Astrophil and Stella 63: O Grammar rules, O now your virtues show

By Sir Philip Sidney 1554–1586 Philip Sidney
O Grammar rules, O now your virtues show;
    So children still read you with awful eyes,
    As my young Dove may in your precepts wise
Her grant to me, by her own virtue know.
For late with heart most high, with eyes most low,
    I crav’d the thing which ever she denies:
    She lightning Love, displaying Venus’ skies,
Least once should not be heard, twice said, No, No.
    Sing then my Muse, now Io Pæan sing,
    Heav’ns envy not at my high triumphing:
But Grammar’s force with sweet success confirm,
    For Grammar says (O this dear Stella weigh,)
    For Grammar says (to Grammar who says nay)
That in one speech two Negatives affirm.

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Poet Sir Philip Sidney 1554–1586

POET’S REGION England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Renaissance

Subjects Love, Desire, Infatuation & Crushes, Unrequited Love, Classic Love, Relationships, Men & Women

Poetic Terms Sonnet

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Philip Sidney: Astrophil and Stella 63 (“O Grammar rules…”)

An Elizabethan plays a Modernist language game

By Ange Mlinko

Sir Philip Sidney is a key figure of the Elizabethan era, the fountainhead of the modern poetic tradition. He was born in 1554 in Kent, England, around the same time that the first sonnets in English (by Sir Thomas Wyatt) were posthumously published. Sidney was the contemporary of Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser, Fulke Greville, and William Shakespeare, among others: poets who occupied the vanguard of Tudor society as courtiers, soldiers, diplomats, and explorers. Poetry was almost inextricable from song—most gentlemen-poets could play a passable lute, much the way learning guitar is a rite of passage today—and the language itself was still young: unstandardized, mongrelized, and versatile. It lent itself readily to creative uses, and the challenge was met by poets who lived in a sparkling societal milieu where games—tournaments, sports, theater, dance—flourished.

That is to say, the Renaissance poets played games with language. They did so from the baseline of the Petrarchan sonnet, and Sir Philip Sidney stands out because he both played and commented on the playing—imitated Petrarch and criticized Petrarch—while mastering the form. His prose treatise, A Defence of Poesy, still influences what we perceive as the finest poetry, that which Wallace Stevens called the supreme fiction. This alone justifies Sidney’s claim as the first major poet-critic in English; but what makes him particularly modern—or perhaps what makes us particularly Sidneyan—is that his landmark sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella, incorporates the conflict between the poet and the critic, the stylist and the chastiser of style, in the sequence itself. Detractors of the self-reflexive tendencies of contemporary poetry (epitomized by, say, John Ashbery) call it postmodernist, or deconstructive, and it has become common to deplore the artifice and playfulness of a poetry born from the premise that language is "slippery"—as likely to elude our meanings as give meaning to experience. But Sidney was one of our predecessors, and this is nowhere more evident than in Sonnet 63 of Astrophil and Stella.

At this point in the sequence, Astrophil has reached a pitch of bitterness at unrequited love. Starting at about sonnet 52 (“A strife is grown between Virtue and Love”), the paradox—of a Love that is supposed to be good but creates only pain, and Goodness, which is supposed to be rewarded with love but often isn’t—is shown to be a source of metaphysical and erotic misery. He proceeds to play with a series of paradoxes that mock-reconcile extremes: “So sweets my pains, that my pains me rejoice,” “Blest in my curse, and cursed in my bliss,” and “Dear, love me not, that you may love me more.” But by sonnet 63, it becomes apparent that language is utterly futile. To break this stalemate, Astrophel resorts to a bit of farce that pretends to trap Stella in a sleight-of-hand at the same time that it mocks his own tendency to take his love-logic game too seriously:

O Grammar rules, O now your virtues show;
    So children still read you with awful eyes,
    As my young Dove may in your precepts wise
Her grant to me, by her own virtue know.
For late with heart most high, with eyes most low,
    I crav’d the thing which ever she denies:
    She lightning Love, displaying Venus’ skies,
Least once should not be heard, twice said, No, No.
    Sing then my Muse, now Io Pæan sing,
    Heav’ns envy not at my high triumphing:
But Grammar’s force with sweet success confirm,
    For Grammar says (O this dear Stella weigh,)
    For Grammar says (to Grammar who says nay)
That in one speech two Negatives affirm.

Before we take a closer look at Sidney’s sportive sonnet, we should step back and review the rules that governed the game. Astrophil and Stella is an innovative take on the Petrarchan sonnet sequence, and it inaugurated a craze for sequences that culminated in the crowning glory of Renaissance poetry: Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Both Sidney and Shakespeare use the Petrarchan convention of addressing an anonymous lover by a nickname or pseudonym, which itself was inspired by the Roman poet Catullus. Over 2,000 years ago, Catullus wrote hendecasyllabics to his “Lesbia”; then, in the 1300s, the Italian poet Petrarch wrote 14-line sonnets to his “Laura”; and 200 years later, Shakespeare’s addressees (there are two) remain the subject of intense speculation, but Sidney used allegorical pseudonyms: Astrophil (Latin for “star-lover,” with a pun on his own name, Philip) and Stella (“star”), who is believed to be a stand-in for a married lady at court, Penelope Rich, with whom Sidney was infatuated.

Unlike conventional troubadour love poems up to that point, Astrophil and Stella does not extol and flatter the lady so much as refract the turbulent heart of the thwarted lover. Astrophil is center stage; the drama of the poem is enacted through his inner monologue, not through the action of the lovers. As we read through the 108 sonnets and 11 songs that form the arc of their relationship, we are treated to a series of modulating tones and arguments. But unlike Modernist stream-of-consciousness, Astrophil’s thought process is governed by formal constraints and conceits. Each module is packaged in 14 decasyllabic lines (iambic pentameter as we know it was still being invented) that roughly break down into four rhyming quatrains and a final, epigrammatic couplet, though there is still the Petrarchan convention of having a voltaafter the first eight lines (known as the octave). But this is the general case; there are individual sonnets in Astrophil and Stella that vary the parameters. For instance, sonnet 89 alternates the end-words day and night in place of proper rhymes. And sonnet 63 gives us Petrarchan rhymes that interlock, creating couplets embedded in quatrains (rhyme patterns ABBA, ABBA) whose volta is marked by an impromptu couplet introducing a new rhyme (CC), before reverting back to the Petrarchan quatrain (DEED).

There are more famous sonnets in Astrophil than number 63—the opening sonnet (“Loving in Truth, and fain in verse my love to show”) and 31 (“With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies”)—but the mock sophistry of sonnet 63 is a little gem of Elizabethan wit. We usually speak of wit and wisdom, but here wit is totally subjugated to fancy: it is the logic of love speaking, masquerading as rationality to coax the beloved to surrender to passion.

O Grammar rules, O now your virtues show;
    So children still read you with awful eyes,
    As my young Dove may in your precepts wise
Her grant to me, by her own virtue know.

Astrophil is apostrophizing Grammar, turning it into a person, and an authoritative one at that. Personification is what artists all over the world do when they make animals and gods speak as humans; why not rules of grammar? Meanwhile, Sidney creates a little trompe l’oeil with grammar himself: when I think of how that quatrain might be parsed, or diagrammed as one sentence, I am first stymied by the ambiguity of O Grammar rules. Rules can be either noun or verb; which is it? It forms a parallel with the verb show, which tricks me for a moment into thinking that Grammar rules is a subject-verb construction instead of an adjective-noun construction. Sidney is conjuring the presence of a minor, reigning god, Grammar. Awful is the archaic term for “awe-filled,” and the presence of child-pupils sets a scene of respect, wonder, and obedience; this second line is offered as an analogy to Stella (my young Dove), who is enjoined to respectfully obey Grammar’s precepts (rules) as they do.

But again the parts of speech trip me up, and the different ways of reading this poem grammatically shape its possible meanings: in the third line, is wise an adjective modifying precepts (which makes sense, and is suggested by the integrity of the line), or is wise a verb? Up to the 19th century, wise was a verb meaning to guide, direct, instruct, or inform. If wise is a transitive verb, its object would be her grant, meaning her erotic submission to Astrophil, compelled by her own virtue to obey the laws of grammar (we’ll see why at the end of the poem). Thus lines 3–4, “may in your precepts wise / Her grant to me,”seem to be enjambed.

But some versions of Sidney’s poem contain a comma after precepts wise, which would make wise an adjective (wise precepts). In that case, the young dove’s active verb, grant, is not modified by her. Her, in this case, is the object of the sentence: She is hypothetically granting herself to her lover with the realization that she committed an act of grammar that binds her. The strangeness and ambiguity of the grammar in these lines make the point that Grammar is, indeed, powerful and magical in its ability to seem double, and to bend even reason itself into all kinds of shapes.

For late with heart most high, with eyes most low,
    I crav’d the thing which ever she denies:
    She lightning Love, displaying Venus’ skies,
Least once should not be heard, twice said, No, No.

Now the poem gets more straightforward. The syntactical muscularity eases up in this second quatrain, which starts to explicate Astrophil’s strange proposition: After reaching a pitch of frustration in which he loses coherence (he raved, a verb that has associations with madness; the inversion of heart and eye, high and low, suggests a contortion), Stella has rejected him with “No, No.”At this point the sonnet turns: the interlocking rhymes are replaced with a couplet that switches apostrophes from Grammar to his “Muse”:

Sing then my Muse, now Io Pæan sing,
Heav’ns envy not at my high triumphing:

Instead of continuing to address Grammar, Astrophil addresses his “Muse,” as in Homeric and Virgilian song—“Sing, Muse” is how Homer opens The Iliad; IoPæan is the Latinized version of it, a “hurrah” of victory. Why the sudden change to triumphalism? The rhythm and meter broadcast the uptick in Astrophil’s pulse as he unveils his strategy; I have bolded the heavy stresses and underlined the light stresses to indicate the way the poetic language relaxes into easy regularity, mimicking the suavity of the lover’s verbal chess move:

But Grammar’s force with sweet success confirm,
   For Grammar says (O this dear Stella weigh,)
   For Grammar says (to Grammar who says nay)
That
in one speech two Negatives affirm.

Stella has inadvertently fallen into a linguistic trap: double negatives grammatically work out to a positive. This is Astrophil’s clever variant on the seducer’s timeless formula: “No, No means yes!” The stubbornness of the sonnet’s first quatrain unravels beautifully as the revelation occurs to Astrophil (coded in that lovely lightning image) that Stella has verbally betrayed herself. His heart lightens, and he triumphantly dances out the iambs. The last line is sing-songy if read as strict iambic pentameter; if read with natural emphasis, the rhythm is nicely varied while still alluding to the pattern.

Aside from the teasing sophistry of the rhetoric, the salient formal device here is the doubling embedded in the poem—the two “O” phrases in line 1, the hearts and eyes, the repetition of “sing” and “for Grammar says”—all reinforced by the presence of rhyming couplets and sealed at the end with the finality of the repeating rhyme, -firm. All this doubling is a kind of amplification and mockery of Stella’s “No, No.” It’s as though the poem, by black magic, put on the power of grammar to ravish her. (“To Grammar who says nay”? Astrophil asks rhetorically. The answer: nobody. Grammar rules.)It is an elaboration of the previous sonnet (62), which declares, “Deare, love me not, that you may love me more,” but hints at the dark side of paradox, its ability to stymie and silence one’s interlocutor.

It would be an exaggeration to call sonnet 63 dark. Again, Sidney is playing a game, signaling that he is emerging from the lover’s funk that extended from sonnet 52 to 62. You can argue that sonnet 63 is a caprice, a light bit of froth. Basil Bunting had some harsh words for Petrarch, and by extension Sidney:

To Petrarch love was mainly an excuse for displaying his skill as a versifier and his knowledge of classical mythology. He hardly ever pays any real attention to Laura: he focuses the reader’s attention on his own cleverness, and that cleverness is far too often trivial, quite often a matter of puns. (Basil Bunting on Poetry, p. 48)

Of all the Renaissance poets, Bunting asserts, Sidney is the one who “rarely” breaks from Petrarch’s example. (Ibid.) But Bunting, also a great poet, did not place a premium on games in poetry, and Sidney’s audience did. Sonnet 63 is a language game and a love game, whose obstructive rhythms loosen as the poet’s excitement mounts; it’s hard to call this poem inauthentic just because it is clever. Its rhythm betrays emotion. Besides, Sidney was obviously of two minds about everything in Astrophil and Stella. It is a complex, dense, and innovative work at the same time that he periodically argues against artifice: “‘Fool,’ said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart and write’” is the dialectical opposite of “inventions fine” (sonnet 1); then, in sonnet 90, he proclaims, “Stella, think not that I by verse seek fame, / Who seek, who hope, who love, who live but thee. . . .” Sincerity and ambition are in flux; claims to speak from the heart are at odds with lyric’s homage to itself. “Poetry,” wrote Wallace Stevens, “is a scholar’s art.”

The scholastic overtones of sonnet 63 echo at other nodes in the series. For instance, sonnets 4 and 10 apostrophize Virtue and Reason, respectively (and the final line of the latter, “By reason good, good reason her to love,” anticipates the grammatical snare in 63). In sonnet 11, Cupid is compared to a child enthralled by a beautiful tome he cannot read; in sonnet 19, Cupid makes fun of Astrophil’s academicism: “‘Scholar,’ saith Love, ‘bend hitherward your wit.’” Sonnet 35 is about the inadequacy of language and wit: “What may words say, or what may words not say, / Where truth itself must speak like flattery?”

In his Defence of Poesy, Sidney defended the intellectual strain of poetry as against a naturalistic or realistic mode:

Only the Poet disdeining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect into another nature: in making things either better then nature bringeth foorth, or quite a new, formes such as never were in nature . . . not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely raunging within the Zodiack of his owne wit.

In other words, the true poet doesn’t reflect the world as it is but invents a newworld from the imagination. Of course, many poets from Coleridge to Keats to Stevens to Ashbery reinforced this poetics, and we often think of them before we think of Sidney. By his logic, too, “It is not rhyming and versing that maketh poesy. One may be a poet without versing, and a versifier without poetry.” Sidney would not be amused to know that debate still rages—over 400 years later—as to whether poets are being trivial or inauthentic when they engage in ludic play, or whether their unrhymed efforts deserve to be called poems.

Sir Philip Sidney, in fact, left us perhaps the most inspiring curse in the annals of English literature, directed at those who have no ears to hear:

But if (fie of such a but) you bee borne so neare the dull-making Cataract of Nilus, that you cannot heare the Planet-like Musicke of Poetrie; if you have so earth- creeping a mind that it cannot lift it selfe up to looke to the skie of Poetrie, or rather by a certaine rusticall disdaine, wil become such a mome, as to bee a Momus of Poetrie: then though I will not wish unto you the Asses eares of Midas, nor to be driven by a Poets verses as Bubonax was, to hang himselfe, nor to be rimed to death as is said to be done in Ireland, yet thus much Curse I must send you in the behalfe of all Poets, that while you live, you live in love, and never get favour, for lacking skill of a Sonet, and when you die, your memorie die from the earth for want of an Epitaphe.

He himself died too young, at the age of 32, after being wounded in battle in the Netherlands. On his deathbed, he called for a tune known as La cuisse rompue. It translates, basically, as “The worn-out thigh guard.” Now here was a poet who could balance contradictions to the bitter end: suffering mortal pain, he wanted a comic song. Sonnet 63,  ludicrous as it may seem (and ludicrous of course shares a root with ludic), serves as a lens to read Astrophil and Stella in its most modern light.

Astrophil and Stella 63: O Grammar rules, O now your virtues show

By Sir Philip Sidney 1554–1586 Philip Sidney
Sir Philip  Sidney

Biography

The grandson of the Duke of Northumberland and heir presumptive to the earls of Leicester and Warwick, Sir Philip Sidney was not himself a nobleman. Today he is closely associated in the popular imagination with the court of Elizabeth I, though he spent relatively little time at the English court, and until his appointment as governor of Flushing in 1585 received little preferment from Elizabeth. Viewed in his own age as the . . .

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Poems by Philip Sidney

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Love, Desire, Infatuation & Crushes, Unrequited Love, Classic Love, Relationships, Men & Women

POET’S REGION England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Renaissance

Poetic Terms Sonnet

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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