Can anyone explain Sir Philip Sidney's "sonnet 23?"
This sonnet is about a speaker (who we assume to be Sir Philip as readers) who is struggling with himself in a thinking mood. He reports that his quest for thought could come from a variety of places. One source may be his own "melancholy." Some think it could be from his own knowledge. Others believe his thoughts come from his service as a prince. Yet a final group of judges believe his thoughts come from his ambition. Although all these others weigh in on the source of the speaker's thoughts, the speaker finally admits that his thoughts can only stop or start with his "Stella's eyes and Stella's heart."
This would be a legitimate interpretation for the time period as Sir Philip Sidney was not noble, but found himself close to the court of Queen Elizabeth I. It also rings true for humanity as when people deal with the results of being in love, all parts of their minds are consumed. Even though they attend the duties of work, thoughts of love work their way into the stream of thoughts for all people in love.
In terms of poetic devices, this poem is in sonnet form with an abbaaccaddeeff rhyme scheme.
In the first stanza, the intellectuals that surround our speaker see a kind of quiet thoughtfulness in the speaker's eyes, so they begin to guess what might be the cause—though the speaker tells us that they will not guess correctly because he says that their aim is "missing."
In the second stanza, some of the intellectuals guess that the speaker has been inspired by "[his] Muse" to write something new; others conjecture that he is throwing his hat, so to speak, into the political arena because he serves "the Prince."
In the third stanza, some of the intellectuals guess that the speaker has succumbed to ambition and that thoughts about how to get ahead have captivated him.
Finally, in the rhyming couplet at the end, we learn that it is actually love which has so arrested the speaker's thoughts. What is ironic is that all of these "curious wits"—scholars and intellectuals—have attempted to figure out what motivates or causes the speaker's quiet thoughtfulness and not one of them guesses correctly. Perhaps they are not as smart as they think!