Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 40

As good to write, as for to lie and groan,
O Stella dear, how much thy power hath wrought,
That hast my mind, none of the basest, brought,
My still-kept course, while others sleep, to moan.
Alas, if from the height of Virtue’s throne
Thou canst vouchsafe the influence of a thought
Upon a wretch that long thy grace hath sought,
Weigh then how I by thee am overthrown;
And then think thus—although thy beauty be
Made manifest by such a victory,
Yet noblest conquerors do wrecks avoid.
Since then thou hast so far subdued me,
That in my heart I offer still to thee,
O, do not let thy temple be destroyed.

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: “power” in line 2 is one syllable, while “subduëd” in line 12 has three.

Now we have Part III of this triptych of bed-time reflections. Sonnet 38 began promisingly with a very life-like dream of Stella, which sadly destroyed itself and chased sleep away for the speaker. In Sonnet 39 he appealed, apparently without success, to Sleep to return, so now he turns his thoughts straight to Stella herself, since it is clearly her fault that he lies awake. I might as well write a sonnet, he says, as lie here groaning. Line 3 suggests the speaker is not ordinarily slave or subject to anyone, but a proud man in most circumstances. But Stella has the singular “power” to make him “moan” his “still-kept course”—i.e., his constant obsession. In other words, he is lamenting not just the lack or loss of the woman he loves, but also the way in which his passion has reduced him.

The second quatrain takes the same abject position toward Stella, high on “Virtue’s throne” (cf. Sonnets 4, 9, 25, 31, 52, etc.), as the same portion of the previous sonnet had taken toward Sleep. As Sleep was a conquering emperor who could cause civil wars to cease, Stella is a proud conqueror who has “overthrown” the speaker, and clearly has the power to destroy him.

In the sestet, where the previous sonnet offered forms of “tribute” to the conqueror, this one offers a simple plea: do not destroy what you have conquered. Obviously tyrants can make a demonstration of power by laying waste the lands they conquer, but the “noblest conquerors” recognize that their own glory is enhanced by the grandeur of the states and structures within their sway. The speaker is a “temple” to his own love and Stella’s beauty, and that temple should not be destroyed. Handel wrote a wonderful oratorio—“Alexander’s Feast”—on the counter-example of Alexander the Great unwisely destroying the great city of Persepolis after celebrating his great victory there. This plea to the “conqueror” is an idea that Sidney will reprise—with essentially the same intent—at the start of Sonnet 67.
Next time (weekend of January 24): Sonnet 41
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 39

Come Sleep, O Sleep, the certain knot of peace,
The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release,
The indifferent judge between the high and low;
With shield of proof shield me from out the press
Of those fierce darts Despair at me doth throw;
O make in me those civil wars to cease;
I will good tribute pay, if thou do so.
Take thou of me smooth pillows, sweetest bed,
A chamber deaf to noise, and blind to light;
A rosy garland, and a weary head;
And if these things, as being thine by right,
Move not thy heavy grace, thou shalt in me,
Livelier than elsewhere, Stella’s image see.

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: “The indifferent” in line 4 is elided as “Th’indifferent.”

This sonnet, the second of three ostensibly written at bed-time, has a fairly simple outline for its message: the octave is an invocation to personified Sleep, while the sestet lists the inducements or “tribute” the speaker offers to make Sleep come. The second quatrain cleverly introduces a military conceit, to make the concept of tribute more logical than it would otherwise have been.

A reader is perhaps reminded of Macbeth’s rueful ode to sleep as he stands with Duncan’s blood on his hands in Act II, scene 2:

Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast . . .

The meaning of Sidney’s lines may not be immediately clear to a modern reader, because of older senses of some words. One needs to know that a “knot” is a small formal garden, so, read simply, sleep is a peaceful spot to retreat to; or, if we personify “peace,” we have the more complex suggestion that sleep is where Peace herself goes to find peace. “Bait” means a light snack (go figure!), so, in older parlance, a “baiting place” was what we now call a “rest stop” for travelers on the road, or in this instance a place where one’s brain (“wit”) can take some time off. The remaining phrases in lines 2 to 4 mean, respectively, a place where woes are healed, where the downtrodden (poor men and prisoners) can dream of better things, and (line 4) where all are alike, as status differences are not recognized (“In sleep a king,” says the speaker of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 87, “but waking no such matter”).

With shield of proof shield me from out the press
Of those fierce darts Despair at me doth throw;

Here we have a brief antanaclasis (“shield” as noun and then verb) and the pivotal word “press.”  When used as an unmodified noun in this period, the typical and expected reference would be to a crowd of people; so, for just a moment, we expect the speaker to be welcoming sleep as a break from other people, possibly those friends who keep telling him his infatuation is crazy. But this noun is modified (in an enjambed line), and the “press” turns out to be a shower of “darts,” i.e., arrows, of despair, a self-inflicted emotion of futility, warring with his hopes. And with that deft pivot, we are into the language of war:

O make in me those civil wars to cease;
I will good tribute pay, if thou do so.

(The last two feet of the line, “if thou do so” are uncharacteristically uneconomical, and not Sidney’s best poetry!)  Now he speaks to sleep as a sort of Emperor who might intervene in a vassal nation embroiled in internal conflict, and silence both sides. And, as one must do for such an Emperor, he offers the payments of “tribute” which he will go on to describe in the sestet.  For the first three lines (9-11) these are the same ordinary things you or I might offer as inducements to Sleep, a nice bed in a dark and quiet room, and so forth. I’m not sure where the rosy garland fits in; no doubt it is “proverbial” (as footnote writers say), but one of you will need to explain the proverb to me.

Then, as if the speaker recognizes how ordinary and pedestrian these offers are (merely “thine by right”), he ends the poem with the ultimate inducement, which happens to be the chief reason he is seeking sleep in the first place: it offers his best hope (“livelier than elsewhere”) of seeing Stella as he wishes her to be, in his dreams. The wish to recover that “lively” image makes this sonnet even more clearly the sequel to the previous one.

Next time (weekend of January 10): Sonnet 40
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 38

This night, while sleep begins with heavy wings
To hatch mine eyes, and that unbitted thought
Doth fall to stray, and my chief powers are brought
To leave the scepter of all subject things,
The first that straight my fancy’s error brings
Unto my mind, is Stella’s image, wrought
By Love’s own self, but with so curious draught,
That she, methinks, not only shines, but sings.
I start, look, hark; but what in closed-up sense
Was held, in opened sense it flies away,
Leaving me nought but wailing eloquence.
I, seeing better sights in sight’s decay,
Called it anew, and wooed sleep again:
But him her host that unkind guest had slain.

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:  “wooed” in line 13 is two syllables: woo-ed.

As we begin a three-sonnet series of “bed-time” thoughts—when sleep closes (“hatch[es]”) the speaker’s eyes with its “heavy wings”—we have one of Sidney’s little lessons on Renaissance commonplace understandings; that is, the relationship between Reason and Fancy in the waking and sleeping states. For a more direct, yet poetic, explanation, we can look forward to Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Adam explains to Eve:

But know that in the Soul
Are many lesser Faculties that serve
Reason as chief; among these Fancy next
Her office holds; of all external things,
Which the five watchful Senses represent,
She forms Imaginations, aery shapes,
Which Reason joining or disjoining, frames
All what we affirm or what deny, and call
Our knowledge or opinion; then retires
Into her private cell when Nature rests [i.e., when we go to sleep].
Oft in her absence mimic Fancy wakes
To imitate her; but misjoining shapes,
Wild work produces oft, and most in dreams,
Ill matching words and deeds long past or late.

Sidney’s briefer version in the first quatrain here parallels this explanation precisely, since “chief powers” refers to Reason, which yields up its “scepter” in sleep, leaving unbridled (“unbitted”) and “straying” Fancy to take over. And, as we might expect, the first thing Fancy produces (line 5) is the image of Stella, drawn (“wrought”) by mischievous Cupid (“Love”), but she is depicted so miraculously (we might think of a movie-goer in the 1920’s who attends the first film with sound) that she not only looks like an angel (“shines”) but also has a sound-track: she sings!

The fulcrum between octave and sestet in this poem represents an actual change from sleeping to waking state; “I start, look, hark” means “I wake up, look, and listen.”  But awake, the dream is fled; “fled is that music,” as Keats would say. The image could only stay while the actual senses were “closed-up” in sleep. So, paradoxically, the sweet music of the dream has served only (returning to Keats) “to toll me back from thee to my sole self”—a far less satisfying vision! Indeed, the “wailing eloquence” of line 11 might be an apt description of all these sonnets.

To sort out pronouns or vague references in the final lines, “it” in line 13 refers to the “better sight” the speaker has lost, “him” (to which “her host” is an appositive) is sleep, and Stella is the “unkind guest” who slew him. Slaying one’s host is of course an “unkind” thing for a guest to do, but the OED gives additional historical senses of “unkind”: “strange, foreign,” “contrary to the usual course of nature,” “lacking in natural gratitude,” and “undutiful”; all of which may be applied to Stella here. The bottom line in the poem’s story is obvious: there’s no going back to sleep after that experience!

Next time (weekend of December 27): Sonnet 39
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.