Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 71

Who will in fairest book of Nature know
How virtue may best lodged in beauty be,
Let him but learn of love to read in thee,
Stella, those fair lines which true goodness show.
There shall he find all vices’ overthrow,
Not by rude force, but sweetest sovereignty
Of reason, from whose light those night-birds fly;
That inward sun in thine eyes shineth so.
And not content to be perfection’s heir
Thyself, dost strive all minds that way to move,
Who mark in thee what is in thee most fair;
So while thy beauty draws the heart to love,
As fast thy virtue bends that love to good.
But, ah, Desire still cries: “Give me some food.”  

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 continues discussion of the Platonic idea most recently brought up in Sonnet 69 (but also in 61 and 62, and earlier on in 5, 9, 21, and 25), that beauty is meant to draw us “upward” toward virtue. The opening is an answer to the understood question, “What’s the best source for understanding how virtue and beauty may be found together?” A “book of Nature” is a book created or “authored” by Nature, rather than a human author.

The answer, of course, is Stella, and here she is praised for the very quality the speaker usually resents, her reason and virtue. He is, for the moment, trying to live up to the challenge she gave him in Sonnet 69, where she gave him sovereignty of her heart so long as he behaved virtuously. So those familiar flashes from Stella’s eyes, which have heretofore mostly excited passion, here come from her “inward sun” (i.e., soul) and are employed in chasing away the “night-birds” which are metaphors for “all vices.”

The first five lines of the sestet continue in the same vein, extending the general thought with the more immediately pertinent idea that she is not only perfect in herself, but a teacher of virtue to others, by that Platonic process of beauty “drawing” us to become better.

As a thirteen-line sonnet, this would pass muster at a revival meeting; but the speaker has been a good boy for just about as long as he can stand. The fourteenth line undoes all the rest, saying, in effect: “Get serious! I’m a man with an appetite! And this virtue stuff is pretty thin broth!”

Next time (weekend of April 3): Sonnet 72
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

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.