Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 107

Stella, since thou so right a princess art
Of all the powers which life bestows on me,
That ere by them aught undertaken be
They first resort unto that sovereign part;
Sweet, for a while give respite to my heart,
Which pants as though it still should leap to thee;
And on my thoughts give thy lieutenancy
To this great cause, which needs both use and art;
And as a queen, who from her presence sends
Whom she employs, dismiss from thee my wit,
Till it have wrought what thy own will attends.
On servant’s shame oft master’s blame doth sit;
O let not fools in me thy works reprove,
And scorning say, ‘See what it is to love.’

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Did Sidney arrive at the intended end of his sonnet sequence, or did he just give up and stop? Neither of the final two sonnets by itself seems to reach the clear resolution of an intended end. But of course the intended end in the love relationship—expressed from Sonnet 1 onward—has not and will not come about; and these two sonnets, read together, do form a sort of “summing up” of where this failure has left the speaker/the poet/possibly Sidney himself.* This one, specifically, rather plaintively asks Stella to sanction, or at least acknowledge, the passions and poetic efforts of the speaker, lest all this poetry be dismissed as the ravings of a madman.

Needless to say, this is a delicate request to pose to the woman who has dismissed all overtures of love. How is she to remain true to herself while acknowledging, and in some sense sanctioning, the poetic efforts for which these final sonnets serve as an envoi?

The speaker approaches the task with great care. The basis of Stella’s objection throughout the sequence (see especially Sonnets 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 18 etc.) is that she stands for Reason, and the opening quatrain addresses her in this light: she is the “princess” of all his powers (i.e., including will and appetite, the senses, etc.), but she represents “that sovereign part” which properly governs all these powers, i.e., the soul as directed by reason.

Having acknowledged this sovereignty, he turns back to his lesser “powers”—passions, lustful “thoughts,” a “heart” which “pants”—and says, in effect, don’t sovereigns find employment for lesser beings? Do they not send them out as servants, lieutenants, emissaries? And, line 12 suggests, the sovereign might remain perfect, and yet share in the blame for the follies of the servants. So if Stella has now “dismissed” the speaker and all his romantic pretensions—as it appears she has—could it not be with at least an acknowledgement that these “servants”—i.e., the sonnets—are working to please her will?

There is a certain amount of desperation in this carefully-worded plea, as the more bluntly stated final couplet makes clear. If the dismissal does not have this qualified blessing, then all of these sonnets represent only folly, the ravings of a love-sick lunatic, exposed to the scorn even of fools, rather than high art with a noble intent.

*Though as we come to the end of this journey and resurface from our suspended disbelief, we should remember the caveat that the “story lines” of renaissance sonnets can be entirely artificial and fictional.

Next time (weekend of August 19): Sonnet 108
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 71

Who will in fairest book of Nature know
How virtue may best lodged in beauty be,
Let him but learn of love to read in thee,
Stella, those fair lines which true goodness show.
There shall he find all vices’ overthrow,
Not by rude force, but sweetest sovereignty
Of reason, from whose light those night-birds fly;
That inward sun in thine eyes shineth so.
And not content to be perfection’s heir
Thyself, dost strive all minds that way to move,
Who mark in thee what is in thee most fair;
So while thy beauty draws the heart to love,
As fast thy virtue bends that love to good.
But, ah, Desire still cries: “Give me some food.”  

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.

This sonnet continues discussion of the Platonic idea most recently brought up in Sonnet 69 (but also in 61 and 62, and earlier on in 5, 9, 21, and 25), that beauty is meant to draw us “upward” toward virtue. The opening is an answer to the understood question, “What’s the best source for understanding how virtue and beauty may be found together?” A “book of Nature” is a book created or “authored” by Nature, rather than a human author.

The answer, of course, is Stella, and here she is praised for the very quality the speaker usually resents, her reason and virtue. He is, for the moment, trying to live up to the challenge she gave him in Sonnet 69, where she gave him sovereignty of her heart so long as he behaved virtuously. So those familiar flashes from Stella’s eyes, which have heretofore mostly excited passion, here come from her “inward sun” (i.e., soul) and are employed in chasing away the “night-birds” which are metaphors for “all vices.”

The first five lines of the sestet continue in the same vein, extending the general thought with the more immediately pertinent idea that she is not only perfect in herself, but a teacher of virtue to others, by that Platonic process of beauty “drawing” us to become better.

As a thirteen-line sonnet, this would pass muster at a revival meeting; but the speaker has been a good boy for just about as long as he can stand. The fourteenth line undoes all the rest, saying, in effect: “Get serious! I’m a man with an appetite! And this virtue stuff is pretty thin broth!”

Next time (weekend of April 3): Sonnet 72
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 40

As good to write, as for to lie and groan,
O Stella dear, how much thy power hath wrought,
That hast my mind, none of the basest, brought,
My still-kept course, while others sleep, to moan.
Alas, if from the height of Virtue’s throne
Thou canst vouchsafe the influence of a thought
Upon a wretch that long thy grace hath sought,
Weigh then how I by thee am overthrown;
And then think thus—although thy beauty be
Made manifest by such a victory,
Yet noblest conquerors do wrecks avoid.
Since then thou hast so far subdued me,
That in my heart I offer still to thee,
O, do not let thy temple be destroyed.

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: “power” in line 2 is one syllable, while “subduëd” in line 12 has three.

Now we have Part III of this triptych of bed-time reflections. Sonnet 38 began promisingly with a very life-like dream of Stella, which sadly destroyed itself and chased sleep away for the speaker. In Sonnet 39 he appealed, apparently without success, to Sleep to return, so now he turns his thoughts straight to Stella herself, since it is clearly her fault that he lies awake. I might as well write a sonnet, he says, as lie here groaning. Line 3 suggests the speaker is not ordinarily slave or subject to anyone, but a proud man in most circumstances. But Stella has the singular “power” to make him “moan” his “still-kept course”—i.e., his constant obsession. In other words, he is lamenting not just the lack or loss of the woman he loves, but also the way in which his passion has reduced him.

The second quatrain takes the same abject position toward Stella, high on “Virtue’s throne” (cf. Sonnets 4, 9, 25, 31, 52, etc.), as the same portion of the previous sonnet had taken toward Sleep. As Sleep was a conquering emperor who could cause civil wars to cease, Stella is a proud conqueror who has “overthrown” the speaker, and clearly has the power to destroy him.

In the sestet, where the previous sonnet offered forms of “tribute” to the conqueror, this one offers a simple plea: do not destroy what you have conquered. Obviously tyrants can make a demonstration of power by laying waste the lands they conquer, but the “noblest conquerors” recognize that their own glory is enhanced by the grandeur of the states and structures within their sway. The speaker is a “temple” to his own love and Stella’s beauty, and that temple should not be destroyed. Handel wrote a wonderful oratorio—“Alexander’s Feast”—on the counter-example of Alexander the Great unwisely destroying the great city of Persepolis after celebrating his great victory there. This plea to the “conqueror” is an idea that Sidney will reprise—with essentially the same intent—at the start of Sonnet 67.
Next time (weekend of January 24): Sonnet 41
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 29

Like some weak lords, neighbored by mighty kings,
To keep themselves and their chief cities free,
Do easily yield, that all their coasts may be
Ready to store their camps of needful things:
So Stella’s heart, finding what power Love brings,
To keep itself in life and liberty,
Doth willing grant, that in the frontiers he
Use all to help his other conquerings.
And thus her heart escapes; but thus her eyes
Serve him with shot, her lips his heralds are;
Her breasts his tents, legs his triumphal car;
Her flesh his food, her skin his armor brave;
And I, but for because my prospect lies
Upon that coast, am given up for a slave.

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: somewhat confusingly, the pronoun “their” in lines 2 and 3 refers to the “weak lords,” while the same pronoun in line 4 refers to the “mighty kings.”

“Power” in line 5 and “given” in line 14 are each one syllable.

Sonnet 29 is a perfect illustration of a conceit, an elaborate analogy often extended over many lines or, in this case, the entire poem. Here Stella is compared to the delicate geopolitical situation in which “weak lords” surrender to “mighty kings” without a fight, in order to keep their own subjection from being even worse. The poem envisions that the yielders would thus retain their basic freedoms, keep their cities intact, and go on about their business, while the conquerors would make use of the countryside and the coasts to maintain their supply lines. The “weak lords” are thus both conquered and free at the same time, the essential paradox that pertains to what is being said about Stella.

Stella, to keep her heart “in life and liberty” from the power of Love, has yielded up the “frontiers,” or all her outward parts—a similar distinction to that drawn in the sestet of Sonnet 12. And Love (i.e., personified love, or Cupid) uses all those outlying areas—Stella’s attractive features—“to help his other conquering,” i.e. (consistent with the conceit) to assist him in conquering other people.

As we move into the sestet, a blazon of those external features—familiar to us already from Sonnets 9, 12, and 13—is called for, with each being given a supply-line use more or less appropriate to either its form or its function. We have seen already (e.g., Sonnet 17), for instance, how Stella’s darting, dark, and shining eyes supply Cupid with his arrows (“shot”); and the others really require no explanation.

The final focus on the speaker is limited to two lines, so we might expect Sidney to have arranged the rhymes (as he often does) to produce a couplet here; but of course he does not, so the point about the speaker’s proximity to Stella (the outward Stella, not her heart; compare with the endings of Sonnets 17 and 20) is not a separate one, but is integrated with the other effects (collateral damage, we might call it) of Stella’s surrender.

Which brings me, finally, to what intrigues me most about this sonnet. The political side of the analogy is easy enough to understand; while giving up one’s freedom in order to remain free is a paradox, it is a semantic one only, by no means an impossibility, or even unusual. And we dealt in Sonnet 12 with the idea of Cupid setting out to conquer Stella’s heart, but not getting past her outward parts. But what does it mean that “Stella’s heart, finding what power Love brings,” should yield, even partially, to that power? That strikes me as a different statement about Stella than Sonnet 12 makes, unless we just shrug and say “No, he doesn’t really mean it that way”—which I’m not inclined to do. The paradox of being enslaved in order to remain free may be merely semantic for kingdoms and cities, but a woman who has surrendered to Love in order to remain free of love is a very Escher print of a paradox—an insight, perhaps, into the real-life contradiction (a woman who loves him but refuses to love him) that “Stella” presents to the poet.

Next time (weekend of August 23): Sonnet 30

Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.