Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 107

Stella, since thou so right a princess art
Of all the powers which life bestows on me,
That ere by them aught undertaken be
They first resort unto that sovereign part;
Sweet, for a while give respite to my heart,
Which pants as though it still should leap to thee;
And on my thoughts give thy lieutenancy
To this great cause, which needs both use and art;
And as a queen, who from her presence sends
Whom she employs, dismiss from thee my wit,
Till it have wrought what thy own will attends.
On servant’s shame oft master’s blame doth sit;
O let not fools in me thy works reprove,
And scorning say, ‘See what it is to love.’

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Did Sidney arrive at the intended end of his sonnet sequence, or did he just give up and stop? Neither of the final two sonnets by itself seems to reach the clear resolution of an intended end. But of course the intended end in the love relationship—expressed from Sonnet 1 onward—has not and will not come about; and these two sonnets, read together, do form a sort of “summing up” of where this failure has left the speaker/the poet/possibly Sidney himself.* This one, specifically, rather plaintively asks Stella to sanction, or at least acknowledge, the passions and poetic efforts of the speaker, lest all this poetry be dismissed as the ravings of a madman.

Needless to say, this is a delicate request to pose to the woman who has dismissed all overtures of love. How is she to remain true to herself while acknowledging, and in some sense sanctioning, the poetic efforts for which these final sonnets serve as an envoi?

The speaker approaches the task with great care. The basis of Stella’s objection throughout the sequence (see especially Sonnets 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 18 etc.) is that she stands for Reason, and the opening quatrain addresses her in this light: she is the “princess” of all his powers (i.e., including will and appetite, the senses, etc.), but she represents “that sovereign part” which properly governs all these powers, i.e., the soul as directed by reason.

Having acknowledged this sovereignty, he turns back to his lesser “powers”—passions, lustful “thoughts,” a “heart” which “pants”—and says, in effect, don’t sovereigns find employment for lesser beings? Do they not send them out as servants, lieutenants, emissaries? And, line 12 suggests, the sovereign might remain perfect, and yet share in the blame for the follies of the servants. So if Stella has now “dismissed” the speaker and all his romantic pretensions—as it appears she has—could it not be with at least an acknowledgement that these “servants”—i.e., the sonnets—are working to please her will?

There is a certain amount of desperation in this carefully-worded plea, as the more bluntly stated final couplet makes clear. If the dismissal does not have this qualified blessing, then all of these sonnets represent only folly, the ravings of a love-sick lunatic, exposed to the scorn even of fools, rather than high art with a noble intent.

*Though as we come to the end of this journey and resurface from our suspended disbelief, we should remember the caveat that the “story lines” of renaissance sonnets can be entirely artificial and fictional.

Next time (weekend of August 19): Sonnet 108
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 90

Stella, think not that I by verse seek fame,
Who seek, who hope, who love, who live but thee;
Thine eyes my pride, thy lips mine history;
If thou praise not, all other praise is shame.
Nor so ambitious am I as to frame
A nest for my young praise in laurel tree;
In truth, I swear, I wish not there should be
Graved in mine epitaph a poet’s name.
Ne if I would, could I just title make,
That any laud to me thereof should grow,
Without my plumes from others’ wings I take.
For nothing from my wit or will doth flow,
Since all my words thy beauty doth endite,
And love doth hold my hand, and makes me write.

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Reading note: “Ne” at the start of line 9 is pronounced to rhyme with “key,” and since it simply means “nor,” there is no pause after it.

Every once in a while, there is a pause in the “story,” for the poet/speaker to remind us of the premise underlying the entire sonnet sequence. That is the case here, in a very conventional sonnet, following the sequence’s most predictable form: an Italian sonnet rhymed ABBAABBACDCDEE, the most common scheme (60 times) in the sequence. There are full end-stops at the expected places, after line 8 (separating octave from sestet) and line 11 (splitting the sestet into two tercets).

Artifice is valued positively by Renaissance poets, and Sidney is a master of artifice. We have also been told from time to time in the sequence that others read his sonnets and apparently admire them, if not the infatuation that inspires them. So the octave here—in this most artificial of sonnets—dismisses the plausible notion that the poet celebrates Stella only to gain fame for his art. The images of fame are also the most conventional: critical acclaim by readers (the first quatrain maintains that Stella is the only reader who counts), the classical laurel-leaf crown from which the phrase “poet laureate” derives, or the designation of “poet” on one’s gravestone (which anticipates the honor of being recognized in the “Poets’ Corner” of Westminster Abbey, though Chaucer occupied the space in lonely splendor as Sidney wrote).

The fulcrum comes at the predictable spot, and the sestet moves in the direction of what he might be famous for as a poet, and that is that he does not fly on “others’ wings,” i.e., steal from other poets—as he asserted repeatedly in the early sonnets. There is no need for that (the final tercet tells us), but paradoxically he does not rely on his own “wit or will” either. As we have known since the final line of the first sonnet, it is Stella’s beauty and his own love that inspires this poetry and makes it worthy of praise.

Next time (weekend of December 25): Sonnet 91
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 81

O kiss, which dost those ruddy gems impart,
Or gems, or fruits of new-found Paradise,
Breathing all bliss, and sweetening to the heart,
Teaching dumb lips a nobler exercise;
O kiss, which souls, even souls, together ties
By links of love, and only nature’s art:
How fain would I paint thee to all men’s eyes,
Or of thy gifts at least shade out some part.
But she forbids; with blushing words, she says
She builds her fame on higher-seated praise;
But my heart burns, I cannot silent be.
Then since (dear life) you fain would have me peace,
And I, mad with delight, want wit to cease,
Stop you my mouth with still, still kissing 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.

Like Sonnet 79, this one begins as an apostrophe to a kiss, the topic that has preoccupied our poet for a while. As if to compensate for the structural departure in 79, this one has rock-solid conventional Italian sonnet structure, with a full stop after line 8, and the pivotal “But” to start line 9.*

Furthermore, Sidney’s own favorite two-part sestet form receives special emphasis, with two carefully paralleled three-line sentences, rhymed CCD EED. In the first, the “camera” is on Stella for two lines, and then shifts to the speaker for the third; in the second, it stays on the speaker for two lines, and then shifts back to Stella. The CC and EE couplets are linked by consonance in the rhymes, and a But/Then contrast between what Stella does do and what the speaker would like her to do. And in the two “D” lines, “heart” and “mouth” are antitheses, while the subject of silence occupies the final three feet of each line.

Assuming a similar parallelism in the two quatrains of the octave is instructive. While the “nobler exercise” taught by the kiss might remain vague in isolation, it becomes clear from lines 7-8 that it refers to the artistic challenge of capturing Stella’s “gifts” in poetry. The painting metaphor here is the same as in Sonnets 1 and 2 (and see also Sonnets 70, 93, and 98); to “shade out” is a step beyond sketching out, so the point is he would like to “paint” her, or “at least” capture her essence in the shaded sketch. The octave also employs auxesis in building a process that looks back to Plato and forward to Wordsworth, in which the external encounter with beauty triggers a sympathetic reaction (“all bliss and sweetening”) in the heart, leading in turn to poetic inspiration and the sharing of beauty with “all men.”

But. The speaker has taken his best shot at idealizing the outcome of an illicit kiss, but the big “But” at the poem’s swivel point announces that the virtuous Stella is having none of it. “She builds her fame in higher-seated praise” implies that it is the virtuous soul, not the gorgeous flesh, that she would like to be remembered for. The conflict between her aspirations and his is familiar to all readers of the whole sequence.

So, thwarted in his frontal attempt to bestow honor on kissing, the speaker must now stoop to a clever (or so he hopes) ploy instead: if she would keep him from singing her praise, she must stop his mouth—with kissing! (as Beatrice tells her cousin Hero to do in Much Ado, to keep Claudio from speaking). The repeated “still” in the last line, sometimes printed with no comma between, could be thus understood as stretching the moment through sheer repetition, as in the phrase “for ever and ever.” But given Sidney’s fondness for antanaclasis, in which the sense of the repeated word changes a bit, a better reading might be that, while the second “still” is the common adverb, the first is a spoken “still” (as in “be still”) by Stella, to make him hold his peace. Again in Shakespeare’s Much Ado, Verges comes to mind, telling the watch to bid the nurse to “still” a crying child. In any case, the noble Platonic sentiment of the octave has been reduced by Stella’s stout virtue to a puerile gambit at the end.

*Somewhat paradoxically, the oddly-shaped 79 (as noted there) has Sidney’s most common rhyme scheme, while this very conventionally shaped one has the rare rhyme scheme (used just three times in the whole sequence) of ABABBABACCDEED; the palindromic octave is the unusual element.

Next time (weekend of August 21): Sonnet 82
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 76

She comes, and straight therewith her shining twins do move
Their rays to me, who in her tedious absence lay
Benighted in cold woe; but now appears my day,
The only light of joy, the only warmth of love.
She comes, with light and warmth, which like Aurora prove
Of gentle force, so that mine eyes dare gladly play
With such a rosy morn, whose beams most freshly gay
Scorch not, but only do dark chilling sprites remove.
But lo, while I do speak, it groweth noon with me;
Her flamy glistering lights increase with time and place;
My heart cries, ‘Ah, it burns’; mine eyes now dazzled be;
No wind, no shade can cool; what help then in my case,
But with short breath, long looks, staid feet and walking head,
Pray that my sun go down with meeker beams to bed.

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Reading note: “glistering” in line 10 is elided to two syllables.

At this point in the sequence, we have two of the six sonnets written in hexameters. In this one, five of the eight lines in the octave are also enjambed, so we get a particularly leisurely stroll through ideas the speaker likes to entertain, especially in the poem’s second quatrain. For, despite Stella’s angry reaction to the stolen kiss, the effect on the speaker seems to be a heightened imagination of what might be.

The first quatrain, featuring Stella’s now-familiar eyes (“shining twins”), is a fairly straightforward statement of a plot-fact, Stella’s arrival to turn the speaker’s night to day. This is restated as a frictionless thought in the second quatrain. Here, Stella is the dawn (“Aurora”) who not only brings “light” into his life, but does it with gentleness, removing all the “chilling sprites” of night.

But this figurative language has implications or consequences; the light of a cool dawn must turn into the noon-time heat of day, i.e., the passion which Stella’s presence inspires in the speaker, as announced in line 11. So the final tercet seeks a solution to this excessive heat. In a line (13) that recalls the “throes” of Sonnet 1, Sidney wonderfully captures the situation of a man in such a state, with a pair of antitheses: as his looks grow longer, his breath grows shorter, and as his feet are rooted, his mind wanders off to another place. Finishing the conceit of a sun’s journey through the day, he envisions—nay, “pray[s] that”—a “meeker” (or more yielding) love might go to bed, a perfectly innocent gesture for the sun, but with obvious sexual suggestion for Stella.

Next time (weekend of June 12): Sonnet 77
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 74

I never drank of Aganippe well,
Nor ever did in shade of Tempe sit;
And muses scorn with vulgar brains to dwell;
Poor layman I, for sacred rites unfit.
Some do I hear of poet’s fury tell,
But (God wot) wot not what they mean by it;
And this I swear, by blackest brook of hell,
I am no pick-purse of another’s wit.
How falls it then, that with so smooth an ease
My thoughts I speak, and what I speak doth flow
In verse, and that my verse best wits doth please?
Guess we the cause: ‘What, is it thus?’ Fie, no;
‘Or so?’ Much less. ‘How then?’ Sure, thus it is:
My lips are sweet, inspired with Stella’s kiss.

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.

Still excited by the stolen kiss (see Second Song, covered with Sonnet 72) the poet returns to the theme of Sonnet 15, with a new twist at the end. As in the earlier sonnet, the first quatrain evokes classical sources for poetic inspiration, while the second looks to more recent fads that a poet might follow. And while Sonnet 15 had the poetic joke of a self-illustrating line—“Into your rhymes, running in rattling rows”—this one has a demonstration of “poet’s fury” in the inarticulate babble “But (God wot) wot not what”; and perhaps the very cliché-sounding “swear by blackest brook of hell” is a self-parody of the claim to be “no pick-purse of another’s wit.”

But in the sestet we move ever so gently into new territory. Sonnet 15 (like 1, 3, and 6 on the same theme) is hopeful or aspirational about the effects of Stella’s inspiration on the speaker’s poetry. At this point in the series, he has apparently had some critical success with these sonnets, which “best wits doth please.” The poetry smoothly “flows,” as illustrated by the fully enjambed tercet, lines 9-11. It’s time to ask why, but only three lines of sonnet remain, for a guessing process similar to one (for example) that took seven lines back in Sonnet 23. With remarkable economy, Sidney gets off two guesses (abbreviated to “thus” and “so”) and a final query (“How then?”), before the charmingly simple answer—and one echoing the metaphor of the opening line—is given in the bottom line.

Next time (weekend of May 15): Sonnet 75
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 70

My muse may well grudge at my heavenly joy,
If still I force her in sad rhymes to creep;
She oft hath drunk my tears, now hopes to enjoy
Nectar of mirth, since I Jove’s cup do keep.
Sonnets be not bound prentice to annoy;
Trebles sing high, as well as basses deep:
Grief but Love’s winter livery is, the boy
Hath cheeks to smile, as well as eyes to weep.
Come then, my muse, show thou height of delight
In well-raised notes; my pen the best it may
Shall paint out joy, though but in black and white.
Cease, eager muse; peace, pen, for my sake stay;
I give you here my hand for truth of this:
Wise silence is best music unto bliss.

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 1 is two syllables, and “to enjoy” in line 3 must be elided to “t’enjoy.”

This sonnet seeks to hold on to the blissful moment of the previous one, with a more modest and quiet reflection. It resumes the on-and-off conversation with the muse that started in Sonnet 1, and opens with the assumption that this long-suffering muse will be expecting some happy poetry now, for a change. The somewhat obscure reference in line 4 to keeping “Jove’s cup” may be a footnote reference to Sidney’s honorary office of cupbearer to the Queen, but since this was neither new nor the source of his bliss, the more important symbolism is the suggestion of his finding favor with a deity.

The second quatrain comments on the range or versatility of the sonnet, and could be read as a rebuke of the cult of Petrarch—of which Sidney himself is a prominent member—for its single-minded focus on unrequited love. “Annoy” at the end of line 5 is a noun, meaning grief, and a “bound prentice” is an apprentice who has been signed over (by a parent or guardian) to a master for a period of time in return for learning a trade. So the sense of the line is that sonnets do not just serve to express grief or disappointment. They have “high” notes as well as low (line 6); they wear different clothing (“livery”) for different seasons (7); Cupid (“Love,” or “the boy”) can smile as well as weep (8).

Lines 9-11 make a rather tentative effort to put this new poetic principle into practice, looking a bit like the ever-sober prude Malvolio at the moment when the planted letter instructs him to smile. The very first thing the muse is told to show is “height of delight,” a comical internal rhyme, with a “reverse” foot (trochee) paired with a normal one—like an unsure person trying to buck himself up for a new direction. And it doesn’t go so well: “my pen the best it may/Shall paint out joy . . .” hardly inspires confidence!

By the end of this very halting and hesitant invocation, the speaker has abruptly changed his mind, and the final tercet suggests that perhaps sonnets should be “bound prentice to annoy.”  After all, the successful lover should not boast of his triumph (such as it is); wisely, he should just enjoy his “bliss” in silence.

Next time (weekend of March 20): Sonnet 71
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

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.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 55

Muses, I oft invoked your holy aid,
With choicest flowers my speech to engarland so
That it, despised in true but naked show,
Might win some grace in your sweet grace arrayed;
And oft whole troops of saddest words I stayed,
Striving abroad a-foraging to go,
Until by your inspiring I might know
How their black banner might be best displayed.
But now I mean no more your help to try,
Nor other sugaring of my speech to prove,
But on her name incessantly to cry;
For let me but name her whom I do love,
So sweet sounds straight mine ear and heart do hit,
That I well find no eloquence like it. 

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: “to engarland” in line 2 is elided “”t’engarland”; “sugaring” in line 10 is two syllables; and the “So” that begins line 13 is the adverb meaning “such,” not the conjunctive “so.”

It seems unlikely that Sidney knew while writing how many sonnets he would end up with, but this one that starts the second half of the sequence is strikingly complementary with the start of the first half: in Sonnet 1, the muse came unbidden to urge the poet to “look in thy heart, and write,” while here the poet dismisses his muses because Stella is the only inspiration he needs. In other words, the story line is more or less reversed, but the point remains exactly the same!

The octave describes metaphorically a poetic process: since his own unvarnished protestations of love would surely be “despised,” he has, in the past, depended on the muses to “engarland” or decorate his words. Similarly (second quatrain), like a military general, he has kept his restless “troops” (the words) from venturing out before they have been properly “inspired” by the muses—lest (again) they be caught unprepared (as if while “foraging,” the classic time for unarmed troops to be ambushed) and shot down.

That was “then,” or the entire half-sequence already written. “But now” signals the obvious fulcrum and transition into the “answer” of the sestet, the poet’s declaration of independence. He will no longer rely on the muses to decorate his sad overtures; Stella’s name alone will be enough. As I said above, this is arriving by the opposite direction at essentially the same message in Sonnet 1; and with 53 more sonnets to go, we can be sure that it is a blatant falsehood!

Next time (weekend of August 22): Sonnet 56
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 50

Stella, the fullness of my thoughts of thee
Cannot be stayed within my panting breast,
But they do swell and struggle forth of me,
Till that in words thy figure be expressed.
And yet, as soon as they so formed be,
According to my Lord Love’s own behest,
With sad eyes I their weak proportion see,
To portrait that which in this world is best;
So that I cannot choose but write my mind,
And cannot choose but put out what I write,
While these poor babes their death in birth do find:
And now my pen these lines had dashed quite,
But that they stopped his fury from the same,
Because their forefront bare sweet Stella’s name.

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: “formed” in line 5 and “dashed” in line 12 both have two syllables.

If my gentle reader is starting to complain that Sidney’s preoccupation with unrequited love grows tiresome and tedious, I reply, Yes, but doesn’t he have a bottomless grab-bag of varied poetic devices and gizmos?  Here we encounter meta-poetry, a poem that is about the writing of itself!  Or, to put that another way, a poem in which the speaker carries on a conversation, as it were, with the very words he is writing, as he writes them.

That is, when he writes

Stella, the fullness of my thoughts of thee
Cannot be stayed within my panting breast,
But they do swell and struggle forth of me,
Till that in words thy figure be expressed.

what he describes is literally happening as he writes that quatrain. In the poet’s passion (“panting breast”) his overcharged thoughts force their way out into words that express “thy figure”—a term with multiple senses. Most literally, it refers simply to Stella’s bodily shape, frame, or appearance; but in ascending levels of abstraction, it also refers to the image or likeness of that shape, an imaginary artistic expression of it (as in “figure drawing”), and, most pertinent to the context, the figurative language of poetry, giving the human form both image and meaning in a “figure of speech.”

In the second quatrain, the words have now been “formed,” at the “behest” of his ruler Love, but as he reads what he has written he realizes how pathetic a portrait (“their weak proportion”) they are, compared to the real thing—“that which in this world is best.”

The “So that” at the start of the sestet is equivalent to “Thus,” meaning that what follows is a review of the conundrum he has just described in the octave, and its futile implications: he must write what he thinks (“my mind”), and then read what he writes, at which point the words are like still-born children—an echo, perhaps, of the “labor pains” connected with poetic creation near the end of Sonnet 1.

So, in the final tercet, his impulse is to strike out (“had dashed”) the words he has just written—i.e., this very sonnet—but he is prevented from doing so by the very first word (“their forefront”), Stella’s name.* The sonnet has very neatly come full circle and ended with its beginning.

* As Duncan-Jones notes, this is similar to a little piece of comic action in Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (I.2), when Julia tears up a note she has just written to her love Proteus, but then finds his name in the scraps, and cannot continue throwing them away.

Next time (weekend of June 13): Sonnet 51
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.

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: 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.