry of pain. The dialogue comes to an end in line 11 with a confession that “with wit my wit is marred,” an admission of defeat in a logical debate.

The final tercet is like a “recap” of the contest, a reflection on what is happening here. The dialogue apparently characterizes a very real confusion in the poet’s mind, and doubts about the wisdom of writing these love sonnets. “Wreak/My harms on ink’s poor loss” means take out my injuries on poor, defenseless words. The seemingly simple verb “find” is actually an important word-play; the words might manage to “find (= capture) the subject matter of Stella’s hold on him, or the words might “find” (= make their way to) Stella’s powers and exercise some persuasion on them. In any case, the sonnet again ends in paradox, since the doubtful, confused mind has perfectly and poetically spelled out its own confusion.

Next time (weekend of November 1): Sonnet 35
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 33

I might (unhappy word), O me, I might,
And then would not, or could not, see my bliss;
Till now, wrapped in a most infernal night,
I find how heavenly day, wretch, I did miss.
Heart, rend thyself, thou dost thyself but right;
No lovely Paris made thy Helen his;
No force, no fraud, robbed thee of thy delight;
Nor Fortune of thy fortune author is;
But to myself myself did give the blow,
While too much wit, forsooth, so troubled me
That I respects for both our sakes must show,
And yet could not by rising morn foresee
How fair a day was near.  O punished eyes,
That I had been more foolish—or more wise!

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: “heavenly” in line 4 is elided to two syllables.

Since it seems to refer to a specific moment in the poet’s life, this sonnet seems obscure in the absence of a biography. Back when I was being schooled in the “new critics” (a hundred years ago, or so), the famous question for any text was, “What if it were anonymous?”  The obvious temptation here would be to answer, “Well, if it were, we’d just be out of luck, and we’d go on to the next one; and since it’s not, we need to look at the footnotes.”  But the new-critical hypothetical question might be more helpful (or less fatuous) than it appears at first blush, and I’d like to see what we can work out on this poem before I turn to the footnotes.

I’ll use a method I often use in class for a poem that presents any sort of difficulty, not just the biographical kind. At the top of different sections of the board, I write two simple questions, “What’s clear?” and “What’s not?”  Often by the time we have recognized everything that is clear about a poem, the other column has either shrunk into insignificance, or the possibilities for interpretation of the “unclear” parts have become a short, manageable, discussable list.  So let’s try that exercise here:

What’s clear?

–It is a poem about missed opportunity, or what you might call a “woulda-coulda-shoulda” poem.

–The speaker squarely blames himself for the missed opportunity, as opposed to Fate, Fortune, or the choices of others. A first-person pronoun is used three times in the first line; when used twice in line 4, one of them is in reverse-apposition with “wretch”; and after careful elaboration in the second quatrain, the thesis is bluntly stated in line 9 with a double reflexive pronoun: “But to myself myself did give the blow.” * (Remember, by the way, that the speaker is not always above blaming others for his woes in these sonnets!)

–The beginning and end of the poem use the conceit of a man whose previous life was spent entirely in darkness (associated with hell in the adjective “infernal”), who suddenly finds “heavenly” daylight, but does not recognize it, or know what advantage to take of it. This could be interpreted as the height of folly—who cannot tell day from night?—or, more generously, as the natural confusion of someone whose reality is turned upside down, or who is presented with a completely new experience. This range of possibility is helpful for seeing both how the event in question could easily happen and why the speaker feels extremely foolish that it did.

–Lines 6 and 7 make explicit what the general nature of the event, or the “loss,” was: the speaker has missed out on a “Helen” that would have given him “daylight,” and of course in the context of the whole sequence, we know that this is the speaker (or Sidney) missing an opportunity to make Stella (or Penelope) his own. And, as mentioned above, the whole quatrain is at pains to say (with Jimmy Buffet) “It’s my own damn fault.”

–Lines 10-11 suggest the speaker thinks he was overly cautious (“too much wit [i.e., wisdom] . . . so troubled me”), or was too “respect[ful]” to avail himself of the opening.

–And the poem ends (as so many Renaissance sonnets do) in paradox, with the speaker wishing he had been either “more foolish” (i.e., ignored his caution or his conscience) or “more wise” (i.e., been able to foresee the consequences of his inaction).

So what we know about the poem’s meaning is really quite a bit: at some particular moment in time, the speaker had what at least in hindsight was an opportunity to lay claim to Stella simply by taking positive action; and, to his lasting regret, through caution or indecision, he let the opportunity go by.

All that’s left that’s unclear (I think) is exactly what moment in Sidney’s life the sonnet might refer to. Duncan-Jones, sifting through opinions of earlier biographers, argues that the best guess is a possible first meeting between the poet and 13-year-old Penelope in 1576, when Sidney’s father was still alive and a betrothal could have been nailed down, but the reasons for feeling no great haste to do so would be obvious. This leads to an interpretation of the final line—“Would that I had been foolish enough to fall in love with Stella when I first saw her, or wise enough never to fall in love at all”—which readers may prefer to the one I offered above.

But does settling on a precise biographical moment actually enhance or diminish the poem’s meaning?  It seems to me that, first, there might have been other more subtle conversations in Sidney’s evolving acquaintance with Penelope when he might have sensed such an opening; secondly, all but the most brazen men probably recall with a bit of pain the moments when caution, modesty, or respect caused them to remain alone, while a bolder forwardness might have led to a relationship; and thirdly, however rooted in reality these sonnets may be, they are still products of imagination, and a poet (as Sidney himself asserted in his Defense) is as free to develop an imagined conversation as a real one. Sonnets 45 and 63, for example, refer to specific “incidents” in the relationship with Stella, but no one in his right mind would venture a footnote to track those to actual moments in Philip Sidney’s life; they are clearly poetic inventions. So, given the universality of the emotion captured and the license to use invention to capture it, the question “What if it were anonymous?” is perhaps, in this instance, a helpful one to ask.

* One of four instances of clever use of direct repetition within lines of this poem, in addition to “close” pairs such as “would not . . . could not” (2) or “No force, no fraud” (7), or contrastive juxtaposition such as “infernal night . . . heavenly day” (3-4) and “more foolish . . . more wise” (14).

Next time (weekend of October 18): Sonnet 34

Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 32

Morpheus, the lively son of deadly Sleep,
Witness of life to them that living die;
A prophet oft, and oft an history,
A poet eke, as humors fly or creep,
Since thou in me so sure a power dost keep
That never I with closed-up sense do lie,
But by thy work my Stella I descry,
Teaching blind eyes both how to smile and weep,
Vouchsafe of all acquaintance this to tell:
Whence hast thou ivory, rubies, pearl and gold,
To show her skin, lips, teeth, and head so well?
‘Fool,’ answers he,’ no Inds such treasures hold,
But from thy heart, while my sire charmeth thee,
Sweet Stella’s image I do steal to 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.

This sonnet might profitably be read as a companion to Sonnet 39 (an apostrophe to Sleep), though this one is more specifically about the mixed blessing of dreams. Morpheus is the god of dreams, and at least according to Ovid (other ancients say otherwise), he is the son of Hypnos, god of sleep; and he is a shape-shifter. Further, he is the “lively son of deadly Sleep” because while sleep was considered (by Renaissance writers) an early foretaste of death (in sleep, we “living die”) dreams disrupt and enliven that state with all sorts of vivid dramas. Morpheus is a story-teller (“Witness of life”), a “prophet” who envisions the future (by superstitious but common interpretation), a historian (“history”) who recalls the past, and a poet who (Sidney would argue—in fact, did argue in Defense of Poesy) alters the truth in order to tell a larger truth. “As humors fly or creep” is just a night-goblin, dream-like way to say “when he feels like it.”

The second quatrain turns specific and gets to the heart of the matter: the speaker is a captive audience for Morpheus, and he always dreams the same thing: Stella, who, as usual, brings the mixed message of smiling and weeping in line 8.

There’s an interesting structural wrinkle, for an Italian sonnet, here: the entire octave is one big subordinate clause, and the “other shoe” of the main clause doesn’t drop until line 9, where Morpheus is finally asked to answer just one 2-line question out of his entire knowledge (“acquaintance”) of the human world: where did you get the materials with which to create such a beautiful image as Stella? (I’m reminded of the hit song from my parents’ era, “Jeepers Creepers, where’d you get those peepers?,” except that, oddly, Stella’s flashing eyes don’t make the list this time around.)

The answer, which fills the final tercet, stands the speaker’s expectation on its head, parallels the bottom line of Sonnet 1 (“look in thy heart”), and incidentally reflects a modern understanding of dreams (and that of Shakespeare’s skeptical characters, such as Mercutio): the “visions” seen there are not imported from exotic, far-flung places (the “Inds” = the Indies, thought to be a treasure house of rich splendors, awaiting western exploitation), but are entirely generated within. This presents the curious paradox (but appropriate to a shape-shifter?) of a mythical being arguing for his own non-existence.

Next time (weekend of October 4): Sonnet 33
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 30

Whether the Turkish new moon minded be
To fill his horns this year on Christian coast;
How Pole’s right king means, without leave of host,
To warm with ill-made fire cold Muscovy;
If French can yet three parts in one agree;
What now the Dutch in their full diets boast;
How Holland hearts, now so good towns be lost,
Trust in the shade of pleasing Orange-tree;
How Ulster likes of that same golden bit
Wherewith my father once made it half tame;
If in the Scottish Court be weltering yet:
These questions busy wits to me do frame.
I, cumbered with good manners, answer do,
But know not how, for still I think of you.

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: “Orange” in line 8 and “weltering” in line 11 both have two syllables.

This reads as something Sidney—a polished ambassador—might have “doodled” while sitting through a boring diplomatic meeting of some sort, presumably in the summer of 1582, when Duncan-Jones (citing in turn an earlier editor) places all the events mentioned. It is definitely a “footnote” poem, requiring a gloss for each of the seven current events mentioned, but Sidney also assigns himself the little poetic exercise of coming up with some word-play for each item. I will be depending on Duncan-Jones’s notes for the topical parts of the explanations that follow:

Lines 1-2: The Turks, whose empire often stretched into Europe, were threatening to attack Spain that summer. The word-play is on the crescent moon which was already Turkey’s most identifiable symbol. Here it is a “new moon” (suggesting a new initiative) and the points of the crescent are “horns,” which are both weapons of aggression and something that can be “filled” (think horn of plenty) with the spoils of conquest.

3-4: The elected (“right”) king of Poland, Stephen Bathory, had invaded and then occupied parts of Russia, the stereotypical “cold” place for English authors; the invader is pictured as a rude guest who lights a fire without first receiving permission (“leave”) from his host.

5: Three religio-political factions (Catholics, Protestants, and Moderates) struggled for control of France throughout this era.

6: The “Dutch” are actually the Germans (Deutsch) here, sometimes stereotyped as hearty eaters. The pun on “full diets” is that the Diet (legislative meeting) of the Holy Roman Empire took place in Germany that summer.

7-8: Several Dutch (i.e., Holland-Dutch) towns (“good towns”) were lost to the Spaniards that year, and the country’s hopes lay in William of Orange. “Holland hearts” probably plays on the fact that artichokes first came to England from Holland in the reign of Henry VIII.

9-10: Sidney’s father was Lord Deputy Governor of Ireland until 1578, and subdued the UlsterProvince, in part through taxation, the “golden bit” with which the Ulstermen were “tamed.”

11:  The now-obsolete noun “weltering” means twisting or turning around, or being unstable or agitated, and there were any number of political intrigues in the Scottish court in the summer of 1582.

Although the full rhyme scheme of the sonnet (ABBAABBACDCDEE) is more common than any other (and used for three in a row, starting here), the period after line 12 makes it perhaps as close to a Shakespearean sonnet as Sidney’s hybrid Italian form can come. Line 12 explains the context of all the items of conversation just discussed, and then there is a full stop while the camera shifts (so to speak) from all the other “busy” and insistent speakers to the quiet, distracted young man (think of the moment just before Hamlet speaks his first line) who has (in my imagined scene) been pretending to take notes while not saying much. I don’t think the final couplet is Sidney’s best poetry by any means, but it very simply captures the tongue-tied state of a man whose mind is elsewhere.

Next time (weekend of September 6): Sonnet 31
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 27

Because I oft, in dark abstracted guise
Seem most alone in greatest company,
With dearth of words, or answers quite awry,
To them that would make speech of speech arise,
They deem, and of their doom the rumor flies,
That poison foul of bubbling pride doth lie
So in my swelling breast that only I
Fawn on myself, and others do despise.
Yet pride, I think, doth not my soul possess,
Which looks too oft in his unflatt’ring glass;
But one worse fault, ambition, I confess,
That makes me oft my best friends overpass,
Unseen, unheard, while thought to highest place
Bends all his powers, even unto Stella’s grace.

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: in lines 7-8 “only” modifies “Fawn,” not “I”; so there is a slight lift after “only,” followed by “I fawn on myself” as a connected clause.

Both “powers” and “even” in the final line are single-syllable.

Notice also that “company,” “awry,” “lie,” and “I” are all supposed to rhyme, although this is observed only mentally (not vocally) in modern reading. Oddly enough, it is most likely the final sound in “company” that was heard in all four; the Great Vowel Shift was still in process when Sidney was writing.

This sonnet is such a close companion to Sonnet 23—the poem on melancholy—that one could almost be a superseded draft for the other, except there is no clear “winner.”  Instead, we must consider that the particular topic presented Sidney with enough matter for two fine sonnets, not to mention a number of others (e.g., Sonnet 30) in which the speaker’s self-absorption is at least mentioned.

Both 23 and this one depict concerned friends pondering reasons why the speaker seems so aloof and distracted, and get it wrong; and both of course end with the speaker giving the “right” answer. Both sonnets use the whole first quatrain to set the scene, although there is a closer grammatical link between lines 4 and 5 in this one than in the other. The second quatrain begins the list of reasons, but now observe carefully how the poet’s thought process on the same stimulus takes a new direction. In Sonnet 23, there were three reasons offered, with the third, ambition, occupying the first half of the sestet, the fulcrum coming after line 11, and the speaker’s response taking only the final three lines. In Sonnet 27, the sole reason given by the friends, the “poison foul of bubbling pride,” fills the second quatrain, and the speaker uses the entire sestet to respond. In fact, not only is the fulcrum after line 8 (the most typical place for an Italian sonnet), but this is a relatively rare sonnet in which Sidney does not make a strong break after line 11, but runs the whole argument of the sestet together. As in 23, the sestet brings up ambition as an issue, but it’s as if the speaker is saying “Wait a minute—come to think of it, it IS ambition, but not the way you thought.” And the sonnet ends with the customary fixation on Stella, here framed as the speaker’s aiming higher than is his due.

Let’s walk through it more carefully:

Again we are reminded of Hamlet, not just by the speaker’s “dark abstracted guise,” but also by the alternative possibilities of either “dearth of words” or “answers quite awry.” And the friends are described dismissively as “them that would make speech of speech arise”—i.e. people who engage in small talk, and think that when they have said anything, they are owed a response. Surely the speaker’s attitude is an exaggerated description for the polished courtier Sidney, but one can’t help wondering if the poet Sidney shares some of the shyness and introversion of the much later poet John Keats, and that poet’s impatience with clever acquaintances.

The sentence begun in line 1 continues right through the octave, and we do not reach the main clause until line 5, a line with wonderful sound effects: “They deem, and of their doom the rumor flies.” First I should explain that “doom” originally meant simply “judgment” (before it underwent pejoration to mean “condemnation”) so a paraphrase of this line is “They judge, and of their judgment, the popular opinion is formed that starts to spread around.”  But the sounds of the line, by themselves, paint a picture of how rumor departs by steady steps from truth. The steps are (1) “they deem,” connected by alliteration and consonance to (2) “their doom,” which is echoed and weakened in (3) “the rumor” (assonance, or in effect, given the successive stresses on “doom” and “rum-“, an internal rhyme, as if one slightly misheard the first word and repeated it as the second).

What their judgment, and the subsequent rumor, is, of course, is that it is the speaker’s pride and egotism (“that only I/Fawn on myself”) that make him so aloof. But that could hardly be the case, he protests, because his soul sees nothing good when it looks in the mirror. We might interpret that metaphor as meaning he feels some guilt over his misplaced passion, or, alternatively, translating “soul” more loosely as “self,” that his ego takes regular poundings in his encounters with the woman he loves.

And here, as discussed above, he allows of the possibility that the fault really is ambition after all—just not the political sort of ambition that his critics would expect. In his distracted daydreaming, the speaker aspires to the “highest place” imaginable: “Stella’s grace”; i.e., Stella’s showering divine blessings on him figuratively, while literally giving in to his will.

Next time (weekend of July 26): Sonnet 28

Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 20

Fly, fly, my friends, I have my death wound, fly;
See there that boy, that murth’ring boy, I say,
Who like a thief hid in dark bush doth lie,
Till bloody bullet get him wrongful prey.
So tyrant he no fitter place could spy,
Nor so fair level in so secret stay
As that sweet black which veils the heav’nly eye;
There himself with his shot he close doth lay.
Poor passenger, pass now thereby I did,
And stayed, pleased with the prospect of the place,
While that black hue from me the bad guest hid:
But straight I saw motions of lightning grace,
And then descried the glist’ring of his dart:
But ere I could fly thence, it pierced my heart.

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.

If the “friends” being warned to save themselves here are the same friends who have been counseling reason, trying to talk the speaker out of his infatuation, and so on, the seemingly altruistic opening of this poem becomes also, in the context of the whole sequence, a witty and lighthearted way of saying (again) “Get off my back!”

The poem is a conceit, in which the speaker, in his (metaphorical) death throes, reports on how he received his fatal wound. The little tale is outlined as follows:

First quatrain: Dramatic recap of an “ambush” (i.e., briefly summarizes the “whole” event)
Second quatrain: How the ambusher came to be in place
Sestet: How the victim (the speaker) came to be victimized

I can’t absolutely prove it, but i suspect that the opening line is a conventional formula on the Medieval/Renaissance battlefield for the noble warrior who knows he has received his death wound and doesn’t want anyone else to die trying to rescue him; Sidney, as soldier, might actually have heard some form of it. Notice, for example, the recurrent pattern in Shakespeare:

Fly, father, fly! For all your friends are fled . . . 3 Henry VI, 2.5.125

Fly, lords, and save yourselves . . . 3 Henry VI, 5.2.48

Fly further off, my lord, fly further off.
Mark Antony is in your tents, my lord:
Fly, therefore, noble Cassius, fly further off. Julius Caesar 5.3.9-11

Fly, goodf Fleance, fly, fly, fly! Macbeth 3.3.25

The “murth’ring” (murdering) boy is of course Cupid, and the “bloody bullet” is his iconic arrow, which has (as we now know all too well!) been aimed at the wrong man (“wrongful prey”).

After the brief abstract, we go back to the beginning, as it were, with line 5. “So tyrant he” needs to be understood as “So great a tyrant as he . . . ,” and the word “tyrant” is not so much the despot of a whole nation as the OED’s extended sense of “Any one who acts in a cruel, violent, or wicked manner; a ruffian, desperado; a villain.” Nevertheless, there is a certain resemblance between Sidney’s Cupid and Wyatt’s personified “long love” (translated, in turn, from Petrarch) who with similar rudeness takes up residence in human features:

The long love that in my thought doth harbor
And in mine hert doth keep his residence,
Into my face presseth with bold pretence
And therein campeth, spreading his banner.

The general sense of the second quatrain is clear enough—the fittest place Cupid could find to hide was in Stella’s dark eyes—but the grammatical specifics are a little more challenging, chiefly because both “level” and “stay” in line 6 could be parsed defensibly as either nouns or verbs. “Stay,” for example, could reasonably be a verb in a parallel structure with “spy.” But as nouns, level = “aim” and stay = “support,” and I think the line is best read as a noun phrase in parallel with “place.” Thus, Cupid could find no fitter place, with no better aim (for his target) and no more secret support (for his weapon) than Stella’s dark eyes. All of these individual pieces add metaphorical richness to the conceit of a “tyrant” Cupid hidden in a woman’s eyes.

In line 9, “passenger” is used in the older, more literal sense of the word, merely a passer-by. The conceit goes forward in a fairly predictable way here, but we also, perhaps, learn something about Stella/Penelope and the speaker/Sidney’s reaction to her. He is “pleased with the prospect” when he merely looks at her, but it is only the animated Stella, the Stella who is looking back at him with “motions of lightning [also literal, growing more light] grace,” who actually allows Cupid to fire his “dart.” The flashing of those dark eyes in conversation is synonymous with the arrows of Cupid, and the speaker has been shot through the heart.

Next time (weekend of April 19): Sonnet 21

Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.