Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 104 and Eleventh Song

Envious wits, what hath been mine offence,
That with such poisonous care my looks you mark,
That to each word, nay, sigh, of mine you hark,
As grudging me my sorrow’s eloquence?
Ah, is it not enough that I am thence,
Thence, so far thence, that scarcely any spark
Of comfort dare come to this dungeon dark,
Where rigor’s exile locks up all my sense?
But if I by a happy window pass,
If I but stars upon mine armor bear;
Sick, thirsty, glad, though but of empty glass;
Your moral notes straight my hid meaning tear
From out my ribs, and puffing prove that I
Do Stella love.   Fools, who doth it deny?

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: The first word of the poem (somewhat unusually in Sidney’s poetry) requires all three syllables, while “poisonous” in the second line has the more usual two.

It has become apparent, near the end of the sequence, that Sidney’s sonnets to Stella are being more widely read, and have inevitably become subject to carping criticism. The phrase “Envious wits” suggests not merely the censorious friends of Sonnets 14, 20, 21, 23, 27, etc., but perhaps rival poets who envy the success of the poetry and therefore seize on the immoral subject matter and “hid meaning” as something to criticize.

The octave consists of two four-line questions, more or less parallel: (1) Why do you carp at me?; and (2) Especially when I am unhappy or unfortunate to begin with? The speaker/poet’s “eloquence” springs from “sorrow,” and this sorrow comes from being “thence,” i.e., separated from Stella and thus denied physically (“sense”) what the poetry muses upon.

The sestet complains of the critics’ tendency to “read into” every gesture of the speaker—even such trivialities as being glad to have quenched his thirst, or having stars on his armor*—some hidden expression of his love for Stella. The irony of this, and bottom line of the poem, is that they are falling all over themselves to prove an accusation that the speaker would never deny.

* Duncan-Jones offers evidence that Sidney did indeed display stars on his armor, with no connection to Stella.

Eleventh Song

“Who is it that this dark night
Underneath my window plaineth?”
It is one who from thy sight
Being, ah, exiled, disdaineth
Every other vulgar light.
 
‘Why, alas, and are you he?
Be not yet those fancies changed?’
Dear, when you find change in me,
Though from me you be estranged,
Let my change to ruin be.
 
‘Well, in absence this will die.
Leave to see, and leave to wonder.’
Absence sure will help, if I
Can learn how myself to sunder
From what in my heart doth lie.
 
‘But time will these thoughts remove;
Time doth work what no man knoweth.’
Time doth as the subject prove;
With time still the affection growth
In the faithful turtledove.
 
‘What if you new beauties see?
Will they not stir new affection?’
I will think they pictures be,
Image-like of saint’s perfection,
Poorly counterfeiting thee.
 
‘But your reason’s purest light
Bids you leave such minds to nourish.’
Dear, do reason no such spite;
Never doth thy beauty flourish
More than in my reason’s sight.

‘But the wrongs love bears will make
Love at length leave undertaking.’
No, the more fools it do shake,
In a ground of so firm making
Deeper still they drive the stake.
 
‘Peace, I think that some give ear;
Come no more, lest I get anger.’
Bliss, I will my bliss forbear,
Fearing, sweet, you to endanger,
But my soul shall harbour there.
 
‘Well, be gone, be gone, I say,
Lest that Argus’ eyes perceive you.’
O unjust is fortune’s sway,
Which can make me thus to leave you,
And from louts to run away!

Reading notes: Consistent with the feminine rhymes in other stanzas, the –ed syllable in “changed” and “exchanged” in the second stanza is pronounced; in the fourth stanza, “the affection” is elided to three syllables, i.e., “th’affection.”

See my previous metrical notes on Songs, especially the Fourth, Eighth, and Ninth, after Sonnets 85 and 86. This most resembles the Ninth Song, with a five-line stanza containing one feminine rhyme which dictates a trochaic rhythm throughout, even in the lines that are one syllable “short.” Here the rhyme scheme changes from ABABB (in the Ninth Song) to ABABA, the effect being that the speaker of the last three lines “matches” the challenge of the first two lines, and then is able to “top” it with one additional line.

Like most of the songs, the format allows a looser, more open-ended version of the constant debate between Stalla—the self-styled voice of reason—and her impatient and importunate lover. This particular version seems to foreshadow Romeo beneath Juliet’s window, drawn to the “light” that shines there; except that this Juliet is never going to let her lover in. The debate whips back and forth rapidly, with Stella posing question or challenge in the first two lines of each stanza, and the speaker giving his come-back in the final three.

Absence, she says in Stanza 3, should surely make him forget her; only if he is separated from his own heart, he replies. To her thought that the passage of time will help him forget, he gives a Rosalind-like answer that time works differently with different beings (“Time doth in the subject prove”); with the turtledove, for example, affection only grows with time. If his eye is caught by new beauties? Shadow versus substance; other beauties are but the poor shadows of Stella’s ideal form. The old trump card reason? As we have heard many times, reason itself must acknowledge Stella’s beauty. Somewhat in contradiction of that stanza, the one that follows acknowledges the speaker’s folly, anticipating Einstein’s definition of madness as repeating the same exercise over and over while expecting a different result: fools, on the “ground” of the “wrongs” brought by their love, just keep driving the “stake” deeper.

This game could theoretically go on all night, if not broken off by some practical concern. And so, in the penultimate stanza, Stella either senses or pretends to sense that they are being overheard (“some give ear”). This must be by her husband, since he would be the only one from whom she could “get anger.” The speaker agrees to withdraw rather than endanger her, but neither (at least in Sidney’s view) can resist taking one last dig at Lord Rich, as our final song comes to an end. Stella describes him as the odious see-all guard Argus, while the speaker laments the unjust fortune that forces a brave soldier like himself to flee from “louts.”

Next time (weekend of July 8): Sonnet 105
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus 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.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 29

Like some weak lords, neighbored by mighty kings,
To keep themselves and their chief cities free,
Do easily yield, that all their coasts may be
Ready to store their camps of needful things:
So Stella’s heart, finding what power Love brings,
To keep itself in life and liberty,
Doth willing grant, that in the frontiers he
Use all to help his other conquerings.
And thus her heart escapes; but thus her eyes
Serve him with shot, her lips his heralds are;
Her breasts his tents, legs his triumphal car;
Her flesh his food, her skin his armor brave;
And I, but for because my prospect lies
Upon that coast, am given up for a slave.

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: somewhat confusingly, the pronoun “their” in lines 2 and 3 refers to the “weak lords,” while the same pronoun in line 4 refers to the “mighty kings.”

“Power” in line 5 and “given” in line 14 are each one syllable.

Sonnet 29 is a perfect illustration of a conceit, an elaborate analogy often extended over many lines or, in this case, the entire poem. Here Stella is compared to the delicate geopolitical situation in which “weak lords” surrender to “mighty kings” without a fight, in order to keep their own subjection from being even worse. The poem envisions that the yielders would thus retain their basic freedoms, keep their cities intact, and go on about their business, while the conquerors would make use of the countryside and the coasts to maintain their supply lines. The “weak lords” are thus both conquered and free at the same time, the essential paradox that pertains to what is being said about Stella.

Stella, to keep her heart “in life and liberty” from the power of Love, has yielded up the “frontiers,” or all her outward parts—a similar distinction to that drawn in the sestet of Sonnet 12. And Love (i.e., personified love, or Cupid) uses all those outlying areas—Stella’s attractive features—“to help his other conquering,” i.e. (consistent with the conceit) to assist him in conquering other people.

As we move into the sestet, a blazon of those external features—familiar to us already from Sonnets 9, 12, and 13—is called for, with each being given a supply-line use more or less appropriate to either its form or its function. We have seen already (e.g., Sonnet 17), for instance, how Stella’s darting, dark, and shining eyes supply Cupid with his arrows (“shot”); and the others really require no explanation.

The final focus on the speaker is limited to two lines, so we might expect Sidney to have arranged the rhymes (as he often does) to produce a couplet here; but of course he does not, so the point about the speaker’s proximity to Stella (the outward Stella, not her heart; compare with the endings of Sonnets 17 and 20) is not a separate one, but is integrated with the other effects (collateral damage, we might call it) of Stella’s surrender.

Which brings me, finally, to what intrigues me most about this sonnet. The political side of the analogy is easy enough to understand; while giving up one’s freedom in order to remain free is a paradox, it is a semantic one only, by no means an impossibility, or even unusual. And we dealt in Sonnet 12 with the idea of Cupid setting out to conquer Stella’s heart, but not getting past her outward parts. But what does it mean that “Stella’s heart, finding what power Love brings,” should yield, even partially, to that power? That strikes me as a different statement about Stella than Sonnet 12 makes, unless we just shrug and say “No, he doesn’t really mean it that way”—which I’m not inclined to do. The paradox of being enslaved in order to remain free may be merely semantic for kingdoms and cities, but a woman who has surrendered to Love in order to remain free of love is a very Escher print of a paradox—an insight, perhaps, into the real-life contradiction (a woman who loves him but refuses to love him) that “Stella” presents to the poet.

Next time (weekend of August 23): Sonnet 30

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 23

The curious wits, seeing dull pensiveness
Bewray itself in my long settled eyes,
Whence those same fumes of melancholy rise
With idle pains, and missing aim, do guess.
Some, that know how my spring I did address,
Deem that my Muse some fruit of knowledge plies;
Others, because the Prince my service tries,
Think that I think state errors to redress.
But harder judges judge ambition’s rage,
Scourge of itself, still climbing slippery place,
Holds my young brain captived in golden cage.
O fools, or over-wise: alas, the race
Of all my thoughts hath neither stop nor start,
But only Stella’s eyes and Stella’s 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.

A central concern of Hamlet had been a standard component of poetry and drama for years before: the difficulty of explaining a young man’s melancholy when he is young, healthy, and gifted. While our own age considers depression to be a commonplace of minor mental impairment, its Medieval/Renaissance equivalent engendered a sort of awe and mystery, even though (or perhaps because?) there is clearly no place for melancholy within a life governed by reason. In 1621, Robert Burton would publish a monumental and detailed study titled The Anatomy of Melancholy, and he had a plethora of literary sources for his examples.

So here the “curious wits”—perhaps the very same friends who have been criticizing and counseling the speaker in many of these sonnets—find themselves in roughly the same position as Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, trying to explain the speaker’s strange melancholy and the “dull pensiveness” that has, of late, crept into his “long settled eyes”; that is, something has changed, and the “wits” are no better than those characters in Hamlet at diagnosing what it is. With “idle pains” (efforts) and a “missing aim,” they merely “guess.”

So now (lines 5-11), predictably, we’re going to hear what their wrong guesses are: basically, three in number, they occupy two, two, and three lines respectively. First (5-6) they guess that since the speaker was devoted to poetry in youth (“spring”), he is preoccupied with his Muse, or pondering a poem (this one actually has a bit of indirect truth in it). Second (7-8), that, as trusted ambassador, he has been given some thorny diplomatic problem to solve.  The third guess (9-11), offered by “harder judges,” is considerably less flattering to the speaker: like so many young noblemen in Elizabeth’s reign, he is deemed to be too ambitious for his own good, and is plotting some Machiavellian way to advance himself. Brooding melancholy is indeed the period’s stereotype for plotting or revenge, as in Hieronymo in The Spanish Tragedy, or Caesar’s view of Cassius, or Edmund, Aaron, Don John, or other villains in Shakespeare’s plays. But such ambition is aptly described in the 10th line, even as it is brought up: “Scourge of itself, still climbing slippery place.”

The poem’s fulcrum comes after the eleventh line. Having given free rein to all these opinions, the speaker now dismisses the wits as “fools, or overwise” (i.e., the second possibility is that they are over-analyzing a very simple case).  That which preoccupies the speaker (“the race of all my thoughts”) begins and ends with Stella. Or, to complicate that simple truth with a chiasmic structure, it “starts” with Stella’s eyes and “stops” with her heart. Complicate it, indeed: there are three possibilities for that simple idea:

  1. Neutral, or innocent: Stella is first and last, beginning and end, of the speaker’s preoccupations.
  2. Optimistic: his quest of Stella began with (the flash of) her eyes (see Sonnets 17 and 20) and its end or goal will be the conquest of her heart.
  3. Pessimistic: (cf. Sonnets 11 and 12) the quest of Stella started with her eyes, but will be stopped short by her heart.

Next time (weekend of May 31): Sonnet 24

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