Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 97

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.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 22

In highest way of heaven the Sun did ride,
Progressing then from fair twins’ golden place:
Having no scarf of clouds before his face,
But shining forth of heat in his chief pride,
When some fair ladies, by hard promise tied,
On horseback met him in his furious race;
Yet each prepared with fan’s well-shading grace,
From that foe’s wounds their tender skins to hide.
Stella alone with face unarmed marched.
Either to do like him which open shone,
Or careless of the wealth because her own:
Yet were the hid and meaner beauties parched,
Her daintiest bare went free. The cause was this:
The Sun, which others burned, did her but kiss.

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: Line 9: “unarmèd” is three syllables, while “marched” is one.

A change of pace from many of the sonnets surrounding it, as this one again focuses entirely on the glory that is Stella, instead of on the speaker’s folly in loving her. This is a charming little tale, which is definitely allegorical, but also reads as if it might be based on a real incident.  The opening quatrain sets the scene as mid-day (the sun is at the “highest way of heaven”) in the hottest time of year (late June or July, when the sun is in Gemini) and with no clouds in the sky.

In other words, it is a terrible time for ladies who are concerned about their complexions to be traveling out of doors; but this particular group of ladies (Stella among them) are committed (“by hard promise tied”) to an outing on horseback, despite the adverse sunshine. As the octave ends, we learn that “each” lady has brought a fan with which to shield her face . . .

. . . except for Stella, we learn in the sestet, after the fulcrum. She marches “unarmed” into what we might now call a face-off with the sun; she faces the sun down because she shines just as bright, and the sun’s “wealth” is actually her own.

So several ladies protected by sun-screens, Stella recklessly uncovered, and what is the outcome? The other ladies were sun-burned, while Stella was not. And why? Even the sun is drawn to Stella’s brightness, and can only meekly “kiss” her, despite his power.

Next time (week of May 27): Sonnet 23

(The timing of these posts has been altered slightly by my trip to England)

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