The sonnet is composed of fourteen lines of iambic hexameter. An iamb or iambic foot contains two syllables, one unstressed and one stressed. Hexameter means...
Sonnet 6 of Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella displays some interesting poetic features in the realms of meter, rhyme, diction, imagery, and mythology.
The sonnet is composed of fourteen lines of iambic hexameter. An iamb or iambic foot contains two syllables, one unstressed and one stressed. Hexameter means that each line contains six feet, in this case iambs. Let's look at an example:
Of hopes begot by fear, of wot not what desires (line 2).
The stressed syllables are in bold. We can see the iambic pattern, unstressed followed by stressed syllables, repeated six times.
While Sidney's meter is quite regular, his rhyme scheme is rather odd for a sonnet. If we assign each rhyme it own letter, the fourteen lines give us the pattern ABABBABA CCDEED. The A rhyme appears in lines 1, 3, 6, and 8 with entertain, pain, rain, and vein. The B rhyme ends lines 2, 4, 5, and 7 with desires, fires, attires, and retires. The C, D, and E rhymes appear twice each, in lines 9 and 10 with affords and words; in lines 11 and 14 with move and love; and in lines 12 and 13 with they and display. This is not a standard sonnet rhyme pattern, yet the poet's choice here actually reflects the message of his poem. He is writing about how he cannot express his love for Stella in a normal fashion. He must be different from other poets, and so he is, even in his choice of a rhyme scheme.
Sidney also seeks to be different, and rather playful, in his poetic diction, his choice of words. Look at line 4: Of living deaths, dear wounds, fair storms and freezing fires. These four adjective-noun combinations are prime examples of the oxymoron, the combination of contradictory words or images. We would not normally associate living with deaths, dear with wounds, fair with storms, or freezing with fires, yet Sidney does. He wants his readers to think about how these seemingly opposite ideas actually fit together to express an interesting image.
Speaking of imagery, Sidney provides plenty of that in Sonnet 6 as well, especially poetic conceits, metaphors that compare dissimilar things. In fact, the entire sonnet makes fun of the standard conceits that poets use to praise their lovers. In line 3, Sidney speaks of “force of heavenly beams” and “hellish pain.” In lines 7 and 8, the poet refers to the pastoral images often used in sonnets, suggesting perhaps that these are somewhat silly and even false, for the “rural vein,” the pastoral images and words, is really filled with “royal blood,” or upper-class city dwellers. In lines 10 and 11, he pokes a bit at the sad poet who gushes sweetly to his love,
While tears pour out his ink, and sighs breath out his words,
His paper pale dispair, and pain his pen doth move.
Notice the images: ink like tears, words breathed out like sighs, paper pale as despair, and a pen moved by pain. Yet the poet says that these do not apply to him. His “map” for expressing his love for Stella is again quite different.
Finally, Sidney makes use of mythological allusions in this sonnet. He mentions Muses in the first line, those spirits who inspire poets in their art. In lines 5 and 6, he refers to poets who speak of the god Jove's rather unorthodox means of making love to human women, taking the form of bulls, swans, or golden rain. Most readers in Sidney's day would have been familiar with these myths, so the mere allusion to them would have recalled the full story. Yet the poet claims that these old tales, too, fall short to express his love for Stella, even as he employs a wide range of delightful poetic devices to create his own sonnet.