In his Apology for Poetry, Sir Philip Sidney argues that the purpose of the poet is
to imitate: and imitate both to delight and teach: and delight to move men to take that goodness in hand, which without delight they would fly as from a stranger: and teach, to make them know that goodness whereunto they are moved, which [is] the noblest scope to which ever any learning was directed . . . .
In other words, Sidney is typical of many theorists of poetry in the Renaissance who believed that poetry, by providing pleasure, should teach morality and inspire people to be virtuous.
Numerous sonnets from Sidney’s own Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence show Sidney himself following his own advice. Among those sonnets are numbers 71 and 81.
Sonnet 71 begins by asserting that anyone who wants to see a perfect combination of physical beauty and moral virtue need only look at Stella. Her body is attractive, but her mind, character, and personality “true goodness show” (4). By celebrating Stella’s “true goodness,” this poem celebrates true goodness in general and thus encourages such goodness in its readers. In fact, Sidney’s poem and Stella both contain “fair lines which true goodness show” (4). The next several lines celebrate Stella’s reason, which was often considered the trait possessed by human beings that showed their close connection to God. Stella uses her reason to “overthrow” vice, so that both she and the poem once again promote morality.
It is in lines 9-13, however, that the resemblances between Stella and Sidney’s own poetry become clearest. Just as the physical beauty of Stella encourages others to pay attention to and profit from her moral beauty, so the same (one might argue) is true of Sidney’s poems. The more pleasure we take in Sidney’s poetry, the more we (should) also profit from it morally. Yet in the last line of sonnet 71, Sidney follows a procedure he employs in many other sonnets: he ends with comic irony. After Astrophil spends thirteen lines celebrating both beauty and virtue, his own physical “Desire” bursts out and announces that it also wants to be fed. The ending is funny, but it only reinforces, through irony, the basic moral lesson the poem teaches.
Sonnet 81 is in some ways even more ironic than sonnet 71. In sonnet 81, Astrophil extols the pleasures and rewards of kissing, although his reference to “fruits of new-found Paradise” (2), by reminding us of the first sin in the Garden of Eve, already raises the strong prospect of irony. Astrophil’s total focus on physical contact should warn us that we should not take him nearly as seriously as he takes himself. Stella has a far more virtuous and sensible attitude toward kissing: she forbids Astrophil to kiss her and,
. . . with blushing words, she says
She builds her fame on higher-seated praise . . . (9-10)
In other words, Stella would prefer to be known for something more important than being either good to the taste or a talented kisser herself. Yet the poem ends, as these poems often do, with an ironic, comic presentation of Astrophil’s continuing obsession. He never gives up.
Both of these sonnets, then, exemplify Sidney’s theory that poetry should please us in order to teach us morality. Both poems depict Stella’s virtue and thereby (should) encourage us to desire to be similarly virtuous.
Something extra: See in particular the essay by Thomas Roche cited below.