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.