Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 76

She comes, and straight therewith her shining twins do move
Their rays to me, who in her tedious absence lay
Benighted in cold woe; but now appears my day,
The only light of joy, the only warmth of love.
She comes, with light and warmth, which like Aurora prove
Of gentle force, so that mine eyes dare gladly play
With such a rosy morn, whose beams most freshly gay
Scorch not, but only do dark chilling sprites remove.
But lo, while I do speak, it groweth noon with me;
Her flamy glistering lights increase with time and place;
My heart cries, ‘Ah, it burns’; mine eyes now dazzled be;
No wind, no shade can cool; what help then in my case,
But with short breath, long looks, staid feet and walking head,
Pray that my sun go down with meeker beams to bed.

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: “glistering” in line 10 is elided to two syllables.

At this point in the sequence, we have two of the six sonnets written in hexameters. In this one, five of the eight lines in the octave are also enjambed, so we get a particularly leisurely stroll through ideas the speaker likes to entertain, especially in the poem’s second quatrain. For, despite Stella’s angry reaction to the stolen kiss, the effect on the speaker seems to be a heightened imagination of what might be.

The first quatrain, featuring Stella’s now-familiar eyes (“shining twins”), is a fairly straightforward statement of a plot-fact, Stella’s arrival to turn the speaker’s night to day. This is restated as a frictionless thought in the second quatrain. Here, Stella is the dawn (“Aurora”) who not only brings “light” into his life, but does it with gentleness, removing all the “chilling sprites” of night.

But this figurative language has implications or consequences; the light of a cool dawn must turn into the noon-time heat of day, i.e., the passion which Stella’s presence inspires in the speaker, as announced in line 11. So the final tercet seeks a solution to this excessive heat. In a line (13) that recalls the “throes” of Sonnet 1, Sidney wonderfully captures the situation of a man in such a state, with a pair of antitheses: as his looks grow longer, his breath grows shorter, and as his feet are rooted, his mind wanders off to another place. Finishing the conceit of a sun’s journey through the day, he envisions—nay, “pray[s] that”—a “meeker” (or more yielding) love might go to bed, a perfectly innocent gesture for the sun, but with obvious sexual suggestion for Stella.

Next time (weekend of June 12): Sonnet 77
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

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.

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: “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.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 23

The curious wits, seeing dull pensiveness
Bewray itself in my long settled eyes,
Whence those same fumes of melancholy rise
With idle pains, and missing aim, do guess.
Some, that know how my spring I did address,
Deem that my Muse some fruit of knowledge plies;
Others, because the Prince my service tries,
Think that I think state errors to redress.
But harder judges judge ambition’s rage,
Scourge of itself, still climbing slippery place,
Holds my young brain captived in golden cage.
O fools, or over-wise: alas, the race
Of all my thoughts hath neither stop nor start,
But only Stella’s eyes and Stella’s heart.

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.

A central concern of Hamlet had been a standard component of poetry and drama for years before: the difficulty of explaining a young man’s melancholy when he is young, healthy, and gifted. While our own age considers depression to be a commonplace of minor mental impairment, its Medieval/Renaissance equivalent engendered a sort of awe and mystery, even though (or perhaps because?) there is clearly no place for melancholy within a life governed by reason. In 1621, Robert Burton would publish a monumental and detailed study titled The Anatomy of Melancholy, and he had a plethora of literary sources for his examples.

So here the “curious wits”—perhaps the very same friends who have been criticizing and counseling the speaker in many of these sonnets—find themselves in roughly the same position as Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, trying to explain the speaker’s strange melancholy and the “dull pensiveness” that has, of late, crept into his “long settled eyes”; that is, something has changed, and the “wits” are no better than those characters in Hamlet at diagnosing what it is. With “idle pains” (efforts) and a “missing aim,” they merely “guess.”

So now (lines 5-11), predictably, we’re going to hear what their wrong guesses are: basically, three in number, they occupy two, two, and three lines respectively. First (5-6) they guess that since the speaker was devoted to poetry in youth (“spring”), he is preoccupied with his Muse, or pondering a poem (this one actually has a bit of indirect truth in it). Second (7-8), that, as trusted ambassador, he has been given some thorny diplomatic problem to solve.  The third guess (9-11), offered by “harder judges,” is considerably less flattering to the speaker: like so many young noblemen in Elizabeth’s reign, he is deemed to be too ambitious for his own good, and is plotting some Machiavellian way to advance himself. Brooding melancholy is indeed the period’s stereotype for plotting or revenge, as in Hieronymo in The Spanish Tragedy, or Caesar’s view of Cassius, or Edmund, Aaron, Don John, or other villains in Shakespeare’s plays. But such ambition is aptly described in the 10th line, even as it is brought up: “Scourge of itself, still climbing slippery place.”

The poem’s fulcrum comes after the eleventh line. Having given free rein to all these opinions, the speaker now dismisses the wits as “fools, or overwise” (i.e., the second possibility is that they are over-analyzing a very simple case).  That which preoccupies the speaker (“the race of all my thoughts”) begins and ends with Stella. Or, to complicate that simple truth with a chiasmic structure, it “starts” with Stella’s eyes and “stops” with her heart. Complicate it, indeed: there are three possibilities for that simple idea:

  1. Neutral, or innocent: Stella is first and last, beginning and end, of the speaker’s preoccupations.
  2. Optimistic: his quest of Stella began with (the flash of) her eyes (see Sonnets 17 and 20) and its end or goal will be the conquest of her heart.
  3. Pessimistic: (cf. Sonnets 11 and 12) the quest of Stella started with her eyes, but will be stopped short by her heart.

Next time (weekend of May 31): Sonnet 24

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