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.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 43

Fair eyes, sweet lips, dear heart, that foolish I
Could hope by Cupid’s help on you to prey;
Since to himself he doth your gifts apply,
As his main force, choice sport, and easeful stay.
For when he will see who dare him gainsay,
Then with those eyes he looks; lo, by and by
Each soul doth at Love’s feet his weapons lay,
Glad if for her he give them leave to die.
When he will play, then in her lips he is,
Where, blushing red, that Love’s self doth them love,
With either lip he doth the other kiss;
But when he will for quiet’s sake remove
From all the world, her heart is then his room,
Where well he knows, no man to him can come.

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.

Editing note:  Duncan-Jones (without explanation) ends the third line with a period, beginning the fourth, now a fragment, with the word “And” instead of “As.”  This is surely an error, which I have not seen elsewhere.

The full rhyme scheme of this sonnet is shared with only two others (5 and 10) in the sequence, and the palindromic ABABBABA octave appears in only five others.

The poem is a sort of mini-blazon, on just three of Stella’s physical features, listed in its first three feet. The word “that” that follows is obscure as a relative pronoun, technically explained with some arcane Latin-grammar structure, “with blank and blank and blank omitted but understood . . .”  I’ll just cut to the chase and say the best way to understand the first two lines is: Given your eyes, lips, and heart, how foolish I am to hope I could have Cupid’s help to prey on you.

Why? Cupid himself is the speaker’s rival (cf. Sonnets 11, 12, and 13) and is making use (“applying”) those same features “As his main force, choice sport, and easeful stay”; those three phrases precisely parallel eyes, lips, and heart, and will be developed, respectively, in the second quatrain of the octave and the two tercets of the sestet. As in a well-constructed freshman essay, the outline is succinctly conveyed in the opening “paragraph.” The poem’s fulcrum, unusual for an Italian sonnet, comes after the first quatrain, and what remains are three parallel “when” clauses showing Cupid in combative, sportive, and reflective moods respectively.

The progression from eyes to heart is (as explained in Sonnet 11) from superficial to deep, or from distance to intimacy, but the shape of Sidney’s sonnet means the eyes get the most coverage—which is, alas, fitting, since that is apparently as close as his own knowledge goes.  And here, as so often in the sequence, Stella’s eyes are seen as weapons, the “looks that kill,” so to speak. It is a hoary Petrarchan cliché, and if the reader would seek a healthy antidote to this preoccupation of Sidney’s, I recommend Phebe’s speech to Silvius at As You Like It, III.5.8 ff. where it is sent up wonderfully. (A less skeptical view of the idea is found in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 139.) In the present instance, the quatrain is actually a rather complex interplay of vehicle and tenor. On the “real” level, it suggests that one look into Stella’s eyes makes any man fall at her feet (see, e.g., the previous sonnet); while the mythical story is that Cupid is using the eyes as weapons to subdue his rivals, thus (somewhat paradoxically) turning them into lovers but disabling them for the pursuit at the same time. But this paradoxical suggestion of futile passion is exactly the point, and is repeated in each of the other two steps, most tellingly in the poem’s “bottom line.”

The “choice sport” of Line 4 becomes Cupid playing teasingly with Stella’s lips, which are allowed to kiss only each other. The middle line of the tercet (line 10) is a typical example of Sidney’s use of what we nowadays call a dangling modifier, since it is obviously the lips themselves, not Cupid, that are “blushing” to be loved.

The final tercet is the mildly bitter twist on the blazon. Again there is some complexity in the suggestion that Cupid could actually occupy a place in Stella’s heart, an idea directly contradicted in Sonnet 11. But the witty, if melancholy, thrust here is that he would go there for peace and quiet, since no man ever enters there. The paradox of a woman who stirs passion in others while remaining as ice herself is complete.

Next time (weekend of March 7): Sonnet 44
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.