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Last Updated on October 27, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 318

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Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella is a collection of sonnets and songs expressing a love story between two individuals. Sometimes spelled “Astrophel,” the title is a moniker derived from the text and originally written in Italian, and it speaks to the nature of the poetry at hand.

These sonnets were written to convey a deep message of love, as Astrophil claims an undying affection for his dear Stella. Many of the sonnets are joyful, expressing great admiration and hope at the unification of Astrophil and Stella, while some are much more somber, relating the idea that the two are disconnected and can’t be united. As there are a grand total of 108 sonnets and 11 songs, the different poems express vivid and wildly different concepts and emotions, but all are centrally tied to the relationship between Astrophil and Stella.

Astrophil is a Greek conglomeration meaning “Star Lover,” as “astro” relates to the stars and “phil” is a common addition meaning love, lover, or lover of. Stella, on the other hand, is a Latin word meaning “Star,” so the text is literally meant to be about a Star and her lover. In some ways throughout the text, their distance is touched upon. While Astrophil deeply cares for Stella, he can never seem to properly approach her at times because she is a distant star.

This title implies that there is some disconnection in their love, and many believe that the sonnets are actually from Sir Philip Sidney to his lifelong love and former fiancée, Lady Penelope Devereux, who was married off to another man after their union dissolved. It appears that Sidney still deeply pines for her and knows of the discord in her marriage—he writes many sonnets expressing a continued, burning desire for her. The sonnets are full of the deeply intimate, flowery language of love, which suggests a very deep connection between the two.


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Last Updated on October 27, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1711

Although an imitation of the much earlier Italian sonnets of Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374), better known as Petrarch, Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella helped create the vogue for that genre in late Elizabethan England. It was the first great Elizabethan sonnet sequence, predating William Shakespeare’s by at least a decade. For the student of Sidney’s life and poetry, it has additional interest for its autobiographical implications, reflecting Sidney’s vain attempt to woo Penelope Devereux (1563–1607).

Born to an influential noble family, Sidney considered his most important role in English letters to be that of a patron rather than a poet. His support of poets Edward Dyer, Fulke Greville, and Edmund Spenser (whose The Shepheardes Calender of 1579 was dedicated to Sidney) expressed his conviction that the English language could rival French and Italian in poetic beauty, a conviction he expressed in his posthumously published Defence of Poesie (1595). Sidney’s poetry was well known among Elizabethan noblemen but not published until after his death.

Although it is easy to exaggerate the autobiographical element in the Astrophel and Stella sonnets, there is little doubt about the identity of the two main characters of the title. “Stella” is Penelope Devereux, the beautiful daughter of the first earl of Essex. The earl’s dying wish was for Penelope to marry Sidney, but at that time, in 1576, she was but thirteen, and there is little likelihood that Sidney had even met her. He probably did not meet her until the summer of 1581, and in November of that year she married Robert, third Baron Rich.

By bestowing the pseudonym “Stella” on the object of his sonnets, Sidney was following the pattern in amorous poetry set by Petrarch, who in his sonnets celebrated his beloved under the name of “Laura.” However, with the name Stella, Sidney attains further significance, for as well as being a female name it is the Latin word for “star.” The speaker of the sonnets, then, the lover of Stella, is aptly named Astrophel, or “star-lover” in Greek; moreover, the “phil” coyly echoes Sidney’s first name. There is no doubt about associating Astrophel with Sidney: sonnet 30 indicates that Astrophel’s father is governor of Ireland, as was Sidney’s, and sonnet 65 describes Astrophel’s coat of arms, which is clearly that of the Sidney family. (Similarly, the Devereux coat of arms is described as Stella’s in sonnet 13.)

Sidney’s sonnets, like Petrarch’s, form a “sequence,” a group of sonnets each of which is an artistic whole, yet which together develop a pattern of ideas. This pattern is not a “story” or “plot,” for the form is not narrative, but a development of character or emotions. Each sonnet explores a slightly different aspect of the love between Astrophel and his Stella, and from one sonnet to another their situation changes. Throughout the sequence, Stella is already married to another (an indication, though not proof, that they were all written after November, 1581); what changes is her treatment of Astrophel. Properly scornful of his advances at first, she gradually relents, giving him a kiss in sonnet 74. Interspersed with the 108 sonnets are eleven “songs” in various meters, the last of which includes Stella’s voice (which does not appear in the sonnets) debating with Astrophel. By that point—only four sonnets follow this last song—Stella regrets having given her heart to Astrophel, and he is constrained to leave.

Sidney shows amazing structural inventiveness in these sonnets and varies their rhyme schemes considerably. Petrarch’s sonnets display the complex rhyming pattern that a rhyme-rich language such as Italian makes possible: it is basically a two-part pattern, in which the first eight lines form a single unit (octave) and rhyme abbaabba and the last six lines form another unit (sestet) and rhyme variously but with never more than three rhyme sounds. To duplicate this pattern in English is more difficult, since there are fewer rhyming words for any given sound than in Italian. Nevertheless, Sidney does so in many of the sonnets: even when he varies the abba pattern with alternating rhyme, he still uses only one rhyme sound—abababab—in the octave. Within the basic two-part structure of the Petrarchan sonnet, however, Sidney introduces an innovation that anticipates the Shakespearean form: the octave divides further into two quatrains (sets of four lines), and the sestet is often yet another quatrain followed by a couplet (a rhymed pair).

The first Astrophel and Stella sonnet serves as an introduction to the whole, being a sort of sonnet on how to write a sonnet. Anxious to please Stella, the speaker decides to send her poetry but cannot decide how to go about writing it. After all his ideas are exhausted, the poet-lover finds his answer in the last line: “‘Fool,’ said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart and write.’” The second sonnet then flashes back, revealing the course of his love for Stella, which develops gradually, “Not at first sight.” After a few more sonnets declaring his love for Stella, Astrophel admits in sonnet 5 that reason is better than love, that love is an illusion, that true beauty is the eternal beauty of virtue—and yet he still loves Stella.

Sonnet 6 is another sonnet about sonnets. Like the first, it contrasts the imitative nature of other lover-poets with the honest simplicity of the heart that the muse advises Astrophel to consult in sonnet 1. Sidney returns to this topic in sonnet 15, where he lists types of bad poets and contrasts them to himself, whose only muse is Stella. The muses, or goddesses of inspiration in classical mythology, appear in seven of the sonnets (1, 3, 6, 55, 60, 77, and 84) and are contrasted to Stella, who is Astrophel’s muse.

The fact that Stella is married, and thus that Astrophel’s love for her is adulterous, was a long-standing Petrarchan tradition: it allows for an idealization of the lady and of the love, which is usually presented as unconsummated. The troublesome husband is usually not acknowledged in Petrarchan sonnets. In Astrophel and Stella, the husband is referred to directly in only three sonnets. All three, however, contain puns on the name of Penelope’s real-life husband, Lord Rich. In the first of these, sonnet 24, “rich” is the first and the last word of the sonnet: “Rich fools there be,” it opens, and after discussing rich fools in general, and the rich fool who happens to be married to Stella in particular, Astrophel curses the fate that made this fool rich in Stella’s love and cries in the last line, “Let him . . . grow in only folly rich.” The pun on Lord Rich’s name recurs in sonnet 35 (“Fame/ Doth grow ever rich, naming my Stella’s name”) and in sonnet 37, which laments that, though Stella is rich in everything, she “Hath no misfortune, but that Rich she is”—that is, that her name is Rich.

Despite these broad hints, the major conflict in the sonnet sequence is not between the two rivals for Stella’s heart; since he is not much of a presence in the sonnets, the husband is not much of a threat to Astrophel there, whatever his status outside the world of the sonnets might be. What stands between Astrophel and Stella is not so much a real husband as the idea of a husband—or, to put it in the terms used in the sequence, the conflict is between Love and Virtue. Both Love and Virtue appear as allegorical characters, or personified abstractions. Love, in fact, appears under two names, Love and Cupid. Since Love is often referred to in Astrophel and Stella as the blind boy with the bow, the reader can properly consider them two names for the same character.

Love personified appears in 44 out of 108 (more than 40 percent) of the sonnets and in six out of eleven (more than half) the songs. The characterization of Love as a supernatural being influencing Astrophel is one of Sidney’s triumphs, and it allows him to analyze and record the complex psychology of love in the poetry. Love is in turn a “Lieutenant” in the wars of passion (sonnet 36), a military conqueror (42, 43), a scholar (46), and an eternal boy (sonnet 73 and song 2).

The conflict between Love and Virtue is the subject of sonnet 52, but it appears explicitly in six other sonnets, 5, 25, 31, 48, 62, and 72. The first time Virtue and Love are mentioned together, the conflict is not seen: Virtue is embodied in Stella, who engenders Love in Astrophel. However, the power of Virtue to make Astrophel “burn in love” (sonnet 25) produces an irony: that very Virtue will not allow Stella, while another man’s wife, to return Astrophel’s love. Astrophel turns this moral irony into a sophistical seduction poem in sonnet 52. He argues that, while Stella’s “fair outside” belongs to Love, her soul belongs to Virtue. Until the final couplet, it sounds as if Astrophel is making the argument of traditional morality: the spiritual beauty that is the stuff of Virtue outweighs the merely physical beauty that is the stuff of Love. Then come the last two lines: “Let Virtue have that Stella’s self; yet thus / That Virtue yet that body grant to us.” Thus Astrophel tries to have his cake and eat it, too, to satisfy both Virtue and Love.

A memorable element of the Astrophel and Stella sonnets is the striking physical description of Stella. Not that description itself is unusual; the “vertical description” of the beloved, from head to toe, is a hallmark of the Petrarchan sonnet tradition. What is unusual is Sidney’s departure from the Petrarchan cliché of the blue-eyed blonde as the feminine ideal to that of a dark beauty. The minor poet Henry Constable, to whom Lady Rich was later a patron, confirmed Astrophel-Sidney’s description when he wrote of Penelope’s “black sparkling eyes.”

In Astrophel and Stella, Sidney extended the range of the Petrarchan sonnet sequence and led the way for other English imitators of the Italian sonneteers. They transcended imitation by inverting many of the conventions and probing various psychological states of the lover. Moreover, they are the first English sonnets to include the voice of the woman, thereby forcing the character of the lover to display greater subtlety than had prevailed before in English verse.


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Last Updated on October 28, 2021, 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 onnet 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.