How might one interpret sonnet 30 ("Whether the Turkish new moon minded be") of Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In sonnet 30 of Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella, Astrophil once more stresses his obsession with Stella. He claims that when others ask him questions about international affairs, he politely offers answers, although all that he really cares about is Stella. This sonnet follows a pattern very common within the sequence as a whole: often, in the final two lines of many poems, Astrophil returns to his fixation on Stella, having been only temporarily distracted by other matters.

In the opening two lines of the present poem, Astrophil reports that he has been asked

Whether the Turkish new moon minded be

To fill his horns this year on Christian coast . . .

In other words, someone has asked Astrophil whether the Turks – Muslims who used the crescent moon as a symbol and who were considered especially dangerous enemies by devout Renaissance Christians, such as Sir Philip Sidney – plan to conquer Christian lands this year. This is a topic in which Sidney himself would have had a profound interest; the fact that Astrophil is not really concerned about this question is a very clear indication that Astrophil should not be identified with Sidney, except as his comic alter ego, whom Sidney playfully mocks.

Astrophil has also been asked about Poland’s relations with Russia; about conflicts within France between Protestants and Catholics; about similar religious conflicts in Holland; about England’s control of Ireland (control partly imposed by Sidney’s own father); and about affairs in the royal court of Scotland. These are precisely the kinds of questions in which Sidney himself was intensely interested. In fact, he ultimately lost his life in Holland, having volunteered to help Dutch Protestants fight the forces of Catholic Spain. Sidney, a deeply devout Protestant himself, had also traveled throughout Europe as a young man, partly because he was in fact deeply interested in foreign affairs and in England's international status. In fact, Sidney was so interested in such matters that he highly annoyed Queen Elizabeth by advising her (as did many influential Protestants) against her plans to marry a French Catholic.

The fact that Astrophil professes no interest in such affairs, but is instead obsessed with his physical desire for Stella, is therefore just one more example of the way that Astrophil is presented as a much less serious, much less conventionally worthy young man than Sir Philip Sidney himself was widely known to be. Sidney creates an alter ego whose failures and shortcomings help highlight Sidney’s own virtues.  Astrophil is obsessed with Stella's body; Sir Philip Sidney's interests were far more intellectually and spiritually worthy. Little wonder, then, that when he died as a result of battle wounds in Holland, he was celebrated as a great English hero.




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