Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 68

Stella, the only planet of my light,
Light of my life, and life of my desire,
Chief good, whereto my hope doth only aspire,
World of my wealth, and heaven of my delight:
Why dost thou spend the treasure of thy sprite,
With voice more fit to wed Amphion’s lyre,
Seeking to quench in me the noble fire
Fed by thy worth, and kindled by thy sight?
And all in vain, for while thy breath most sweet,
With choicest words, thy words with reasons rare,
Thy reasons firmly set on virtue’s feet,
Labour to kill in me this killing care:
Oh, think I then, what paradise of joy
It is, so fair a virtue to enjoy.

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: in line 3, “only aspire” needs to be elided to three syllables: “onl’aspire.”

Like Sonnet 66 (though not identical in form), this one mimics the structure of an English sonnet, building an argument in three quatrains and giving a snappy response to it in the final couplet, rather than having Sidney’s more customary evenly divided sestet.

The first quatrain functions only as a hyperbolic version of “Dear Stella,” and is a rather subtle auxesis (like the opening of Sonnet 1), starting out explicit (with repetitions of “light” and “life”) and turning implicit as “desire” turns into “good” and “world” and “wealth” step up to “heaven” and “delight.”

The second quatrain asks the rhetorical question that is the central message of the poem: why is she so determined to “quench” the very passion that her person ignites? Why does she use a voice “more fit” to be singing along with Amphion (the lyrist who could move stones with his music, and thus built Thebes) to instead preach cold reason? The “third quatrain” (in our faux-English form) extends this thought: her preaching efforts are “all in vain” because the more she gives voice to her virtue, the more convinced he is of her perfection, and the more he desires her!

“Enjoy” (the final word of the sonnet) is a word with an explicit sexual sense, so the speaker is coming close to the peculiar corruption of Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: being aroused by the very purity that he would violate. A more generous interpretation might focus on the Platonic idea of being drawn to better ourselves by the force of beauty; but however generous we might want to be to our long-suffering speaker, we must still accept the ambiguity of that attraction. The “bottom line” of the poem is the paradox that Stella’s virtuous pleading has the very opposite of its intended effect.

Next time (weekend of February 20): Sonnet 69
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 67

Hope, art thou true, or dost thou flatter me?
Doth Stella now begin with piteous eye
The ruins of her conquest to espy:
Will she take time, before all wracked be?
Her eyes’ speech is translated thus by thee.
But fail’st thou not in phrase so heavenly high?
Look on again, the fair text better try:
What blushing notes dost thou in margin see?
What sighs stolen out, or killed before full born?
Hast thou found such, and such-like arguments?
Or art thou else to comfort me foresworn?
Well, how so thou interpret the contents,
I am resolved thy error to maintain,
Rather than by more truth to get more pain.

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: “piteous” (line 2), “heavenly” (6), and “stolen” (9) are all shortened by a syllable, while “wracked” (4) is lengthened to two.

Sonnet 67 continues the theme of the previous one, grasping at straws of hope that Stella might take pity on the speaker and requite his love in some way. The opening line poses in milder form the dichotomy in the first quatrain of Sonnet 66: has she given a misleading sign, or is he deluded by his own hope? The remainder of this quatrain picks up Sidney’s familiar military imagery, comparing Stella to a conqueror who suddenly sees the need to pause (“take time”) before allowing the conquest to be so utterly destroyed that it is not worth owning (a similar idea to the plea that comes at the end of Sonnet 40).

The remainder of the sonnet is a charming little colloquy between the speaker and personified Hope, the “thee” of line 5. Hope is partly a comforting counselor—something like Friar Laurence to Romeo, perhaps—but partly a student interpreting a text, and being told by the teacher (in lines 6-8) to take another stab at it, because it might be a bit over the student’s head, so to speak (“phrase so heavenly high”). “Fair text” (i.e., Stella’s face) in line 7 is a play on words, as this is a term of art for the text that expresses the author’s “true” meaning, as opposed to a “foul” copy (either a rough draft or a poorly-done copy) with mistakes. The student (line 8) is encouraged to take a look at the marginal notes (where authors often explain themselves), another word-play, as Stella seems to be “blushing” at the “margins” of her eyes.

The first half of the sestet adds three more questions to the one in line 8, all four basically adding up to an English teacher’s favorite question: do you have any specific evidence to support your general claim?  The answer is clearly no, but in the final tercet the speaker is analogous to the speaker in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138:

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies. . .
—not that Stella is in any way a “dark lady” consciously misleading, but just that our speaker here is knowingly and deliberately suppressing the painful truth, in favor of the false hope.

Next time (weekend of February 6): Sonnet 68
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.