Sir Phillip Sidney, "Astrophil and Stella" MS ca.1575-85?, ed. prin. 1591
Genre: This is often called a "sonnet cycle" because it tracks in linked sonnets the progressive rise and fall of a love relationship. In creating this structure, Sidney is "translating into English" the poetic strategy invenrted a century earlier by Petrarch, whose Canzonieri told the story of the poet's love for "Laura" in a cycle of sonnets that ran from his earliest love for her to the sorry he felt after her death. However, typically for Sidney who was an avid experimenter in poetic forms, the 108 sonnets are interrupted by 11 songs of varying forms, usually using shorter lines than the sonnet's pentameters (mostly tetrameters [four feet per line]). The Norton editors include the fourth and eleventh songs as examples, and also because they record crucial turning points in the affair celebrated in the sonnets. They also are where you can hear "Stella"'s voice, ventriloquized by the speaker, as he describes her response to his pleas. For one of Sidney's greatest neoclassical achievements, see "Ye Goatherd Gods," a double sestina and one of seventy-eight poems that punctuate the plot of his great prose romance, The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (Norton ed. 911-16). This work, and the songs it contains, are one of the great expressions of the "pastoral" mode in English. Think of Astrophil and Stella as a kind of generic "inverse" of the Arcadia--the latter work was a prose plot containing poems, but the former is a poetic cycle from which one can infer a plot. Full "cycles" composed of sonnets, which are the poet's intentional arrangement, are rare in this period because so much of the poetry was published by piratical printers without the authors' permissions from various manuscript sources. However, the sonnet collection, as a form, became a commonplace achievement of young poets after Sidney and was one of the first published works of one William Shakespeare before any of his plays were published. To see the whole text of all 108 sonnets and 11 songs, though the songs have been presented out of order according to an 1877 editor's decision, click here. For an edition that preserves the songs in their proper order, see William Ringler's edition, referenced in interpretive issue #3 below.
"Leave me o Love" and "Thou Blind Man's Mark," two poems not in the Norton 8th edition, were added by a nineteenth-century editor (Alexander B. Grosart) to the end of the sonnets in the collection. Based on their content, why did Grosart think these two poems were appropriate at precisely that point in the cycle? The poems are available in Greg Bear's digital edition, hyperlinked above. For more on Sidney and the peculiar (not)publication history of Astrophel and Stella, click here.
Characters: The lover, characterized as the "star lover" [astro-phil with a pun on Sidney's first name] and the beloved, "Stella" or star, often are the speaker and spoken-to in these sonnets. However, Sidney's persona often talks to entities he allegorically personifies as "Reason," "Love," "Love," "Queen Virtue," "Sleep," "the Moon," "Patience," "Desire," dawn, and other cognitive phenomena in sonnets that not infrequently describe allegorical struggles among them which we might compare with the dialogues in Everyman. The court surrounding them is populated by friends (loyal), enemies (jealous), and various other characters including her fool of a husband. The reader is invited, especially by the puns in #37, to identify "Stella" with the former Penelope Devereaux who married the wonderfully named Lord Rich.
Plot Summary: What can I say? He loves her, or thinks he does. She tries to be kind, or at least he thinks she does. He pushes his luck--that he admits (in the Fourth Song). And she dumps him (in the Eleventh Song). If you see no ironic, self-mocking humor in his descriptions of his struggles with desire and reason, in his description of love's effect on his performance in combat (#41 and #53), in his claims about his poetic inspiration (#1 and #74), you aren't reading carefully enough. If these poems are read with no ear for that irony, "Astrophil" comes off as a pompous fool. If read with sensitivity, the cycle shows how the whole medieval doctrine of "courtly love" and the courtier's ability to rise to the stars by love (Bembo) may be appreciated even while it is subjected to an enormously entertaining and subtle critique. Perhaps love's "ladder" has agendas of its own, independent of its "climbers"? And what of the Beloved, in Bembo, that useful mortal starting point whose beauty soon is left behind by the Lover as he (always "he") rockets into union with the Divine? What does she get out of all of this? More importantly, what does it cost her? You will have to wait until Lady Mary Wroth for the first sonnets written from a woman's point of view and directly addressing these issues, but Sidney gives us more than enough evidence from Stella's "ventriloquized" voice and Astrophil's unconscious irony to infer what he believes love is like for the Beloved. (If he didn't know, his sister, Lady Mary Sidney, probably would have been more than willing to tell him.)
Issues and general research sources:
You know, from Canossa's comments in The Courtier, that sprezzatura was an act which hid the long periods of study which made possible the graces which seemed too "natural."
For a clue as to the kinds of educational strategies pursued by these young men, see the introduction to Sidney's "Defense of Poesy," which we will read at the conclusion of our assignments in the Elizabethan era.
I've already suggested that, of those reproduced in the Norton, numbers 41 and 53, and numbers 1 and 74 make obvious pairs.
For any one poem you like from those the Norton reprints, there may be similar pairs or trios (or quartets!) in the complete cycle.
For the web site of the Sidney Journal, hosted by Cambridge
University, click here.
Among other things, this site includes an index to the contents of back issues of the journal. The wise student will detect, just from the titles, the general drift of scholarly study of Sidney's poetic practices, his influence on later writers, and the ways this bears on study of his contemporaries' poetry and prose.
Back to English 211, Syllabus View.