Dian, that fain would cheer her friend the night,
Shows her oft at the full her fairest race,
Bringing with her those starry nymphs, whose chase
From heavenly standing hits each mortal wight.
But ah, poor night, in love with Phoebus’ light,
And endlessly despairing of his grace,
Herself (to show no other joy hath place)
Silent and sad, in mourning weeds doth dight:
Even so, alas, a lady, Dian’s peer,
With choice delights and rarest company
Would fain drive clouds from out my heavy cheer.
But woe is me, though joy itself were she,
She could not show my blind brain ways of joy,
While I despair my sun’s sight 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 notes: “Even” at the start of line 9 is elided to one syllable.
The last two words of line 3 plus line 4 is a particularly obscure passage. It helps to remember that Diana, goddess of the moon, is a famed huntress, and the “chase” is the groove or furrow of the crossbow, from which the arrows are fired. We also need to remember that these sonnets have often mentioned Stella’s (the “star”) flashing eyes as projectiles which strike the speaker; this suggests the subject of the relative pronoun “whose” is not the nymphs (as we would expect from position) but rather Diana. So the somewhat complicated sense of the passage is that Diana is using the “starry nymphs” as arrows, with which from on high she “hits” every man (“each mortal wight”). This of course parallels the way in which Stella’s flashing eyes subdue every man who sets eyes on her.
This is the second of four “bedtime” sonnets, with the nighttime setting also becoming the subject. Diana, goddess of the moon, has a natural association with Stella, not only for her celestial light, but also (less pleasant for the speaker) her famed chastity. And both the previous sonnet and the sestet of this one make clear that Diana’s “friend the night” is to be associated or at least paralleled with the speaker, despite the feminine pronoun at the start of line 7. We know from earlier sonnets that Stella frequently offers friendly and well-intended counsel to the speaker, but her calls to reason run counter to the passions she inspires. That is the essential background for the tale told here, though this one has some differences.
In the first quatrain, Diana (“Dian”) tries to cheer “her friend the night” by often showing herself fully (i.e. being a full moon or perhaps any stages close to that). But (says the second quatrain) the night has a hopeless and even paradoxical love for the light of the sun (“Phoebus” is Phoebus Apollo, god of the sun), and so dresses constantly in dark clothing (“mourning weeds”) and is “silent and sad” (i.e., melancholic).
To this point the story makes little sense, to be honest. In what mythical structure would night be in love with the sun, and take no comfort from the moon? That seems entirely backwards. But like some parables that make little sense internally, once we hear what the “real-world” parallels are, it all falls into place. And the sestet of this sonnet makes those connections fairly explicit: Stella (“a lady, Dian’s peer”) is both the moon and, potentially, the speaker’s “star” and “sun” (not to mention would-be mother of the speaker’s son, as that pun is repeated from the previous sonnet). She is always a perfectly good friend, and tries to cheer him “with choice delights and rarest company,” but he cannot be content with reflected light; the star must be his own.
Next time (weekend of April 1): Sonnet 98
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.