The Poem

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

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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Astrophil and Stella Forms and Devices

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

As practiced by the Italians, the sonnet characteristically comprised an eight-line unit, the octave, rhyming abba, abba, and a six-line sestet, employing various patterns of c and d, or c, d, and e rhymes. Usually the beginning of the sestet marked a turning point in the content. For example, the octave might be primarily descriptive, the sestet reflective; or the octave might pose a problem, the sestet move to resolve it. The meter was normally iambic pentameter throughout.

From the first sonnet in Sidney’s sequence, he shows a respect for convention and a willingness to depart from it. He begins with a hexameter sonnet, that is, one with an extra poetic foot in each line. Its octave rhymes abababab, the cross-rhyming pattern which Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, had introduced earlier in the century. The first half-dozen sonnets exemplify five different rhyme schemes and include a second poem in hexameter. Sidney tends to retain the Italian structure, as the initial words in the sestets of the first few poems—“but,” “now,” “for”—suggest. Although he is fond of a rhyming couplet at the end, he seldom employs a full stop at the end of the twelfth line, as Shakespeare would soon be doing, and thus does not often turn the couplet into a distinct structural feature of epigrammatic force.

In addition to the variety of his sonnet forms, Sidney achieves a flexibility beyond that of earlier sonnet makers such as Surrey and Sir Thomas Wyatt. He gives the impression of running easily in his sonnet harness and will make his turn at various points, sometimes delaying it, as in Sonnet 1, until the last line, where Astrophel’s muse finally dispels his bafflement by urging him to look into his heart, or in Sonnet 71, where, after Astrophel struggles for thirteen lines to love Stella chastely and reasonably, “But ah, Desire still cries, ‘give me some food.’ ” Within the constraints of his meter, Sidney effectively varies caesura, rhythm, and pace to convey a sense of a nimble mind at work and a spirited heart being put through its paces.


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Astrophil and Stella Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

Hamilton, A. C. Sir Philip Sidney: A Study of His Life and Works. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. A critical biography based on original sources, which also analyzes Sidney’s works in the probable order of their composition and provides insight into Sidney’s development as a poet.

Kalstone, David. Sidney’s Poetry: Contexts and Interpretations. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965. A specialized study focusing on the way Sidney reinvented the Italian poetic genres in English. Offers excellent analyses of the Astrophil and Stella sonnets in a form accessible to the general reader.

Kay, Dennis, ed. Sir Philip Sidney: An Anthology of Modern Criticism. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1987. A collection of essays, mostly previously published, which concern all aspects of Sidney’s writings, among them (previously available only in specialized literary journals) several dealing exclusively with the Astrophil and Stella sonnets.

Rudenstine, Neil L. Sidney’s Poetic Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967. A chronological study of Sidney’s poetic works, which includes a detailed discussion of the Astrophil and Stella sonnets.

Weiner, Andrew D. Sir Philip Sidney and the Poetics of Protestantism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1978. Provides helpful readings of Sidney’s poetry, though limited by a critical theoretical approach, then in vogue, that connects sixteenth and seventeenth century theology and poetry. In the case of the Astrophil and Stella sonnets, this critical approach is quite illuminating, though a bit specialized for the general reader.