How might one interpret sonnet 28 of Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence?"

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In sonnet 28 of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence, Astrophil rejects allegorical or symbolic interpretations of his poetry. In lines 1-3 he addresses those who make a habit of reading other writers’ poems allegorically.  By doing so (he says), they make those poems into “changelings” – children (often ugly) supposedly substituted by fairies for attractive originals, whom the fairies steal. Astrophil thus implies that anyone who reads his poems allegorically will inevitably misread them, substituting unattractive interpretations for appealing originals. Astrophil pleads with interpreters not to mishandle his own poems in this way (3). He claims that he has no intention of winning fame as a poet by writing in a way that encourages allegorical readings (4):

You that with allegory's curious frame,

Of others' children changelings use to make,

With me those pains for God's sake do not take:

I list not dig so deep for brazen fame. (1-4)

Astrophil claims that when he refers to “Stella,” he means the real, flesh-and-blood Stella, not some allegorical abstraction, though he immediately and ironically allegorizes Stella herself as a “Princess of Beauty” (6). He continues to speak allegorically when he refers to Cupid as “Love” and when he compares Cupid’s control of him to the control that “reins” impose on a horse. He professes that he actually takes joy in Cupid’s control over him, even though he knows that such control is widely considered shameful (8). People in the Renaissance were expected to control their passions, not to be controlled by them.

Astrophil next proclaims that he is not writing his poems in order to show off any “eloquence” (9), nor is he using his poems to imply some hidden philosophical teachings (10). He is not offering, he claims, anything complicated in these poems (11); instead he is simply expressing the flames of passion for Stella that he feels within his heart (12-13).  Instead, he claims that he is merely taking a kind of dictation from Cupid (14). In short, Astrophil professes that the only purpose of his poems is to declare his love for Stella.

Many readers have persuasively argued, however, that poems such as this one should in fact be read ironically. These readers have contended that the whole purpose of the entire Astrophil and Stella sequence is to present a heavily ironic, often comic picture of Astrophil himself, who in many ways makes himself a “fool” for love – or, rather, whose selfish infatuation with Stella is comically foolish. According to these kinds of readers and readings, Astrophil is the somewhat ridiculous alter ego of Sir Philip Sidney, an eminently wise and virtuous young man.  Sidney, by creating Astrophil, not only mocks the irrationality of that character and of all people who think and behave as Astrophil does; he also, through his mockery, implies how different his own values, personality, and motives are.

It would not be surprising if Sidney, a man who believed that the whole purpose of poetry was to teach and encourage virtue, were having some further ironic fun in this poem with his somewhat witless alter ego – making Astrophil reject allegorical readings, but having him do so in a way that actually prompts us to look for allegorical meanings.

 

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