Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 55

Muses, I oft invoked your holy aid,
With choicest flowers my speech to engarland so
That it, despised in true but naked show,
Might win some grace in your sweet grace arrayed;
And oft whole troops of saddest words I stayed,
Striving abroad a-foraging to go,
Until by your inspiring I might know
How their black banner might be best displayed.
But now I mean no more your help to try,
Nor other sugaring of my speech to prove,
But on her name incessantly to cry;
For let me but name her whom I do love,
So sweet sounds straight mine ear and heart do hit,
That I well find no eloquence like it. 

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: “to engarland” in line 2 is elided “”t’engarland”; “sugaring” in line 10 is two syllables; and the “So” that begins line 13 is the adverb meaning “such,” not the conjunctive “so.”

It seems unlikely that Sidney knew while writing how many sonnets he would end up with, but this one that starts the second half of the sequence is strikingly complementary with the start of the first half: in Sonnet 1, the muse came unbidden to urge the poet to “look in thy heart, and write,” while here the poet dismisses his muses because Stella is the only inspiration he needs. In other words, the story line is more or less reversed, but the point remains exactly the same!

The octave describes metaphorically a poetic process: since his own unvarnished protestations of love would surely be “despised,” he has, in the past, depended on the muses to “engarland” or decorate his words. Similarly (second quatrain), like a military general, he has kept his restless “troops” (the words) from venturing out before they have been properly “inspired” by the muses—lest (again) they be caught unprepared (as if while “foraging,” the classic time for unarmed troops to be ambushed) and shot down.

That was “then,” or the entire half-sequence already written. “But now” signals the obvious fulcrum and transition into the “answer” of the sestet, the poet’s declaration of independence. He will no longer rely on the muses to decorate his sad overtures; Stella’s name alone will be enough. As I said above, this is arriving by the opposite direction at essentially the same message in Sonnet 1; and with 53 more sonnets to go, we can be sure that it is a blatant falsehood!

Next time (weekend of August 22): Sonnet 56
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.