Rich fools there be, whose base and filthy heart
Lies hatching still the goods wherein they flow,
And damning their own selves to Tantal’s smart,
Wealth breeding want, more blest, more wretched grow.
Yet to those fools heaven such wit doth impart,
As what their hands do hold, their heads do know,
And knowing, love, and loving, lay apart
As sacred things, far from all danger’s show.
But that rich fool, who by blind fortune’s lot
The richest gem of love and life enjoys,
And can with foul abuse such beauties blot,
Let him, deprived of sweet but unfelt joys,
Exiled for aye from those high treasures which
He knows not, grow in only folly rich!
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.
Insofar as Astrophil and Stella is a sort of roman à clef, this sonnet is one of the clefs, punning a little too obviously on the title of Lord Rich, the man to whom Penelope Devereux was married, presumably for his better financial prospects.
The first two lines appear to be a multiple mixed metaphor, only partially extenuated by the facts that “hearts” can “hatch” things such as ideas, and the sense of the verb “flow” here is “to be affluent in.” Nevertheless, the basic idea of the first quatrain is clear enough: for these “rich fools,” the heart is set only on getting still richer, which leads them (lines 3 and 4) to the fate of Tantalus, never being able to reach as much as they want, and thus growing more “wretched” even as they grow richer (“more blest”).
And yet (second quatrain) such fools can be capable of love, if only love of material things (presumably gems and such) which they hide away for themselves. This quatrain seems to point toward the idea that Lord Rich is keeping “Stella” (Penelope) away from the poet/speaker. But the sestet goes still another way: this particular “rich fool” (Lord Rich), who, “by blind fortune’s lot” (Dame Fortune was sometimes depicted as blindfolded while turning her randomizing wheel) has gotten the speaker’s girl, might be too stupid to know what sort of “gem” he has in his own possession, and that is the fate the speaker wishes for him (“Let him . . .”), so that he (Rich) will grow only in folly, not in love.
(What follows is my first reading:)
The pun on Lord Rich’s name, in addition to limiting the poem’s vocabulary, makes the personal nature of the sonnet a little too obvious, and the tightness of the logic or the conceit suffers as a result. Granted, the fate envisioned for the “rich fool” at the end of the poem relates reasonably well to the folly described in the first quatrain—a “heart” that can focus only on increasing wealth, and thus is doomed to frustration—but the path between the two is wandering and obscure. Sidney seems to want to explore a second possibility, that even a rich fool whose heart is set on wealth can recognize the value of a rare gem, and keep it in a safe place, and that such possessiveness could be a (presumably debased) form of love. This implies a frustration on the speaker’s (and Sidney’s) part that he is denied access to the woman he loves by a jealous husband.
But this implication is at least partly misleading, because the real point turns out to be an irony: even rich fools have enough sense to know when they have a gem, but Lord Rich is perhaps not even that smart. It’s a big “perhaps,” though. The second quatrain has already conceded the possibility that he does know, and therefore the final three lines express a wish, rather than a certainty. Reality is muddying the clear waters of poetry here.
(Now, on returning to the sonnet many months later, I am struck with the possibility that I, too, have missed the worth of the gem I have before me. Following my principle that poetry is written to make sense, let me try again:)
The sonnet is best understood by the “innocent” reader who does not realize that a person named Rich is Stella’s husband until reaching the end. The “Rich fools” named in the opening line and discussed in the octave are an entirely different, generic, set of people, first described by their folly (first quatrain), and then (second quatrain) by their one slightly redeeming bit of intelligence. If the speaker has been led to the topic by his rival’s name, he is, for this much of the poem, simply saying “If he is a typical rich fool, this is what he’s supposed to be like.”
It is only with the words “that rich fool” and the perfectly clear relative clause that describes him in lines 9-11, that we are talking specifically about Stella’s husband, and, as discussed above, he lacks even the slight redeeming grace of knowing the worth of what he’s got.
Next time (weekend of June 14): Sonnet 25
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.