Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 101

Stella is sick, and in that sickbed lies
Sweetness, that breathes and pants as oft as she;
And grace, sick too, such fine conclusions tries
That sickness brags itself best graced to be.
Beauty is sick, but sick in so fair guise
That in that paleness beauty’s white we see;
And joy, which is inseparate from those eyes,
Stella now learns (strange case!) to weep in thee.
Love moves thy pain, and like a faithful page,
As thy looks stir, runs up and down to make
All folks pressed at thy will thy pain to assuage;
Nature with care sweats for her darling’s sake,
Knowing worlds pass, ere she enough can find
Of such heaven stuff, to clothe so heavenly mind.

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.

The poem opens with a plain factual statement, suggesting this is a situational sonnet. But Stella’s sickness, as we might expect, is adapted to the purpose of singing her praise. Her weakened body embodies the qualities of sweetness, grace*, beauty (in perhaps the most telling example of the technique, the natural pallor of ill health becomes the “white” or fair complexion of conventional Renaissance beauty), and joy—which Stella is strangely compelled to weep in, because her flashing eyes are unable to do otherwise. This exercise fills the octave.

The sestet shifts the perspective from these abstract qualities of the patient to two abstract attendants—divided between the two tercets—love and nature. The first clause in line nine is best understood as an inverted structure; i.e., in “frontwards” English it means “Thy pain moves love,” and thus metaphorically love is a very busy and attentive nurse, or more literally, love is inspired in everyone who sees Stella’s distress, so that they are “pressed” into duty caring for her.

Nature is of course the progenitor of all that is beautiful, and thus it follows that Stella is her favorite child, and not only favorite but irreplaceable. If she should lose this one, “worlds [will] pass” before she’ll have the right combination of materials to make such another. “Heaven stuff” presumably means either “heavenly stuff” or the “stuff of heaven,” and this is requisite to make such a soul (“mind”) as Stella’s. So Stella is bound to receive the most careful of care from both friends and nature, since she is simply too valuable to lose.

* There is some obscure language in lines 3 and 4, but the general point is the same: to “try conclusions” is to enter into a contest or test of skill; Stella’s grace, encountering sickness with her, gets the better of sickness, so that sickness itself can brag of being “graced”; i.e., endowed with grace.

Next time (weekend of May 27): Sonnet 102
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.  

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 90

Stella, think not that I by verse seek fame,
Who seek, who hope, who love, who live but thee;
Thine eyes my pride, thy lips mine history;
If thou praise not, all other praise is shame.
Nor so ambitious am I as to frame
A nest for my young praise in laurel tree;
In truth, I swear, I wish not there should be
Graved in mine epitaph a poet’s name.
Ne if I would, could I just title make,
That any laud to me thereof should grow,
Without my plumes from others’ wings I take.
For nothing from my wit or will doth flow,
Since all my words thy beauty doth endite,
And love doth hold my hand, and makes me write.

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: “Ne” at the start of line 9 is pronounced to rhyme with “key,” and since it simply means “nor,” there is no pause after it.

Every once in a while, there is a pause in the “story,” for the poet/speaker to remind us of the premise underlying the entire sonnet sequence. That is the case here, in a very conventional sonnet, following the sequence’s most predictable form: an Italian sonnet rhymed ABBAABBACDCDEE, the most common scheme (60 times) in the sequence. There are full end-stops at the expected places, after line 8 (separating octave from sestet) and line 11 (splitting the sestet into two tercets).

Artifice is valued positively by Renaissance poets, and Sidney is a master of artifice. We have also been told from time to time in the sequence that others read his sonnets and apparently admire them, if not the infatuation that inspires them. So the octave here—in this most artificial of sonnets—dismisses the plausible notion that the poet celebrates Stella only to gain fame for his art. The images of fame are also the most conventional: critical acclaim by readers (the first quatrain maintains that Stella is the only reader who counts), the classical laurel-leaf crown from which the phrase “poet laureate” derives, or the designation of “poet” on one’s gravestone (which anticipates the honor of being recognized in the “Poets’ Corner” of Westminster Abbey, though Chaucer occupied the space in lonely splendor as Sidney wrote).

The fulcrum comes at the predictable spot, and the sestet moves in the direction of what he might be famous for as a poet, and that is that he does not fly on “others’ wings,” i.e., steal from other poets—as he asserted repeatedly in the early sonnets. There is no need for that (the final tercet tells us), but paradoxically he does not rely on his own “wit or will” either. As we have known since the final line of the first sonnet, it is Stella’s beauty and his own love that inspires this poetry and makes it worthy of praise.

Next time (weekend of December 25): Sonnet 91
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.              

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 65

Love, by sure proof I may call thee unkind,
That giv’st no better ear to my just cries;
Thou whom to me such my good turns should bind,
As I may well recount, but none can prize;
For when, naked boy, thou could’st no harbour find
In this old world, grown now so too too wise,
I lodged thee in my heart, and being blind
Bu nature born, I gave to thee mine eyes.
Mine eyes, my light, my heart, my life, alas;
If so great services may scorned be,
Yet let this thought thy tigerish courage pass:
That I perhaps am somewhat kin to thee,
Since in thine arms, if learn’d fame truth hath spread,
Thou bear’st the arrow, I the arrowhead.

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: the “As” that begins line 4 is tied back to “such” in line 3, so the sense is “the good deeds that I am able to list (‘recount’)—though I won’t boast of them (‘prize’)—should be enough to put you in my debt.”
“Naked” in line 5 is one syllable (“nak’d”); “scorned” in line 10 is two, and “tigerish” in line 11 is elided to two.
The word “arms” in line 13 refers to a coat of arms, in heraldry.

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cassius, while having a tempestuous spat with his long-time pal Brutus, pleads: “A friend should bear his friend’s infirmities; but Brutus makes mine greater than they are.”  The point is that mere friendship—let alone past favors—should buy one a certain level of indulgence for one’s peccadilloes. Cassius’s charge against Brutus is similar to what the speaker says of Love (i.e., Cupid) here: if he really is a spirit of love, he should think of the speaker in terms of all the “good turns” or favors that the speaker has done for him. The poem starts modestly listing these in the second quatrain (with “outie” quatrains, the argument flows straight through the octave): when Cupid could no longer find a home in a “world grown wise”—wisdom, as we know, being the implacable adversary of love—the speaker made him welcome, even going so far as to provide “eyes” for the blind Cupid; i.e., the speaker sees entirely through the eyes of love.

As the octave ends, the speaker realizes he has been far too modest in the claims of obligation he has made on Love. He has not merely taken him in and provided him with eyes, but has given over his entire being to Love. The line that makes this transition and takes us “up a level” (in the current vernacular) is a lovely pair of explicit synecdoches: eyes = light (which could mean consciousness or intellect), while heart = life itself. The other two lines of the first tercet are used to set up the “clincher” argument in the final three lines. If you can’t honor me as a friend, he says, my trump card is that we’re actually related. How do you tell if aristocratic Englishmen are in the same family? You look for overlapping imagery in the coats of arms. It takes a footnote (such as that of Duncan-Jones) at this point to alert us that the Sidney arms feature arrowheads, while Cupid is obviously associated with arrows. That is the fairly arcane and specific meaning of the  final couplet, but the more general (and possibly erotic) sense is just as important: Cupid’s arrows would be useless (I was about to say “pointless”) without the speaker’s additions.

Next time (weekend of January 9): Sonnet 66
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 42

O eyes, which do the spheres of beauty move,
Whose beams be joys, whose joys all virtues be,
Who, while they make Love conquer, conquer Love,
The schools where Venus hath learned chastity;
O eyes, whose humble looks most glorious prove
Only loved tyrants, just in cruelty,
Do not, O do not from poor me remove;
Keep still my zenith, ever shine on me.
For though I never see them, but straightways
My life forgets to nourish languished sprites;
Yet still on me, O eyes, dart down your rays;
And if from majesty of sacred lights,
Oppressing mortal sense, my death proceed,
Wracks triumphs be, which Love (high set) doth breed.

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.

This sonnet is of course addressed to Stella’s now-famous (or infamous) eyes, and all of their symbolic complexity is reflected in the poem’s tight and thorny figurative language. The octave at first glance appears to be two parallel ABAB quatrains, similar to an English sonnet, because of the repeated apostrophe “O eyes”; but in fact, while six of the eight lines do modify “eyes,” the last two shift into the sentence’s main clause, making a plea to the subject.  The first six lines are broken down as follows:

  1. A relative clause implying that the eyes are Prime Movers in some sort of parallel Platonic universe, where the customary planetary spheres of the Ptolemaic universe are replaced by the figurative “spheres of beauty.”
  2. A pair of parallel relative clauses, using auxesis to get the required and uncomplicated compliments out of the way in a hurry.
  3. Another relative clause with an extremely tight chiasmus (or epanados) compressing an idea which takes many more words to explain: Stella’s eyes make a conquest of the men who fall in love with them, but simultaneously quash that same love.
  4. An appositive whose paradox (Venus herself learns chastity in the “schools” of these eyes) elaborates on the paradox of the previous line.
  5. and 6. After the repeated apostrophe, one more relative clause, enjambed over the two lines. The word “prove” at the end of line 5 means “turn out to be” (tyrants), and “Only” in line 6 can mean either “merely” or (attached more closely to “lov’d”) “solely” or “singularly.” The set ends with two more paradoxes, tyrants that are loved, and cruelty that is just.

The plea to the eyes in lines 7 and 8 is simply to stay where they are, a constancy reflected first metrically by five strong stresses in a row in line 7 (“do not from poor me”) and then by the image in line 8: the “zenith” is the high point in the sky, so “still” is here an adverb modifying “keep”; i.e., stay constantly the high point of my sky. The image is akin to the North Star as the “star to every wandering bark” in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, and obviously returns us to the symbolism of Stella’s name.

The sestet explains why the speaker wants the eyes to “ever shine on me,” despite their decidedly mixed benefits. The first tercet may be paraphrased: For although whenever I see those eyes, I immediately lose my spirit, yet still . . . (and the plea is repeated). And then at the end, the crowning paradox: even if those “sacred lights” sap so much of my strength that they kill me, I will have died triumphant if I died for love.

Next time (weekend of February 21): Sonnet 43
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 35

What may words say, or what may words not say,
Where truth itself must speak like flattery?
Within what bounds can one his liking stay,
Where nature doth with infinite agree?
What Nestor’s counsels can my flames allay,
Since Reason’s self doth blow the coal in me?
And ah, what hope that hope should once see day,
Where Cupid is sworn page to chastity?
Honor is honored, that thou dost possess
Him as thy slave, and now long-needy Fame
Doth even grow rich, naming my Stella’s name.
Wit learns in thee perfection to express;
Not thou by praise, but praise in thee is raised;
It is a praise to praise, when thou art praised.

 

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.

For two sonnets now, Sidney resorts to the less common (for him) use of the ABAB open-ended, or “outie,” pattern for the octave, suggesting a more relaxed discussion for that part of the poem.*  Here we see the speaker “rambling on” in Stella’s praise, piling hyperbole on hyperbole, almost as if by free association, rather than any tightly logical conceit. Twelve of the fourteen lines are in this glowing vein; only the exact center of the poem, lines seven and eight, interrupts for a “reality check,” reminding us (and presumably the speaker himself) how hopelessly unobtainable this paragon is.  But unlike many other sonnets (e.g. 29, 31, 33, 34) in which this frustration builds steadily to the end, in this case it is almost as if the speaker claps his hands over his ears and shouts “LA LA LA,” so that never might be heard a discouraging word. He goes right back to the almost manic string of praises, as if there had been no interruption at all, or as if in a hurry to drown it out.  Also, oddly, as he resumes in line nine he makes his addresses directly to Stella (“that thou dost possess”) as if (1) he has previously been talking within his mind and now finds the courage to speak directly; or (2) the mental musings become increasingly charged and manic, as the object of his love fills his mind.

So, setting aside that central “downer” for a moment, we are left with the three 2-line ideas before it, and two 3-line ideas after, and if there is a unifying thread (besides hyperbolic praise of Stella), it is in the use of paradox. Let’s consider these four ideas in turn:

What may words say, or what may words not say,
Where truth itself must speak like flattery?

The main paradox here is that truth and flattery are supposed to be, by definition, mutually exclusive, but in this case they sound exactly the same. This makes a mind-bending riddle out of a cliché such as “words cannot convey . . .,” since in one way (“What can words say?”) the cliché seems perfectly true, but in another (“what may words not say?”) it is disproved by the paradox of the second line: words can convey the glory of Stella if the simple truth will suffice.

Within what bounds can one his liking stay,
Where nature doth with infinite agree?

Again, the anchor paradox is in the second line: if there was one thing Sidney’s contemporaries learned from the “laws” of nature, it was to accept limitations and avoid extremes; the “golden mean” was what Nature insisted on. But in the case of Stella, Nature has allowed infinity as a reality. (The word “infinite” is used as a noun here, or conceivably as an adjective in quotation marks; i.e. Nature has agreed to use “infinite” to describe Stella.)  From that grand paradox it is an easy step back to the fact that the speaker cannot keep (“stay”) his love (“liking”) within any reasonable boundaries (“bounds”).

What Nestor’s counsels can my flames allay,
Since Reason’s self doth blow the coal in me?

This is a fairly easy paradox to understand, in the wake of our study of sonnets 2, 4,5, and especially 10 and 18. As I have said there, Reason is the very opposite—and rightfully the squelcher—of passion, but where Stella is concerned, Reason itself fans the flames (“doth blow the coal”) of passion, so what help does the proverbial human wisdom of Nestor have against such a force?

Moving ahead now to lines 9-11:

Honor is honored, that thou dost possess
Him as thy slave, and now long-needy Fame
Doth even grow rich, naming my Stella’s name.

The central paradoxes here—and indeed throughout the sestet—are that the qualities we aspire to (honor, fame, praise, etc.) are commonly regarded as ideal ceilings to measure mortal attainment against, with mortals by definition always falling short. But what if the “ceiling”—the ideal quality itself—is somehow short of what it could be, and thus expandable?  What if honor can make itself yet more honorable by honoring Stella?; that is the proposition here. That fame is “long-needy” doubles down on the paradox: it is a commonplace of every age that all the greatest soldiers, writers, statesmen, artists, or whatever, existed only in the past; so Stella is stretching the limits not just of a “Hall of Fame” already filled, but of one that started as sort of dusty and archaic! (The fact that Fame grows “rich” in naming Stella is a sidelong reference to her married name.)

Wit learns in thee perfection to express;
Not thou by praise, but praise in thee is raised;
It is a praise to praise, when thou art praised.

These final lines continue in the same vein. Wisdom (“wit”) ordinarily knows not to expect perfection, but suddenly one can talk wisely and of perfection, too. And the final couplet, where praise, like honor, gains by praising Stella, finds a way to sum up the whole accomplishment of the poem, and the poet, who becomes more praiseworthy for praising her. We have a notable example here of a favorite poetic trick of Sidney’s, called antanaclasis, or close repetition of a word while changing its senses; for other examples, see sonnets 9 (lines 12-14), 10 (13-14), 12 (6), 26 (4) 31 (12-13), 34 (11), 36 (9-11), 37 (10, in particular), 38 (12), 39 (5), 59 (10), and 79 (1-3).

Now, what about the “heart” of this sonnet, those two lines in the exact center that threaten to undo all the rest?:

And ah, what hope that hope should once see day,
Where Cupid is sworn page to chastity?

Stella adds praise to praise and honor to honor, but hope she only makes more hopeless. Like the opening two lines of the sonnet that follows (Stella, whence doth this new assault arise,/A conquered, yelden, ransacked heart to win?), these suggest the context in which a flurry of wooing by various means takes place in this trio of sonnets: hyperbolic flattery in this one is followed by whining of her cruelty in 36, and sarcastically mocking her marriage in 37. Only with the “bedtime” sonnets 38, 39, and 40 does Sidney back off from this relatively direct confrontation.

* The full rhyme scheme of this poem is actually unique, because of the arrangement of the sestet, where each tercet ends with a couplet. As I have noted before, the variety Sidney achieves within the strict form of the Italian sonnet is amazing!

Next time (weekend of November 15): Sonnet 36
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 28

You that with allegory’s curious frame
Of others’ children changelings use to make,
With me those pains, for God’s sake, do not take;
I list not dig so deep for brazen fame.
When I say “Stella,” I do mean the same
Princess of beauty for whose only sake
The reins of love I love, though never slake,
And joy therein, though nations count it shame.
I beg no subject to use eloquence,
Nor in hid ways do guide philosophy;
Look at my hands for no such quintessence.
But know that I, in pure simplicity
Breathe out the flames which burn within my heart,
Love only reading unto me this art.

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.

It’s not unusual, in an introductory literature course, for a student to tell me something like this: “I’ve never been any good at reading poetry, because I can’t find those hidden meanings.”  At such times I have to insist that there are no “hidden” meanings; if a meaning can not be found in, and supported by, the words of the poem, then it’s not there. Poets write to reveal truths, not to conceal them. One of the first slogans I write large on my blackboard is: POETRY IS WRITTEN TO MAKE SENSE.

But I may be at least partly to blame for the defeatist attitude, because I also write on the board: EVERYTHING MEANS SOMETHING ELSE. This is not just a statement about poetry; it is, indeed, a statement about everything. A student’s posture in my classroom has meaning. Whether a man does or does not wear a tie to work has meaning. Posture is still posture and a tie is still a tie, but we ignore the symbolism of the details of our life at our peril. The meanings may not be obvious, but that is why developing symbolic literacy is just as important as other basic kinds of learning, and incidentally why the study of poetry is a good preparation for life.

But say I wore a red tie to work one day, and someone said to me that this color tie indicated my affiliation with a local gang whose chosen color was red. This would of course be a preposterous assignment of meaning, based only on coincidence, and having nothing to do with either the conventional symbolism of ties or the context in which I was wearing the tie. Conventional understandings (e.g., Venus = love, Mars = war) and specific context are what we use to identify the “extra” meanings of things.

Now, Stella is the name chosen for a specific (apparently lovely) woman, and that Stella is rich in additional meaning is evident from the fact that 108 sonnets are addressed to her, and written about her. But if someone said, “When Sidney writes about Stella, he is really writing about his lost religious faith, and his strong desire to get it back,” I would have to blow the whistle on that one! I can’t deny that one of these poems might make that thought come into your head, but if so, a lot of other people’s poems would make the same thought come into your head, because the thought is already in your head, and not in the poem itself. This is an example of imposing an allegorical meaning that is supported neither by convention nor context.

And fortunately for me and my profession, Sidney himself has addressed such allegorical reading in this sonnet. The allegorists, he says, “Of others’ children changelings use to make.” The “children” here are clearly the poet’s offspring, or poems, and “changelings” (the most notable of which is at the center of the plot of Midsummer Night’s Dream) are babies exchanged by fairies during the night, so that fairies have the most beautiful babies and mortals are left with the ugly ones. (“Use to” is the archaic idiom meaning “are accustomed to.”) That is, such people are making a poem something it is not, by digging “deep” below what the poem actually says on its surface. There is wonderful word-play in both of the rhyming phrases “curious frame” and “brazen fame.” The “frame” into which the poem is being unnaturally squeezed is “curious” in that it is very carefully studied and inquisitive, but also in being odd or strange. And in rejecting “brazen fame,” the poet/speaker is saying both that he is not reaching so high (brazen = arrogant) and that such meaning cheapens his actual intent (brazen = brass, inferior to gold or silver).

The second quatrain states the simple and obvious about the sonnets, but also acknowledges the challenge and complexity of the speaker’s situation: he loves the “reins” (the control over him, or his thralldom) of love, though these reins are never slack (“slake”) or easy; and though everybody (“nations”) tries to talk him out of this shameful infatuation (as we have already seen repeatedly).

The first tercet of the sestet is fairly clear in its full meaning, though the specific wording may be a bit obscure. I think “subject” in line 9, like “philosophy” in line 10, can be understood as a special rhetorical purpose beyond what the poems directly say; and note that line 10 explicitly rejects “hid” meanings! (Students please take note!) “Quintessence” in line 11 is literally the “fifth element” of which only celestial objects were made. (The periodic chart for our own planet had only four elements at this point in history.) The word implies strongly that the poems are not pretending to be something they aren’t.

The fulcrum comes after line 11, as the poet/speaker shifts from the somewhat elaborated statement of what he is not doing to a simpler account of what he is doing, which is following the dictates of the Muse in Sonnet 1: “Look in thy heart and write.”

Next time (weekend of August 9): Sonnet 29
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 19

On Cupid’s bow how are my heartstrings bent,
That see my wrack, and yet embrace the same!
When most I glory, then I feel most shame:
I willing run, yet while I run, repent.
My best wits still their own disgrace invent;
My very ink turns straight to Stella’s name;
And yet my words, as them my pen doth frame,
Advise themselves that they are vainly spent.
For though she pass all things, yet what is all
That unto me, who fare like him that both
Looks to the skies, and in a ditch doth fall?
O let me prop my mind, yet in his growth,
And not in Nature, for best fruits unfit:
“Scholar,” saith Love, “bend hitherward your wit.”

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.

This sonnet describes a sort of growing love-madness in the speaker, as reflected in the disorderly line break between lines 9 and 10—unusually “modern” for Sidney—in which the closely connected noun phrase “all that” is snapped right in the middle, so that even the slight acknowledgement that the end of an enjambed line customarily receives is impossible here; the break after line 10 is only barely more natural, and all three lines of the tercet have caesuras, so, as the soon-to-be-mad Hamlet might observe here, “the time is out of joint.”  As it happens, the simile of that tercet is taken from Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, at the moment when the scholar Nicholas is feigning madness in preparation for his plot to sleep with the Carpenter John’s lovely young wife (a silly story which, for some reason, might be much on Sidney’s mind these days!).  The foolish carpenter, in his sincere concern for his lodger’s obsession with astrology, recalls a similar case:

So ferde another clerk with astromye;
He walked in the feeldes, for to prye
Upon the sterres, what ther sholde befalle,
Til he was in a marle-pit yfalle;
He saugh nat that.

Our “scholar” seems to be relating more to that clerk than to the successful Nicholas.*

While the opening line of the poem seems at first glance to suggest the speaker’s heartstrings are being used to string Cupid’s bow, this clever word-play is misleading. More logically, “bent” here means “inclined toward” or “aimed at,” the same as the verb at the end of line 12 in the previous sonnet. So his “heartstrings” are pulled toward Cupid’s bow, even as he knows that ruin (“wrack”) that way lies. (Compare Shakespeare’s couplet on lust, Sonnet 129: All this the world well knows, yet none knows well/To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.) This paradox is extended with the parallel paradoxes of lines 3 and 4.

Line 5 repeats the idea expressed in lines 10-11 of sonnet 18:

My wit doth strive those passions to defend
Which for reward spoil it with vain annoys.

That is, the speaker’s best thinking is going into a fool’s errand that pays off only negatively. From the second quatrain here, it is now quite obvious that Sidney refers to the writing of the sonnet sequence itself, and the tendency of the sonnets to bring him shame, even as they help him explore both his passion and his shame: “[the words of the poems] Advise themselves that they are vainly spent.”

The first half of the sestet, as discussed above, takes us back to the classic Chaucerian image of star-gazing and embarrassing futility as the only result. But the final tercet returns to the same mulish determination of the speaker to court his own ruin, expressed here in imagery drawn from Renaissance formal gardening: the speaker’s “mind” (and remember, that word encompasses the soul as well as the intellect) is treated as a fruit tree in such a garden; it could have grown naturally, but instead the speaker asks that it be “propped” (i.e., staked) and thus forced to grow in an unnatural direction, for decorative but “fruitless” purposes (my double meaning is quite intentional). Just so the speaker’s “wit” and learning are unnaturally bent toward Love (the repeated verb signals that the poem ends right where it started), with a similarly fruitless result. Notice that the final line of this poem is a faded echo of the final line of Sonnet 1, with most of the drive and optimism already drained out.

* As Duncan-Jones points out, Sidney (and probably Chaucer also) had in mind a commonplace anecdote about Thales of Miletus, an ancient Greek philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer. Sidney makes the same allusion in the Defence of Poesy (Duncan-Jones 219).

Next time (weekend of April 5): Sonnet 20

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 15

You that do search for every purling spring
Which from the ribs of old Parnassus flows;
And every flower, not sweet perhaps, which grows
Near thereabouts into your poesy wring;
You that do dictionary’s method bring
Into your rhymes, running in rattling rows;
You that poor Petrarch’s long-deceased woes
With new-born sighs and denizened wit do sing:
You take wrong ways, those far-fet helps be such
As do bewray a want of inward touch,
And sure at length stol’n goods do come to light.
But if (both for your love and skill) your name
You seek to nurse at fullest breasts of fame,
Stella behold, and then begin to endite.

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: “denizened” in line 8 is two syllables (den’zened), and in line 14, “to endite” must be elided (t’endite); and “deceasèd” in line seven has all three syllables.

This sonnet is a piece of cake if one is already acquainted with sonnets 3 and 6.  The tenor is almost precisely the same, and the structure parallels sonnet 3 in particular, where the octave describes various “wrong ways” to do poetry, and the sestet says the only right way is (as the speaker is doing) to contemplate Stella.  The chief structural differences are (1) that sonnet 3 is a “them” vs. “me” discussion, while sonnet 15 is entirely addressed to “you”; and (2) while the sonnet 3 octave uses two “outie” (ABAB) quatrains for a continuous discussion, this one has two parallel “innies” (ABBA), so the discussion “starts over” in line 5.

Just as sonnets 3 and 6 begin with a reference to seeking the help of the classical muses, so too does this one talk about searching for the springs (i.e., the works of ancient poets) that flow from Mount Parnassus, home of the muses. A “purling” spring is simply a bubbling, flowing one, but there is a pun here, since the poets who so search are looking for “pearls” with which to decorate their verse, just as they are squeezing (“wringing”) the no-longer-fresh (“sweet”) flowers for some sad drops of stale perfume.

The second quatrain references somewhat more recent poetic fads, starting with “dictionary’s method.”  At first glance, since he says “into your rhymes,” we might think of the novice poet’s consulting of a rhyming dictionary; but I’m pretty sure such a thing had not been invented yet (thus, Benedick “can think of no rhyme for lady but baby”) and “rhymes” is used in the more general sense of “poems.”  In any case, as line 6 wonderfully illustrates, the method involves choosing as many neighboring words as possible from an alphabetized list; i.e., the fad of excessive alliteration.  And the fad of Petrarchan sonnets (in which, as discussed before, Sidney was very much a participant) closes this list, with the clever suggestion that the emotion may be home-grown (“new-born sighs”) but the method (“wit”) is imported (“denizened,” meaning naturalized or immigrant).

As in earlier poems (1, line 14, 3, line 9, and 6, line12), the rebuke, when it comes, is blunt and monosyllabic: “You take wrong ways.”  The rest of the first tercet is also quite plain and uncomplicated.  Likewise, the remedy in the final three lines is the same as in all the previous sonnets on this theme, but with a new and striking image: instead of nursing at the springs of now-skeletal (because ancient) Parnassus for inspiration, the would-be poet should “seek to nurse at fullest breasts of fame,” a synecdoche for Stella that is erotic—thus aspirational on Sidney’s part—as well as inspirational.

Next time (weekend of February 8): Sonnet 16

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 14

Alas, have I not pain enough, my friend,
Upon whose breast a fiercer gripe doth tire
Than did on him who first stole down the fire,
While Love on me doth all his quiver spend,
But with your rhubarb words you must contend
To grieve me worse, in saying that desire
Doth plunge my well-formed soul even in the mire
Of sinful thoughts, which do in ruin end?
If that be sin, which doth the manners frame,
Well stayed with truth in word, and faith of deed,
Ready of wit, and fearing nought but shame:
If that be sin which in fixed hearts doth breed
A loathing of all loose unchastity,
Then love is sin, and let me sinful be.

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.

Duncan-Jones says of this: “First of many sonnets showing Astrophil with an uncomprehending or disapproving friend; cf. 20, 21, 23, 27, 51, 88, 92, and 104.”  Again, Donne’s pugilistic “For God’s sake, hold thy tongue” comes to mind, but of that lengthy list, only 21 and 51 suggest such a direct confrontation as we have here—unless, when the speaker argues with “Reason” (e.g., 10 and 18), he has an actual person in mind as the voice of reason. The other sonnets in the list refer more generally to an uncomprehending circle of friends (no direct confrontation is pictured, and they are not necessarily disapproving) or, in the case of sonnet 92, to a friend who has seen Stella but, like Juliet’s nurse, is too balky in giving news about her.

The first quatrain is an “innie” (ABBA) that focuses on the speaker’s existing pain, independent of the new wrinkle of the friend’s interference. The love-pain is compared to (and deemed “fiercer” than) that of Prometheus, whose punishment for giving fire to mortals was to have his liver eaten out by a vulture daily, forever. The word chosen for vulture, “gripe,” is rich in additional meaning, starting with “clutch” or “grasp” (suggesting the clutches of Love), but also a severe inner-body pain, such as liver-pain (and we moderns need to remind ourselves that for Elizabethans the liver was the seat of the emotions; cf. “This wins him, liver and all” in Twelfth Night); and finally, to make a subtle link between the parallel annoyances in the two quatrains, a “gripe” is a covetous or envious person.

So he’s got this gut-wrenching pain already, and “Is that not enough?,” he suggests, “but [second quatrain] you have to add insult to injury?” “Rhubarb” is an appropriately ambiguous answer to “gripe,” since rhubarb was famous as a cure for liver illness, but also synonymous with bitterness (and modern readers can add a sense not known to Sidney, since “rhubarb words” can now mean “nonsense words,” such as those muttered by extras in a crowd scene). With such words the friend seems to be very much on the side of Virtue (sonnet 4) and Reason (sonnet 10), arguing that appetite (“desire”) can drag the speaker’s soul down into sin and damnation (“ruin”).

Each of the tercets in the sestet opens with an “If” argument, the first occupying all three lines, the second two, with the “then” answer to both coming in the final line. The gist of both “If” arguments is that the speaker’s love for Stella actually ennobles him in every way: (1) makes him a better gentleman, more truthful, faithful, wise, and discreet; and (2) (more to the point, but with pointed irony) in his single-minded devotion, makes him “[loathe] all loose unchastity.”  This is the key to the black-is-white, up-is-down argument that ends the poem.  The love he envisions with Stella is of course sinful by any conventional view, the very opposite of faithfulness, truth, and chastity. But by his reasoning, because Stella is the “fixed star” of his devotion, and he will give his love to no other, sin and virtue have switched places.

Next time (weekend of January 25): Sonnet 15

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 5

It is most true—that eyes are formed to serve
The inward light; and that the heavenly part
Ought to be king; from whose rules, who doth swerve,
Rebels to Nature, strive for their own smart.
It is most true, what we call Cupid’s dart,
An image is, which for ourselves we carve,
And, fools, adore in temple of our heart;
Till that good god make church and churchmen starve.
True, that true beauty Virtue is indeed,
Whereof this beauty can be but a shade,
Which elements with mortal mixture breed;
True, that on earth we are but pilgrims made,
And should in soul up to our country move;
True—and yet true, that I must Stella love.

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.

For thirteen lines and a word, this poem is a tidy little summary of commonplace wisdom of Sidney’s time—wisdom in which humanistic Christianity is heavily infused with Platonic ideas. The quality of Reason (discussed previously) is synonymous with the soul in St. Paul’s soul/body dichotomy, or with Plato’s eternal spirit of beauty temporarily inhabiting a mortal frame.  In the Platonic paradox, the world that is visible (audible, etc.) to our senses is actually a “shadow” of a permanent ideal form, often referred to as the “substance” related to (and contrasted with) that shadow; thus Dr. Faustus’s ironic line about the false images he is able to conjure, “These are but shadows, not substantial.”  In the Ptolemaic universe, the closest sphere to the central earth, the sphere of the moon, is a key boundary between that which is immortal and immutable—outside the sphere—and that which is mortal and constantly changing, within. Thus, John Donne’s put-down, “dull, sublunary lovers’ love,” for the affection that depends on proximity and the stimulation of the senses.  Ideally we understand that our time on earth is the briefest and least significant part of our existence, so we filter all the stimuli of  our senses through the higher wisdom of our Reason/Soul, and thus stay on the path of eternal bliss.  This is the systematic understanding that informs this poem—and is of course rejected curtly in the final line.

Structurally, the repeated words “It is most true” announce that the two quatrains of the octave are parallel statements of the same idea.  These simple words also carry the ambiguity of meaning both (in Austen’s clause) “It is a truth universally acknowledged” and the phrase “Granted that,” with which a speaker indicates that he will actually take the other side. The sense of the first quatrain (in keeping with the general scheme I described in the previous post) is that the senses (“eyes”) are supposed to be the servants of Reason (the “inward light”) or the soul (the “heavenly part”) which Nature dictates should be in charge. Rebelling (“swerving”) against that rule means one courts his own harm (“smart”).  Repeating the idea with a slightly more specific example, the second quatrain admits that passionate infatuation (“what we call Cupid’s dart”) is but an illusion (“image”) or shadow, and the “image” takes on the second meaning of “idol,” which we first “carve” for ourselves and then worship (“adore”) in the false “temple” of our hearts—again an admission (as in Sonnet 2) that the speaker’s torment and folly are self-inflicted. But this false religion is so pervasive that the “good god” (Cupid, so-called with sarcasm) is putting God (“church and churchmen”) out of business.

The sestet has Sidney’s characteristic three-three division,* and each tercet opens, like the quatrains, with the same phrase, in this case “True, that.”  The first one gives a Platonic rewording to the Christian idea just expressed: that Virtue (Reason’s twin, as discussed in the last entry) is the “true” (i.e., permanent, eternal) “beauty,” as opposed to Stella’s earthly and sublunary beauty, bred by impure “elements with mortal mixture” and thus a mere shadow (“shade”) of that ideal substance.  The second sums up the Platonic-Christian ideal that mortal existence is but a “pilgrimage” in which our souls prepare themselves for the return to the true home.

The little sermon draws near its perfectly symmetrical end; but suddenly, as if an impatient listener can stand it no more, and must get to the “bottom line,” the poem’s bottom line breaks in with one more “True,” when the pattern does not call for it. After the fulcrum phrase “and yet,” the word “true” is repeated one more time (two can play this game!) and the entire counter-sermon, based on no reason, no religion, no philosophy, but raw human passion instead, takes a mere three iambs to state in full: “that I must Stella love.”

* For the typical structure of a Sidney sonnet, see the “Introduction” post.

Next time (weekend of October 5): Sonnet 6

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