Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 53

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.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 49

I on my horse, and Love on me, doth try
Our horsemanships, while by strange work I prove
A horseman to my horse, a horse to Love;
And now man’s wrongs in me, poor beast, descry.
The reins wherewith my rider doth me tie,
Are humbled thoughts, which bit of reverence move,
Curbed in with fear, but with gilt boss above
Of hope, which makes it seem fair to the eye.
The wand is will; thou, fancy, saddle art,
Girt fast by memory; and while I spur
My horse, he spurs with sharp desire my heart;
He sits me fast, however I do stir;
And now hath made me to his hand so right,
That in the manage myself takes delight.

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.

Sidney was of course a skilled horseman, and there is an echo here of Sonnet 41, and his day of triumph. But within the first three lines, the speaker has turned himself “by strange work” into a monster: horse and rider at the same time (because Love, or Cupid, rides him at the same time he rides his horse). And after a transition in Line 4, the remainder of the sonnet develops this conceit in terms of the speaker’s new-found empathy with his own “poor beast” for the treatment he suffers. The poem bears comparison with Wyatt’s “My Galley, Charged with Forgetfulness,” in which different parts of the speaker’s mental process become either parts of a ship or aspects of the storm that troubles it. The abstract qualities here—thoughts, reverence, fear, hope, will, fancy, memory, and desire—are similarly matched up with the physical aspects of horsemanship:

Thoughts = the reins
Reverence = the bit
Fear = the “curbs” on the bit
Hope = the ornamental gilt boss on the side of the bridle
Will = the “wand” or whip
Fancy = the saddle
Memory = the saddle-girth (which thus keeps fancy in control)
Desire = the spurs

I needn’t say too much more, I hope, about how all this works, except to point out that (as explicitly stated in Wyatt’s poem) Reason is nowhere in sight, and the speaker is being entirely “ridden” by Fancy, Desire, and so on.

As we would expect from Sidney, the conceit turns out to be particularly apt, since the final tercet describes the ideal horse-rider relationship that any horseman will recognize: horse and rider become as one (line 12) so that no superfluous movements break that unity; and (lines 13-14) the rider’s control is so complete that the horse actually “takes delight” in perfectly following orders. The speaker recognizes that he, likewise, finds a sort of self-destructive joy in being the utterly compliant slave to Love. An idea briefly alluded to in lines 7-8 of Sonnet 28 is given more elaborated treatment in this sonnet.

Next time (weekend of June 6): Sonnet 50
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 48

Soul’s joy, bend not those morning stars from me,
Where virtue is made strong by beauty’s might,
Where love is chasteness, pain doth learn delight,
And humbleness grows one with majesty.
Whatever may ensue, O let me be
Co-partner of the riches of that sight;
Let not mine eyes be hell-driven from that light;
O look, O shine, O let me die and see.
For though I oft myself of them bemoan,
That through my heart their beamy darts be gone,
Whose cureless wounds even now most freshly bleed;
Yet since my death-wound is already got,
Dear killer, spare not thy sweet cruel shot:
A kind of grace it is to kill with speed.

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: “driven” in line 7 and “even” in line 11 are one-syllable each, while “cruel” in line 13 is two.

After Stella’s eyes “Sent forth the beams” that inspired the speaker’s jousting triumph at the end of Sonnet 41, he seemed to become preoccupied with her facial physiognomy—and especially the eyes—for several sonnets more, and particularly the eyes in Sonnets 42 and this one, which could be read as a companion pair. Both sonnets are pleas to Stella to continue to “shine” those dark and flashing eyes on the speaker, even if it kills him; this is the plea of the hyper-poetic opening line here, where the “Soul’s joy” is Stella, and the “morning stars” are her eyes.

The next three lines are tightly paradoxical, with the overall point being that the speaker is ennobled by Stella’s sight, even for the suffering that it causes him. The first thought might be that Stella’s own virtue is made still stronger by her extreme beauty (i.e., there’s no particular virtue in chastity if one is ugly), since the word has mostly until now been associated with her; but in context the point seems to be that her extreme beauty makes the speaker’s virtue in keeping his distance still stronger. Similarly, since love of her must remain chaste, he must “delight” (cf. the final line of Sonnet 50) in his pain, and find only humility in the “majesty” of his aspiration.

In the second quatrain, it is hard to see any other meaning in “Co-partner of the riches of that sight” than a desire or willingness to be a second man in Stella’s life, and if Sidney were a Nashville song writer, the “Whatever may ensue” might cover the very forward suggestion of adultery. But given the context of what follows, not to mention the poet’s gallantry, it presumably refers only to his own humiliation and suffering. The middle two lines of the sonnet (7-8) parallel its first and last lines respectively. Line 7 repeats the plea not to be denied the light of her eyes; “hell” is used here in the Miltonic sense of the absence of God’s light. Line 8 prefigures the poem’s “bottom line” of staying within shot of those beams even if it kills him, and features a hysteron-proteron (loosely, “cart before the horse”) in “O let me die and see” as a way of stressing this determination.

The entire sestet then elaborates on this idea with a combat metaphor, indeed the metaphor contained in the French term coup de grace: since you “kill” me in any case, he says, there is a kind of mercy if you aim for the heart and do it swiftly. But of course when we return from the metaphor to the reality under discussion, the speaker is simply begging that Stella not deny him her presence; and since whatever “death” that might bring is far from literal, the actual result of that would be (and will be) merely prolonged suffering.

Next time (weekend of May 23): Sonnet 49
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.