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...

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