Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1528
The thirty-first sonnet in the sequence Astrophel and Stella begins with the line “With how sad steps, O moon, thou climb’st the skies.” Like many other sonnets in this sequence, it is modeled after the form of the sonnet made famous by the Italian poet Petrarch. The poem is made of two main parts, an eight-line “octave” and a six-line “sestet.” The octave rhymes abbaabba, where a represents the first rhyme used and b the second. This scheme is the almost invariable rhyme pattern of the Italian sonnet; the sestet, in this poem cdcdee, permits other variations.
Sidney also follows the traditional form in tailoring the content to the form; it, too, has two parts. In the octave, Astrophel asks the moon, which looks somehow sad to him, whether it, too, is subject to the emotion of love; he uses the traditional figure of Cupid’s arrow, which characteristically wounds lovers. Surely, the moon, having observed many lovers, knows the feeling of unrequited love, and Astrophel judges the moon to be a kindred spirit.
Having established this relationship with the moon, the lover asks a series of questions, the effect of which is to reveal more clearly the sorry state of his love affair. He asks first whether “constant love” on the moon is taken as a lack of “wit” (intelligence). Behind this question lies his perplexity that Stella cannot appreciate his fidelity to her. He asks whether beautiful women on the moon are as “proud” as they are on earth. Whereas the lover is humble in his allegiance, the fair beauty remains distant and proud. His next question, whether scornful lunar beauties nevertheless “love to be loved,” shows more than a tinge of resentment. He cannot be sure that Stella loves him, but she clearly enjoys his attention. His final question, whether on the moon “ungratefulness” is considered virtuous, is his most bitter one. Given the fact that Astrophel has already recognized (in Sonnet 25) Stella’s beauty as the beauty of virtue, his doleful conclusion is that her failure to appreciate him must be an aspect of her virtue.
The language of this sonnet is vigorous and direct. The ten one-syllable words of its first line set a deliberate pace for the musing lover, and words such as “sad,” “silently,” and “wan” in the first two lines immediately establish the mood. It is probably not possible for the moon to serve poets in quite the way it did Sidney now that humans have visited it and walked in its dust, but lovers still feel able to communicate over great distance by gazing at it concurrently, and disappointed lovers such as Astrophel can still think of it as a silent companion to which their sorrows can be told. Thus, Sidney’s sonnet still speaks as eloquently of a lover’s disappointment as it did four centuries ago.
Sonnet 74 of Astrophel and Stella, “I never drank of Aganippe well,” comes at a later stage of Astrophel’s pursuit of Stella. It should be noted that a sonnet sequence with love as its theme implies, but does not tell, a story. It is not a continuous narrative but the expression of the various emotional states, situations, and reflections of its speaker.
In the case of Astrophel and Stella, there are reasons for identifying its speaker with its author. The latter’s nickname appears in the character’s name, while the first part of that name, in addition to being a word for “star” (making him a “star-lover,” for “phil” is also a Greek root meaning “love”), calls to mind another Latin word for “star,” one of whose forms, sideris, looks very much like “Sidney.” Furthermore, Stella has been explicitly identified as the wife of the Lord Rich who married Penelope Devereaux, the woman once proposed as a wife for Sidney. Therefore, it is easy to imagine these poems as expressing Sidney’s own thoughts and feelings.
Although there may be a considerable amount of Sidney in Astrophel, nevertheless Sidney is not Astrophel. Sonnet 74 furnishes some evidence that Sidney is quite capable of distancing himself from his character, in this case through humor. The Aganippe well is at the foot of Mount Helicon and is sacred to the Muses, the deities who inspire creative endeavor. Astrophel asserts that he has never had anything to do with the Muses and, as a matter of fact, disclaims any knowledge of how poetry is produced. Nor has he stolen any ideas from any other poet. He insists, however, that he has been able to compose smooth flowing verse. How has he managed to do it? The answer, which he reveals in the last line, is that his “lips are sweet, inspired with Stella’s kiss.”
He has not exactly gotten a kiss from Stella, but he has managed to give her one while she was sleeping, and that kiss has not only restored his good spirits but also inspired a string of sonnets, including number 74.
Astrophel there is a plainly comic figure, almost a bumpkin. His “smooth” verse includes a line such as the following: “But (God wot) wot not what they mean by it.” (“Wot,” by the way, means “know.”) He is conducting a dialogue with himself, as though he himself cannot understand what has suddenly turned him into a poet, until it suddenly comes to him like a burst of inspiration.
This poem inclines toward the English form of the sonnet, which Shakespeare later made famous. The rhyme scheme of the octave is abababab; that of the sestet, cdcdee. The pattern of alternating rhymes comes close to the ababcdcdefefgg pattern that Shakespeare later used, a scheme that resulted in three quatrains and a couplet rather than the Petrarchan octave and sestet. This poem, however, retains the characteristic turning point at the end of the octave. It is in the octave that Astrophel insists that he has never been a poet before, while in the sestet he raises the question of how he has suddenly become one, answering it in the ending couplet. There, as often in Shakespeare, the couplet has a distinctive function: It tersely answers Astrophel’s question.
Unlike many sonnet cycles, Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella contains eleven songs interspersed among the sonnets. Not all Renaissance compositions called songs are in fact singable, but Sidney’s are, particularly number 11, “Who is it that this dark night . . . ?” which has received several musical settings. It consists of nine five-line stanzas, each an exchange of two lines sung by Stella and three by Astrophel. In the ninth stanza, she urges him to “begone.” It is the climactic part of the sequence, coming after Sonnet 104; in the last four sonnets, he will attempt, with only partial success, to come to terms with his rejection.
Stella has previously urged him in another dialogue song (8) to end his suit out of respect for her “honor” (presumably because she is married—though unhappily so), but she left it open for Astrophel to admire her from afar. His presence beneath her window now indicates how difficult it is for him to follow this advice. In this poignant dialogue song, she parries in succession each of his pleas. First, she expresses surprise that he is there at all and that his interests have not shifted to someone else. When he vows that he cannot change, she suggests that absence from her will probably solve the problem. He admits that the passage of time in many cases makes lovers forget their old passions, but he will remain “faithful” to her. Surely he will meet more beautiful women, Stella points out, but he claims that he will see their beauty as merely “counterfeiting” hers. Reason, Stella says, counsels him to cease indulging in such emotions; his love for her is actually based on reason, he responds. She concedes that his unavailing love for her inflicts “wrongs” on him that should bring it to an end, but he proclaims himself willing to suffer any pain that this love inflicts.
Realizing that Astrophel will counter any argument that she can make, Stella suggests that someone may be listening and that, if he stays longer or returns, she will be angry. Because Astrophel does not want to “endanger” her, he agrees to leave, complaining of the injustice of his fortune and, bitterly in the final line, of the fact that he must yield to “louts.” It is clear that Astrophel considers Stella’s husband a “lout.”
Astrophel and Stella is one of the most dramatic of Renaissance sonnet sequences, and this eleventh song brings the conflicts within, and between, the lovers to a high point. The expression of love is all on Astrophel’s side; each pair of lines that Stella speaks sounds curt and detached. The reader knows from earlier poems that Stella really does love Astrophel, however, and that she is now stifling all feeling because she knows that, if she gives him the slightest encouragement, he will never stop pursuing her. He pours his feelings out, but he loves her enough to recognize the discomfort and even danger that a continuation of their relationship may produce, and so he leaves.
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