Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 320

The collection of sonnets and songs titled "Astrophil and Stella" by Sir Philip Sidney is a collection of musings about his forbidden love, from whom the main character is forever separated. The narrative flows from many different emotions and has quite a few themes that it explores. Here are several of those themes.

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Forbidden love

One frequent trope in literature is the idea of forbidden love—from Romeo and Juliet to Tristan and Isolde and many others, it is a fertile ground from which to draw poignant and moving stories. This collection of poetry is no different. Astrophil pines for his love, Stella, from whom he is intrinsically separated. It is never clearly stated what has set them apart, but the poetry makes frequent references to Nature and the Fates who have separated them. Their names suggest this separation, as Stella is a Star and can't be approached, even by Astrophil—the Star Lover. This is one of the main themes that makes scholars believe the sonnets are about Sidney's broken engagement to Lady Devereux.

Love overriding reason

In many of the sonnets, Astrophil states that various groups such as Reason, Nature, and even the Church have encouraged him to leave his love behind, but, much in the same manner that Romeo and Juliet's rationale was overtaken by emotion in their last moments, Astrophil's rational mind is overruled by his overwhelming desire to be with Stella.

Physical pain being caused by emotional strife

Finally, the text explores the theme of physical pain being caused by emotional strife. Throughout many of the sonnets, Astrophil describes being unable to sleep as he lies groaning and aching. Additionally, he frequently references heavy burdens, chest pains, and more when he describes his discomfort related to thinking about Stella. This is a common refrain in many stories of unrequited love or separated lovers, and it belies the true emotion that was present behind these sonnets.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 940

Wit is both a quality and a theme of Astrophel and Stella. In the 108 sonnets he uses forms of the word forty-two times. (By comparison, Shakespeare uses the words “wit” and “wits” only nine times in 154 sonnets.) The Old English word witan meant “to know,” and wit had for centuries referred to mental capacities, especially intelligence. Among Renaissance literary men, wit signified one’s facility at literary invention, which is the aspiration of Sidney’s lover first and last.

Sidney wrote the first important critical treatise in English, An Apologie for Poetrie (1595); it was also published as Defence of Poesie (1595) and is still known by both titles. It is an eclectic document drawing upon the thought of ancient authorities such as Plato, Aristotle, and Horace and blending in the theories of earlier Renaissance figures such as Julius Caesar Scaliger. Astrophel shares his creator’s inclination to harmonize, if possible, the poetical and rhetorical pronouncements of many authorities. Neoclassicists of Sidney’s time had metamorphosed Aristotle’s mimetic theory into a recommendation to imitate other writers, so Astrophel is to be found, in his first sonnet, “turning others’ leaves.” While Astrophel is trying to be witty by imitating his predecessors, Sidney is being witty through wordplay: Other poets’ “feet” merely get in Astrophel’s way.

Sidney’s lover has a particular fondness for Horace’s famous dictum that poetry should “teach and delight” and his insistence on what came to be called “decorum,” the choosing of stylistically apt expression. Astrophel has high hopes that through his verse Stella “might take some pleasure of my pain,” and that through this pleasure she might come to “know.” He has a difficult time finding the “fit words” that will achieve another Renaissance poetic aim, that of motivating Stella to go beyond just knowing, for “Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain.” It is this “moving” effect of poetry, by the way, which looms largest in An Apologie for Poetrie.

There is one thing that Astrophel has forgotten in his initial enthusiasm. Poetry is supposed to move men to virtue, and his love for the married Stella is not precisely virtuous, a fact which makes his muse’s exhortation to look in his heart all the more dangerous. Thus, the task of wit becomes that of reconciling the claims of love and virtue.

Sonnet 34 is a dialogue with Wit. Astrophel writes “to ease/ A burdened heart.” When Wit asks how such reminders of his distress can ease him, he replies that “Oft cruel fights well pictured forth do please.” Yet is he not ashamed to “publish” his troubles (it should be noted that the verb does not mean “print”; Sidney published none of his works in that sense)? Astrophel responds that his poetry may win him fame, but Wit counters that wise men will regard it only as famous foolishness. Wise men do not have to listen to what they regard as foolishness, Astrophel points out, only to hear Wit taunt him: “What idler thing than speak and not be heard?” Astrophel must struggle on doubtfully: “with wit my wit is marred.”

This poem illustrates a fact about the poet’s (or would-be poet’s) audience. Many love poems do not address the lady, and for some of them she would make the least appropriate audience. Poets have always written for people who can appreciate poetry rather than mere flattery. The ideal audience is the witty one which, so to speak, looks over Astrophel’s shoulder while he is composing. This audience understands better than Stella what to make of the assertion nominally made to her in Sonnet 35, “Wit learns in thee perfection to express,” or his insistence in number 64 that she is both his “wit” and his “virtue.”

The comic masterpiece of the sequence is Sonnet 74, “I never drank of Aganippe well.” Here Astrophel denies all contact with the muses, all claim to the “poets’ fury” that a diplomatically propitiated muse might inspire. He is merely a “poor layman” who has not the slightest motivation for stealing from “another’s wit.” Yet he now claims poetic success. How can that be? After teasing his audience right down to the last line, he explains: “My lips are sweet, inspired with Stella’s kiss,” an explanation surely no part of any reputable theory of poetic invention. This sonnet, in which Astrophel steps quite out of character, represents one of Sidney’s witty changes on the stolen kiss. In Sonnet 81, still dwelling on the famous kiss, Astrophel reveals that Stella wants “higher seated praise” and thus proposes that if she objects to his current variety of kiss-inspired wit, she must “stop” his mouth with more kisses. She will not comply, and in the next sonnet he is “full of desire, empty of wit.”

Eventually Astrophel asks Stella to “dismiss” his wit “till it have wrought what thy own will attends” (Sonnet 107). Astrophel remains in this suspended emotional state. (Sidney himself soon married the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s principal secretary.) In Astrophel and Stella, the intersection of love and poetry constitutes wit. Love provides the subject matter, but Sidney makes his poetry out of Astrophel’s helter-skelter attempts at finding “fit words.” The idea was not entirely original. The greatest English poet before Sidney, Geoffrey Chaucer, had delighted in painting his own picture as ineffectual poet. Whereas Chaucer’s persona suffers from lack of experience at love, however, Sidney’s is almost too emotionally involved in his affair to remain coherent. Fortunately, his creator remains in control, manipulating poetic conventions, modifying them as the need arises, and wittily exploring the domain of wit.

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