Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Astrophil and Stella: The Paradoxical Muse - Sonnet #64 and Sonnet #90

Sonnet #64:
No more, my dear, no more these counsels try;
Oh, give my passions leave to run their race;
Let Fortune lay on me her worst disgrace;
Let folk o'ercharg'd with brain against me cry;
Let clouds bedim my face, break in mine eye;
Let me no steps but of lost labour trace;
Let all the earth with scorn recount my case,
But do not will me from my love to fly.
I do not envy Aristotle's wit,
Nor do aspire to Caesar's bleeding fame;
Nor aught do care though some above me sit;
Nor hope nor wish another course to frame,
But that which once may win thy cruel heart:
Thou art my wit, and thou my virtue art.

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 my history:
If thou praise not, all other praise is shame,
Nor so ambitious am I, as to frame
A nest for praise in my young laurel tree:
In truth I swear, I wish not there should be
Grav'd 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 other's wings I take.
For nothing from my wit or will doth flow,
Since all my words thy beauty doth indite,
And Love doth hold my hand, and makes me write.

Disclaimer: I realize this is a very long essay but also don't expect many to read it anyways.

The use  of paradox is a recurring pattern of unity found in Astrophil and Stella. Sonnets #64 and #90 both employ this literary technique, developing a meditative discourse on the complex nature of poetry--more specifically, creative ambition, authorship and the ironic representation of Stella as the speaker's inspirational muse. Yet, the resemblance between the poems extends further than mere content. They each share a similar paradox pertaining to the speaker's literary aesthetic that is most vivid in the final rhyming couplet. Although both poems remain relatively analogous in subject matter, there exists a distinctive contrast in tone. Additionally, Sidney's specific use of language and metrical design highlights the speaker's shifting attitudes associated with the dramatic context of each sonnet.

The first lines of sonnet 64 begin with the poet's indignation towards his beloved: "No more, my dear, no more these counsels try / Oh give my passions leave to run their race" (1-2). Sidney's variation on the conventional iambic pentameter is worth noting in which he uses a spondaic substitution in the first line with "No More," as well as the repetition of this phrase to further underline the poet's ardent rejection of Stella's attempts to persuade him that in her view, poetry is inconsequential ("counsels"). One could also interpret the phrase "No more" as a trochee but to classify it as iambic seems erroneous, especially considering the context of these two lines: the speaker is clearly not apathetic towards Stella's approach, his temperament defiant and irascible to say the least. 

Sidney continues the metrical pattern of spondees and repetition with the subsequent lines (3-8) as the speaker emphatically lists a series of self-deprecating contrasts in order to justify his own poetic aspirations. Notice the ironic clash between the speaker's flippant irreverence towards himself and the provocation to defend his artistic sense of self. The repetition and heavy stress on the transitive verb "Let" announces the following rebuke of each line. The speaker's vigorous retaliation is emphasized by the patterns of rhythm--in other words, replacing the traditional iamb with a spondee gives the meter dramatic significance as the tensions in the first quatrain flow progressively into the second without a caesura until reaching the volta in line eight. The subtle irony of "Let Fortune lay on me her worst digrace" (3) and "Let me no steps but of lost labor trace" (6) shows the nihilistic progression in the escalating argument as it moves towards a potential resolution with line eight. Ostensibly, the speaker is pessimistic and discouraged to pursue his aristic endeavors by invoking "Fortune" with an ironic reversal. He personifies it as female ("her"), requesting that she bestow pain and misery upon him ("worst disgrace") rather than the typical benevolence or sanguine blessings associated with her character. However, with the line six, the cynical attitudes of the speaker shift towards an ironic sense of optimism. Despite the antagonism from "Fortune" herself, the intelligentsia ("folk o'erchaged with brain") and nature's disapprobation of his poetic efforts ("clouds bedim my face"), he still prefers to have attempted to master the craft even if the end result is unsuccessful The alliteration of "lost labor" us not just a stylistic decoration but actually serves an important purpose to unite the ironic contrast between these two ideas of artistic failure and achievement. More importantly, it stresses the tension between the speaker's conflicting attitudes.

Although line eight suggests a dramatic shift in tone from the first and second quatrain, it serves an other function to provide the poem's entire structure with equilibrium. The speaker's profound declaration of autonomy links the transition from pessimism in the first two quatrains with the third quatrain that that is far more idealistic by focusing on the subjective self: "But do not will me from my love to fly" (8). The implications of the line change depending on where the stresses are placed. It will hardly be disputed that "fly" is metaphorical, representing the creative imagination and the aesthetics of poetry. Therefore, if the phrase "my love to fly" is iambic, then it comes clear that he is rejecting any previous claim against his desire to purse a poetic vocation. he is determined to persevere against adversity in order to embrace his passion for poetry and no longer wants to be persuaded otherwise. But, if the line is interpreted as a spondee, then the heavy stress on "my love" suggests that the speaker is referring to Stella herself, which is plausible in the context of the previous line where he is attempting to reconcile the conflict between his desire to write poetry and her obstinate condemnation of this artistic lifestyle. Therefore, it can be understood as the speaker passionately advocating the compelling power of poetry to obtain Stella's affections. Sidney returns to this proposition explicitly in the rhyming couplet but uses irony to further to explore poetic ambition.

The metrical pattern in the third quatrain is slightly more irregular, although there is a trochaic substitution instead of a spondee at the beginning of each line. Once more, the speaker is categorizing a series of arguments but the tone is far less hostile and bitter. The repetition of the conjunction "Nor" serves a similar function to "Let" in the previous quatrains to set up defense within a dialogical framework towards a resolution--except, as indicated by the significant change in the speaker's attitude, he opts to persuade Stella by playing the pity card. if he does not model himself after great men such as Aristotle, Caesar or other successful poets as suggested by "though some above me sit" (11), then perhaps it will be easier for her (and others for that matter) to accept his desire to write poetry because they need not take his endeavors too seriously.

Line twelve is a slight reiteration of line eight, the speaker proclaiming his desire to peruse a poetic vocation: "Nor hope, nor wish another course to frame" (12). Moreover, the word "frame" contains highly charged connotations. Surely, it can refer to the speaker's fixed determination to set out on the journey of becoming a great poet ("course" as a verb reinforces this notion) but it is also meta-textual--a representation of the actual sonnet. To be more specific, the poem's intricate structure is enclosed within a "frame" of the iambic pentameter form, which then allows the speaker to "frame" his creative imagination as a means to articulate his ideas with the eloquence of language. Thus, the inevitable questions arises: are we to take the speaker as being ironic or sincere in his humble convictions of poetic aspirations? Considering the many contradictions and context of the poem, it is safe to assume that both answers are correct: he is feigning modesty to legitimize his poetic endeavors and is also serious in these claims. The rhyming couplet attempts to reconcile this ambiguity.

As we have seen so far, the tone shifts dramatically over the course of the three quatrains until finally reaching the resolution of the rhyming couplet. It is true that the poem contains a logical progression through a series of arguments to reach this climactic moment but the paradox seems to both contradict and support the speaker's poetic ambitions. With line thirteen, one notices that his primary motivation to experiment with verse is not entirely genuine because it comes across as a promiscuous strategy to persuade Stella to love him ("win thy cruel heart"). Additionally, the word "may" implies that he remains doubtful of his own talents to write with a level of sophistication and there is also a hint of skepticism concerning poetry in general as an impractical method to obtain romantic affection. The irony of the phrase "cruel heart" to describe Stella's predisposition supports this premise and produces a reversal in gender hierarchy where the male subject is now submissive to the woman. As indicated with subtly by the first line, she has already rejected his amorous advances because of his yearning to be a poet. Hence, from the speaker's perspective, the use of a spondee seems appropriate in expressing his wounded ego. Despite the preceding lines that attempt to defense his case, the tone evoked here (as supported by the rhythm and colloquial language) suggests both desperation and ambivalence.

Regardless of Stella's disapproval of his poetic methods, the last line retracts the cynicism of the previous one and places Stella in a positive light. He ironically proclaims her as his poetic muse ("thou art my wit") that influences his own virtue ("thou my virtue art"). Of course, we cannot simply accept the surface meaning of this line. Much like the rest of the poem, the rhetoric and alternation of tone is influenced by Sidney's specific use of language--in this particular case, the chiasmus of the word "art" has starling implications and reinforces the paradox of the these two lines. The cross-meanings of "art" can be understood in its simplest form (in contemporary vernacular it translates as "are" or "be") or by its usual association with creative expressive. Adopting this premise, "thou art my wit" becomes "thou art my wit" with a heavy secondary stress--that is, Stella not only provides inspiration for the poet but also through her divine "art" (or what will later be referred to as "love" in the last line of sonnet 90), she is elevated to the status of a goddess, having full control over his creative mental faculties. Following this logic, he is indebted to her artistic capabilities because he his channeling her talents through poetry.Furthermore, "thou my virtue art" undergoes a similar reversal of meaning where Stella's virtue is transformed into the speaker's art. Thus, the final paradox is now established: not only does Stella condemn his poetic vocation but she becomes his inspirational muse. As a result, he negates himself true authorship as an accomplished poet even though, of course, he is working self-consciously within the structural parameters of the sonnet form; evoking a parable about poetic ambition and the creative process. Phew.

Sonnet 90 recapitulates the paradox of sonnet 64 but is far more concerned with authorship. In contrast, the speaker addresses Stella more directly, the rhythm and tone appearing less irregular. The speaker maintains a much calmer and self-assured composure as opposed to his fluctuating attitudes in the previous sonnet. The opening line addresses Stella explicitly by name, reminiscent of line ten in sonnet 64 where he denies his poetic ambitions as being self-righteous: "Stella, think not that I by verse seek fame" (1). The word "fame" is used in both poems and contains essentially the same contextual meaning. He is formulating an argument to convince Stella that his main purpose in writing poetry is to express his affections and praise her virtue through creative means. Therefore, the first quatrain seeks to place Stella on a pedestal of admiration akin to idolatry, a similar technique used by Petrarch: "If thou praise not, all other praise is shame" (4). The speaker worships Stella as a goddess and believes it to be a serious disgrace ("shame") to not extol "praise" towards her beauty. Indeed, one can go further: this praise may also refer to his own literary ambitions because he intends to use poetic verse a panegyric in Stella's honor.

Yet again, Sidney uses the word "frame" from sonnet 64 in the second quatrain but here the metaphor is more explicit: "Nor so ambitious am I as to frame / A nest for my young praise in laurel tree" (5-6). The laurel tree is an obvious reference to poetic achievement where in the context of the previous line, the speaker subverts the established literary traditions by acknowledging that he possesses no desire ("nor so ambitious") to follow this path. Instead, he prefers to be a non-conformist and write poetry on his own terms. Consequently, the word "frame" also implies both his idiosyncratic poetic craft as well as the unconventional course of action he plans to take in achieving his creative goals. He admits to be aspiring poet, still in the developing stages and not yet fully confident in his abilities to seek adoration from others ("a nest for my young praise"). A similar argument is made in the third quatrain of sonnet 64 as the speaker attempts to make his poetic ambitions seem inconsequential. He follows the similar pattern of self-deprecation but his attitude is a little more pragmatic rather than cynical. He eschews with another literary convention by claiming to be undeserving in having his tombstone engraved with an inscription proclaiming him as a respected poet: "In truth I swear I wish not there should be / Graved in mine epitaph a poet's name" (7-8). Sidney seems to be suggesting here the possibility of obtaining immortality through poetic achievement. These lines become ironic within the thematic context of the entire poem because the speaker does in fact want to aspire to greatness as indicated by the third quatrain and final line.

The third quatrain sets up the central paradox of poetic authorship that becomes most fully realized in the rhyming couplet, beginning with the speaker denouncing himself as a charlatan: "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" (10-12). These lines eerily resemble the final line in sonnet 64 where the speaker refers to his "wit" as a byproduct pf Stella's influence. Here, one notices the bird feathers metaphor as representing the poet's lack of wit since he affirming to be a fraud by borrowing material from other poets. This line introduces the context for Stella as a paradoxical muse although it will not made explicit until the end. The rhyming couplet contradicts this statement by invoking Stella's divine literary powers in order to produce meaningful and original poetry but the speaker also contradicts himself again since the "plumes" may not be from other notable poets but from Stella. An underlying irony exists in line twelve as well and it also seems to be a direct reference to line fourteen in sonnet 64, which also deals with the concept of wit: "For nothing from my wit or will doth flow" (12). It is ironic; for the speaker is obviously self-conscious in the composition of the poem itself. He is not suffering from writer's block or else the poem would appear haphazard or unfinished. On the contrary, the verse is structured with precision and the imabic pentameter is relatively consistent despite slight variations in the stresses. If "wit" is to be understood as characteristic of one's mental acuity or skill as a poet, then it is difficult not to interpret this line as facetious: the speaker (or Sidney for that matter), clearly understand the fundamental principles of the sonnet form and is experimenting cleverly with language.

The rhyming couplet not only unifies the poem but links it directly with sonnet 64 with a similar paradox: "Since all my words thy beauty doth indite / And love doth hold my hand and makes me write" (13-14). Once again, the speaker invokes Stella as his muse, recognizing her divine influence. The tongue-in-cheek tone of voice in line twelve now shifts towards joyful exuberance as the speaker experiences an epiphany: he no longer needs to devalue his own sense of self-worth or struggle to compose anything of value because he lacks "wit" since Stella is now his muse. She is the creative spark in his mind, inspiring virtue and decorum. In line thirteen, her beauty stimulates his poetic imagination (along with his libido) and now his wit knows no bounds. Moreover, the transitive verb "indite" comes across as ironic too because it suggests that Stella is actually dictating the language of poetry to the speaker.

The ironic contrast is further emphasized by the final line, in which the speaker admits that Stella is responsible for the entire composition of his poetry because her "love" guides him through the creative process. The irony of line eleven now comes into focus since his relationship with Stella is paradoxical. Her influence "makes him write" but in order to compose eloquent and substantial poetry, he must take the angelic plumes from her wing, thus, she is beholden to his poetic achievements. Therefore, the rhyming couplet seems to be a more direct reiteration of line fourteen in sonnet 64: "thou art my wit, and thou my virtue art" (14). In both cases, Stella becomes a paradoxical muse for the speaker--she inspires his poetic craft and ambitions but her overwhelming influence destabilizes the concept of authorship where the title of "poet" becomes ambiguous. 


  1. Believe it or not, I'm still reading through this post. I had to copy it to Word and make it a file so I can pull it up even when I don't have internet.

    I had never even thought that if a line/phrase is iambic vs. spondee, another meaning could be interpreted. Just wow!! And this very intelligent ;-) observation segues into another ....... I really, really, really, really, really, really, really think that you should do regular poetry postings to help those of us poetry-newbies to appreciate poetry more. One of my sadnesses in life, is that I think we (as a society/species) are missing soooooo much that poetry has to offer because we are never exposed to it anymore. Sooo ..... if you posted some reviews without quite so much information but with some general insights that you, with your obvious expert knowledge, could share to help educate the rest of us. I know that you love the genre, so it might be a pleasure rather than a chore .....???? In any case, I thought that I'd throw the suggestion out there in case I get a bite. Please think about it. You may not get many comments back but I bet, if you made it manageable, you'd get LOTS of readers.

  2. I really appreciate you taking the time to read this essay, Cleo. Seriously. I am glad it is helpful in some way.

    Well, I used to read a lot of poetry back in the day and during uni they drill it into you on how to properly do close-readings. I've forgotten most of what they taught me and this was the first time in years that I have sat down and attempted to do one. I'm a little rusty to say the least.

    Hmmm...that's an intriguing proposition. I'll definitely think about it.

    It's true, I do love poetry and writing about it wouldn't be that taxing. In an ideal world people would be reading Keats, E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot; or perhaps more contemporary poets like George Eliot Clarke and Derek Walcott instead of 50 Shades of Grey. There has been a lot of great poetry written over the last 30 years or so that has gone almost completely unnoticed. The novel dominates and poetry in comparison is like an archaic art-form these days, a relic of the past.

    It will certainly be a challenge to get enough people interested in reading/discussing poetry but like you suggest, it would have to be a lot more accessible. No 10 page essays about the use of irony and paradox in a poem. :P