Astrophil and Stella is Sir Philip Sydney’s renowned sonnet sequence, comprised of 108 sonnets and 11 songs. Although the inspiration for the sonnets is not known for certain, it is believed that the sequence is largely autobiographical and inspired by his relationship with Penelope Devereux, who is represented in the sequence by Stella. The introspective, self-analytical nature of Sydney’s sonnets highly contrasts from the way Sydney was said valued his personal privacy over the course of his life.
Sydney’s poems in Astrophil and Stella followed, in many senses, the traditions of Petrarch and the Italian, French, and Spanish writers that imitated him. played various emotional conditions against each other, such as hope and despair, fondness and resentment, bodily cravings and spiritual longings. In this Sidney touches on a few main themes throughout the sonnet sequence. One of these themes is that of love versus desire. Throughout the sequence Astrophil is shown as being madly in unreciprocated love with Stella. But this love quickly turns to desire that he cannot control, and ultimately leads to the downfall of their platonic relationship. Another theme, and all encompassing metaphor, is the difference between light and day as the difference between Stella being with Astrophil and not being with him, respectively. Even the name of the sequence and characters imply this metaphor, translating to “star-lover” and “star.”
LANGUAGE AND STRUCTURE:
Sidney’s poems in Astrophil and Stella can be categorized primarily as English sonnets. However, it is important to point out that his form throughout the story of Astrophil and Stella is constantly changing throughout the sequence, the first sonnet uses the rhyme scheme ABAB-ABAB-CDCD-EE, the second is ABBA-ABBA-CDCD-EE, and the fifth is ABAB-BCBC-DEDE-FF. This use of changing rhyme scheme could be a way of intensifying, or quickening, the plot to the climax of the story. In addition to the rhyme scheme, the structure of the individual lines varies in some of the poems. While most are in the form of by iambic pentameter, some poems have lines with more syllables than others. For instance, in Sonnet 1, the lines are each twelve syllables long. Perhaps he is doing this with the intention of trying to draw them out to portray the agony that Astrophil is trying to feel. Sidney also uses various metaphors throughout his sonnets, such as comparing love to a “freezing fire.”
SONNETS SELECTED FOR ANALYSIS:
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That the 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 sunburned 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.”
ANALYSIS OF SONNET 1:
In this sonnet, Sidney – narrating as Astrophil – is expressing that he hopes his pity will win over his desired lover, Stella, and he is attempting to convey is love for her in verse. Hence, this poem touches on the theme of the value of poetry, which Shakespeare and Spenser did as well. In the first stanza, Astrophil is saying that is writing poetry to get Stella’s attention, and asking her to read his poetry so that she might understand how deeply he feels for her.
The first two stanzas, in particular, abound with expressions that evoke calls for self-pity and demonstrate how desperate he is for Stella’s attention. In line 5, the phrase “sought words to paint the blackest face of woe” promotes an extremely brutal image, but shows his attempt to capture his pain in writing and to make her sympathetic towards him. “Studying inventions fine” means that he was studying literature in the effort to entertain her. In line 7, he uses the word “leaves,” echoing Spenser’s use of “leaves” in the first poem of Amoretti. The phrase “sunburned brain” in line 8 means that he cannot think of the words to write about her, as if he has writer’s block or is worn out from writing so much.
In the third stanza, the phrase “halting forth” is an oxymoron. Many of the Elizabethan sonnet writers used oxymorons in their poems. In this case, the phrase means that he was very close to thinking of the words but that they just wouldn’t come out. It could also be interrupted to imply that he was stuttering. Finally, the ending couplet leaves us with a statement from one of the Muses telling him to just write about how he feels. Referring to the Muses in the poems is a tradition in the Elizabethan sonnets.
Back to Elizabethan Sonnet Sequence
Greenblatt, Stephen, George Logan, Katherine E. Maus, and Barbara K. Lewalski. The Norton Anthology of British Literature: Volume B. Ninth ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. Print.