The adjective “Petrarchan” alludes to the writings of the 14th-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (known in English as “Petrarch”). Petrarch’s most influential compositions consisted of a collection of 366 sonnets and longer songs known as the Rime sparse, or Scattered Rhymes. In this “sonnet sequence,” the speaker becomes infatuated with a beautiful and virtuous woman (“Laura”), but she fails to reciprocate his desires. Ironically, only after she dies does the speaker begin to love truly what made her truly beautiful: her virtue. While she lived, he was obsessed with her physical beauty; after her death, he learns to love her as he should have loved her all along: spiritually.
Petrarch’s sonnets were enormously influential throughout western Europe and began to have a major impact on English writers in the sixteenth century. Astrophil and Stella, however, is the first attempt in English to write a sonnet sequence with the same basic themes as those found in Petrarch’s poems. Here again we have a young man obsessed with the physical beauty of a virtuous woman, and here again the man’s physical desires are ultimately disappointed.
Sidney, however, like many imitators of Petrarch, imitates while innovating. Thus, Stella is not nearly as remote as Laura was, and indeed Astrophil even manages to kiss her while she is sleeping. However, the real innovation of Sidney’s sequence lies in its blatant comic ironies and mockery of Astrophil’s ridiculous behavior. Sidney makes Astrophil a much more obviously foolish figure than Petrarch’s lover had been (although he had been foolish enough). Sidney has great fun mocking his namesake’s obsessive desires.
Consider, for example, the tangled phrasing of the second line of sonnet 6, where Astrophil speaks of “hopes begot by fear, of wot not what desires.” Or consider the ways Astrophil quickly runs through a whole list of Petrarchan paradoxes in line 4 of the same poem, where he speaks of “living deaths, dear wounds, fair storms, and freezing fires.” Or consider how the timorous Astrophil is implicitly mocked in line 14 of that sonnet, when he remarks that his “trembling voice brings forth that I do Stella love.”
The comedy of the sequence, like the true motives of Astrophil, becomes even more blatant in sonnet 52. There, Astrophil can barely mention Stella’s name without interrupting himself with a fawning interjection: “Stella (O dear name) . . . Stella” (6). At the very end of the poem, it becomes quite clear that Astrophil’s main interest is in Stella’s “body” (14), and the same interest is made comically clear in the last line of sonnet 71: “‘But ah,’ Desire still cries, ‘give me some food.’”
In short, Sidney adopts the basic Petrarchan “plot” of a man obsessed with the physical beauty of a virtuous woman, but he also adapts that plot, giving the whole situation a much more comic twist. Astrophil, unlike the speaker in Petrarch’s sequence, never really seems to learn any valuable spiritual lessons as a result of his disappointed infatuation. He is as frustrated at the end of the sequence as he had been at the beginning.