Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella 82: ‘Nymph of the garden where all beauties be’

On one of Sir Philip Sidney’s great love sonnets Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnets often shut closed neatly and satisfyingly with a snap.

Nymph of the garden where all beauties be,

Beauties which do in excellency pass

His who till death look’d in a wat’ry glass,

Or hers, whom naked the Trojan boy did see;

Sweet garden nymph, which keeps the cherry tree

Whose fruit doth far th’Hesperian taste surpass;

Most sweet-fair, most fair-sweet, do not alas,

From coming near those cherries banish me:

For though full of desire, empty of wit,

Admitted late by your best-graced Grace,

I caught at one of them a hungry bit,

Pardon that fault. Once more grant me the place

And I do swear e’en by the same delight,

I will but kiss, I never more will bite.

Nymph of the garden where all beauties are:

Beauties that in their excellence surpass

His who gazed in the watery mirror till he died,

Or hers whom the Trojan boy saw naked:

Sweet garden nymph, who guards the cherry tree (her lips)

Whose fruit far exceeds the Hesperian fruit in taste:

Most sweet-fair, most fair-sweet, do not, alas,

Prevent me from coming close to those cherries:

For though, filled with desire and empty of reason,

When lately admitted by your best-graced grace (to the ‘garden’)

I caught at one of them (her lips) in hunger, a little,

Pardon my fault, and allow me near that place once more,

And I swear, even by the same delight,

I will only kiss, I will never, in future, bite.

Over the course of 108 sonnets and a handful of songs, Sidney charts his realisation that Penelope Rich, the woman he was offered in marriage and turned down, is beautiful and desirable and – now that she has married another – unattainable. It’s a variation on the old courtly love tradition, whereby the male poet admires from afar the unattainable woman. But Astrophil’s worship of Stella is not blind devotion, and Astrophil is no saint: he wrestles with a whole range of emotions throughout the course of Astrophil and Stella.

Sonnet 82 (‘Nymph of the garden where all beauties be’) obviously comes quite late in the sequence, but it still sees ‘Astrophil’ admiring the beauty of ‘Stella’ – and, specifically, the beauty of her lips, which he likens to cherries in a garden. To paraphrase the meaning of the sonnet: ‘Stella, you are like a nymph guarding a beautiful garden, in that you defend your beauty against those who would trespass there. And you are beautiful: more beautiful than Narcissus, who was so attractive he fell in love with his own beauty when gazing upon it in the “watery glass” of the stream; and more beautiful than the Roman goddess Venus, whom the Trojan prince, Paris, saw naked. Your lips are like a beautiful cherry-tree in a garden, and the fruits on that tree are far better than the golden apples of Hesperides in Greek myth. Do not forbid me to come anywhere near those cherry-lips! For though I am lusting stupidly after you, I snatched a kiss of those cherry-lips; please forgive that transgression and let me come close again, and I won’t bite those cherries again: I’ll just kiss you.’

There’s something very playful about this twisting of the poem’s central fruity analogy: ‘I won’t bite your cherry; just kiss your lips!’ As Salvador Dali once observed, the first person to compare the cheeks of a woman to a rose was obviously a poet, while the first to repeat it was probably an idiot. It’s the same with the cherry lips analogy. But in Sonnet 82, Sidney offers a clever twist on this cherry image. Who needs a bite of the cherry when one can have a kiss?

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