Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 83 and Third Song

Good brother Philip, I have borne you long;
I was content you should in favour creep,
While craftily you seemed your cut to keep,
As though that soft fair hand did you great wrong.
I bare (with envy) yet I bare your song,
When in her neck you did love ditties peep;
Nay, more fool I,  oft suffered you to sleep
In lilies’ nest, where Love’s self lies along.
What, doth high place ambitious thoughts augment?
Is sauciness reward of courtesy?
Cannot such grace your silly self content,
But you must needs with those lips billing be,
And through those lips drink nectar from that tongue?
Leave that, Sir Phip, lest off your neck be wrung.

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.

Philip (or Phip for short) was for some reason (perhaps onomatopoeia) the cliché name of choice for a pet sparrow, like Fido for a dog or Polly for a parrot in our own time. Sidney surely knew John Skelton’s mock-elegy “Philip Sparrow” (1520), in which a sparrow of that name is cherished downright erotically by the young lady who keeps it. There is an echo here, for example, of Skelton’s lines 115-119:

It was so pretty a fool,
It would sit on a stool,
And learned after my school
For to keep his cut,
With “Philip, keep your cut!”

A “cut” (from drawing straws), is one’s fate or lot in life, so “keep your cut” means “know your place.” The speaker seems to have given Stella a namesake sparrow as a pet and—similar to the very suggestive descriptions in Skelton’s poem—the pet bird has been granted intimacies the speaker himself would never be allowed, such as peeping “love ditties” nestled against her neck, or sleeping “In lilies’ nest, where Love’s self lies along.”

Now (in the sestet) the speaker has come upon Stella and the sparrow exchanging a “kiss,” in which the bird is “billing” her lips and touching the tongue beyond. The envy at this effrontery (and rivalry) overflows, and a blunt and threatening command to stop is the poem’s bottom line.

Third Song

If Orpheus’ voice had force to breathe such music’s love
Through pores of senseless trees, as it could make them move;
If stones good measure danced, the Theban walls to build,
To cadence of the tunes which Amphion’s lyre did yield;
More cause a like effect at leastwise bringeth:
O stones, O trees, learn hearing: Stella singeth.

If love might sweeten so a boy of shepherd brood,
To make a lizard dull to taste love’s dainty food;
If eagle fierce could so in Grecian maid delight,
As his light was her eyes, her death his endless night;
Earth gave that love, heaven I trow love refineth:
O birds, O beasts; look love: lo, Stella shineth.

The birds, beasts, stones and trees feel this, and feeling, love;
And if the trees, nor stones, stir not, the same to prove,
Nor beasts nor birds do come unto this blessed gaze,
Know that small love is quick, and great love doth amaze:
They are amazed, but you with reason armed:
O eyes, O ears of men, how are you charmed!

Reading notes: for the meter, “Orpheus” and “Amphion” in the first stanza must be shortened to two syllables, and “heaven” in line 11 to one; while “blessed,” “armed,” and “charmed” in the third stanza all need to be lengthened to two.

At first glance, this appears an odd format for a song, each stanza made up of four hexameter lines followed by two pentameter lines with feminine endings—not to mention that it sings Stella’s praises while announcing that Stella is singing! But on closer examination, it is not so hard to imagine each stanza as printed actually composing two 4-line stanzas in trimeter, plus a 2-line chorus with a “falling-off” ending. The four lines with a single internal comma (2, 3, 10, and 16) break the line at the halfway point, and it does no violence to sound or sense if all the hexameter lines are split that way for singing.

The effect of Stella singing is compared, in turn, to Orpheus animating trees by singing (lines 1-2), Amphion building Thebes by playing a lyre that moved stones (3-4), Thoas the Arcadian shepherd earning the love of a dragon (7-8), and a young lady of Sestos who so charmed an eagle that he self-immolated on her funeral pyre, in grief (9-10) (see notes in Duncan-Jones).

As with the previous songs, the effect is more a repetitive or parallel flattering comparison than the carefully and cleverly plotted argument of a sonnet. If there is any “twist” at all, it is at the end when we move beyond the trees, the stones, the beasts, and the birds (listed in reverse order as if deliberately walking backward through the song, and then forward again) to say that even reason-endowed humans must be “charmed” in the same way (the word, of course, has double meaning) by Stella’s singing—if not indeed by her very presence.

Next time (weekend of September 18): Sonnet 84
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 68

Stella, the only planet of my light,
Light of my life, and life of my desire,
Chief good, whereto my hope doth only aspire,
World of my wealth, and heaven of my delight:
Why dost thou spend the treasure of thy sprite,
With voice more fit to wed Amphion’s lyre,
Seeking to quench in me the noble fire
Fed by thy worth, and kindled by thy sight?
And all in vain, for while thy breath most sweet,
With choicest words, thy words with reasons rare,
Thy reasons firmly set on virtue’s feet,
Labour to kill in me this killing care:
Oh, think I then, what paradise of joy
It is, so fair a virtue 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 note: in line 3, “only aspire” needs to be elided to three syllables: “onl’aspire.”

Like Sonnet 66 (though not identical in form), this one mimics the structure of an English sonnet, building an argument in three quatrains and giving a snappy response to it in the final couplet, rather than having Sidney’s more customary evenly divided sestet.

The first quatrain functions only as a hyperbolic version of “Dear Stella,” and is a rather subtle auxesis (like the opening of Sonnet 1), starting out explicit (with repetitions of “light” and “life”) and turning implicit as “desire” turns into “good” and “world” and “wealth” step up to “heaven” and “delight.”

The second quatrain asks the rhetorical question that is the central message of the poem: why is she so determined to “quench” the very passion that her person ignites? Why does she use a voice “more fit” to be singing along with Amphion (the lyrist who could move stones with his music, and thus built Thebes) to instead preach cold reason? The “third quatrain” (in our faux-English form) extends this thought: her preaching efforts are “all in vain” because the more she gives voice to her virtue, the more convinced he is of her perfection, and the more he desires her!

“Enjoy” (the final word of the sonnet) is a word with an explicit sexual sense, so the speaker is coming close to the peculiar corruption of Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: being aroused by the very purity that he would violate. A more generous interpretation might focus on the Platonic idea of being drawn to better ourselves by the force of beauty; but however generous we might want to be to our long-suffering speaker, we must still accept the ambiguity of that attraction. The “bottom line” of the poem is the paradox that Stella’s virtuous pleading has the very opposite of its intended effect.

Next time (weekend of February 20): Sonnet 69
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.