Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 312

Astrophil and Stella is a collection of over a hundred sonnets by Sir Philip Sidney that express a deep and sincere love for Stella, who is likely his former lover and fiancee, Lady Penelope Devereux.

This collection of love poems and songs is a long and detailed outcry for his...

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Astrophil and Stella is a collection of over a hundred sonnets by Sir Philip Sidney that express a deep and sincere love for Stella, who is likely his former lover and fiancee, Lady Penelope Devereux.

This collection of love poems and songs is a long and detailed outcry for his lover, ranging in emotion from overjoyed and hopeful to somber and morose over their disconnection. The litany of poems suggest a longtime devotion to writing her poetry, potentially in the hopes of winning her back.

The brief poems create a somewhat cohesive, if unusual, narrative of the two lovers, named "Astrophil and Stella" as the title suggests, and mixes their relationship with musings and discussions from the Fates and Reason itself. It takes the form of a Shakespearean play or a Greek tragedy in that it frequently calls out Nature and other inanimate constructs who apparently influence their relationship.

There are many instances in the poems where Astrophil states that he has been told by other forces that he must move on, he must cease loving Stella, but he refuses to do so. In one instance, Nature has told him to move up to the country and forget about her, but he can't leave her behind. This lends credence to the idea that Stella is, in fact, Lady Devereux, with whom he is still infatuated.

The loose narrative of the story is confusing and nonsensical, meant not to tell a true story but to weave the details together of their romance and his separation and yearning for her. It creates a quasi-story in which Astrophil and Stella are passionately in love, but the unseen forces that guide life have driven them apart. They continue to pine for one another, but because of the external forces, they can never be united—echoing the idea that the two are a star and her lover.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1061

Sir Philip Sidney composed Astrophel and Stella (Astrophel is sometimes spelled “Astrophel”) between 1581 and 1583, most likely in the summer of 1582. A sequence of 108 sonnets and eleven songs, it is an important work in the history of English poetry for several reasons.

As the initial sonnet sequence of any scope in English, it domesticated a form in England that had been perfected in Italy by Francesco Petrarca—best known as Petrarch—in the fourteenth century, and that was later imitated in France and elsewhere in Europe. Earlier English poets had written sonnets but without making any attempt to weave them into a unified work of substantial proportions. The sonnet sequence does not, strictly speaking, tell a story but presents a series of reflections on, or lyrical celebrations of, a single subject. The preferred Renaissance subject was love, especially the love of a man for a woman who, for one reason or another, does not respond to his entreaties.

Second, Astrophel and Stella, first published five years after Sidney’s death from a war injury in the Netherlands, touched off a vogue of late Elizabethan sonnet writing that climaxed in William Shakespeare’s great cycle and thereafter persisted as an important poetic form down into the twentieth century. Sidney’s sequence is thus one of the most influential works of poetry in the annals of English literature.

Finally, the work remains one of the best examples of its type. It plumbs the psychology of the lover, Astrophel (“star-lover”), as he contemplates the beautiful Stella (“star”), who marries another man and gives little encouragement to Astrophel because of her need to guard her reputation. Some of the individual sonnets, particularly Sonnet 31, “With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies,” have become anthology favorites of readers unfamiliar with the sequence as a whole.

Astrophel and Stella bears tantalizingly autobiographical references to its author, whose first name is included in “Astrophel,” as it is spelled by most modern editors and presumably intended by Sidney, and to Penelope Devereux, daughter of the earl and countess of Essex. There is a family connection, for after her husband’s death Lady Essex married Sidney’s uncle, the earl of Leicester. There is no independent historical confirmation of a love affair between Sidney and Penelope Devereux, but it is difficult to read the sequence carefully without concluding that some sort of affair took place.

Stella is, in a number of respects, the conventional heroine of medieval and Renaissance love poetry, but she boasts, in addition to her blonde hair, fair skin, and rosy cheeks, unconventional black eyes, as did Penelope. In several of the poems, Sidney makes pointed allusions to her “rich” husband—and Penelope married Lord Rich. In one poem, Astrophel’s father is referred to as having subdued Ulster, an obvious parallel to an activity of Sidney’s own father, a colonial governor of Ireland. Despite these and other autobiographical details, however, the author often establishes a considerable aesthetic distance between himself and Astrophel, who must be regarded primarily as a character rather than as a mere disguise for Sir Philip Sidney.

The sonnet sequence is not a novel and cannot be thought of as demonstrating a plot; rather, Sidney presents a series of emotional crises, internal—and occasionally external—conflicts, and solitary musings on the course of a love affair that is destined to remain unconsummated. In the first sonnet Astrophel, already smitten by Stella’s charms, decides to “show” his love in verse with the hope of winning her favor, but he cannot find the appropriate words until his muse, disgusted with the lover’s unavailing efforts to imitate other poets, counsels him in the final line of the poem to “look in thy heart and write.”

Soon it occurs to Astrophel that he should be pursuing virtue and not mere earthly beauty, but he continues to concentrate, sometimes defiantly, on the latter, while at other times he justifies his course with logic-chopping mental gymnastics. He vows to revert to virtue, but the mere sight of Stella undermines his resolve. Another problem is Stella’s coldness; her heart is a “citadel” against him, presumably because a rival already “enjoys” her. (Although Sidney may have known Penelope Devereux before her marriage, it appears unlikely that there was then any opportunity for intimacy between them.) Astrophel oscillates between regarding Stella as the epitome of virtue and wondering whether her scorn of his suit should be interpreted as mere ungratefulness to a passionately devoted lover.

Stella provokes his poems in a variety of ways. He excels in a tournament (Sonnet 41) because she is looking on, but, in a later one, fails out of preoccupation with her (53). Once he thinks that he has caught her looking lovingly at him (66), and finally he reports that she has given him the “monarchy” of her heart (69)—but conditionally, for he must love her platonically. Because his love has such a relentlessly physical component, however, this concession turns out to be only another form of torture.

Finally Astrophel manages to kiss Stella while she is sleeping (Second Song). This kiss, which turns out to be Astrophel’s closest approach to success, he transmutes in his imagination to Stella kissing him—a development that sustains a half-dozen sonnets. There are two sonnets (numbers 83 and 84) celebrating a journey to Stella’s house, but then comes a “change of looks” (86), which may be a premonition of Song 8, wherein Stella confesses her love for him but demands that he end his suit for the sake of her honor.

In Sonnet 93 he confesses to having “harmed” Stella in some way, and the seven sonnets following are all lugubrious in tone. In number 101 this mood gives way to concern over a sickness that has sent Stella to bed. She recovers, and the lover makes one more try, serenading her under her window. This poem, the last of the eleven songs, is a dialogue between the lovers that was set to music by Thomas Morley (The First Book of Airs, 1600) and has become the most popular of Sidney’s songs; in it, Stella finally dismisses Astrophel unequivocally. After this song, “Who is it that this dark night/ Underneath my window plaineth?” Astrophel composes several abject laments, but his quest has not been entirely in vain for he finds a kind of “joy” in the expression of his “woes.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877

As practiced by the Italians, the sonnet characteristically comprised an eight-line unit, the octave, rhyming abba, abba, and a six-line sestet, employing various patterns of c and d, or c, d, and e rhymes. Usually the beginning of the sestet marked a turning point in the content. For example, the octave might be primarily descriptive, the sestet reflective; or the octave might pose a problem, the sestet move to resolve it. The meter was normally iambic pentameter throughout.

From the first sonnet in Sidney’s sequence, he shows a respect for convention and a willingness to depart from it. He begins with a hexameter sonnet, that is, one with an extra poetic foot in each line. Its octave rhymes abababab, the cross-rhyming pattern which Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, had introduced earlier in the century. The first half-dozen sonnets exemplify five different rhyme schemes and include a second poem in hexameter. Sidney tends to retain the Italian structure, as the initial words in the sestets of the first few poems—“but,” “now,” “for”—suggest. Although he is fond of a rhyming couplet at the end, he seldom employs a full stop at the end of the twelfth line, as Shakespeare would soon be doing, and thus does not often turn the couplet into a distinct structural feature of epigrammatic force.

In addition to the variety of his sonnet forms, Sidney achieves a flexibility beyond that of earlier sonnet makers such as Surrey and Sir Thomas Wyatt. He gives the impression of running easily in his sonnet harness and will make his turn at various points, sometimes delaying it, as in Sonnet 1, until the last line, where Astrophel’s muse finally dispels his bafflement by urging him to look into his heart, or in Sonnet 71, where, after Astrophel struggles for thirteen lines to love Stella chastely and reasonably, “But ah, Desire still cries, ‘give me some food.’ ” Within the constraints of his meter, Sidney effectively varies caesura, rhythm, and pace to convey a sense of a nimble mind at work and a spirited heart being put through its paces.

The larger structure of Astrophel and Stella includes shorter sequences, such as the sonnets on the kiss and the two about the journey to Stella’s house already mentioned. There are enough awkward spots, however, to suggest that perhaps the poet did not have the opportunity to finish the sequence completely. Five of the songs, all interpolated between Sonnets 86 and 87, do not consort well together, and one of them, probably written earlier than the other poems, is tonally and thematically unrelated to the others. Nevertheless, as long as the reader does not expect the coherence of a novel, the effect of the whole has the consistency proper to a series of dramatic moments in the life of an intense but frustrated lover.

Sidney’s characterization of Astrophel is surely one of his major poetic feats. Both Dante and Petrarch, in their different ways, had presented the character of the lover-from-afar, the complaining lover as a figure predates the sonnet sequence, but previous continental and English imitators of Petrarch had usually produced rather uninteresting complainers. Thomas Wyatt, the first English sonnet maker, did not produce a sequence, but the complaints of the lover in his thirty-two sonnets are, with few exceptions, in the same doleful mood.

Astrophel, of course, has his share of doleful moments also, but Sidney manages to achieve a comic perspective on his lover even while respecting his tribulations. Writing early in the heyday of Elizabethan comedy, Sidney shared in his contemporaries’ enthusiasm for the drama and staged a series of dramatic effects in Astrophel and Stella. Astrophel is essentially a comic creation, which does not mean that he is trying to be funny, though he often is, or that he makes his way to a happy marriage at the end in the manner of Shakespearean comedy, but Sidney contrives to make his very seriousness amusing in ways varying from high to broad comedy.

It is a tribute to the deftness of Sidney’s depiction of Astrophel that some readers can identify with the lover, that is, take him as seriously as he usually takes himself, while others, though remaining generally sympathetic, can smile when he finds his “mouth too tender” for the “hard bit” of virtue, and perhaps laugh outright when he applauds his own poetic achievement: “My lips are sweet, inspired with Stella’s kiss.” In their absorption with their beloved, with the ups and downs of love, and with themselves, lovers are frequently inconsistent and always potentially comical. Astrophel adds to the usual lover’s quirks a grim determination to celebrate his love in verse along with a general inability to determine how his poems can best be produced. Thus he is found in the first sonnet slavishly imitating other poets and in Sonnet 74 swearing “by blackest brook of hell, I am no pick-purse of another’s wit.”

Sidney appears to have based Astrophel on himself, but in no very long stretch of time after the Penelope Devereux episode he was able to stand back and capture not just the frustration but the humor of the thwarted lover. If Astrophel had merely “been” Sidney, he would have been far less interesting than he is.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 237

Hamilton, A. C. Sir Philip Sidney: A Study of His Life and Works. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. A critical biography based on original sources, which also analyzes Sidney’s works in the probable order of their composition and provides insight into Sidney’s development as a poet.

Kalstone, David. Sidney’s Poetry: Contexts and Interpretations. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965. A specialized study focusing on the way Sidney reinvented the Italian poetic genres in English. Offers excellent analyses of the Astrophil and Stella sonnets in a form accessible to the general reader.

Kay, Dennis, ed. Sir Philip Sidney: An Anthology of Modern Criticism. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1987. A collection of essays, mostly previously published, which concern all aspects of Sidney’s writings, among them (previously available only in specialized literary journals) several dealing exclusively with the Astrophil and Stella sonnets.

Rudenstine, Neil L. Sidney’s Poetic Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967. A chronological study of Sidney’s poetic works, which includes a detailed discussion of the Astrophil and Stella sonnets.

Weiner, Andrew D. Sir Philip Sidney and the Poetics of Protestantism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1978. Provides helpful readings of Sidney’s poetry, though limited by a critical theoretical approach, then in vogue, that connects sixteenth and seventeenth century theology and poetry. In the case of the Astrophil and Stella sonnets, this critical approach is quite illuminating, though a bit specialized for the general reader.

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