Sir Philip Sidney composed Astrophel and Stella (Astrophel is sometimes spelled “Astrophel”) between 1581 and 1583, most likely in the summer of 1582. A sequence of 108 sonnets and eleven songs, it is an important work in the history of English poetry for several reasons.
As the initial sonnet sequence of any scope in English, it domesticated a form in England that had been perfected in Italy by Francesco Petrarca—best known as Petrarch—in the fourteenth century, and that was later imitated in France and elsewhere in Europe. Earlier English poets had written sonnets but without making any attempt to weave them into a unified work of substantial proportions. The sonnet sequence does not, strictly speaking, tell a story but presents a series of reflections on, or lyrical celebrations of, a single subject. The preferred Renaissance subject was love, especially the love of a man for a woman who, for one reason or another, does not respond to his entreaties.
Second, Astrophel and Stella, first published five years after Sidney’s death from a war injury in the Netherlands, touched off a vogue of late Elizabethan sonnet writing that climaxed in William Shakespeare’s great cycle and thereafter persisted as an important poetic form down into the twentieth century. Sidney’s sequence is thus one of the most influential works of poetry in the annals of English literature.
Finally, the work remains one of the best examples of its type. It plumbs the psychology of the lover, Astrophel (“star-lover”), as he contemplates the beautiful Stella (“star”), who marries another man and gives little encouragement to Astrophel because of her need to guard her reputation. Some of the individual sonnets, particularly Sonnet 31, “With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies,” have become anthology favorites of readers unfamiliar with the sequence as a whole.
Astrophel and Stella bears tantalizingly autobiographical references to its author, whose first name is included in “Astrophel,” as it is spelled by most modern editors and presumably intended by Sidney, and to Penelope Devereux, daughter of the earl and countess of Essex. There is a family connection, for after her husband’s death Lady Essex married Sidney’s uncle, the earl of Leicester. There is no independent historical confirmation of a love affair between Sidney and Penelope Devereux, but it is difficult to read the sequence carefully without concluding that some sort of affair took place.
Stella is, in a number of respects, the...
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