Baseness in Art
In Astrophil and Stella the character of Astrophil is constantly trying to reconcile his base desires with a platonic idea of love. Nowhere is this more clear than in the first quatrain of Sonnet 72:
Desire, though thou my old companion art,
And of so clings to my pure love that I
One from the other scarecely can descry
While each doth blow the fire of my heart
Now from thy fellowship I needs must part;
Astrophil directly address Desire here, who in the preceding sonnet, as Astrophil wrote of Virtue being the best way to read and render Stella’s love, spoke up to say “give me some food.” This is a very calculated way to introduce Desire, in that it gives it a much more powerful physical presence than Virtue: while Virtue can be talked about, desire speaks for itself. And, it apparently speaks so loudly as to demand a reply, and of an entire sonnet no less, as Astrophil address it here. Yet even in doing so, while trying to banish it from his pursuit of Stella, the language and literary tactics he employs on its part speak to his truer tendency.
Desire is his old companion, whose modifying verb, art, rhymes, three lines later, with his heart. In those three lines, Astrophil invokes the other pole of desire – true love – but this seems to get lost in his plea to Desire, as it is squeezed into the middle of a sentence, then equated with desire, both of which he claims, blow the fire of his heart; but when one reads “blow the fire of my heart,” one is much more likely to recall the Desire he is addressing, than the pure love he recently slighted. Besides, it rings more true to us: Desire burns ones heart; rarely do people speak of pure love as burning ones heart; and so the statement of the last line in the quatrain feels dubiously made, at best.
In the rest of the poem, as Astrophil attempts to describe the necessity – the power – of love absent of desire, his language becomes more celestial, but also loses much of its force, and falls further into the ambiguous:
Venus is taught with Dian’s wings to fly;
I must no more in thy sweet passion’s lie:
Virtue’s gold now must head my Cupid’s dart.
Service and Honour, Wonder with Delight,
Fear to offend, Will worthy to appear,
Care shining in mine eyes, Faith in my sprite:
These things are left me by my only dear.
But though, Desire, because thou wouldst have all,
Now banished art – but yet, alas, how shall?
While attempting to speak of “pure love,” he immediately falls into a maze of metaphors, indicating that he has no impulse toward these things; he must intellectualize them. The classical gods give him his first diving board into this unclear pool: instead of talking about his love, it is now Venus, who is here taught to fly by the chaste Dian. But while the next line claims that passion is the lie, the lie, through the ryme of the poem, harkens back to Diana teaching Venus to fly, and there, in the midst of his banishing passion, it gets the only positive adverb: Venus is Venus, and Dian, Dian, but passion is sweet passion. Then virtue makes her first appearance since the last poem, this time, as last time, as a bearer of wealth, particularly in the currency of love, so Astrophil invokes him to guide his hunt. But again, he does not ask this with the force he’s asking Desire to leave. He does not address Virtue. He is actually only mentioning Virtue in a plea to assuage Desire. And when Virtue is asked to affect his love, it is not even asked to affect that same love that Desire inspires – no, it is not granted that much force – it can only affect that love that Astrophil can only describe with the aid of the distant metaphor of the distant, ancient god Cupid.
In the following three lines, he seems to be summoning other noble traits to support Virtue in its fight against Desire: “Service and Honor, Wonder with Delight,/Fear to offend, Will worthy to appear,/Care shining in mine eyes, Faith in my sprite:” He claims these things are the only things left him by his beloved, but if that is so, then why are they just items on a list? Why is Will merely worth to appear? Why is Care shining in his eyes, and not burning his loins like Desire? The sonnet begs the couplet to answer these questions, but the couplet gives no such reply: “But thou, Desire, because thou wouldst have all,/Now banished art – but yet, alas, how shall?” Even within the couplet, Astrophil tries to muster his will: addressing desire again, he now likens him to the devil, who wouldst have all, and then claims that he is going to banish him, like Man from the garden – mixing up his metaphor – but yet, there is that “but yet,” throwing off the meter of the poem; alas, there is that “alas,” bringing the poem to a dead halt, after which the couplet can only offer up a question of its own: how can he banish desire?
The speaker of Delia is less racked with trying to banish desire. While the speakers of both Astrophil and Stella and Delia are constantly conflating their bodily impulses with platonic love, often to the point that their sonnets seem to be lofty poems about the most adolescent yearnings, in the speaker of Delia’s finer moments, he reconciles those base desires with love, in their relationship to art. In Sonnet 36 he addresses the fear that Astrophil addresses at the end of his sequence – that people will read these sonnets and think the lovers, and perhaps even love itself, a failure. But instead of apologizing for his follies of love – his lack of ability to kick that habit Desire that causes him to sin – like Astrophil, the speaker of Delia defends them:
O be not grieu’d that these my papers should,
Bewray vnto the world howe faire thou art:
Or that my wits haue shew’d the best they could,
The chastest flame that euer warmed heart.
In the first quatrain, as in most of these sonnets, talk of baseness lies buried under flowery language. But still, in the first two lines, the speaker acknowledges that the woman he is addressing may not like the image he is painting of her.
Following a poem in which he invokes Petrarch, the king of the blazen, and claims his lover more fair, this brings up the question of focusing on her physical. He answers this in the next two lines, connecting she should not be grieved, through the ryme scheme, to the best of his wits – his art – which he claims leads to “the chastest flame that euer warmed heart.”
Thinke not sweete Delia, this shall be thy shame,
My muse should sound thy praise with mournefull warble:
How many lieu, thy glory of whose name,
Shall rest in yce, when thine is grau’d in Marble.
Here he brings up the constant theme of Sonnet sequences – that they will immortalize their subjects, and that’s a good thing. But the speaker again acknowledges that she may view it differently – that she may think it will be her shame – and he tells her she should not fear this because his muse will sound her praise with mournefull warble. There’s a strange simile: first, most women probably don’t want their image to be immortally mournefull, and a warble hardly seems like the type of sound to carry into eternity. One would expect the author to say he will immortalize her with a trumpet of praise, or some other such ear-piercing shriek, instead, the speaker refrains from such a parallel – a parallel that would invoke blazen-like language – and uses a more subtle, nuanced metaphor, and again, through his carefully planned rhyme scheme, shows the shame turning to the glory of her name, and the warble being graved in marble.
Still, though I have made my own assumptions about it, the fear he is addressing is unnamed, but it becomes clearer as he explains his engraved warble:
Thou maist in after ages liue esteeme’d,
Vnburied in these lines reseru’d in pureness;
These shall intombe those eyes, that have redeem’d
Mee from the vulgar, thee from all obscureness.
Here, thematically, Delia stands somewhere between Astrophil and Stella, in which the speaker tries to fight against the vulgar side of his love, and Ammoretti, where the speaker claims to be raised above the base through his love. In this quatrain, the speaker says that he has been redeem’d from the vulgar, like Astrophil yearned to be, but he is not removed from it, as the speaker of Ammoretti often claimed to be, and deep down, Astrophil would have hated to be.
These are three responces to the base instincts that spawn love – the adolescent impulse that sparks the flames which cause all these fires – as they are inevitably dealt with in sequences mining the realities of love. Here, I think, we get the most nuanced response to this particular polemic. Here, the speaker acknowledges the truth we are a testament to, of the immortality of these sonnet sequences, “Thou maist in after ages lieu esteeme’d,” about which all the sequences would agree – Astrophil more egoistically, and Ammoretti more spiritually, granted – and even if we acknowledge that they preserve the writer more than the subject, we must admit that they do also paint us a very complex picture of the speakers’ visions of women. And here, she lives on in pureness; her eyes entombed, because they have redeeme’d him from the vulgur. But how? In what way? The rest of this sequence is surely not devoid of the vulgar. In fact, three sonnets later, he admits his relish for the vulgar. Here, I think the couplet does answer a question:
Although my carefull accents neuer mou’d thee;
Yet count it no disgrace that I haue lou’d thee.
This very simply rhymed, strict-to-meter couplet states that his love, where all over the sequence has shown its vulgar head, is not disgracefull, even if it never moved her, for its careful accenting of love.
This is true of both of the sonnets discussed above, and also true of all three above mentioned sonnet sequences: they capture something about the balance of the base and celestial elements of love so beautifully that they avoid being disgraceful. While each takes a different stance on the relationship of baseness to love, each acknowledges its presence, and works through reconciling that with platonic love. In doing so, they apotheosize human instincts that could otherwise be called animalistic, creating art from the simple instincts and complex turmoil universal to all men.