Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 72 and Second Song

Desire, though thou my old companion art,
And oft so clings to my pure love, that I
One from the other scarcely can descry,
While each doth blow the fire of my heart;
Now from thy fellowship I needs must part;
Venus is taught with Dian’s wings to fly;
I must no more in thy sweet passions lie;
Virtue’s gold now must head my Cupid’s dart.
Service and honour, wonder with delight,
Fear to offend, will worthy to appear,
Care shining in mine eyes, faith in my sprite;
These things are left me by my only dear.
But thou, Desire, because thou wouldst have all,
Now banished art—but yet, alas, how shall?

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.

. . . Our story continues. When we left off, our love-sick speaker had tried to maintain his new-found virtue for a whole sonnet, only to have personified Desire break in in the final line and demand to be fed. This sonnet is the speaker’s response to Desire, in which, like a stout recovering addict, he holds off the temptation for just a bit longer, thirteen and two fifths lines, to be exact.

I’m perhaps too flippant about a universal (or at least universally recognizable) conflict between the demands of “pure love” (the Platonic bonding of souls, or “marriage of true minds,” as Shakespeare famously phrased it) and the less pure desires that often intrude upon it. The first quatrain acknowledges this conflict, and the second ostensibly resolves it in favor of the Platonic virtue: the passionate Venus must give way to the virginal Dianna; Cupid’s arrowheads (see Sonnet 65) are now capped with “Virtue’s gold.”

Desire, as an abstract noun, has been a member of a “team” of such nouns, which are named, and in some cases modified, in the first tercet of the sestet: service, honour, wonder, delight, fear (to offend), (worthy) will—these are all still acceptable (we are told in line 12), but Desire has been booted off the team. And that . . . is that.

But three feet remain in the poem, just enough for a fragmentary protest against the injustice of it all: “but yet, alas, how shall?” How shall you possibly be banished? How shall I live without you?

Second Song

Have I caught my heavenly jewel,
Teaching sleep most fair to be?
Now will I teach her that she,
When she wakes, is too, too cruel.

Since sweet sleep her eyes hath charmed,
The two only darts of Love:
Now will I with that boy prove
Some play, while he is disarmed.

Her tongue waking still refuseth,
Giving frankly niggard “no”;
Now will I attempt to know
What “no” her tongue sleeping useth.

See, the hand which waking guardeth,
Sleeping, grants a free resort;
Now will I invade the fort;
Cowards love with loss rewardeth.

But, oh, fool, think of the danger
Of her just and high disdain:
Now will I, alas, refrain,
Love fears nothing else but anger.

Yet those lips so sweetly swelling
Do invite a stealing kiss:
Now will I but venture this,
Who will read, must first learn spelling.

O sweet kiss—but ah, she’s waking.
Louring beauty chastens me;
Now will I away hence flee;
Fool, more fool, for no more taking.

Reading notes: “heavenly” in line 1 is elided to two syllables; the feminine rhymes in the first and fourth lines of all the other stanzas suggest that “jewel,” “cruel,” “charmed,” and “disarmed” in the first two stanzas are pronounced with the added syllable at the end.

The dominant meter of this song is trochaic tetrameter, with a silent final beat (in music, a “rest”) in the middle lines of each stanza, thus a masculine rhyme sandwiched between a feminine rhyme in each instance.

The song is playful in both form and subject matter, but with the slightly sinister undertone of Jachimo’s crime in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, and somewhat serious, or at least lingering, consequences in the sonnets that follow. The turn in the “plot” here is simply that the speaker finds Stella sleeping and steals a kiss.

The second stanza offers the slightly odd idea that the speaker is jousting (“prove some play”) with Cupid while Cupid s “disarmed,” since the eyes that are Cupid’s arrows (“darts”) are closed; but “prove” also suggests that he is just “testing” or trying out the fruits of love. The third and fourth stanzas make it clear that he understands this is a trespass, in terms of the waking understanding between Stella and him; and there is a moment of hesitation in the fifth, when he considers the cost of making her angry.

The last two stanzas are where the sinister hint of his true intentions appears. The lips are just too appealing, we are told in the penultimate stanza, where the educational metaphor of the final line suggests that love-making has to start somewhere, so . . .

And then in the final stanza, after the actual kiss both wakens and angers her, causing him to flee, he immediately regrets that he had not “tak[en]” more.

Next time (weekend of April 17): Sonnet 73
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 71

Who will in fairest book of Nature know
How virtue may best lodged in beauty be,
Let him but learn of love to read in thee,
Stella, those fair lines which true goodness show.
There shall he find all vices’ overthrow,
Not by rude force, but sweetest sovereignty
Of reason, from whose light those night-birds fly;
That inward sun in thine eyes shineth so.
And not content to be perfection’s heir
Thyself, dost strive all minds that way to move,
Who mark in thee what is in thee most fair;
So while thy beauty draws the heart to love,
As fast thy virtue bends that love to good.
But, ah, Desire still cries: “Give me some food.”  

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 continues discussion of the Platonic idea most recently brought up in Sonnet 69 (but also in 61 and 62, and earlier on in 5, 9, 21, and 25), that beauty is meant to draw us “upward” toward virtue. The opening is an answer to the understood question, “What’s the best source for understanding how virtue and beauty may be found together?” A “book of Nature” is a book created or “authored” by Nature, rather than a human author.

The answer, of course, is Stella, and here she is praised for the very quality the speaker usually resents, her reason and virtue. He is, for the moment, trying to live up to the challenge she gave him in Sonnet 69, where she gave him sovereignty of her heart so long as he behaved virtuously. So those familiar flashes from Stella’s eyes, which have heretofore mostly excited passion, here come from her “inward sun” (i.e., soul) and are employed in chasing away the “night-birds” which are metaphors for “all vices.”

The first five lines of the sestet continue in the same vein, extending the general thought with the more immediately pertinent idea that she is not only perfect in herself, but a teacher of virtue to others, by that Platonic process of beauty “drawing” us to become better.

As a thirteen-line sonnet, this would pass muster at a revival meeting; but the speaker has been a good boy for just about as long as he can stand. The fourteenth line undoes all the rest, saying, in effect: “Get serious! I’m a man with an appetite! And this virtue stuff is pretty thin broth!”

Next time (weekend of April 3): Sonnet 72
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 52

A strife is grown between Virtue and Love,
While each pretends that Stella must be his:
Her eyes, her lips, her all, saith Love, do this
Since they do wear his badge, most firmly prove.
But Virtue thus that title doth disprove:
That Stella (O dear name) that Stella is
That virtuous soul, sure heir of heavenly bliss,
Not this fair outside, which our hearts doth move;
And therefore, though her beauty and her grace
Be Love’s indeed, in Stella’s self he may
By no pretense claim any manner place.
Well, Love, since this demur our suit doth stay,
Let Virtue have that Stella’s self; yet thus
That Virtue but that body grant to us.

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: both “virtuous” and “heavenly” in line 7 are two syllables.

The “strife” that is the topic of this poem was introduced all the way back in Sonnet 4:

Virtue, alas, now let me take some rest;
Thou sett’st a bate between my will and wit;
If vain Love have my simple soul oppressed,
Leave what thou lik’st not, deal not thou with it.

As we noted there, strict conventional virtue keeps Stella, betrothed or married to another man, from loving as (at least in Sidney’s mind) she more naturally would; that is the essential conflict between Virtue and Love. The logic of this poem depends also on an even better-known conflict, conventionally attributed to St. Paul: that between Soul and Body. The first conflict is carried out by means of the second, as the two parties debate whether body or soul represents the essential Stella. Love states his case first, which in sonnet logic means he is going to lose, though a lawyer might say he has established a “basis for appeal.”  His argument is simply that everything observable about Stella (i.e., bodily features) advertises love, so she is clearly on his team. But this argument is easily trumped by the superior understanding that a person’s “self” is identified with her soul, and Stella’s soul is clearly on the side of Virtue. In lines 9-11 Virtue does generously concede that “her beauty and her grace” (i.e., “this fair outside”) belong to Love, but not the “self” that is Stella.

In the final tercet, the speaker, acting as a less-than-disinterested judge in the dispute, humorously divides the prize, suggesting each disputant get the “part” of Stella that belongs to him. At the risk of becoming more serious than the playful sonnet merits, I will point to two implications here: (1) that one’s body can be separated from the “self” (a marvelous liberation from responsibility!); and (2) an admission that the speaker would be grateful for a mere illicit sexual liaison, with no hint of Shakespeare’s “marriage of true minds” or Donne’s “intertwining” of souls. He is more like the lust-minded Angelo in Measure for Measure, who, when Isabella offers to do anything to save her brother’s life that would not endanger her soul, quickly replies, “I talk not of your soul.”

Next time (weekend of July 11): Sonnet 53
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 48

Soul’s joy, bend not those morning stars from me,
Where virtue is made strong by beauty’s might,
Where love is chasteness, pain doth learn delight,
And humbleness grows one with majesty.
Whatever may ensue, O let me be
Co-partner of the riches of that sight;
Let not mine eyes be hell-driven from that light;
O look, O shine, O let me die and see.
For though I oft myself of them bemoan,
That through my heart their beamy darts be gone,
Whose cureless wounds even now most freshly bleed;
Yet since my death-wound is already got,
Dear killer, spare not thy sweet cruel shot:
A kind of grace it is to kill with speed.

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: “driven” in line 7 and “even” in line 11 are one-syllable each, while “cruel” in line 13 is two.

After Stella’s eyes “Sent forth the beams” that inspired the speaker’s jousting triumph at the end of Sonnet 41, he seemed to become preoccupied with her facial physiognomy—and especially the eyes—for several sonnets more, and particularly the eyes in Sonnets 42 and this one, which could be read as a companion pair. Both sonnets are pleas to Stella to continue to “shine” those dark and flashing eyes on the speaker, even if it kills him; this is the plea of the hyper-poetic opening line here, where the “Soul’s joy” is Stella, and the “morning stars” are her eyes.

The next three lines are tightly paradoxical, with the overall point being that the speaker is ennobled by Stella’s sight, even for the suffering that it causes him. The first thought might be that Stella’s own virtue is made still stronger by her extreme beauty (i.e., there’s no particular virtue in chastity if one is ugly), since the word has mostly until now been associated with her; but in context the point seems to be that her extreme beauty makes the speaker’s virtue in keeping his distance still stronger. Similarly, since love of her must remain chaste, he must “delight” (cf. the final line of Sonnet 50) in his pain, and find only humility in the “majesty” of his aspiration.

In the second quatrain, it is hard to see any other meaning in “Co-partner of the riches of that sight” than a desire or willingness to be a second man in Stella’s life, and if Sidney were a Nashville song writer, the “Whatever may ensue” might cover the very forward suggestion of adultery. But given the context of what follows, not to mention the poet’s gallantry, it presumably refers only to his own humiliation and suffering. The middle two lines of the sonnet (7-8) parallel its first and last lines respectively. Line 7 repeats the plea not to be denied the light of her eyes; “hell” is used here in the Miltonic sense of the absence of God’s light. Line 8 prefigures the poem’s “bottom line” of staying within shot of those beams even if it kills him, and features a hysteron-proteron (loosely, “cart before the horse”) in “O let me die and see” as a way of stressing this determination.

The entire sestet then elaborates on this idea with a combat metaphor, indeed the metaphor contained in the French term coup de grace: since you “kill” me in any case, he says, there is a kind of mercy if you aim for the heart and do it swiftly. But of course when we return from the metaphor to the reality under discussion, the speaker is simply begging that Stella not deny him her presence; and since whatever “death” that might bring is far from literal, the actual result of that would be (and will be) merely prolonged suffering.

Next time (weekend of May 23): Sonnet 49
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 31

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies;
How silently, and with how wan a face.
What, may it be that even in heav’nly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?
Sure, if that long-with-love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case;
I read it in thy looks; thy languished grace
To me, that feel the like, thy state descries.
Then even of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deemed there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be loved, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?

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: “Even” in both lines 3 and 9 is one syllable.

“What” at the start of line 3 is an expletive (common in Renaissance verse); resist the urge to ignore the comma and read “What may it be . . .”

“Above” in line 12 modifies “they,” and should therefore be followed by a slight lift before reading on; this also adds emphasis to the bevy of rhymes right there.

The inversion in the final line will be discussed below.

This is one of the best-known, oft-anthologized Sidney poems, and for good reason—although reading it outside the context of the whole sequence, or following only other popular ones such as Sonnets 1 and 10, might make a reader wonder why the speaker has “suddenly” taken such a dim view of Stella. Those of us who have been carefully following the whole sonnet sequence, of course, are right at home with these complaints.

Personifying the moon is a cliché of poetry and song, and Sidney was by no means the first to focus on paleness as the moon’s most noticeable feature. But this poem is a world apart from “Shine on, harvest moon” or even “Blue moon, you saw me standing alone,” in the closeness it achieves with the personified object. With the phrase “even of fellowship,” we realize we are looking at two guys who find themselves otherwise alone, in the pub on a Friday night, when everyone else has a date. The shared confidence between strangers, the immediate assumption that the other guy’s “case” is precisely the same as yours—this is the realism in the midst of utter fantasy that makes this one of the greatest poems in the language.

Structurally, the poem is as typical a model of Sidney’s sonnets as there could be: his favorite octave, sestet, and whole rhyme scheme; a fulcrum after line 8 (though not with a u-turn, just a “new departure” in the conversation); and a quiet division of the sestet, indicated simply by having each tercet start with a two-line question, and follow with a one-line question. The poem is a structural equivalent of a little black dress, simple and understated but elegant and classic.

The opening line establishes a literal scene, but also subtly indicates the speaker’s lonely condition and state of mind: is this a slow evening, or what? (Watching a moon rise, when you remove the poetry, must be akin to watching grass grow or paint dry.) The “wan face” is, from old, stereotypical for a courtly lover, so the mental association immediately bumps the speaker away from natural observation to the mythology of love, specifically his favorite tormentor, Cupid.

As a lover’s acquaintances are all too apt to do, the speaker leaps at once (“Sure”) to the answer to his own question, and the assumption that the moon must suffer the same affliction as himself. “If that” means “if it be that,” or simply “if,” so the unstressed “that” is barely a hiccup in the reading. The hyphens in the phrase that follows are crucial to the reading. Strictly speaking, we use one-word modifiers before nouns in English, and multi-word modifiers (such as prepositional phrases or relative clauses) after; so hyphens are crucial to turn many words into one. If you don’t believe me, take the hyphens out (as some editors, alas, do) and put the poem in front of a class of first-time viewers, and see how this line turns out! “Eyes” is of course a conventional synecdoche* for the speaker himself, who feels he is precisely the fellow-sufferer who can best judge the moon’s symptoms: just like him, the moon “feelst a lover’s case.”  This is a metaphysical claim, and like most such claims (in poetry, at least) it is both preposterous and totally convincing (slow steps, wan face . . .) at the same time.

Readers of the whole sequence to this point know that the speaker has been getting precious little sympathy or empathy from his friends. In catch-phrases from the world of 20th-century entertainment, while he “can’t get no satisfaction” in his love-life, he also “can’t get no respect” from those who know him best. So his recognition of a fellow-sufferer on whom he can disburden himself (albeit indirectly, through more questions) is heart-felt. The four questions to the moon in the sestet reveal the deep bitterness he feels at Stella’s response to his love, and at least his view of the complexity or hypocrisy of that response. She could, after all, just tell him to drop dead, and put an end to all this foolishness. Instead, she just questions his sanity (“wit”); instead, she “loves to be loved,” and appears to take pride in both the attention and her virtuous rejection of it.

The final line almost certainly needs to be read as a tortured inversion meaning (in normal order) “Do they call ungratefulness virtue there?” I say “almost” because a case might be made that the speaker has shifted to a comparison with himself, and might be admitting that he refers to Stella’s “virtue” as “ungratefulness.” But such a reading disrupts a consistent pattern, established in the sestet, of describing the attitudes of “proud” beauties, by implication the attitude of Stella. And the most logical extension, in particular, of lines 12 and 13, is that Stella takes mere ingratitude and dresses it up with the name of “virtue.”

So the poem has moved seamlessly from natural description to fanciful conversation to a set of questions that reveal more than they ask.

* the poetic figure in which a part stands for a whole, and quite often taking the form of part of the body representing the whole person.

Next time (weekend of September 20): Sonnet 32

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

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 25

The wisest scholar of the wight most wise,
By Phoebus’ doom, with sugared sentence says,
That virtue, if it once met with our eyes,
Strange flames of love it in our souls would raise;
But for that man with pain his truth descries,
While he each thing in sense’s balance weighs,
And so nor will, nor can, behold those skies
Which inward sun to heroic mind displays:
Virtue of late, with virtuous care to stir
Love of herself, takes Stella’s shape, that she
To mortal eyes might sweetly shine in her.
It is most true, for since I her did see,
Virtue’s great beauty in that face I prove,
And find the effect, for I do burn in 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.

Reading notes:  the third and fourth feet of the eighth line require elision, and I think the best course is to join the word “to” with the first syllable of “heroic”; and similarly, the second foot of the final line is an elided “th’effect.”

Structurally, the entire poem has “outie” (ABAB) rhymes and weak fulcrums (primarily after line 11, secondarily after line 8) with no real change of direction in the argument; the (quite deliberate) result is something that roughly parallels a dialogue of Plato, moving inexorably toward a logical conclusion. This impression is of course undercut by the humor and irony of the poem’s “punch line.”

As Duncan-Jones’s note on the poem details, the first line refers to Plato, the “scholar” of Socrates, the wisest man (“wight”) in the view of the Delphic Oracle, i.e., the priestess of Phoebus Apollo (who, by the way, is god of both the sun and wisdom).  Lines 3 and 4 (gently mocked as “sugared sentence”) express the well-known Platonic idea from The Apology,* that the soul is drawn toward its own good by falling in love with virtue, when drawn to it by its beauty.

The second quatrain is a generalization about “mankind” (“his truth” could arguably refer back to Plato, but on reflection, it makes more sense that it refers to the generic “man” earlier in line 5) which obviously applies to the speaker himself: since “sense” (= appetite, or the life of the senses) filters everything, it is very difficult (“pain”) to get at the soul’s “truth,” or the “skies/Which inward sun [the soul, connected back to Apollo by this metaphor] to heroic mind [i.e., the mind that can overrule “sense”] displays.”

That whole idea, in turn, is contained within a “because” clause (introduced by “for that,” which idiomatically means “because”), which is answered in the first half of the sestet; thus, to paraphrase: Because an ordinary man (like the speaker) has trouble grasping wisdom or virtue, Virtue herself (personified) tries to take more visible form by assuming “Stella’s shape.”  As a result, Plato’s point is proved, but only in a joking way. We know already (from previous sonnets) that Stella’s virtue is not at all a quality the speaker admires, and the well-chosen verb “burn in love” (also linked in jest to the earlier sun imagery) is the very opposite of the Platonic wisdom it is superficially claiming to illustrate.

* Duncan-Jones suggests that Sidney may actually have received the idea second-hand, from Cicero.

Next time (weekend of June 28): Sonnet 26

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, Sonnets 4 and 10 (considered together)

4.
Virtue, alas, now let me take some rest;
Thou sett’st a bate between my will and wit;
If vain Love have my simple soul oppressed,
Leave what thou lik’st not, deal not thou with it.
Thy scepter use in some old Cato’s breast,
Churches or schools are for thy seat more fit:
I do confess—pardon a fault confessed—
My mouth too tender is for thy hard bit.
But if that needs thou wilt usurping be
The little reason that is left in me,
And still th’ effect of thy persuasions prove:
I swear, my heart such one shall show to thee,
That shrines in flesh so true a deity,
That, Virtue, thou thy self shalt be in love.

10.
Reason, in faith thou art well served, that still
Would’st brabbling be with sense and love in me.
I rather wished thee climb the muses’ hill,
Or reach the fruit of Nature’s choicest tree,
Or seek heaven’s course, or heaven’s inside, to see:
Why should’st thou toil our thorny soil to till?
Leave sense, and those which sense’s objects be:
Deal thou with powers of thoughts, leave love to will.
But thou would’st needs fight both with love and sense,
With sword of wit giving wounds of dispraise,
Till downright blows did foil thy cunning fence:
For soon as they strake thee with Stella’s rays,
Reason, thou kneeled’st, and offered’st straight to prove
By reason good, good reason her to love.

I suggest you click here to open the sonnets in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to them as you read on through the analysis.

Given that a sonnet is already among the more formulaic forms of poetry, this pair suggests a formula within the formula, for this particular progression of ideas.  To understand the parallels, one must first understand some basic Renaissance vocabulary.

For Sidney and his contemporaries, the human brain had a 3-part structure, (1) Reason, (2) Will, and (3) Appetite, corresponding neatly to angels, humans, and beasts on the Great Chain of Being, or, adjectivally, to the spiritual, mental, and physical parts of our decision-making process.  The will is where the decisions are actually made, and ideally the will is governed by Reason, the part of the human make-up which is led by the will of God (hence, a phrase such as Donne’s “Reason, God’s viceroy in me”).  But the will is constantly under rebellious assault by the appetite, physical passions and desires—what Freud would later label the id.  Other common synonyms for appetite are “sense” and “fancy,” while it should also be clear from this scheme that “Reason” and “Virtue” are effectively synonyms.

So, to describe the pattern piece by piece:  both poems open as if we have walked in in the middle of a quarrel; the speaker chastises Virtue/Reason for intervening in his life, and (in lines 3 and4 inboth cases) asks V/R to go away.  In 4.2 “wit” means wisdom and “bate” is a bar or obstacle, so apparently Virtue has been arguing that the speaker’s will is not acting wisely, and line 3 suggests (in a subjunctive “if” clause) why: “vain love” (the product of sense or appetite) has triumphed over “my simple soul” (weakly developed reason).  As if to illustrate the simple soul and weak wit, line 4 has ten single-syllable words, arranged awkwardly with a childlike petulance: “Leave what thou lik’st not, deal not thou with it.”

Lines 5 and 6 in sonnet 4 and 3 through 6 in sonnet 10 have to remind us of Donne (a few decades later), arguing with the sun in a very similar way in “Sun Rising”:

Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late schoolboys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the King will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices . . .

In all three cases—Donne with the physical image of the sun and Sidney with the abstract personifications Virtue and Reason—the speaker querulously suggests that his antagonist go meddle in something more appropriate to the antagonist’s essential purpose.  Virtue is more at home with old judges (Cato) or the discipline of churches and schools; Reason in the more refined air of Mount Helicon (line 3), the Garden of Eden (4), or again (5) in piety (“heaven’s course”), with which is partnered a precious form of “go hang yourself”—i.e., the implication of “seeing” Heaven’s “inside” by departing this world of the flesh.

In sonnet 4, the “bottom line” of the octave is the speaker’s confession that he is simply too weak for the life of virtue, and in line 7 he throws himself on the mercy of the stern judge.  Sonnet 10 is less defensive, turning the quarrel with Reason into the more general indictment, in lines 6-8, that begins with the brilliant line:

Why shouldst thou toil our thorny soil to till?

This is a poetry teacher’s gold mine, using alliteration, assonance, consonance, internal rhyme, and an almost unpronounceable sequence of four distinct consonants at the juncture of “should’st” and “thou,” to create a tongue-twister that verbally acts out the toil of tilling thorny soil.  The point of the three lines together is that love belongs to the realm of passion (“sense”), while Reason should strictly deal with “thoughts” only; revealingly, the speaker’s “will,” which in theory is constantly torn between the two, ends up squarely on the side of love and “sense.”

As we would expect in an Italian sonnet, the sestet (taken as a whole) is the “answer” or “reversal” of the problem in the octave; but in both cases the speaker uses the clever fighting gambit of seeming to surrender before springing the trap (“Well, I can see I’m not going to change your mind, so . . . I’ll tell ya what . . .”).  The first three lines in each sestet contain both the surrender and the set-up.  In sonnet 4, it’s all governed by an “if” (which promises that the other shoe will drop) leading up to the challenge to “prove” Virtue’s arguments—i.e., put them to the test. In sonnet 10, we move more directly to a brash prediction of Reason’s defeat in line 11.

The final three lines of these two sonnets are so similar and formulaic that they could almost trade locations, with the requisite name-swap.  To start with 4, for Virtue this is the ultimate subversion.  Virtue represents the spirit of God governing human flesh through the heart, but this “heart” has established such a fleshly “deity” that, so to speak, “God” himself will worship a false god!  The precisely parallel inversion in sonnet 10 has the added twist in the double meaning of “reason”: (1) “Capital R” Reason, the voice that is supposed to speak for God and control our decisions, and (2) “small r” reason, the specific explanation we give for any particular decision we make.  Again the point is that Stella’s fleshly beauty is of such power that it even subverts the spiritual realm and becomes (as in sonnet 4) a fleshly deity.

Thus—in a way that very much anticipates John Donne—we have moved quickly and logically from petulant quarrel to the hyperbolic compliment of a lady’s beauty that is fairly standard fare for love sonnets; but also (perhaps less predictably) to an almost cosmic rationalization for being governed by one’s passions rather than “by the book.”

Next time (weekend of September 21): Sonnet 5

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