Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 19

On Cupid’s bow how are my heartstrings bent,
That see my wrack, and yet embrace the same!
When most I glory, then I feel most shame:
I willing run, yet while I run, repent.
My best wits still their own disgrace invent;
My very ink turns straight to Stella’s name;
And yet my words, as them my pen doth frame,
Advise themselves that they are vainly spent.
For though she pass all things, yet what is all
That unto me, who fare like him that both
Looks to the skies, and in a ditch doth fall?
O let me prop my mind, yet in his growth,
And not in Nature, for best fruits unfit:
“Scholar,” saith Love, “bend hitherward your wit.”

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 describes a sort of growing love-madness in the speaker, as reflected in the disorderly line break between lines 9 and 10—unusually “modern” for Sidney—in which the closely connected noun phrase “all that” is snapped right in the middle, so that even the slight acknowledgement that the end of an enjambed line customarily receives is impossible here; the break after line 10 is only barely more natural, and all three lines of the tercet have caesuras, so, as the soon-to-be-mad Hamlet might observe here, “the time is out of joint.”  As it happens, the simile of that tercet is taken from Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, at the moment when the scholar Nicholas is feigning madness in preparation for his plot to sleep with the Carpenter John’s lovely young wife (a silly story which, for some reason, might be much on Sidney’s mind these days!).  The foolish carpenter, in his sincere concern for his lodger’s obsession with astrology, recalls a similar case:

So ferde another clerk with astromye;
He walked in the feeldes, for to prye
Upon the sterres, what ther sholde befalle,
Til he was in a marle-pit yfalle;
He saugh nat that.

Our “scholar” seems to be relating more to that clerk than to the successful Nicholas.*

While the opening line of the poem seems at first glance to suggest the speaker’s heartstrings are being used to string Cupid’s bow, this clever word-play is misleading. More logically, “bent” here means “inclined toward” or “aimed at,” the same as the verb at the end of line 12 in the previous sonnet. So his “heartstrings” are pulled toward Cupid’s bow, even as he knows that ruin (“wrack”) that way lies. (Compare Shakespeare’s couplet on lust, Sonnet 129: All this the world well knows, yet none knows well/To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.) This paradox is extended with the parallel paradoxes of lines 3 and 4.

Line 5 repeats the idea expressed in lines 10-11 of sonnet 18:

My wit doth strive those passions to defend
Which for reward spoil it with vain annoys.

That is, the speaker’s best thinking is going into a fool’s errand that pays off only negatively. From the second quatrain here, it is now quite obvious that Sidney refers to the writing of the sonnet sequence itself, and the tendency of the sonnets to bring him shame, even as they help him explore both his passion and his shame: “[the words of the poems] Advise themselves that they are vainly spent.”

The first half of the sestet, as discussed above, takes us back to the classic Chaucerian image of star-gazing and embarrassing futility as the only result. But the final tercet returns to the same mulish determination of the speaker to court his own ruin, expressed here in imagery drawn from Renaissance formal gardening: the speaker’s “mind” (and remember, that word encompasses the soul as well as the intellect) is treated as a fruit tree in such a garden; it could have grown naturally, but instead the speaker asks that it be “propped” (i.e., staked) and thus forced to grow in an unnatural direction, for decorative but “fruitless” purposes (my double meaning is quite intentional). Just so the speaker’s “wit” and learning are unnaturally bent toward Love (the repeated verb signals that the poem ends right where it started), with a similarly fruitless result. Notice that the final line of this poem is a faded echo of the final line of Sonnet 1, with most of the drive and optimism already drained out.

* As Duncan-Jones points out, Sidney (and probably Chaucer also) had in mind a commonplace anecdote about Thales of Miletus, an ancient Greek philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer. Sidney makes the same allusion in the Defence of Poesy (Duncan-Jones 219).

Next time (weekend of April 5): Sonnet 20

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 11

In truth, O Love, with what a boyish kind
Thou dost proceed in thy most serious ways:
That when the heaven to thee his best displays,
Yet of that best thou leav’st the best behind.
For, like a child that some fair book doth find,
With gilded leaves or colored vellum plays,
Or at the most, on some fine picture stays,
But never heeds the fruit of writer’s mind:
So when thou saw’st, in Nature’s cabinet,
Stella, thou straight look’st babies in her eyes,
In her cheek’s pit thou didst thy pit-fold set,
And in her breast bo-peep or couching lies,
Playing and shining in each outward part:
But, fool, seek’st not to get into her 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.

This is a playful sonnet, which extends the common image of Cupid (or “Love”) as a child, a small boy. What Cupid is about, of course, is not at all child’s play, and thus the poem’s conceit of a boy who gets in over his head. This is the first of a trio of Cupid sonnets (or third in a set of five if we ignore Sonnet 10) and, despite Sidney’s characteristic playfulness with the theme, all these sonnets reflect rather darkly on Stella, or at least on the speaker’s prospects with her.

After the abstract generalization, in the first quatrain, that children typically overlook the “best” or most “serious” part of anything for the more entertaining or eye-catching part, the second quatrain introduces the conceit, actually in the form of an epic simile.* The “like” part is a child’s reaction to, perhaps, one of the geographic or proto-scientific tomes being published in Sidney’s time—fascination with the beautiful pictures but obliviousness to the writer’s deep ideas.

In the “so” part, the poet doubles down on poetic figures, comparing his simile to yet another metaphor appropriate to the age of exploration: the “cabinet” in which the cognoscenti displayed the curiosities of science or travel. In this case the cabinet belongs to no less a personage than Nature herself, and Stella is displayed there as a rarity in Nature’s collection. But of course the childish Cupid is drawn to her only as a toy. He sees “babies” (i.e., a child’s dolls) in her eyes. The dimples (“pits”) of her cheeks seem good only for bird-trapping (the customary form of hunting for the very young, and the sense is compounded by the rather obvious fact that setting “traps” is one of Cupid’s favorite games; see line 2 of sonnet 12); “pitfold” is a pitfall, or trap.

The final example of this obtuseness is extended over two lines and thus—inSidney’s characteristic division of the sestet into 3 and 3—more closely related to the poem’s final line. It is also more challenging to a modern reader: why “bo-peep” (uncapitalized)?; and what exactly does “bo-peep or couching lies” mean?

Before bo-peep became a name in a nursery rhyme, it described the baby game probably best known to moderns as peek-a-boo. The sense of “or” here is definitely obscure, but it was a common form of “ere,” which, among various other possibilities in the unstressed, “throwaway” position, could mean “now.” In the context of Cupid finding only childish things in Stella’s features, I think the phrase is best understood as either “now couching lies” or, perhaps better, “e’er [ever] couching lies.” In any case, the verbal phrase after the questionable word is a brilliant ambiguity, since “lies” can either be the innocent verb of which “bo-peep” is the subject, or, more damningly, it can be a noun, the direct object of “couching.” Either way, the overall sense is that the visible (“outward”) part of Stella’s breasts, “playing and shining,” plays a game of peek-a-boo with the observer, presumably the speaker himself. In both the erotic and the emotional senses, the speaker wants to see more, the latter because the exposed part of the breasts is the outward part of the body closest to the heart.

Which brings us to the late fulcrum, at the start of the poem’s bottom line, which reveals that all of these rarities of Nature are but “bo-peep” or “lies” after all, since there is no opening for Love in Stella’s heart. “Fool” is ostensibly addressed to Cupid, and consistent with the tone and theme of the rest of the poem; but we can’t help but recall the last line of Sonnet 1, where the muse used that word for the speaker/poet. SurelySidneyis thinking of his own folly and frustration here.

*an extended “like” or “as” phrase, followed by an extended “so,” characteristic of epic poetry or imitations; e.g. “As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly,/When they meet with an obstacle, up to the sky,/So up to the housetop his coursers they flew . . . etc.”

Next time (weekend of December 14): Sonnet 12

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


Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 3

Let dainty wits cry on the sisters nine,
That, bravely masked, their fancies may be told;
Or Pindar’s apes flaunt they in phrases fine,
Enam’ling with pied flowers their thoughts of gold;
Or else let them in statelier glory shine,
Ennobling new-found tropes with problems old;
Or with strange similes enrich each line,
Of herbs or beasts, which Ind or Afric hold.
For me, in sooth, no Muse but one I know;
Phrases and problems from my reach do grow,
And strange things cost too dear for my poor sprites.
How then?  even thus: in Stella’s face I read
What love and beauty be; then all my deed
But copying is, what in her Nature writes.

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.

Written in the same vein as Sonnet 1, this poem, like 1, makes use of the poetic fancies that it mocks.  Thus, we read of “sisters nine,” “Enam’ling with pied flowers,” and “herbs or beasts which Ind or Afric hold,” as practices  which (sarcastically) “enrich each line,” while their less-than-original poets are described as “Pindar’s apes” (i.e., imitators).  Lines 5 to 8, while parallel to the first four in describing the third and fourth problematic practices, take us to an opposite extreme from imitation (hence “Or else”), two forms of excessive new-fangledness. The first (lines 5-6) is using fancy rhetorical “tropes” to dress up the same old “problems” (i.e., subject matter), while the second refers to the Euphuean barbarism of drawing strange or forced comparisons with nature.  And as with Sonnet 1 there is irony here that Sidney hopes we won’t notice, since he is guilty of every one of these practices himself—though every artist needs to be aware of the outer limits of the current fashions or trends in his own art.  It is also good to remind ourselves that “artificiality” was considered a good quality by the Elizabethans, and was embraced fulsomely even in the poetic discussion of “natural” passion and sincerity.*

Structurally, the octave is a series of four equal and parallel phrases saying what we are to “let” the lesser poets do—“let” being in this case both the verb “allow” and a conventional way of posing a hypothetical, roughly equivalent to “Let’s say that some poets do this: ______________ etc.” Then the fulcrum comes in the expected place for an Italian sonnet, at the start of the ninth line as the speaker offers the contrast of himself, with the added double-meaning emphasis of “in sooth” (i.e., the mere expletive intensifier on the one hand, but the literal meaning on the other: his writing, unlike theirs, is actually true). In a mere three lines, he strips himself bare of everything it took eight lines to describe before, so sound is admirably imitating sense here, and the poem’s second full end stop further forces that comparison. So now there is a “sub-fulcrum” and line 12 is a perfect echoing response of line 9: “For me, in sooth” = “How then? Even [pronounced e’en] thus”; “no muse but one” = “in Stella’s face” (this of course is the most crucial echo); and, “I know” = “I read.” The final two lines have similar significant parallels, but in a chiasmic**, or crossing, pattern.  The “frontwards” clause “What love and beauty be” is perfectly matched at the other end by the partly inverted clause “what in her nature writes” (again emphasizing that Stella requires no fancy ornamentation), while (focusing on the poet’s job) the “frontwards” “then all my deed” is echoed by the inverted “but copying is.”  We might be reminded here of Keats’s famous dictum: “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body.” The speaker of this poem is professing such Negative Capability and such self-effacement, but of course with considerable irony since Stella would essentially not “exist” at all without the considerable poetic efforts and, yes, the artifice, of Philip Sidney.

* Duncan-Jones’s note on the octave offers help on the actual writers involved in the trends being mocked: imitation of Pindar and other ancients: Ronsard and other Pleiade writers; rhetorical elaboration: Thomas Watson, Hekatompathia (1582); and the exotic similes: of course Lyly, Euphues, in prose, but also employed by Petrarch and all his imitators.  Finally she notes: “Sidney himself uses all four kinds of elaboration in [The Old Arcadia] poems; rhetorical and logical complexity is the only one used persistently in A&S.”

**Chiasmus, named for the Greek letter chi (X), is a pattern of parallel statements or phrases in which the elements are in reverse order (so that if you drew lines connecting the individual elements that were parallel, you would draw an X). So, crudely:
I went to the fair,
Then home came I.
Or more elegantly, by Keats:
Out went the taper
she hurried in.
In theory, you could have a chiasmus based on sound only:
Bam! went the
sea-rent dam.

 Next time (weekend of September 7): Sonnets 4 and 10

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