Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

Wit is both a quality and a theme of Astrophel and Stella. In the 108 sonnets he uses forms of the word forty-two times. (By comparison, Shakespeare uses the words “wit” and “wits” only nine times in 154 sonnets.) The Old English word witan meant “to know,” and wit had for centuries referred to mental capacities, especially intelligence. Among Renaissance literary men, wit signified one’s facility at literary invention, which is the aspiration of Sidney’s lover first and last.

Sidney wrote the first important critical treatise in English, An Apologie for Poetrie (1595); it was also published as Defence of Poesie (1595) and is still known by both titles. It is an eclectic document drawing upon the thought of ancient authorities such as Plato, Aristotle, and Horace and blending in the theories of earlier Renaissance figures such as Julius Caesar Scaliger. Astrophel shares his creator’s inclination to harmonize, if possible, the poetical and rhetorical pronouncements of many authorities. Neoclassicists of Sidney’s time had metamorphosed Aristotle’s mimetic theory into a recommendation to imitate other writers, so Astrophel is to be found, in his first sonnet, “turning others’ leaves.” While Astrophel is trying to be witty by imitating his predecessors, Sidney is being witty through wordplay: Other poets’ “feet” merely get in Astrophel’s way.

Sidney’s lover has a particular fondness for Horace’s famous dictum that poetry should “teach and delight” and his insistence on what came to be called “decorum,” the choosing of stylistically apt expression. Astrophel has high hopes that through his verse Stella “might take some pleasure of my pain,” and that through this pleasure she might come to “know.” He has a difficult time finding the “fit words” that will achieve another Renaissance poetic aim, that of motivating Stella to go beyond just knowing, for “Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain.” It is this “moving” effect of poetry, by the way, which looms largest in An Apologie for Poetrie.

There is one thing that Astrophel has forgotten in his initial enthusiasm. Poetry is supposed to move men to virtue, and his love for the married Stella is not...

(The entire section is 940 words.)