Sonnet for Advent 5: Sonnet 14

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AdventSonnet14A bright particular star plays an important part in the Christmas story. It leads the Magi to Bethlehem where they find ‘the King of Jews’. Sonnet 14 seemed like a good choice for Advent. But here the poet turns away from astronomy and astrology and instead focusses on the beloved’s eyes (again it is not made clear whether the addressee is male or female). At the volta in line 9, though, there is a strong echo of a moment in Love’s Labour’s Lost when we hear Biron’s long aria on love:

‘From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive.
They sparkle still the right Promethean fire.
They are the books, the arts the academes
That show, contain and nourish all the world.’ (4.3.326-9)

Similarly, the lover’s eyes in Sonnet 14 hold all that is beautiful, all that is true.

Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck,
And yet methinks I have astronomy;
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality.
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
‘Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well
By oft predict that I in heaven find:
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive
If from thyself, to store thou wouldst convert;
Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.

Click on the post below to hear Sonnet 14 read by my colleague Jenny Jenkins, one of our Shakespeare Aloud! actors.

You might like to visit a similar Shakespeare for Advent project led by students at the University of Tubingen by clicking here.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Bruce Leyland

    Shakespeare’s knowledge of astronomy is astonishing. In Hamlet he speaks of “infinite space” – a concept originated by the English astronomer Thomas Digges (1546-95). In Sonnet 14 he distinguishes between scientific astronomy and folk astronomy/astrology. The specific constellation referred to in this sonnet is Orion. In folk astronomy, a haziness around Orion as it rose was a predictor of bad weather and seasons…

    Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (7th century AD):
    Orion shines in the south… If all of its stars are shining, then calm weather is forecast, but if their sharpness is blunted, then a storm is understood to loom.

    The Shrew, 1594:
    Now that the gloomie shaddow of the night
    Longing to view Orions drisling [drizzling] lookes

    In folk astronomy, Orion was referred to as “The Ell”, or “The Ell Wand” – this was the standard rule issued to towns and villages to standardise the measurement of an “Ell” (around 45 inches) for commerce – e.g. of cloth.

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