If one were asked to state in one sentence the theme of Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella, one might offer a sentence such as this: “The theme of Astrophil and Stella is the foolishness of selfish desire.” If one were asked to sum up the subject matter of the sequence in two words, one might offer these two: “foolish desire.”
Both the theme and the subject matter just suggested are memorably epitomized in sonnet 5 of the sequence. In that sonnet, Astrophil admits an entire series of Christian truths before suddenly reiterating, at the end of the poem, his idolatrous obsession with Stella. This structural pattern, in fact, is very common in the sequence as a whole: Astrophil will often concede for line after line that his thoughts and behavior are foolish and misguided, but then he will just as often show in the final lines that he is still infatuated with Stella’s physical beauty.
Sonnet 5, in particular, opens with Astrophil admitting that God created human eyes in order to serve the mind or soul (1). He then admits that the mind, reason, and/or soul ought to rule human beings as a king rules a kingdom (2-3). In lines 3-4, Astrophil concedes that anyone who behaves unreasonably is only likely to be rewarded with pain. In lines 5-7, he admits that the metaphorical arrows of Cupid are metaphorical images which we worship in our hearts, rather than worshipping God. In line 8 he compares Cupid, sarcastically, to a deity who ruins our bodies and our souls. Line 9 concedes the truth of the claim that only virtue is truly beautiful. Any beauty on earth, including Stella, is merely a pale shadow or pale reflection when compared with the true beauty of virtue (10). Anything physically beautiful (such as Stella’s body) is simply made up of a combination of physical elements (such as atoms) which are destined to dissolve or lose their temporary unity (11). Finally, in lines 12-13 Astrophil also confesses yet another standard Christian truth: that humans are merely temporary travelers here on earth. They are created by God so that they can return to the “country” (heaven) from which they came. In line 14, however, having conceded all the preceding truths (truths that would have been accepted as commonplaces by Christians of the time), Astrophil nevertheless returns once more to his obsession:
True, and yet true that I must Stella love.
Ironically, almost every word of this final line except the first word is false. As a sincere Renaissance Christian, Sir Philip Sidney himself would have believed
- that Astrophil did not have to “love” Stella
- that Astrophil did not truly “love” Stella in the truest senses of that word but merely felt attracted to her physical beauty
- that the true focus of Astrophil’s love was actually Astrophil himself; his “love” of Stella was actually rooted in his prior love of himself