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 entire section is 1528 words.)