How might one analyze sonnet 18 from Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Sonnet 18 from Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence is typical of the sequence as a whole in many ways, including the following:

  • The sonnet begins with an emphasis on Astrophil’s shame over his irrational behavior in pursuing Stella merely for her physical beauty. The irony, of course, is that no matter how often Astrophil concedes that his desires are shameful, he nevertheless continues to pursue them. He is obsessive in his desire for Stella, and in some ways he comically resembles the kind of person who would be known today as a “stalker.”
  • In line 2, Astrophil explicitly concedes that his conduct and motives are unreasonable; he violates the rational standards to which God expects human beings to conform.
  • In lines 3-4, Astrophil admits the he has thus far wasted the gifts God gave him – gifts he received simply by being born a human being rather than an animal.
  • In lines 5-6 he confesses that he feels

Unable quite to pay even Nature’s rent,

Which unto it by birthright I do owe . . .

In other words, he realizes that he faces certain obligations and expectations simply because he has been born a human being. Yet he also realizes that he has failed to act according to those obligations and expectations.

  • In lines 7-8, he confesses not only that he has so far wasted the gifts – especially the intellectual and mental gifts – he has been given by God but also that he cannot justify such waste (“no good excuse can show”).
  • In lines 9-10 he admits that so far his knowledge has produced nothing but “toys” (worthless vanities, including these sonnets). The irony, of course, is that Sidney himself, unlike his literary creation Astrophil, has used his own knowledge to produce morally worthy and spiritually substantive poems that condemn, through irony, the vain behavior Astrophil exhibits.
  • Line 10 is one of the most crucial lines in the whole poem. This is the line in which Astrophil concedes that his “wit” or reason “doth strive [his] passions to defend.” Reason was expected to control, constrain, and correct irrational passions, not defend them. Astrophil has been behaving irrationally, and he openly admits this.
  • In line 11, Astrophil admits that his passions abuse his reason.
  • In line 12, Astrophil concedes that morally and spiritually he is on a downward, self-destructive path.
  • Yet in lines 13-14, Astrophil (in a way that is typical of many of the conclusions of many of these sonnets) paradoxically proclaims that he wishes he had even more to lose “for Stella’s sake.”
  • The final line of the poem is ironic for several reasons: (1) Astrophil is not motivated by true, genuine, spiritual love for Stella but by his own selfish desires; (2) he thus loses nothing “for Stella’s sake” but rather for his own; (3) he does indeed have more to lose (including even potentially his soul) if he continues to pursue his lustful infatuation with Stella.
  • The final line of the poem is, perhaps, the most irrational line so far and indicates the obsessive nature of Astrophil’s lustful fixation on Stella.