When reading Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, how might one interpret the fourth song ("Only joy, now here you are, / Fit to hear and ease my care")?
Although Sir Philip Sidney’s collection of poems titled Astrophil and Stella is usually described as a “sonnet sequence,” it is important to remember that the collection not only includes 14-line sonnets but also a number of much lengthier “songs.” In this respect, the collection greatly resembles the Rime Sparse (“Scattered Rhymes”) of the fourteenth-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (known in English as “Petrarch”).
Sidney’s collection of poems was immensely influenced by Petrarch’s, but Sidney, like many other “Petrarchan” poets, tried to put his own distinctive “spin” of the basic Petrarchan story. In that story, an obsessed young man seeks to win the love of a virtuous woman. In Petrarch’s collection, the woman (Laura) dies before the male has any chance to persuade her to fulfill his desires. She remains virtuous to the end, and indeed she is never tempted to give her wooer what he wants. Eventually, after her death, the wooer realizes that instead of worshipping her physical appearance, he should have appreciated her soul and character. By the end of the collection of poems, he has turned away from earthly desires and is instead focused solely on love of, and from, God.
Sidney’s collection of poems alters Petrarch’s basic narrative in a number of ways. In the first place, Sidney’s speaker is obviously foolish from the very first poem, and Sidney has great fun depicting the foolishness of Astrophil, his comic alter ego. In the second place, in Sidney’s sequence, the virtuous woman (Stella) is momentarily tempted to return Astrophil’s physical desire. The fact that she does not – the fact that she is able to control her passions – makes her seem all the more virtuous. Finally, another key difference between Sidney’s collection and its Petrarchan model is that in Sidney’s collection, the woman actually is given the opportunity to speak for herself, as she does in the fourth song.
In that song, Astrophil urges Stella to give him the physical satisfaction he desires:
Let my whispering voice obtain,
Sweet reward for sharpest pain;
Take me to thee, and thee to me. (3-5)
Stella, however, repeatedly refuses his increasingly-insistent entreaties by replying,
No, no, no, no, my dear, let be. (6)
In other words, she tells, over and over again, “no, I will not give you what you want, and please stop asking me.”
Astrophil, however, is obsessed with achieving his goals (in fact, his obsessiveness is part of what makes him so funny: he will simply not take “no” for an answer). Thus, in lines 7-11, he tells Stella that nighttime is a good time for love-making. (Yet she still refuses him .) In lines 13-17 he notes that beautiful flowers (apparently on a bed-spread) are encouraging them to make love. (Of course, the flowers are doing no such thing; Astrophil is simply interpreting the appearance of the flowers as he wishes to interpret it. In any case, Stella once again refuses .)
In lines 19-23, Astrophil says that the moonlight only calls attention to Stella’s own light in order to raises his chances (or his good luck: his “hap”). He reassures Stella that no one can possibly witness what he wants her to do with him (22) – a clear indication that what he wants her to do is in some way dishonorable or unworthy. Once again, however, Stella refuses (24): if Astrophil is obsessed, Stella is determined.
[INTERPRETATION CONTINUED BELOW]
[INTERPRETATION CONTINUED FROM ABOVE]
In the next stanza (25-29), Astrophil assures Stella that the noise she has just heard was made by a mouse; everyone else in the house except the two of them are fast asleep, yet he imagines that if everyone else were awake, they would actually encourage Stella to give Astrophil what he wants! This claim is foolish on its face, because if other people were to encourage a physical relationship, Astrophil would have no need to be so secretive and stealthy. He would have no need to constantly reassure Stella that they will not be seen or heard. In any case, she once again refuses him (30). Next he tries to persuade her (using the standard argument of carpe diem [seize the day]) that time is running out and that they should make love as soon as they can, before any more time passes. He tells her that if they pass up this chance to make love under such auspicious circumstances, they may never again enjoy such an opportunity (31-35). Once more, however, Stella refuses him (36).
One of the most shocking examples of Astrophil’s obsessiveness occurs in the next stanza, when he reminds Stella that her mother is presently asleep in the very same house. Stella’s mother thinks that her daughter is up late, writing letters. Astrophil jokes that he would like to have Stella take his own dictation (37-41). He wants Stella, in other words, to make love to him in the very same house in which her own mother is sleeping. Presumably, if Stella’s mother were awake, she would not be happy about Astrophil’s designs on her daughter.
Perhaps this last suggestion, of deceiving her mother, is too much for Stella to take, or perhaps Astrophil himself has now become more physically insistent. In any case, in the next stanza it seems clear that Stella is physically resisting his advances. She is using her hands, apparently, to push him away. If this is so, then her repeated refrain, asking him to “let be,” has taken on a new meaning. She now seems to be urging him to leave her alone physically – perhaps to stop touching her (48).
In the final stanza, Astrophil returns to the kind of self-pity that is so typical of so many Petrarchan lovers. He thinks that Stella may now hate him. He therefore decides (finally) to leave her alone (“I forbear” ). However, instead of blaming himself for his own bad behavior, he instead blames his “destinies” for the fact that he has fallen – that he has failed to achieve his objective (52). This tendency to blame fate rather than to accept personal responsibility is typical of many Petrarchan lovers.
Astrophil ends his speeches by apparently threatening suicide (53) – or perhaps he is merely claiming, in standard Petrarchan fashion, that her refusal will kill him. In any case, Stella once more reiterates her refrain, although this time her words can perhaps be interpreted as a plea to him not to take his life or not to allow himself to die (54). Stella actually does care about Astrophil (in fact, she loves him in the proper way, not as he claims to “love” her). She wants what is best for him, even if that means that she must constantly deny him the mere physical pleasure he desires.
The preceding interpretation only skims the surface of an immensely rich (and immensely ironic) poem.