As I’ve probably mentioned, I’m on hiatus from a five-year stint in grad school. I spent most of my research time on early modern (what used to be called Renaissance, but hey, why use one word when two are available?) English literature of all sorts. I’ve steeped long enough in the brew of Shakespeare and Milton and Lanyer and Hutchinson and Donne and Marvell to become pretty snooty about what I find appealing and what I don’t.
When it comes to sonnets, Donne and Shakespeare are the masters of the form in my book, but from time to time, I page through my Renaissance—I mean, early modern—shelf and re-discover Sir Philip Sidney.
Astrophil and Stella (or Star-lover and Star, for those of us who opted out of Latin and Greek as teenagers) is a long sonnet-and-song sequence, the first in English, which traipses around between Sidney’s (or his poetic persona’s, if you prefer) interests in poetry and Lady Penelope Rich. He borrows conventions and form from Petrarch, with his own modifications, of course, and sometimes the poems are really lovely, if a tad melodramatic.
What I like about Sonnet 48 is its convoluted conceit: the speaker begs his lover not to look away from him, for her eyes simultaneously give him light and kill him: “O look, O shine, O let me die and see” (l. 8); it is only in death that he will be able to “see” her fully. And in the idiom of the time, death refers not only to death as we understand it, but also to orgasm (from the French le petit mort), so beneath the veneer of the courtly lover’s plea, we have a much earthier subtext.
Here’s Sonnet 48 from Astrophil and Stella:
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-driv’n from that light;
O look, O shine, O let me die and see.
For though I oft my self 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 they sweet cruel shot;
A kind of grace it is to slay with speed.