In many Elizabethan or Petrarchan sonnets, the poem’s subject, usually the object of the poet’s unrequited affections, is remarked for her stirring beauty and the power it has over the poet. Metaphors, similes and analogies are employed to convey the subject’s physical attributes, often assigning heavenly or angelic qualities to them. This would suggest that the poem’s subject is beyond the poet’s reach, someone who can only be gazed at and admired, but can never completely be possessed. In many of these sonnets, the power of the gaze, that is, the poet’s control in defining his subject, is a recurring theme.
But in Sir Philip Sidney’s Sonnet 9, from a book of sonnets entitled “Astrophil and Stella,” something curious seems to be occurring here. What emerges in Sonnet 9 is a power struggle between the poet and his subject over who will control and define the other through her gaze. This power struggle occurs in how both the poet and the subject compete for this control, namely through their power both as poet and subject. Each also are assigned both passive and aggressive qualities that create roles that constantly change, one as victim, the other as victor.
The struggle between both poet and subject is shown in how the sonnet is divided into two parts. The first part reveals the poet’s own strength in his description of Stella. Here, the poet compares Stella to a building: “Queene Vertues court, which some call Stella’s face” (1). He compares all features in her face to features of a building. Her skin is its “alabaster” walls, her hair its roof, her mouth the door, her eyes the windows.
The poet’s vision of his subject is shown in how he also assigns heavenly, angelic, or noble qualities to those features, i.e., Nature’s choisest furniture, Alablaster pure, stately place, Grace, heav’nly guest. The poet’s use of these qualitative features suggests that he, like most Elizabethan poets, is a mere mortal before his subject’s beauty and grace, powerless in the hold she has over him.
Yet, a closer reading, particularly in the poet’s use of rhythm, provides an interesting dynamic at work in how the poet characterizes Stella. While the poet assigns unimpeachable qualities to his subject, he also reveals a contradictory nature to Stella and his relationship to her. This is seen in the first line of the sonnet, which he modifies by stating “…which some call Stellas face…” Most of the line is written in an inverted foot, with a falling and rising rhythm throughout, but ends on a spondee, two falling meters ending on Stellas face.
This creates a stressed rhythm, particularly on the words Vertues, court, some, and Stella. Though most of the stressed words are nouns which deal with the poet’s subject, the one exception is the pronoun some. Here, the poet is addressing persons outside the poet and his subject. The stressed meter on some, along with words addressing his subject, act as a means to contradict Stella’s virtue. The poet defines Stella’s face as being like a virtuous court, yet, this definition does not apply to all who might see or know her. Stella is not always held in high regard, the poet seems to be suggesting, nor is she seen to be quite as virtuous.
If this was merely a matter of the poet being aware of how the rest of the world views the object of his obsession, the poet would have ended it there. And yet, there is another instance in which the sonnet’s stressed rhythms allow the reader to be privy to how the poet truly feels about his subject. In continuing his description of Stella, he writes: “The doore by which sometimes comes forth her Grace…” (5).
This line begins with an inverted foot, with the stressed meter on doore, but quickly changes to a spondee, with the first stress on sometimes and the last on Grace. Again, the poet focuses these stressed rhythms on words which call attention to the contradictions in Stella’s character. In this case, doore or mouth, opens and calls forth her Grace, or wit and charm. That she sometimes does so, suggests that she is not always as witty and charming as a superficial reading of the text might suggest. That the poet is the victim of Stella’s unrequited affections, her lack of guile or tact would more than likely be directed toward him.
So two dynamics are at work here in the first part of the sonnet. Here, the poet uses his power of the gaze to define his subject in a superficial manner: she is like a building, pleasant to the eye to behold, with virtuous attributes comparable to a heavenly, angelic nature. Yet, when the doors (mouth) are thrown open to this court, allowing the poet to enter her mind or spirit, her true nature comes forth, thus revealing her cruel and fickle soul. In this case, the poet is both powerless and powerful in his relationship to his subject. While the poet is victim to Stella’s cruelty, he also has the power, as a poet, to peel away Stella’s superficial veneer and bring truth to power. In this first half of the sonnet, the poet has defined his subject.
The second half of the sonnet is interesting in that the poet allows his subject’s gaze to define him. Here, the complexity of their relationship is revealed. This is complicit in the lines 9-11:
The windowes now through which this heav’nly guest
Looks over the world, and can find nothing such,
Which dare claime from those lights the name of best.
A number of things are occurring in this passage which reveal the nature of the poet’s relationship to his subject. First, as I had written before, the poet assigns his subject with heavenly qualities. Again, this suggests how the poet imagines Stella as being beyond his approach and, possibly, superior to him. This idea of superiority is played out by how Stella’s gaze dismisses the poet. Here, Stella “looks over the world,” but cannot find anyone who is worthy of her affection.
This would include the poet. While the poet’s gaze has defined Stella by her vanity, Stella’s vanity, in return, cannot “dare claime from those lights the name of best,” or, in other words, find a lover suitable for her. Stella is given qualities that reach beyond the poet’s own definition of her. The relationship between the two reveals a complexity in which both the poet and his subject are constantly struggling for control over the other. In this case, Stella’s indifference to the poet’s romantic entreaties gives her a certain amount of control over his happiness.
This power is extended in its destructive nature. This is revealed in the final three lines of the sonnet. Here, the poet repeats the word “touch” four times. He suggests that Stella’s eyes have the power to touch, therefore, transform him. A footnote in the Longman Anthology of British Literature, in which the sonnet appears, states that Sidney was playing on the metaphor of Stella’s eyes to that of touchstone, which is a mineral that can reveal whether ore contains gold. Touchstone also has the power to make contact with an object without actually touching that object.
Here, the poet draws a parallel between Stella’s eyes and touchstone, meaning, they have the power to discover the true nature of one’s self (i.e., discovering one’s inner gold) and can have transformative powers. In this case, Stella’s eyes, which do not see Astrophil’s “inner gold,” instead, transform him into straw. In the last line of the sonnet, Sidney uses a pyrrhic foot in the first clause, but ends with a trochee in the second. The stressed rhythms in the meter are concentrated on touch, they, poore, am and straw. The rhythm stresses the transformation that is occurring. Touch and they define the subject’s active role in this process, her power controlling the action. Poore and am defines the poet’s state of being, while straw signifies the end of his transformation. Notice also that I is an unstressed meter, which suggests a loss of identity and control.
Again, the poet reveals his powerlessness and lack of control in his own identity because of his unrequited obsession toward Stella. The poet extends the metaphor of the last three lines even further, revealing a sexual destructiveness to Stella’s gaze. Touchstone can also act as tinder to straw. Therefore, Stella’s gaze has the power to send the poet up in flames. Not only does this metaphor suggest the sexual nature of the poet’s adoration of Stella, i.e., her power to arouse him, but it also reveals that, since his love is unrequited, his lust for her becomes self-immolating.
Thus, he is consumed and destroyed by his own desires. Again, the poet’s identity is transformed, then destroyed by the extraordinary power of Stella’s gaze.
The sonnet would suggest that Stella is the one whose power and control subsumes the poet. And yet, another dynamic within this relationship suggests otherwise. This is also implicit in the final line. While the poet takes on the role of victim, a closer reading reveals he is also victor. If Stella’s gaze has the power to transform him into straw, then set him to flames with her sexual powers, he, in turn, has the power to destroy all that which he comes into contact, including Stella. Therefore, Sidney’s choice in comparing Stella’s face to a virtuous court is all the more telling. Stella’s virtuousness is contradicted by the lustful nature she inspires in him.
Her contact with him reveals her true nature, thus creating a combustible relationship that has the potential to destroy her as well. The poet, himself, sets the first strike with his poem. The sonnet becomes the spark in which Stella is consumed. In this way, language becomes the manner in which the poet ultimately reasserts his control over Stella, particularly over the power of her gaze. Whereas Stella’s gaze has the power to control the poet, the poet’s mastery of language reasserts his control over Stella.
Though many Elizabethan or Petrarchan sonnets address the poet’s undying love for his subject, many, after a close reading, reveal far more complex ideas about the relationship between the poet and his subject. Sonnet 9 suggests a discomfort on the poet’s part over his subject’s sexual powers and her desires of self-satisfaction. During a time in which women’s roles were very much constrained, the poet wittingly or unwittingly allows the reader a brief glimpse into her own sexual desires, seeing the world through her gaze. In this case, Stella becomes more than simply a flat surface onto which Sidney paints his own desires, but a fully-fleshed human being, one who, albeit briefly, asserts her identity onto the canvas of the sonnet in an exchange of wits with the poet.