Unhappy sight, and hath she vanished by,
So near, in so good time, so free a place?
Dead glass, dost thou thy object so embrace
As what my heart still sees, thou canst not spy?
I swear by her I love and lack, that I
Was not in fault, who bent thy dazzling race
Only unto the heaven of Stella’s face,
Counting but dust what in the way did lie.
But cease, mine eyes, your tears do witness well
That you, guiltless thereof, your nectar missed.
Cursed be the page from whom the bad torch fell,
Cursed be the night which did your strife resist,
Cursed be the coachman which did drive so fast,
With no worse curse than absence makes me taste.
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: “heaven” in line 7 is one syllable.
Stella has left the speaker at night, and this poem laments the speed with which she “vanished” from sight though still nearby. Adding to the frustration, the second line suggests, is that she leaves at the very time, and in the very place, where the speaker’s fortunes in love might have advanced. Because of some vague word choices (glass, race) and the obscurity of lines 3 and 4, the poem’s exact story line has been disputed over the years, though its overall message is clear enough.
The “dead glass,” different readers have argued, could be a mirror, a telescope, or a lantern. I could make a case for the speaker trying to extend his view of Stella with a telescope, except that I have seen no evidence that the telescope existed that early! If Shakespeare’s use of “glass” could be helpful, apart from when he refers to the brittle substance itself, the noun most commonly refers to a mirror, with a drinking vessel or an hour-glass (or metaphorically, an hour) as other possibilities. But King Lear, in his madness (IV.6), has a line more useful to us here; speaking to blind Gloucester, he says: “Get thee glass eyes,/And like a scurvy politician seem/To see the things thou dost not.” The OED cites this line as the first use of “glass eyes” to mean spectacles, and the Arden editor follows that reading, noting that the use of “glass eye” to mean a fake, or prosthetic, eyeball does not appear in English until later in the century. But the glass eyeball itself was being manufactured in Venice by the time of Sidney and Shakespeare, so how can we be sure that Shakespeare—and by extension, Sidney—was not referring to it? Admittedly Lear is mad, so he might speak nonsense, but seeming to see things one doesn’t is more easily done by a man with fake eyes than by one with glasses over empty eye sockets! So in both the Lear line and Sidney’s sonnet, a better reading results from assuming these authors were aware of Venetian glass eye-balls. Such an assumption is not far-fetched, given the range of knowledge in both cases, but if it can be proven false, the “Plan B” in the interpretation that follows would be to treat “dead glass” as referring to spectacles.
Back to the sonnet: a cursory first reading is likely to understand “Unhappy sight” as referring to a scene which makes the viewer unhappy. But essential to understanding the sonnet is to grasp that it opens with an apostrophe to the speaker’s own sense of sight, which has failed him at this crucial moment. His eyeballs are no better than “dead glass” (i.e., glass eyes), and “dost thou thy object so embrace” is said ironically, i.e., is that the best you can do at your only job? To underscore this failure of function, line 4 points out that the speaker’s heart can still see Stella, so why not the eyes? The second quatrain continues this attack by insisting that the speaker himself was not to blame, having done everything he could to train the “race” of sight—i.e., the family, i.e., eyes, with “dazzling” continuing the sarcasm—onto the object of his love. The point is further emphasized by the Platonic insistence that he had trained his sight on the eternal (“Heaven”) rather than the mortal distractions (“dust”) that get in the way.
But if our subtitle here is “A Dialogue between a Lover and his own Sense of Sight,” we may imagine that it is time for the sense of sight to speak up in protest; and that is more or less what happens in lines 9 and 10. Having paused from his rebuke of “unhappy sight,” the speaker realizes that his eyes, in response, have filled up with tears, so he says, in effect, say no more (“But cease”), I can see you’re hurting too. The eyes have missed their “nectar” just as the speaker has lost his “heaven.”
All is forgiven between the speaker and his sight, but someone must be blamed, and it turns out there was a rather comical cast of culprits in the rapid disappearance of Stella*–the boy who dropped the torch, the coachman who drove too fast, the dark night itself—all defeating the efforts (“your strife”) of the sense of sight. All must be “cursed,” but no curse can be found stronger than what the speaker feels at the loss of Stella’s company.
*I am reminded of Grumio’s report of what he will “not” tell Curtis in Taming of the Shrew IV.1: “But had thou not crossed me, thou shouldst have heard how her horse fell and she under her horse; thou shouldst have heard in how miry a place, how she was bemoiled . . . etc.”
Next time (weekend of July 22): Sonnet 106
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.