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.