When reading Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, how might one interpret the second song ("Have I caught my heavenly jewel / Teaching sleep most fair to be?")?
Please provide the explanation stanza by stanza.
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Although Sir Philip Sidney’s collection of poems titled Astrophil and Stella is usually described as a “sonnet sequence,” it is actually a collection both of 14-line sonnets and of longer “songs.” (In this respect, as in so many others, it follows the precedent set by the collection of poems known as the Rime Sparse, by the 14th-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (known in English as “Petrarch”).
In the second song of Astrophil and Stella, Astrophil, who is obsessed with Stella’s body, comes across Stella while she is sleeping:
Have I caught my heav’nly jewel,
Teaching sleep most fair to be?
Now will I teach her that she,
When she wakes, is too, too cruel. (1-4)
In other words, Astrophil believes that Stella makes even sleep appear to be beautiful (“most fair”). He promises to teach her that she, whenever she happens to be awake, is “too, too cruel.” In other words, she persistently denies him what he wants. Like many Petrarchan lovers, Astrophil is an expert at feeling victimized and self-pitying.
In the next stanza, Astrophil says that sleep, by causing Stella’s eyes to close, has disarmed the power of those beautiful eyes, which he compares to two arrows normally shot by the bow of Cupid, the god of desire. Now that Stella’s eyes are closed, however, Cupid has been disarmed, and so Astrophil plans to “play” with Cupid, perhaps by taking advantage of Cupid’s present weakness (5-8).
In the third stanza, Astrophil notes that whenever Stella is awake, her tongue refuses his pleas, continually telling him “no” when he asks her to give him what he wants. However, since Stella is presently asleep, he plans to see how her tongue will be able to resist him now. He is confident that she will not be able to reject him if he tries to take advantage of her while she is sleeping (9-12).
In stanza four, Astrophil notes that the hand that has resisted him while Stella has been awake is now also sleeping. Note that these lines imply that Astrophil has already been physically presumptuous in his dealings with Stella: who knows how, exactly, he has tried in the past to make physical contact with her, only to rebuffed by her hand. In any case, that hand is now asleep, and so it “grants free resort” (in other words, it can offer no resistance). Astrophil therefore declares, “Now I will invade the fort” (15) – a line that can be interpreted in various ways (one of them very sexual and frankly shocking). Whatever, exactly, Astrophil is thinking of doing to the sleeping Stella, he tries to convince himself to take advantage of this present opportunity. If he is a coward, he tells himself, Cupid will repay him by letting him lose this chance to have his way (16).
In the next stanza, however, Astrophil ponders how angry Stella will be if she awakens and discovers him taking advantage of her. She will be full of “just and high disdain” (an interesting admission, especially the word “just,” which implies that Astrophil concedes that his planned conduct would be wrong ). Since Stella would be angry with him, he decides to “refrain” from taking advantage of her, because “Love fears nothing else but anger” (20).
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Still, Astrophil cannot quite resist this opportunity to have some physical contact with Stella. He persuades himself that her “swelling” lips “Do invite a stealing kiss” (22). If he won’t take any more advantage of her, he will at least “venture” to kiss her while she is asleep (23). After all, if he wants to go any further with her, he should at least begin with a kiss, just as anyone who wants to read must first learn to spell (24).
In the final stanza, Astrophil apparently has indeed kissed Stella as she has slept (“Oh sweet kiss” ). Just as he kisses her, however, she begins to awaken (25), and she looks angry and disapproving (“louring” = “lowering”). He will therefore run away (27) – a reaction that is partly cowardly and partly comical. No sooner does he decide to run, however, than he calls himself a “fool” for not taking more advantage of her while she was sleeping.
Astrophil is indeed a fool, as the collection of poems continually shows, but in this poem he has come very close to being something far worse than merely a fool.
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