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 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 27

Because I oft, in dark abstracted guise
Seem most alone in greatest company,
With dearth of words, or answers quite awry,
To them that would make speech of speech arise,
They deem, and of their doom the rumor flies,
That poison foul of bubbling pride doth lie
So in my swelling breast that only I
Fawn on myself, and others do despise.
Yet pride, I think, doth not my soul possess,
Which looks too oft in his unflatt’ring glass;
But one worse fault, ambition, I confess,
That makes me oft my best friends overpass,
Unseen, unheard, while thought to highest place
Bends all his powers, even unto Stella’s grace.

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 lines 7-8 “only” modifies “Fawn,” not “I”; so there is a slight lift after “only,” followed by “I fawn on myself” as a connected clause.

Both “powers” and “even” in the final line are single-syllable.

Notice also that “company,” “awry,” “lie,” and “I” are all supposed to rhyme, although this is observed only mentally (not vocally) in modern reading. Oddly enough, it is most likely the final sound in “company” that was heard in all four; the Great Vowel Shift was still in process when Sidney was writing.

This sonnet is such a close companion to Sonnet 23—the poem on melancholy—that one could almost be a superseded draft for the other, except there is no clear “winner.”  Instead, we must consider that the particular topic presented Sidney with enough matter for two fine sonnets, not to mention a number of others (e.g., Sonnet 30) in which the speaker’s self-absorption is at least mentioned.

Both 23 and this one depict concerned friends pondering reasons why the speaker seems so aloof and distracted, and get it wrong; and both of course end with the speaker giving the “right” answer. Both sonnets use the whole first quatrain to set the scene, although there is a closer grammatical link between lines 4 and 5 in this one than in the other. The second quatrain begins the list of reasons, but now observe carefully how the poet’s thought process on the same stimulus takes a new direction. In Sonnet 23, there were three reasons offered, with the third, ambition, occupying the first half of the sestet, the fulcrum coming after line 11, and the speaker’s response taking only the final three lines. In Sonnet 27, the sole reason given by the friends, the “poison foul of bubbling pride,” fills the second quatrain, and the speaker uses the entire sestet to respond. In fact, not only is the fulcrum after line 8 (the most typical place for an Italian sonnet), but this is a relatively rare sonnet in which Sidney does not make a strong break after line 11, but runs the whole argument of the sestet together. As in 23, the sestet brings up ambition as an issue, but it’s as if the speaker is saying “Wait a minute—come to think of it, it IS ambition, but not the way you thought.” And the sonnet ends with the customary fixation on Stella, here framed as the speaker’s aiming higher than is his due.

Let’s walk through it more carefully:

Again we are reminded of Hamlet, not just by the speaker’s “dark abstracted guise,” but also by the alternative possibilities of either “dearth of words” or “answers quite awry.” And the friends are described dismissively as “them that would make speech of speech arise”—i.e. people who engage in small talk, and think that when they have said anything, they are owed a response. Surely the speaker’s attitude is an exaggerated description for the polished courtier Sidney, but one can’t help wondering if the poet Sidney shares some of the shyness and introversion of the much later poet John Keats, and that poet’s impatience with clever acquaintances.

The sentence begun in line 1 continues right through the octave, and we do not reach the main clause until line 5, a line with wonderful sound effects: “They deem, and of their doom the rumor flies.” First I should explain that “doom” originally meant simply “judgment” (before it underwent pejoration to mean “condemnation”) so a paraphrase of this line is “They judge, and of their judgment, the popular opinion is formed that starts to spread around.”  But the sounds of the line, by themselves, paint a picture of how rumor departs by steady steps from truth. The steps are (1) “they deem,” connected by alliteration and consonance to (2) “their doom,” which is echoed and weakened in (3) “the rumor” (assonance, or in effect, given the successive stresses on “doom” and “rum-“, an internal rhyme, as if one slightly misheard the first word and repeated it as the second).

What their judgment, and the subsequent rumor, is, of course, is that it is the speaker’s pride and egotism (“that only I/Fawn on myself”) that make him so aloof. But that could hardly be the case, he protests, because his soul sees nothing good when it looks in the mirror. We might interpret that metaphor as meaning he feels some guilt over his misplaced passion, or, alternatively, translating “soul” more loosely as “self,” that his ego takes regular poundings in his encounters with the woman he loves.

And here, as discussed above, he allows of the possibility that the fault really is ambition after all—just not the political sort of ambition that his critics would expect. In his distracted daydreaming, the speaker aspires to the “highest place” imaginable: “Stella’s grace”; i.e., Stella’s showering divine blessings on him figuratively, while literally giving in to his will.

Next time (weekend of July 26): Sonnet 28

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