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"Sir Foole": Astrophil and Stella 53 In Martiall sports I had my cunning tride, And yet to breake more staves did m e addresse: While with the people's shouts I must confesse, Youth, lucke, and praise, even fild my veines with pride. When Cupid, having m e his slave descride In Morse's liverie, prauncing in the presse: 'What now sir foole,' said he, ' I would no lesse, Looke here, I say.' I look'd, and Stella spide, Who hard by made a window send forth light. My heart then quak'd, then dazled were mine eyes, One hand forgott to rule, th'other to fight. Nor trumpets' sound I heard, nor friendly cries; My Foe came on, and beat the aire for me, Till that her blush taught me my shame to see. Although commentators on Astrophil and Stella are unanimous in extolling the rich complexity of the sequence as a whole, a fair number of the individual sonnets that comprise it seem to have dropped out of critical sight. Sonnet 53, for example, "In Martiall sports I had my cunning tride", is nowhere mentioned by Robert Montgomery or by David Kalstone in their respective books on Sidney's poetry, and Neil Rudenstine, so far as I can determine, cites it only once, when he quotes the second quatrain as one among nine examples of what he describes as "sophisticated nonchalance, courtly patter, easy wit". This tacit neglect derives, I suspect, from a general feeling that the poem is too simple to require detailed exegesis. It displays, after all, none of that teasing introspection that distinguishes other poems in the series, but narrates, concisely enough, how Astrophil suddenly catches Stella's glance at a tournament, becomes confused, and makes a fool of himself. So facile a relation of cause and effect, it might reasonably be supposed, would exclude the possibility of any more arcane significance. It seems to me, however, that, even at a fairly superficial level, the poem sets out deliberately to disorientate our response to it and to confuse 2 our perspective on the event it describes. The first quatrain, to be sure, raises no very complex expectations, with its easy, conversational account of the tournament and of Astrophil's pardonable pride in his own prowess. But in line 5, the young knight abruptly discovers that, in his misguided concentration upon the mock-warfare of the tiltyard, he has unwittingly taken sides in the cosmic antagonism of Mars and Venus. The level of reality upon which the poem operates has shifted, and it shifts again when Astrophil, directed by Venus's agent Cupid, looks up at Stella, who reverses the order of nature by making "a window send forth light" and thereby effects what seems to me a conscious parody of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus ("My heart then quak'd, then dazled were mine eyes"). As a result, the hapless Astrophil becomes wholly withdrawn from the mundane though still artificial reality with which the poem began, and is recalled to it only by observing 106 R.J. Dingley Stella's embarrassment at his failure to engage a new opponent in the lists. Stella, too, has thus been implicitly transformed—from a divine lightsource into a blushing spectator. The poem's subtly comic effect, indeed, depends upon the recognition of incongruity among the discrete levels of reality upon which it moves. Stella is both the unconscious deputy of Venus and a courtly lady viewing a courtly festivity, while Astrophil is simultaneously the unknowing champion of Mars and a young man participating in a tournament. Both of them, it might be argued, have something in common with the Athenians in A Midsummer Night's Dream, who have stumbled unawares into a power-struggle between deities from another dimension. And their dual roles, as themselves and as the instruments of mythological warfare, ironically fail to coincide. When Astrophil is abstracted by his vision of the divine Stella, Stella promptly ceases to be divine at all, and is transmuted back into a looker-on at the "Martiall sports", colouring with vicarious shame at her cavalier's apparent incompetence. Sonnet 53, then, seeks to disorientate its reader...


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