Study Guide

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies!

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies! Summary

Imagine a guy staring at the moon. Here's what he says to it: "Hey, Moon, you're looking a little pale there, and you're moving kind of slowly. Is everything okay? It seems to me that you're in love, and it's causing you a lot of pain. I can tell by the way you're moving, and I should know, I feel it too. Hey, just out of curiosity, are the female planets and stars as mean as female women can be? Do they think 'constant love' is a total joke? Do they think being in love is a way of being totally ungrateful? It kind of feels like that that's how they are down there. Just saying." Yup—that pretty much sums the poem up.

  • Lines 1-4

    Line 1

    With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies!

    • The speaker is clearly looking at the moon to start this poem. He uses an apostrophe ("O Moon") to address the Moon and to comment on how sad the steps are that he's using to climb the sky.
    • Okay, so let's slow down just a second. Sad steps? Climbing? What's the deal here? Are these the "steps" of some crazy ladder in the sky that the Moon is climbing?
    • Eh, no (though that's a great guess). Actually, the speaker is personifying the Moon—pretending like it's a person who can actually "climb" things. Hmm.
    • You know how the sun rises? Well, the moon does the same thing. That's what's going on here. 
    • So, what makes these steps sad anyway? The short answer is: probably nothing. However, we're gonna guess that the speaker, who is one love-sick dude, is doing some projecting here. He's a little sad, and he's seeing images of sadness everywhere around him.
    • The Moon is probably creeping up the sky really, really slowly, which makes the speaker personify it (the Moon) as some kind of sulky, shuffling planetary body. 
    • Before we continue, we've gotta tell you a little something about the word "climb'st." A letter is missing ("e"), which means you should pronounce this guy as one syllable—not "climb-est" but "climbst."
    • You've probably already guess'd by now (see what we did there?), but "climb'st" just means "climb." In the old days, people used to end words with endings of "-est" or "-st" ("climbest," "feelest"). 
    • If the speaker had used the "-est" version, the result would have been a two-syllable word ("climb-est"). Here he opts for the one-syllable version in order to make the meter (which in this case is iambic pentameter) work. (Two syllables would have given the line eleven syllables—one too many.) 
    • Head over to "Form and Meter" for more on this whole crazy metrical business.

    Line 2

    How silently, and with how wan a face!

    • The speaker continues to address the Moon (even though he doesn't actually apostrophize it directly again).
    • Here, he comments on how "silently" and with "how wan a face" the Moon is. Cheer up, Moonie.
    • The word "wan" means lots of things—none of them good. It can mean pale, pallid, or sickly.
    • The moon doesn't just look white. It looks pale and sickly, kind of like Gollum
    • Notice that the word "how" has already appeared three times in this poem. (If we're lucky, maybe we'll see it again.) The speaker keeps using it because he's trying to express surprise or exclamation, like when we say "OMG, how handsome you look," except in this case it's more like "OMG, how sad and sick and silent you are." Yeah, not so good.
    • The moon is usually white, so it's possible that the speaker is not only personifying the moon again (the moon doesn't really have a face), but projecting his own feelings onto it. He probably feels a little wan himself and is seeing versions of himself all over the place.

    Lines 3-4

    What, may it be that even in heavenly place
    That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?

    • Since the speaker has managed to convince himself that the moon is "wan" and sad, he tries to figure out why. 
    • He ponders whether "that busy archer," Cupid (more on him in just a sec), is also shooting arrows up in the "heavenly place" where the moon resides. "Heavenly" just means the "heavens," or the sky.
    • In other words, the speaker wonders whether the moon is having some lady problems. That's the usual way of thinking about Cupid (a.k.a. "Eros"): he shoots or tries out his arrows on people and makes them fall in love (this is a very old idea, by the way—check it out). 
    • His arrows are "sharp," which means it probably hurts to get shot with one—duh. More importantly, this is the speaker's metaphorical way of describing the pains of love: it's like getting shot with a "sharp" arrow by this little dude.
    • (Cupid, as you may know, is a major figure in Greek and Roman mythology. There are tons of stories about him. To get a feel for some of his extracurricular activities, read about his involvement with Psyche right here.)
    • Did you notice that the verb ("tries") comes at the very end of the sentence? In normal speech, we would say "what, is it possible that Cupid tries his sharp arrows?" Poets do this stuff all the time.
    • Why? Well, because they can, for one thing. Also, the line now make rhymes with line 1 ("skies"), which it couldn't do if it ended differently.
    • As for the poem's rhyme scheme, at this point it looks like it's going to be something like this: ABBA. That's the scheme for the first four lines at least. We'll keep you posted.
    • It looks kind of like a sandwich (the A's are the bread, the B's your peanut butter and jelly). Head over to "Form and Meter" for more on this, and an explanation of why this funky sandwich rhyme scheme is important (and also awesome).
  • Lines 5-8

    Lines 5-6

    Sure, if that long with love-acquainted eyes
    Can judge of love, thou feel'st a lover's case;

    • The speaker now proceeds to, essentially, answer his own question. He wonders whether the moon is feeling the pains of love, and decides that he, in fact, is.
    • The sentence is a little tricky so we'll take it bit by bit. "Sure" is pretty much just "surely," while "long" means "for a long time." "That" is a shortened form of "[it is true] that."
    • "Love-acquainted eyes" means exactly that: eyes that are acquainted with love, that know what it looks like, that can recognize it anywhere.
    • So, putting this all together we get the following: "Surely if it is true that eyes that have long been acquainted with love can judge in matters of love, you definitely are experiencing a case of love."
    • Sheesh, that's a lot of work for one sentence, don't you think? But notice how much neater, tighter, and compact the speaker's way of saying it is. And you thoughts poets were all about being long-winded and over the top. Hah.
    • We mentioned earlier that, in the old days, poets liked to end words with "-est" or "-st." We have that again here with the word "feel'st," which should be pronounced as one syllable. Why? Again, if it's not pronounced as one syllable, the iambic pentameter doesn't work. 
    • The speaker sure is intent on personifying the moon and turning it into some kind of love-sick, heavenly body. Knowing what we know about Astrophel and Stella (the sonnet sequence from which this poem is taken), it's pretty clear that the speaker, Astrophel, is projecting, and we don't mean showing a movie. 
    • Well, we sort of mean that. Click here to find out what projecting psychologically means. Think it applies to our speaker?
    • Yeah, us too.

    Lines 7-8

    I read it in thy looks; thy languisht grace
    To me that feel the like, thy state descries
    .

    • This sentence is another toughie, so we'll take it slow. It starts out pretty easy, though: the speaker can "read it" in the moon's looks. What he reads is the fact that it (the moon) is—wait for it—love sick.
    • He can tell because the moon has a "languisht grace." "Languisht" is an old spelling of "languished," and it means weak or lacking energy. "Grace" here just refers to the moon's style of movement, the normally graceful way it ascends into the sky.
    • Remember, the moon is climbing the sky very slowly, with very sad steps, and its face is "wan."
    • The speaker can tell the moon is suffering a "case" of love because his "languisht grace" illustrates ("descries") this "state" to "me [our speaker] that feel the like."
    • So, to sum up: the sentence says "Your lack of energy shows your state to me, because I'm feeling just the same."
    • Just like in the previous two lines, the speaker here gives us a compact, tight, but tricky sentence. The syntax is funky too (note that "descries" comes at the end, just as "tries" does in line 4). 
    • It's also clear that the speaker is feeling the same thing ("the like") and is thus probably projecting his own feelings of love-sickness onto the moon—who, you know, isn't a person and doesn't experience human feelings. 
    • So we've come to the conclusion of the eighth line, which means it's high time we check up on our rhyme situation. It goes like this: ABBA ABBA. Hmm. We've got two quatrains (groups of four lines) that have the same rhyme scheme—interesting. 
    • Head over to "Form and Meter" for more on this stuff. For now, though, this repetitive rhyme scheme seems significant. After all, this poem is all about doubleness. The moon is the speaker's double, his bro, his twin, his companion, his other half—a heavenly body that he (the speaker) thinks is experiencing the same exact feelings.
  • Lines 9-14

    Lines 9-11

    Then, even of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
    Is constant love deemed there but want of wit?
    Are beauties there as proud as here they be? 

    • The poem now shifts from a description of the Moon's and the speaker's lovesickness to a series of more general reflections on love.
    • This sudden shift isn't anything to get fussy about. You see, in sonnets, there's usually a shift of some kind right around line 9.
    • It goes by many names, the "turn" and the "volta" (Italian for "turn") being the most common. (Head over to "Form and Meter" for more on the sonnet as a form.)
    • In general, the first eight lines go in one direction in terms of the content, while the last six go in a slightly different one. Often, this takes the form of problem (lines 1-8) and solution (lines 9-14). 
    • Here, however, it goes: description of the moon and love pains (1-8), then generalized complaints about love and the way woman treat those who love them (9-14).
    • So, let's get down to business. The speaker asks the Moon to tell him if constant love in the heavenly realm ("there") is treated as "want of wit," rather than something beautiful and serious.
    • Clearly, the speaker feels that Stella, the woman he leaves, isn't taking him seriously. She's treating his "constant love" as a lack ("want") of wit (intelligence, cleverness, etc.).
    • He follows up this little complaint of a question with another complaint of a question. "Are women in the heavens as proud as they are here on Earth?" he asks. 
    • Proud isn't the kind of pride you feel when your brother hits the winning home run. No, no, no. The speaker has in mind a disdainful, "I'm too good for you" kind of pride.
    • He's implying pretty clearly that his beloved, Stella, is proud, prideful, even mean to him. Well that's no bueno now, is it? How could she not be charmed by Astrophel and his "constant love"?
    • That's a good question. Um, maybe it has something to do with the fact that he talks to the moon?
    • Okay, we know you're wondering about that little bit about "even of fellowship" that we've so quietly ignored so far. Well, you can relax; we're not ignoring it any more.
    • It's a tricky little clause, but the easiest way to read it is to assume it goes with "constant love" so that the speaker asks: "Is constant love, even of fellowship [friendship or companionship], considered a lack of wit?" In other words, the speaker is wondering whether even the love of being around others—"fellowship"—is considered a total joke.
    • Hmm—that's funny. This whole time we've been thinking about another famous fellowship.
    • Before we move on to this poem's conclusion, note how lines 9-11 echo other lines in the poem. Just like the poem's first line, for example, line 9 contains an explicit apostrophe ("O Moon"), and just like lines 3-4 it contains a question or two. Like we said earlier, doubleness is everywhere in "With How Sad Steps." We're even doubling ourselves by repeating that point for you, Shmoopers.

    Lines 12-14

    Do they above love to be loved, and yet
    Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
    Do they call virtue there, ungratefulness?

    • Woops, we spoke too soon. The speaker has some more questions for the Moon. In a dazzling display of his skill at internal rhyme, he asks whether or not "they above" (i.e., the planets, the stars, anything in the sky) love being loved, and then pull a 180 and "scorn" those who love them.
    • How did we get all that from these lines? Well, "whom that love doth [does] possess" is a Renaissance, poetic way of saying "whom love controls" or "who are doing the loving."
    • So the speaker is describing those who do the loving as being possessed by some powerful force called love. If you've ever been in love, you know that it sure does feel like possession sometimes. 
    • The speaker is wondering about the "scorn" the heavenly objects of affection might feel for these poor, possessed souls who love them. To put it another way, he's asking, "Do those beloved ones—who really love to be the apple of their lovers' eyes—hate on their lovers anyway, like they do down here?" Here poor Astrophel is implying that, even though Stella really enjoys being the object of his affection, and even though he's possessed and unable to control his love for her—well, she's got no time for him all the same. Bummer. 
    • Since he's already asked a bunch of questions, maybe Astrophel should ask one final question before he concludes. In keeping with his complaint, he asks if those in the heavens call "virtue […] ungratefulness." Hmm. This is an interesting little quip.
    • Sounds like the speaker is implying that "constant love" is a kind of virtue, a sign that somebody is capable of experiencing the most powerful and noble of emotions. It also sounds like Stella, for some reason, sees the speaker's display of virtue and constant love as a total joke, as "ungratefulness."
    • Well, we don't know for sure how she feels about the whole thing, but if you're dying for an answer, check out some of the poems before and after this poem in the sequence to satisfy your curiosity. 
    • In the meantime, we can chat about the rhymes in these last six lines, which follow a different rhyme scheme: CDCDEE. 
    • Okay, they sort of rhyme like that. "Me" and "Be" rhyme straight up, but what about "wit" and "yet"? Well, they only sort of rhyme. The consonant endings are the same (the T sound), but the vowels are different. 
    • Now, we can imagine an old British dude pronouncing "wit" and "yet" so that they sound really similar: "wet" and "yet." We can also, however, choose to see this as a sign of the discord that the speaker is discussing with respect to love: virtue is seen as ungratefulness, constant love as a lack of wit.
    • If you assume that these two words don't really rhyme that well, the proper term for that in the poetry biz is half-rhyme, or slant rhyme
    • It's kind of awkward, don't you think? The flow and smoothness of the poem is interrupted, just like the speaker's life has been interrupted by pain. Sad—but then again, love isn't always puppy dog tails and high fives, people.