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 35

What may words say, or what may words not say,
Where truth itself must speak like flattery?
Within what bounds can one his liking stay,
Where nature doth with infinite agree?
What Nestor’s counsels can my flames allay,
Since Reason’s self doth blow the coal in me?
And ah, what hope that hope should once see day,
Where Cupid is sworn page to chastity?
Honor is honored, that thou dost possess
Him as thy slave, and now long-needy Fame
Doth even grow rich, naming my Stella’s name.
Wit learns in thee perfection to express;
Not thou by praise, but praise in thee is raised;
It is a praise to praise, when thou art praised.

 

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.

For two sonnets now, Sidney resorts to the less common (for him) use of the ABAB open-ended, or “outie,” pattern for the octave, suggesting a more relaxed discussion for that part of the poem.*  Here we see the speaker “rambling on” in Stella’s praise, piling hyperbole on hyperbole, almost as if by free association, rather than any tightly logical conceit. Twelve of the fourteen lines are in this glowing vein; only the exact center of the poem, lines seven and eight, interrupts for a “reality check,” reminding us (and presumably the speaker himself) how hopelessly unobtainable this paragon is.  But unlike many other sonnets (e.g. 29, 31, 33, 34) in which this frustration builds steadily to the end, in this case it is almost as if the speaker claps his hands over his ears and shouts “LA LA LA,” so that never might be heard a discouraging word. He goes right back to the almost manic string of praises, as if there had been no interruption at all, or as if in a hurry to drown it out.  Also, oddly, as he resumes in line nine he makes his addresses directly to Stella (“that thou dost possess”) as if (1) he has previously been talking within his mind and now finds the courage to speak directly; or (2) the mental musings become increasingly charged and manic, as the object of his love fills his mind.

So, setting aside that central “downer” for a moment, we are left with the three 2-line ideas before it, and two 3-line ideas after, and if there is a unifying thread (besides hyperbolic praise of Stella), it is in the use of paradox. Let’s consider these four ideas in turn:

What may words say, or what may words not say,
Where truth itself must speak like flattery?

The main paradox here is that truth and flattery are supposed to be, by definition, mutually exclusive, but in this case they sound exactly the same. This makes a mind-bending riddle out of a cliché such as “words cannot convey . . .,” since in one way (“What can words say?”) the cliché seems perfectly true, but in another (“what may words not say?”) it is disproved by the paradox of the second line: words can convey the glory of Stella if the simple truth will suffice.

Within what bounds can one his liking stay,
Where nature doth with infinite agree?

Again, the anchor paradox is in the second line: if there was one thing Sidney’s contemporaries learned from the “laws” of nature, it was to accept limitations and avoid extremes; the “golden mean” was what Nature insisted on. But in the case of Stella, Nature has allowed infinity as a reality. (The word “infinite” is used as a noun here, or conceivably as an adjective in quotation marks; i.e. Nature has agreed to use “infinite” to describe Stella.)  From that grand paradox it is an easy step back to the fact that the speaker cannot keep (“stay”) his love (“liking”) within any reasonable boundaries (“bounds”).

What Nestor’s counsels can my flames allay,
Since Reason’s self doth blow the coal in me?

This is a fairly easy paradox to understand, in the wake of our study of sonnets 2, 4,5, and especially 10 and 18. As I have said there, Reason is the very opposite—and rightfully the squelcher—of passion, but where Stella is concerned, Reason itself fans the flames (“doth blow the coal”) of passion, so what help does the proverbial human wisdom of Nestor have against such a force?

Moving ahead now to lines 9-11:

Honor is honored, that thou dost possess
Him as thy slave, and now long-needy Fame
Doth even grow rich, naming my Stella’s name.

The central paradoxes here—and indeed throughout the sestet—are that the qualities we aspire to (honor, fame, praise, etc.) are commonly regarded as ideal ceilings to measure mortal attainment against, with mortals by definition always falling short. But what if the “ceiling”—the ideal quality itself—is somehow short of what it could be, and thus expandable?  What if honor can make itself yet more honorable by honoring Stella?; that is the proposition here. That fame is “long-needy” doubles down on the paradox: it is a commonplace of every age that all the greatest soldiers, writers, statesmen, artists, or whatever, existed only in the past; so Stella is stretching the limits not just of a “Hall of Fame” already filled, but of one that started as sort of dusty and archaic! (The fact that Fame grows “rich” in naming Stella is a sidelong reference to her married name.)

Wit learns in thee perfection to express;
Not thou by praise, but praise in thee is raised;
It is a praise to praise, when thou art praised.

These final lines continue in the same vein. Wisdom (“wit”) ordinarily knows not to expect perfection, but suddenly one can talk wisely and of perfection, too. And the final couplet, where praise, like honor, gains by praising Stella, finds a way to sum up the whole accomplishment of the poem, and the poet, who becomes more praiseworthy for praising her. We have a notable example here of a favorite poetic trick of Sidney’s, called antanaclasis, or close repetition of a word while changing its senses; for other examples, see sonnets 9 (lines 12-14), 10 (13-14), 12 (6), 26 (4) 31 (12-13), 34 (11), 36 (9-11), 37 (10, in particular), 38 (12), 39 (5), 59 (10), and 79 (1-3).

Now, what about the “heart” of this sonnet, those two lines in the exact center that threaten to undo all the rest?:

And ah, what hope that hope should once see day,
Where Cupid is sworn page to chastity?

Stella adds praise to praise and honor to honor, but hope she only makes more hopeless. Like the opening two lines of the sonnet that follows (Stella, whence doth this new assault arise,/A conquered, yelden, ransacked heart to win?), these suggest the context in which a flurry of wooing by various means takes place in this trio of sonnets: hyperbolic flattery in this one is followed by whining of her cruelty in 36, and sarcastically mocking her marriage in 37. Only with the “bedtime” sonnets 38, 39, and 40 does Sidney back off from this relatively direct confrontation.

* The full rhyme scheme of this poem is actually unique, because of the arrangement of the sestet, where each tercet ends with a couplet. As I have noted before, the variety Sidney achieves within the strict form of the Italian sonnet is amazing!

Next time (weekend of November 15): Sonnet 36
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.