Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 55

Muses, I oft invoked your holy aid,
With choicest flowers my speech to engarland so
That it, despised in true but naked show,
Might win some grace in your sweet grace arrayed;
And oft whole troops of saddest words I stayed,
Striving abroad a-foraging to go,
Until by your inspiring I might know
How their black banner might be best displayed.
But now I mean no more your help to try,
Nor other sugaring of my speech to prove,
But on her name incessantly to cry;
For let me but name her whom I do love,
So sweet sounds straight mine ear and heart do hit,
That I well find no eloquence like it. 

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: “to engarland” in line 2 is elided “”t’engarland”; “sugaring” in line 10 is two syllables; and the “So” that begins line 13 is the adverb meaning “such,” not the conjunctive “so.”

It seems unlikely that Sidney knew while writing how many sonnets he would end up with, but this one that starts the second half of the sequence is strikingly complementary with the start of the first half: in Sonnet 1, the muse came unbidden to urge the poet to “look in thy heart, and write,” while here the poet dismisses his muses because Stella is the only inspiration he needs. In other words, the story line is more or less reversed, but the point remains exactly the same!

The octave describes metaphorically a poetic process: since his own unvarnished protestations of love would surely be “despised,” he has, in the past, depended on the muses to “engarland” or decorate his words. Similarly (second quatrain), like a military general, he has kept his restless “troops” (the words) from venturing out before they have been properly “inspired” by the muses—lest (again) they be caught unprepared (as if while “foraging,” the classic time for unarmed troops to be ambushed) and shot down.

That was “then,” or the entire half-sequence already written. “But now” signals the obvious fulcrum and transition into the “answer” of the sestet, the poet’s declaration of independence. He will no longer rely on the muses to decorate his sad overtures; Stella’s name alone will be enough. As I said above, this is arriving by the opposite direction at essentially the same message in Sonnet 1; and with 53 more sonnets to go, we can be sure that it is a blatant falsehood!

Next time (weekend of August 22): Sonnet 56
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 50

Stella, the fullness of my thoughts of thee
Cannot be stayed within my panting breast,
But they do swell and struggle forth of me,
Till that in words thy figure be expressed.
And yet, as soon as they so formed be,
According to my Lord Love’s own behest,
With sad eyes I their weak proportion see,
To portrait that which in this world is best;
So that I cannot choose but write my mind,
And cannot choose but put out what I write,
While these poor babes their death in birth do find:
And now my pen these lines had dashed quite,
But that they stopped his fury from the same,
Because their forefront bare sweet Stella’s name.

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: “formed” in line 5 and “dashed” in line 12 both have two syllables.

If my gentle reader is starting to complain that Sidney’s preoccupation with unrequited love grows tiresome and tedious, I reply, Yes, but doesn’t he have a bottomless grab-bag of varied poetic devices and gizmos?  Here we encounter meta-poetry, a poem that is about the writing of itself!  Or, to put that another way, a poem in which the speaker carries on a conversation, as it were, with the very words he is writing, as he writes them.

That is, when he writes

Stella, the fullness of my thoughts of thee
Cannot be stayed within my panting breast,
But they do swell and struggle forth of me,
Till that in words thy figure be expressed.

what he describes is literally happening as he writes that quatrain. In the poet’s passion (“panting breast”) his overcharged thoughts force their way out into words that express “thy figure”—a term with multiple senses. Most literally, it refers simply to Stella’s bodily shape, frame, or appearance; but in ascending levels of abstraction, it also refers to the image or likeness of that shape, an imaginary artistic expression of it (as in “figure drawing”), and, most pertinent to the context, the figurative language of poetry, giving the human form both image and meaning in a “figure of speech.”

In the second quatrain, the words have now been “formed,” at the “behest” of his ruler Love, but as he reads what he has written he realizes how pathetic a portrait (“their weak proportion”) they are, compared to the real thing—“that which in this world is best.”

The “So that” at the start of the sestet is equivalent to “Thus,” meaning that what follows is a review of the conundrum he has just described in the octave, and its futile implications: he must write what he thinks (“my mind”), and then read what he writes, at which point the words are like still-born children—an echo, perhaps, of the “labor pains” connected with poetic creation near the end of Sonnet 1.

So, in the final tercet, his impulse is to strike out (“had dashed”) the words he has just written—i.e., this very sonnet—but he is prevented from doing so by the very first word (“their forefront”), Stella’s name.* The sonnet has very neatly come full circle and ended with its beginning.

* As Duncan-Jones notes, this is similar to a little piece of comic action in Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (I.2), when Julia tears up a note she has just written to her love Proteus, but then finds his name in the scraps, and cannot continue throwing them away.

Next time (weekend of June 13): Sonnet 51
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.