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The epitome of the Elizabethan courtier, the Renaissance man, Sir Philip Sidney was a valiant and recognized soldier, a respected nobleman and statesman, a patron of the arts, and a brilliant writer. He died at age 32 from a wound suffered in battle.
Sir Philip Sidney Astrophil and Stella(click to see video)
Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella is an example of a sonnet sequencea group of sonnets exploring all aspects of a topic, a group of sonnets exploring all aspects of a topic. This group of sonnets describes all facets—the good times and bad times, the ups and downs—of the love that “Astrophil” has for “Stella.” Stella means star and Astrophil, star-lover; most scholars believe that the fictional names disguise Sidney himself and the woman he loved, Penelope Devereux, who later married another man, Lord Rich. Notice Sonnet 37 which plays on the word rich.
These sonnets are Petrarchan in content. They follow the convention of the exaggerated lover’s complaint, lamenting his unrequited love for an impossibly beautiful woman. In some of the sonnets, Astrophil is elated because of his love; in others he exhibits despair bordering on a suicidal despondency.
Penshurst, home of Sir Philip Sidney.
Astrophil and Stella may be read on the following websites:
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burned brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
Fool, said my muse to me, look in thy heart and write.
This sonnet is the introduction to Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella. The speaker states that he’s so much in love that he wants to tell his beloved in writing how much he loves her. A point to remember is that in the 16th-century court flirtations and affairs in the courtly love tradition were still common. Although the Sidney and Devereux families at one time considered a marriage, this arrangement did not work out, and in all but the earliest sonnets, Sidney is writing to a married woman. Because this sonnet sequence is in the Petrarchan convention, we expect exaggerated claims about his beloved’s unearthly beauty and how he is dying for love of this woman.
Astrophil studies other people’s writing (“inventions”) and turns pages (“leaves”) of their books, trying to get ideas for his own poem. When he says other “feet” get in his way, he’s talking about poetic meter, poetic feet—another reference to other people’s poetry. He even compares himself to a pregnant woman struggling to give birth to a child; he’s “great with child” trying to give birth to a poem. Finally, his Muse tells him where he should look for his ideas for a poem to Stella—in his own heart.
When Nature made her chief work, Stella’s eyes,
In color black why wrapped she beams so bright?
Would she in beamy black, like painter wise,
Frame daintiest luster mixed of shades and light?
Or did she else that sober hue devise
In object best to knit and strength our sight,
Lest, if no veil these brave gleams did disguise,
They, sunlike, should more dazzle than delight?
Or would she her miraculous power show,
That, whereas black seems beauty’s contrary,
She even in black doth make all beauties flow?
Both so, and thus,—she, minding Love should be
Placed ever there, gave him this mourning weed
To honor all their deaths who for her bleed.
This poem is typical Petrarchan praise of the beloved’s beauty, the overly-sentimental love poem content that seems extreme to modern sensibilities. Stella’s eyes are the most beautiful thing in nature. But, he asks, why would nature color something as brilliant as her eyes black? Black is usually the color of mourning. Maybe it’s because her eyes are so dazzling that men would be blinded by them if they weren’t a dark color, Astrophil surmises in a typical Petrarchan exaggeration. (This is the type of content Shakespeare mocks in his Sonnet 130). He finally concludes that nature made her eyes black to mourn all the men that have died for love of Stella.
With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies !
How silently, and with how wan a face !
What, may it be that even in heavenly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?
Sure, if that long with love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case;
I read it in thy looks; thy languisht grace
To me that feel the like, thy state descries.
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?
Do they above love to be loved, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call virtue there, ungratefulness?
A sonnet sequence records the ups and downs of a love affair. This poem is one of the “downs.” In an apostrophean address to an inanimate object or an abstract quality, an address to an inanimate object or an abstract quality, Astrophil is speaking to the moon, asking if the moon is moving so slowly and is so pale because he (the moon) is love-sick like Astrophil. Has Cupid been shooting the moon with his arrows as he’s been shooting Astrophil? Note the stereotypical marks of being in love that appear in Capellanus’ rules of courtly love.
Note that in the last six lines Astrophil seems a bit sarcastic or bitter. He’s been seen as behaving stupidly (having a “want of wit”) for chasing Stella, and she apparently has scorned him (he says the beautiful women are proud and love to be loved—love the attention they get). Then in the last line he finally tells us what is really annoying him: “Do they call virtue there [in the moon’s realm] ungratefulness?” Apparently Stella has refused his sexual advances, but he thinks that her “virtue” is just “ungratefulness.” In other words, she ought to be so grateful for all the attention he’s showered upon her that she gives in to his sexual advances. And he’s annoyed that she won’t.
Come Sleep! O Sleep, the certain knot of peace,
The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release,
The indifferent judge between the high and low;
With shield of proof, shield me from out the prease
Of those fierce darts Despair at me doth throw;
O make in me those civil wars to cease;
I will good tribute pay, if thou do so.
Take thou of me smooth pillows, sweetest bed,
A chamber deaf to noise and blind to light,
A rosy garland and a weary head:
And if these things, as being thine by right,
Move not thy heavy grace, thou shalt in me,
Livelier than elsewhere, Stella’s image see.
This sonnet is the low point of the sonnet sequence. While he is annoyed in Sonnet 31, he’s depressed in this one because Stella rejects him. He wishes he could sleep because sleep would be a resting place, a respite from the pain of his unrequited love. Some critics even go so far as to see the poem as a death wish. But, Astrophil says, there is pain even in his sleep because he may dream of Stella.
Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance
Guided so well, that I obtained the prize,
Both by the judgment of the English eyes,
And of some sent from that sweet enemy, France;
Horsemen my skill in horsemanship advance,
Townsfolks my strength; a daintier judge applies
His praise to sleight, which from good use doth rise;
Some lucky wits impute it but to chance;
Others, because of both sides I do take
My blood from them who did excel in this,
Think Nature me a man of arms did make.
How far they shot awry! the true cause is,
Stella looked on, and from her heavenly face
Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.
Astrophil is happy again in this sonnet. He’s won a tournament (the typical knights jousting on horseback). People wonder what enabled him to win: his inherited strength and skill, his fine horsemanship, or maybe he was just lucky. But Astrophil says the reason he won is that Stella was there watching and just the sight of her “heavenly face” inspired him to victory.
I on my horse, and Love on me doth try
Our horsemanships, while by strange work I prove
A horseman to my horse, a horse to Love;
And now man’s wrongs in me, poor beast, descry.
The reins wherewith my rider doth me tie,
Are humbled thoughts, which bit of reverence move,
Curb’d in with fear, but with gilt boss above
Of hope, which makes it seem fair to the eye.
The wand is will; thou, fancy, saddle art,
Girt fast by memory, and while I spur
My horse, he spurs with sharp desire my heart:
He sits me fast, however I do stir:
And now hath made me to his hand so right,
That in the manage myself takes delight.
This sonnet is an amusing view of how Astrophil feels about his obsessive love for Stella. Astrophil compares the way he controls his horse to the way his love is controlling him. As you read through the sonnet, you’ll see references to the bit, the reins, the saddle—all the things he uses to control his horse. And his love is controlling him just as thoroughly. And surprisingly enough, he says he loves her so much he doesn’t mind being controlled by his love.