Astrophil and Stella

by Sir Philip Sidney

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What are the two main themes of Sonnet 1 in Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney?

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First and foremost, sonnet 1 of Astrophil and Stella is a poem about poetry, a manifesto for the style of writing we are to find in the sonnet sequence to come. The poet begins with the right idea—that of showing his love in verse—but is swiftly betrayed into false pathos and artificial rhetoric as he seeks to impress and persuade, rather than to communicate what he really feels. The images become ever more tortured until finally the poet is incongruously pregnant with words he cannot deliver: “Great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes.” It is at this point that the Muse returns him to his original intention: “Look in thy heart and write.”

For the role of second theme, there is more competition. It could be love, since this is the subject of Sidney’s poems, and this sonnet begins with “Loving” and ends with writing that comes from the poet’s heart. It could equally well be truth, however, since the poet moves a greater and greater distance from the truth of the first line until his Muse finally returns him to it (since he will presumably find truth in his heart, along with love).

If pressed for a maximum of two themes, I should say (a) writing love poetry and (b) making it truthful.

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One important theme of the first poem of Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella is love, or at least physical desire. Another important theme is the desire to write poetry that can be used to persuade a reluctant woman to return the speaker’s affection.

Both themes are announced in the opening line of the poem. The speaker claims that he was truly in love, or least that he was really loving (“Loving in truth”). He then explains that he wanted to “show” or demonstrate his love by writing poems about it.  He wrote in order that the woman whom he loved might enjoy reading about the emotional suffering she had caused him.

He hoped that if she enjoyed her reading, her reading might make her realize the torment for which she was responsible.  This realization might cause her to feel pity for him.  Her pity for him might lead her to grant him the “grace” (approval, mercy, gift) he desired from her.

Therefore, in order to spark this chain reaction, he read the poetry of other writers (probably works by Francesco Petrarca in particular, as well as other poets influenced by him). He knew that such writers had themselves depicted their romantic suffering in poetry.  Thus, it was by reading them that he

. . . sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe . . .

However, no matter how much he tried to derive inspiration from the writings of previous poets, he still found himself unable to write successfully. His studying, in other words, was not producing “Invention,” meaning the ability to think of appropriate words. He thus became increasingly frustrated and angry until his “Muse” (a goddess of inspiration) told him that he should draw on his own emotions when trying to persuade Stella to return his affections.

The opening sonnet already begins to paint Astrophil as a comic figure who will increasingly become the focus of Sidney’s irony. As Astrophil himself will later admit, his “love” is not so much true love (caritas) at all. Rather, it is selfish physical desire (cupiditas). Sidney creates Astrophil as a foolish alter ego. Astrophil misspends his time because of his lust for Stella, whereas Sidney spends him his time wisely by writing poems mocking Astrophil and (thereby) encouraging his readers to behave more intelligently and rationally than Astrophil does. Sidney does not condemn love (far from it); instead, he mocks desire that is merely selfish and self-serving.  It is Astrophil himself (and his misguided thinking), not Stella, who is responsible for any pain he suffers.

Sidney unites the poem’s two themes – love and the writing of poetry – by showing how Astrophil seeks to misuse poetry to make his supposed “love” for Stella appealing to her.  Sidney, in the meantime, uses poetry properly: he writes poems that mock false love and, implicitly, celebrate true love by contrast.

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