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:

  1. Sidney was praised by those of his generation as the consummate courtier, the man who best exemplified the social, political, and aesthetic qualities demanded of those who served the queen and her state.  His career, like Chaucer's, Wyatt's, Surrey's and those of numerous courtiers, required some degree of excellence in the following areas of competence: poetic composition (of course!), political strategy, military tactics, rhetoric, aesthetics, and philosophy.  Some courtiers were even more extensively accomplished, turning their hands to the emerging modern sciences of astronomy, biology, chemistry, mathematics, etc.  (Even Chaucer wrote a full description of the operations of the astrolabe, the medieval instrument of navigation and astronomical observation that was the direct ancestor of the sextant which is still used by navigators to locate their positions in distant seas.)
    • What accounts for these courtiers' extraordinary displays of versatile learning and skill?

    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."

    • What do you infer were the educational processes and support systems that enabled aristocratic and bourgeois children to acquire this broad range of capabilities which enabled them to succeed at court?

    For the Luminarium page containing a short biographical summary of Sidney's life and a portrait which may represent him, click here.

    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.

  2. Following that same line of thinking, how does "Astrophil" represent a fulfillment and critique of the behaviors and values discussed in Castiglioni's The Courtier, and referred to in the social contest about "noblesse" and "gentilesse" in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer?   Compare his playful description of his love affair's progress with the somewhat more serious version of this same discussion in Wyatt's and Surrey's works.
    • What behaviors or values do you see these three men referring to that are not mentioned in Castiglioni?
    • Would these be the product of an additional fifty years of change in an England that was changing from conservative, feudal, agrarian lifestyles to those of a radical, nationalist and imperialist, state founded in craft manufacturing and world trade?
    • Or do they amount to a sense of "Englishness" as distinct from "Italianness" that we could trace back to the behaviors of Byrtnoth's vassals at the Pante or the lament of the traveler in "The Wanderer"?
    • Sidney's family was politically powerful, and Sir Philip more than once entered into political debates which angered Elizabeth I and her advisers.  He, like Wyatt before him, was "rusticated" or sent down to one of his family's country houses (viz., palaces) at Wilton for openly disputing the wisdom of marriage negotiations which might have led Elizabeth to marry a Catholic prince to make peace with England's Continental Catholic rivals, France and Spain.  How does the iconography of the Beloved, rules for representing beauty and power, which we see in Astrophil and Stella, fit into the Elizabethan court aesthetic which we see in court portraits of the Queen, like the Ditchley portrait seen in close-up on the cover of your Norton Anthology?
  3. Sidney's sonnets often pursue in miniature the formal experiments we see in the grand structures of the double sestina ("Ye Goatherd Gods," see above) or the overarching patterns in the sonnet cycle as a whole.
    • Do you see any small "sets" of poems which you might make by forming pairs or trios of sonnets on similar subjects?  For instance, the anti-Petrarchanism of #6 is linked elsewhere to anti-Classicism and anti-pastoralism (#1, #6, #74 and elsewhere?).  In fact, isn't there a kind of "meta-strategy" at work here whereby "Astrophil" generates poems by rejecting previous schools of thought and advice from friends, philosophy, even Stella, herself?
    • Should we take the pastoralism of The Arcadia seriously even though it is mocked in sonnets like #6.  Sidney certainly spent a lot of time writing in the pastoral mode, and expended enormous creative energies upon it.  In "Ye Goatherd Gods" as two "shepherds," Strephon and Klaius, sing twelve alternating six-line stanzas (hence "sestina," a "sixer") ending in a one-line and two line epode, all lines of which end in varying combinations of the words "mountains," "valleys," "forests," "music," "morning," and "evening."  This kind of art is like the Fabrege Easter eggs created for the Czars, or the finely patterned tribal rugs woven in the Middle East, symbolic and intricate and precious but far more "overbuilt" than an ordinary poem, shelf-decoration, or floor covering needs to be.  Like a supercomputer or a triathlon athlete, they extend to the absolute limits the creative industry of a being in full control of creativity itself.

    I've already suggested that, of those reproduced in the Norton, numbers 41 and 53, and numbers 1 and 74 make obvious pairs.

    • What does reading them side-by-side do to your interpretation of both poems that reading one in isolation would not reveal?

    For any one poem you like from those the Norton reprints, there may be similar pairs or trios (or quartets!) in the complete cycle.

    • Wouldn't you at least like to look at the poems immediately before and after the one you like, just to see if it's part of such a pattern?
    • You can see all of the cycle, with the songs in their proper places, in William Ringler's edition of Sidney's Poems (826.3 S56Hp at Julia Rogers Library).
  4. Since the Wife of Bath spoke up in defense of women, we have become aware that gender and voice are significant issues in lyric poems of this era.   For instance, the white deer of Wyatt's "Whoso list to hunt" has no voice at all, but her neck is encircled by the bejeweled first-person ventriloquism of her "owner," her "Caesar," Henry VIII.
    • How startling is the intrusion of the voice of the barefoot and suddenly naked female visitor to Wyatt's room who asks him "Dear heart, how like you this?" (in "They Flee from Me")?  Find "Stella"'s voice in these poems, and listen to what the poem reports her saying.  How is the Beloved's subjectivity, her range of emotions and thoughts, constructed by those intrusions?  What do you infer was left out?  Again, comparisons with Lady Mary Wroth's poems will help when we get to her, since she puts the woman in the first-person speaker's place and refers in third person to the man.

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.