Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 57

Woe, having made with many fights his own
Each sense of mine; each gift, each power of mind
Grown now his slaves, he forced them out to find
The thoroughest words, fit for Woe’s self to groan,
Hoping that when they might find Stella alone,
Before she could prepare to be unkind,
Her soul, armed but with such a dainty rind,
Should soon be pierced with sharpness of the moan.
She heard my plaints, and did not only hear,
But them (so sweet is she) most sweetly sing,
With that fair breast making woe’s darkness clear:
A pretty case! I hoped her to bring
To feel my griefs, and she with face and voice
So sweets my pains, that my pains me rejoice.

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 line 4, “thouroughest” must be elided to two syllables, “thorough’st”; and “hoped” in line 12 has two syllables.

As we have seen Love (frequently), Virtue, and Reason personified, now for the first time it is Woe, who after “many fights” (presumably the speaker’s valiant attempts to keep his spirits up) has taken over (made “slaves” of) every single one of the speaker’s faculties, starting, naturally enough, with the “external” parts, the senses. And once installed in power, Woe starts ordering the “slaves” to bring him “words” with which to “groan,” obviously Woe’s favorite thing to do; so we are once again talking about the process by which this woeful poetry comes into being.

This discussion in the first quatrain runs right on into the second, but the verbal “Hoping” that starts line 5 is ambiguous: it should modify “Woe’s self,” but it gradually becomes clear that the character Woe has been forgotten, and the poem has segued into talking only about the speaker/poet and his poetry. And the hope we’re talking about here is the same expressed all the way back in Sonnet 1, the hope

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. . .

. . . with the specific additions here that if she were alone (thus able to be unguarded and sincere in her response), her “dainty rind” or lovely exterior would likely be sensitive and susceptible to the appeal.

Then, as the sestet begins, a new turn of events! For the first time in the sequence we are told that Stella is not only paying attention, but is actually sharing the sonnets aloud (“sing” should surely be understood as hyperbole for simply reading, reflecting how the poet would feel about such a performance). Note the small “sound effect” in line 11: the line “stumbles” a bit on the four syllables “making woe’s dark-,” since “making” is a “backwards” foot (trochee rather than iamb) and “woe’s dark-” is, in effect, a spondee. But on “-ness clear,” iambic order is restored, as if by Stella’s perfect voice; the sound of the line imitates its sense.

“A pretty case!” is Elizabethan jargon for a dilemma or paradox, though the phrase obviously has double meaning here, because of the bodily form in which the “case” has been presented. The paradox is that by recognizing and celebrating the speaker’s woe, Stella has obliterated it; the pain itself, in her sweet voice, perforce must give him joy.

Next time (weekend of September 19): Sonnet 58
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.