Literature

A Short Analysis of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella Sonnet 99

Sonnet 99 from Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (‘When far spent night persuades each mortal eye’) was composed in the early 1580s. Astrophil and Stella was the first substantial sonnet sequence written in English, and this sonnet is one of the most accomplished poems in a sequence that is over-brimming with technical innovation and skill. Before we offer some words of analysis, here’s the text for Sonnet 99:

When far spent night persuades each mortal eye,
To whom nor art nor nature granteth light,
To lay his then mark-wanting shafts of sight,
Closed with their quivers, in sleep’s armoury;
With windows ope then most my mind doth lie,
Viewing the shape of darkness and delight,
Takes in that sad hue, which with the inward night
Of his mazed powers keeps perfect harmony.
But when birds charm, and that sweet air, which is
Morn’s messenger, with rose-enameled skies,
Calls each wight to salute the flower of bliss:
In tomb of lids then buried are mine eyes,
Forced by their lord, who is ashamed to find
Such light in sense, with such a darkened mind.

The poem is a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, rhymed abba abba cdcdee, so with that English innovation of the concluding rhyming couplet also seen in Sir Thomas Wyatt’s ‘Whoso List to Hunt’, written in the 1530s. Sidney (1554-86) is drawing upon the Petrarchan tradition of courtly love: the object of his sonnet sequence is Stella (‘Star’), whom Astrophil (‘Star-lover’) hopelessly loves. (The whole sequence of Astrophil and Stella is supposedly based on Sidney’s own reputed love for Lady Penelope Rich, who had married Lord Robert Rich when Sidney turned her down as a potential bride; Sidney then claimed to have fallen in love with her once he realised he couldn’t have her.)

But Sidney gives the courtly love tradition a twist, in being far more introspective and psychologically complex than many earlier sonneteers writing in this tradition. And Sonnet 99 takes us into the poet’s own dark night of the soul: ‘With windows ope then most my mind doth lie, / Viewing the shape of darkness and delight’, where ‘lie’ slides into ‘delight’, offering the hope or glimmer of ‘light’ but only through wordplay (‘delight’).

Note how all of the rhymes are based around the ‘I’ or ‘eye’ sound, because the poem is about seeing/sight, light/night, and so on. This also creates, I think, a cloying, oppressive feel to the sonnet because we can never move too far away from this assonantal pattern: we begin to feel trapped in the dark ourselves. Compounding this are the internal echoes of this assonance, e.g. ‘mind’ in l. 5, ‘wight’ in l. 11, and ‘light’ in l. 14.

As we’d expect from a sonnet written in English, the metre of ‘When far spent night persuades each mortal eye’ is iambic pentameter, although note the spondee/heavy iamb of ‘mazed powers’ (‘mazed’ should be pronounced as monosyllabic). It’s also possible to argue that line 4 opens with a trochaic substitution (ironically, the line opens with the word ‘Closed’, with the trochee wrenching us out of the iambic pattern). And lines 6 and 13 also begin with trochaic substitutions.

Note in line 12 the inspired pun on ‘lids’: both eyelids but also, thanks to ‘tomb’, coffin lids.

Most sonnets have a volta or ‘turn’, at which point the direction of the poem’s ‘argument’ shifts, and in an Italian sonnet this usually happens at the end of the octave and the beginning of the sestet, so at the beginning of l. 9 (‘But when birds charm’, signalling the turning of night into day). Sonnet 99 is a fine poem which shows Sidney’s skilled used of assonance to reinforce his poem’s play of light and dark, sight and blindness.

One Comment

  1. Very interesting to have pointed out the repetition of rhymes using /ɪ/.
    More generally, it is not the easiest poem in which to really make out what is being said. Presumably, the flower of bliss for each wight, is each wight’s Lady, after the manner of courtly love. Which, for this poet, would have been Stella.