Which literary techniques appear in some of the poems from Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence?

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karaejacobi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Astrophil and Stella is a sonnet sequence by Sir Philip Sidney that contains over one hundred sonnets. It is thought that the figure of Astrophil, the speaker, represents Sidney himself and that Stella is a stand-in for Penelope Devereaux, a woman with whom Sidney had a relationship but who ended up marrying another man. We see traditional sonnet form and complex emotions (related to unrequited love) that we would expect in this poems. Sidney also uses apostrophe and figurative language in many of his works. I will isolate just a few of the sonnets as examples: Sonnets 1, 30, and 39.

Sonnet 1 serves as an introduction to the sonnet sequence and encapsulates Astrophil's feelings for Stella. The structure of the poem describes a process, wherein Astrophil will pour out his soul to Stella, that she "might take some pleasure of my pain" (line 2). Here we see the complex feelings often described in sonnets: there is pleasure because the speaker loves the subject and thinks she is beautiful, but he cannot be with her, so it is also painful to love her. Here, he reverses that a bit by saying that if he is in pain, he at least hopes that she will get some pleasure from reading about it. This could also be considered an example of irony. It could also be considered ironic that the speaker's goal is Stella's "pity" (4), rather than her love.

Astrophil goes on to discuss all of the methods he has tried to produce poetry that might please Stella. He uses metaphor when he says that he spent time "turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow / Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn'd brain" (7-8). The "leaves" refer to other poets' works, which he has looked to for inspiration. He wants his brain to be watered, or inspired, by the "fruitful showers" of other poets, which might lead him to new, "fresh" ideas. Ultimately, in Sonnet 1, Astrophil realizes that he must be true to himself. He quotes the figurative "Muse" in the final line, who tells him to listen to his own heart and look inside himself for inspiration.

Sonnets 30 and 39 are more similar to each other in their style and techniques than the introductory sonnet is to them. Both sonnets begin with apostrophe, a poetic address to an entity that is either nonhuman or not present to respond to the speaker. Sonnet 30 sees Astophil addressing the moon in the line, "With how sad steps, O moon, thou climb’st the skies!" (1). He is reflecting on the moon's figurative "sad" tone and addressing the moon directly.

Apostrophe also lends itself to personification, as the speaker is treating the given entity as a person to whom he can speak. Here, the moon is given a "wan . . . face" (2) in addition to it's "sad steps." Sonnet 30 sees the speaker asking the moon a series of questions about love on the moon, wondering whether lovers there are as luckless and downtrodden as he. The conversational questions establish a rapport between the speaker and the moon, as he imagines their commonalities. The questioning gives the speaker a tone of helplessness and desparation, enhanced by the fact that he is addressing his queries to the moon rather than some human friend.

In Sonnet 39, the speaker addresses sleep, an abstract concept, through apostrophe.  His address to sleep is an entreaty: "Come Sleep!" (1). He is begging sleep to visit him. He then goes on to describe sleep through a series of metaphors that compare sleep to "peace" (1), "balm," (2), and "release" (3). He sees sleep as an "indifferent judge" (4) who visits every man, regardless of how miserable he may (as Astrophil, indeed, is). He further personifies sleep by imagining it as a physical protector, carrying a "shield" (5) that protects him from figurative "darts" (6) being painfully hoisted at him. Imagery is then used to describe a peaceful sleep chamber in lines 9-11. We learn at the end of the poem that the speaker is desparate to sleep because it provides him an escape from his thoughts of Stella. 

All three poems are sonnets of 14 lines with a rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter. All of the poems contain a poetic turn or shift, as required by sonnet structure. Figurative language is also present in all of the poems. 

vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella is a collection or sequence of sonnets and other poems that tell the story of Astrophil’s foolish obsession with the beautiful Stella. 108 sonnets appear in the sequence (not to mention various “songs”). Over the course of the sequence, Sidney employs just about every common literary technique used in English (and even some that are not so common). Examples include the following:

  • In sonnet 1, Astrophil describes himself as

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show

That she (dear She) might take some pleasure of my pain:

Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,

Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain . . . .

Note here the use of repetition for emphasis, as in “she (dear She)” and also in the repeated nouns (such as “pleasure). Note also the use of an emphatic list (“pleasure,” “reading,” “knowledge,” and “pity”). Assonance and alliteration appear together in such phrases as “she, (dear She),” while assonance appears by itself in such phrases as “grace obtain” and alliteration appears by itself in such phrases as “might make.” Heavily accented first syllables appear at the very beginnings of lines 1, 2, and 4.

Examples of other techniques that appear in later poems include the following:

  • Political or historical allusion appears, for instance, in the reference to a “slave-born Muscovite” (2.10).
  • Classical allusion appears, for instance, in the reference to the muses as the “Sisters nine” (3.1). See also almost the whole of poem 13.
  • Geographical allusion appears, for instance, in the reference to “Inde or Afric” (3.7).
  • Personification appears, for instance, in the reference to “Nature” (3.14).
  • Metaphor appears, for instance, when Astrophil compares himself to a horse and tells a personified Virtue that “My mouth too tender is for they hard bit” (4.8).
  • Petrarchan paradoxes appear, for instance, in the reference to “living deaths, dear wounds, fair storms, and freezing fires” (6.3).
  • Pastoral language appears, for instance, in the reference to a “shepherd’s pipe” (6.7).
  • Similes appear in such phrases as “sun-like,” which is used to describe Stella’s beautiful eyes (7.8).
  • Imagery of colors appears in such phrases, for instance, as “Marble mix’d red and white do interlace” (9.8).
  • Anaphora, or beginning lines with the same word, appears, for instance, in 12.2-6.
  • Enjambment, or failing to use punctuation at the end of a line, appears, for instance, in 12.6-7.
  • Balanced syntax appears, for instance, in the statement, “When most I glory, then I feel most shame” (19.3).

This list could very easily be extended, but by now the point is clear: Sidney was a master of poetic and rhetorical devices, and he not only employed almost all of them but almost always employed them with great skill.

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Astrophil and Stella

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