In martial sports I had my cunning tried,
And yet to break more staves did me address:
While with the people’s shouts, I must confess,
Youth, luck, and praise, even filled my veins with pride;
When Cupid having me his slave descried,
In Mars’s livery, prancing in the press:
“What now, Sir Fool,” said he; “I would no less.
Look here, I say.” I looked and Stella spied,
Who hard by made a window send forth light.
My heart then quaked, then dazzled were mine eyes;
One hand forgot to rule, th’other to fight;
Nor trumpet’s sound I heard, nor friendly cries;
My foe came on, and beat the air for me,
Till that her blush taught me my shame to see.
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: “even” in line 4 is one syllable.
This sonnet gives a small insight into the “trash talk” or (in earlier parlance) “flyting,” or (a bit later) “braving” that immediately precedes an armed combat. Cupid’s taunts in lines 7 and 8 are not different in kind from what a modern street thug or gang member might use to challenge a rival.
The sonnet as a whole tells a charming little tale of a usually-great warrior who in this instance makes a fool of himself because his attention is diverted from the fight, and he offers no opposition at all. In Sidney’s case, there is a remote possibility that some such embarrassment was a real event, but the fact that Cupid is made the actual opponent in the story, and not a third party, suggests that the event here is purely symbolic.
The speaker at the start is feeling pretty cocky about his martial prowess and well-earned celebrity as a jouster; but Cupid, an opponent who has already dominated and “enslaved” him, shows up to challenge and put him in his place. When the speaker turns to look at this new challenger, he sees only Stella, watching from a window and (as is her wont) “send[ing] forth light.” In the presumably real instance when that happened (described in Sonnet 41) Stella’s light inspired him to greatness; but in this symbolic version it merely “dazzles” and disables him, and he very much appears the “fool” that Cupid has called him, offering no opposition so that his opponent fights only “air.”* While Sidney the warrior would likely never be subject to such shame, Astrophil the lover is helpless to resist the power of Cupid in the face of Stella’s beauty, and does not even try.
Approaching this poem steeped as we are in the conventional structure of Sidney’s Italian sonnets (octave plus a sestet divided into two tercets), we can readily appreciate the structural trick that captures the effect of losing one’s concentration and being wrong-footed. The opening quatrain is perfectly solid and predictable, reflecting the speaker’s confidence and smugness. Then, like the laughter on the bridge in Amsterdam for the self-satisfied Clamence in Camus’ The Fall, comes the mocking challenge and the distracting vision of Stella—and, quite uncharacteristically, it takes an extra line to “finish” the octave, as if the speaker lost track of where the break should come. A three-line thought, describing his confusion, follows, but perforce this misses the usual dividing spot, running lines 10-12 instead of 9-11. A couplet at the end brings us out of the daze and into the embarrassing reality; so at start and end the sonnet is structurally on solid ground, but for eight lines in between it is—like its speaker—thrown “off stride.”
* The OED cites 1 Corinthians 9.26 as the source for the phrase “to beat the air,” meaning “to fight to no purpose or against no opposition.”
Next time (weekend of July 25): Sonnet 54
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.