"Sonnet 71" is part of Sir Philip Sydney's Astrophil and Stella sonnets featuring his fictional characters Astrophil (Star-lover) and Stella (Star); he wrote over one hundred sonnets that feature these two lovers. In "Sonnet 71," Astrophil praises his lover Stella, using the extended metaphor of a book:
"Who will in fairest book of nature know
How virtue may best lodg'd in beauty be,
Let him but learn of love to read in thee," (1-3).
Anyone who could "read" Stella would see that her "true goodness" and virtues overrule any vices or corruption. She is a paragon of feminine beauty, which not only draws people to her, but influences them to become more virtuous. The first thirteen lines of the sonnet really focus on the connection between beauty and virtue. The last line of the poem is a sharp contrast to the sort of courtly, respectful love of the previous thirteen line, because Astrophil reveals his desire for Stella, claiming to hunger for "food" (14). After contemplating her many lovely features, his desire for her must be sated.
Sir Philip Sidney's Sonnet 71 deals with the desire of Astrophel for Stella. He contemplates all that she is and ponders Love and Virtue and the connection between the two. Asptrophel relates that when one “reads” Stella, or takes all that she is in, he can see the best of Love.
However, Astrophel ponders beyond Love. He wants to see how best Love and Virtue can work together. There is physical passion in newfound love and this can grow more significant as a relationship develops. In other words, it doesn’t always have to wane.
Astrophel wants to know how Love harmonizes with Virtue. He believes that anyone who looks upon Stella can see a great Virtue in her. Feeling Love for Stella causes one to ponder her other qualities as well – in this case the emphasis in Sonnet 71 is her Virtue coupled with her beauty and the Love that it can engender in others, and vice-versa. Love can cause one to look further at her and see her Virtue; Virtue seen in her can cause one to Love her. The alluring factor in all of this is of course her physical charms as well.
Astrophel believes that Stella is the personification of goodness. He also believes that those who experience her goodness, love, and beauty will have no reason to have vices or immoral acts in their life. All that they want of goodness is in Stella, a virtuous woman, so there would be no need to seek a second-rate substitute to satisfy the needs of the flesh.
To Astrophel, Stella is all. He desires her physically, as is related in the final line of the sonnet. Nonetheless, he sees a light in her eyes that alludes to purity. Astrophel sees that Stella’s beauty leads one to Love and that Virtue transforms Love subsequently into doing good. Therefore, to Astrophel, Stella is“…not content to be Perfection's heir…”. To him, she is beyond the world’s standard of perfection and is at a higher level, at least in his eyes and mind.