Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 66

And do I see some cause a hope to feed,
Or doth the tedious burden of long woe
In weakened minds, quick apprehension breed,
Of every image which may comfort show?
I cannot brag of word, much less of deed;
Fortune wheels still with me in one sort slow:
My wealth no more, and no whit less my need,
Desire still on the stilts of fear doth go.
And yet amid all fears a hope there is
Stol’n to my heart, since last fair night, nay day,
Stella’s eyes sent to me the beams of bliss,
Looking on me, while I looked other way:
But when mine eyes back to their heaven did move,
They fled with blush, which guilty seemed of love.

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Reading note: “heaven” in line 13 is one syllable.

For a stretch of twenty sonnets, starting with this one, there is a perceived warming toward the speaker by Stella, with the “high point,” perhaps, being a stolen kiss (while she is asleep) in Sonnet 73. This sonnet considers the perception itself, questioning whether it has any basis. The opening quatrain poses two possibilities: (1) there are indeed signs of hope (line 1); or (2) the speaker is being driven crazy by the long torment of his longing, and is starting to be delusional. “Lovers and madmen,” Theseus tells us in Midsummer Night’s Dream, “have such seething brains” that their “imagination bodies forth/The form of things unknown,” and “if it would but apprehend some joy,/It comprehends some bringer of that joy.” The speaker of our sonnet wonders if he has seen something real, or has suffered the affliction that Theseus describes; and what would-be lover has not wrestled with precisely that doubt at some point?

This sonnet, like the previous one, is in Sidney’s second-favorite form, which closely resembles English sonnet form because the sestet is divided by rhyme into quatrain and couplet—and indeed (unlike 65) this one is even closer to “English” in that it is a rare Sidney sonnet with no strong break after line 11. He uses this structure to explore the two sides of delusion vs. hope in the second quatrain and “quatrain three” of the faux-English form, respectively. The latter finally starts describing the specific moment that has started these musings, and the couplet wraps it up in all its lasting ambiguity.

Quatrain two is a small masterpiece of sonnet writing, perfectly capturing the mental struggle of the whole poem. It begins with the absolute admission that he has nothing (word nor deed) to show for his love-quest so far. The Wheel of Fortune (which classically tends to stay in motion and keep changing the fortunes of people) in this one matter (“one sort”) barely moves. Line seven is a lovely chiasmus with a twist. “Wealth” and “need” in the line are both relative to the prize of Stella, so the sense of the line is that he is just as needy and just as poor as ever in that respect. The chiasmus is between my-wealth-no-more and no-less-my-need, but one more syllable was needed, and “whit” creates yet another sound-play within the alliteration: in one side of line we have an M-W and an N-M; when we cross we get N-W and M-N, with initial sounds in the phrases swapping places. Finally (for this quatrain) we get the payoff image in line 8, where “stilts” must be understood in its renaissance meaning of “crutches”; so desire still stumbles along on the crutches of fear, a perfect and compact image of a hopeful but nervous and still unsuccessful lover. And the line has the added sound effect of a “stumble” in the second foot, where both syllables are unstressed.

And yet, and yet, and yet . . . In the “third quatrain” we get the hope-inducing incident itself, simpler to relate and again perhaps familiar to any hopeful lover. The night before (turned hyperbolic “day” by the rays emanating from Stella’s starry eyes) the speaker sensed, without exactly looking, that Stella was gazing at him. So of course he had to look, and of course, if she was looking at him, she had to look somewhere else, and this seemed to him to reflect the desired combination of interest and guilt on her part . . . . But we’ll have to wait for further evidence.

Next time (weekend of January 23): Sonnet 67
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.