A Sonnet for Morgenbesser: Dear Astrophil, Love Stella

Two summers ago, I sat in on a wonderful introductory poetry course taught by John Whittier-Ferguson. Among the poems we read was Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet Astrophil and Stella 63 (“O Grammar rules…”).

In this sonnet sequence,1 Astrophil is less than successfully wooing Stella. By this 63rd sonnet he resorts to linguistic trickery: You have said “No, no,” to me, but two negatives are a positive, so you’re saying “Yes”! In his words:

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.

Reading this, I instantly knew what Stella’s response should be. So, one lovely summer day, rather than doing my math, I took up my poetry pen for the first time since elementary school haikus, and wrote this:

Dear Astrophil, Love Stella

“Yes, yes!” I say to you—with caveat.
I warn: bewitching can our language be;
This game might lead to nought but misery
For you who tried to win me o’er by thought.
Even for those who think on ‘is’ and ‘ought,’
’Tis not so easy as it seems to be.
A famous don once gave a talk, you see,
Where by his aperçu he did get caught.
“That from two nos we get a positive,
Of this there’s evidence corroborative.”
Thus did our wise and learned chair declare.
“And yet you must agree that it is so,
That from two yays we never get a no.”
—Whence from the back the quick retort: “Yeah, yeah.”

–Rafe Kinsey, July 2011

My Stella is recounting the famous quip of the late Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, who offered this remark after the British philosopher of language J.L. Austin claimed that double positives never make a negative.2

Morgenbesser was a wonderful character, renowned for his wit. Let me offer a few of my favorite quotes:

  • During his final, painful illness: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?”
  • Morgenbesser published very little in his life. In response to criticism of his meager written output, he said, “Moses wrote one book. Then what did he do?”
  • About an older professor he did not admire: “The Lubavitcher Rebbe has more doubts in a single night than that man has had in his entire life.” (This quote reminds me of certain particularly dogmatic analytic philosophy professors I knew in college.)
  • On pragmatism: “It’s all very well in theory but it doesn’t work in practice.”
  • To psychologist B.F. Skinner: “Let me see if I understand your thesis. You think we shouldn’t anthropomorphize people?”
  • Asked what it is that a philosopher does: “You make a few distinctions. You clarify a few concepts. It’s a living.”3

For more, see his New York Times obituary, this remembrance from Columbia College Today, this remembrance from the Times, and the list of stories on his wikipedia page, from which I’ve drawn most of these quotes.

  1. My summary here comes from secondary sources; I haven’t read beyond this 63rd sonnet. For more on the sonnet, see this helpful site from the Poetry Foundation. 
  2. Some sources suggest Morgenbesser’s response was “Yeah, right!” If so, my poem can be changed as follows: Line 11 becomes So did our don preface his deep insight and line 14 becomes —Whence from the back a sigh arrived: “Yeah, right.” This version is actually easier to parse, since “Yeah, right” more immediately reads negative, while with “yeah, yeah” you have to hear the right intonation to get the negative. But I prefer the “yeah, yeah” version, which matches the opening “Yes, yes!” 
  3. From the first issue of Lingua Franca, “Letter to our Readers.” This is unfortunately unavailable online; the late Aaron Swartz’s wonderful archive only has content that was on the old website, rather than the complete archives.