How might one analyze sonnet 19 ("On Cupid's bow how are my heart-strings bent") from Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence?
Sonnet 19 of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence might be analyzed in various ways, including the following:
- The poem opens with a line emphasizing a major theme of this sonnet and of the sonnet sequence as a whole: the speaker feels enslaved by Cupid (the symbol of cupiditas, or selfish desire). He feels as if Cupid has total control of his life.
- Paradoxically, even though the speaker feels the pain of being dominated by selfish desire and sexual lust, he nevertheless embraces his slavery. This willing subjugation to Cupid makes no logical sense, as the speaker realizes (2). The irrationality of the speaker is a major theme of this sonnet and of the sequence as a whole.
- It is precisely when the speaker is most full of selfish desire and takes himself most seriously that he is most ashamed of himself, because he realizes that selfish desire is unworthy of him, both as a rational being and as a creature made in God’s image (3). This emphasis on the speaker’s divided mind is typical of this sonnet and of the sequence in general.
- More emphasis on paradox appears in line 4: the speaker willingly runs toward Cupid and Stella, yet even as he does so he regrets this behavior.
- Line 5 is especially important, since it emphasizes that the speaker has corrupted his reason; his “best wits” (the best aspects of his mind) are causing him to behave disgracefully.
- Line 6 suggests that anytime the speaker tries to write anything, he immediately finds himself writing about Stella; yet lines 7-8 suggest that in the very act of writing about Stella he realizes that his writings are foolish and empty. Ironically, of course, while Astrophil’s writings may be foolish, Sidney’s use of Astrophil’s writings is morally praiseworthy and intellectually respectable. By depicting Astrophil as a fool, Sidney implicitly presents himself as a wise young man.
- Lines 9-11 suggest that although Stella surpasses all earthly things (a common theme in the sequence), Astrophil gains nothing from his devotion to her. By focusing on Stella, he trips and falls, at least morally and spiritually, if not literally.
- In lines 12-13 Astrophil compares his mind to a growing plant that must be propped up, yet he concedes that his thoughts are unnatural (that is, not growing as God would have intended them to grow). His thoughts, because they are focused on Cupid, do not bring forth Astrophil’s “best fruits.”
- In line 14, Cupid himself directly addresses Astrophil and encourages Astrophil’s continuing devotion to selfish desire.
This poem, then, is quite typical of many other sonnets in the sequence as a whole. It presents an Astrophil who feels captured by selfish, sexual desire for Stella, who knows that such desire is irrational and shameful, and yet who refuses to abandon such desire or even, very strongly, to try to abandon it. Astrophil’s selfish desire is especially blameworthy because Astrophil knows that such desire is wrong, yet he pursues it anyway. Sidney treats Astrophil as a comic figure, whose folly is unfortunate but also laughable. Astrophil, in many poems, is presented as a kind of obsessive stalker, who knows that his behavior is wrong but who persists in it nonetheless. This poem is yet another variation on a common theme of the sequence – a sequence in which Astrophil presents himself as the willing slave of Cupid.
"Scholar," saith Love, "bend hitherward your wit."