Sir Philip Sidney Poetry: British Analysis
Sir Philip Sidney was educated to embrace an unusual degree of political, religious, and cultural responsibility, yet it is clear from his comments in Defence of Poesie that he took his literary role as seriously. Both this critical treatise and Astrophel and Stella are manifestos—not only of poetic but also of broader cultural practice. Both look forward to a long-needed renaissance of poetry and culture generally. For Sidney, poetry and its broader social uses were inseparable. Indeed, it is only with distortion that one can separate a “literary” from a “social” text, even with a Petrarchan love sequence such as Astrophel and Stella. Like other Elizabethan court poets, Sidney wrote his poetry within a structure of power and tried to carve out a discursive space under ideological pressures that attempted to control and direct the languages by which the court operated.
The Elizabethan court
The court was more than a visible institution for Sidney and his contemporaries: It was a felt pressure that attempted to fix and determine all that came within its reach. Sidney’s life and poetry are especially interesting examples of how the Elizabethan court’s power operated on poetry. The court poets—for example, Sir Walter Ralegh and the earl of Oxford—acted as spokespeople for the court’s values, yet inevitably the strains and tensions of their roles show through in their poetry. Poetry was both an expression of the power of the court and a means of participating in that power. Where a poem like Ralegh’s “Praised be Diana’s Fair and Harmles Light” shows the court contemplating its own idealized image, Sidney’s poetry has a more uneasy relation to the court’s power. Although on the surface his writing appears to embody, in Terry Eagleton’s words, a “moment of ideological buoyancy, an achieved synthesis” of courtly values, Sidney’s own position in the court makes his poetry an especially revealing instance of the struggles and tensions beneath the seemingly replete surface of the court and court poetry alike.
More than any of his contemporaries before John Donne and Shakespeare, Sidney in his poetry evokes a felt world of bustling activity, psychosocial pressure, cultural demand—in short, the workings of power on literary and historical discourse. The institutions that shape the poetry—the court, its household arrangements, its religious and political controversies—are evoked in the tournaments (41), the gossip of “curious wits” (23) and “courtly nymphs” (54), and make up an atmosphere of energetic worldliness. What distinguishes Sidney’s poetry is the forceful way that something more than the glittering surface of the court energizes it. Despite his posthumous reputation as the perfect Renaissance courtier, Sidney’s public career was one of political disappointment and humiliation; he seems to have been increasingly torn between public duty and private desire, much in the way the hero of his sonnet sequence is.
All of Sidney’s works are permeated with the problem of authority and submission. Like himself, all of his heroes (including Astrophel) are young, noble, well educated, and well intentioned, but as they become aware of the complexities and ambiguities of the world, they become diverted or confused, and Sidney finds himself caught between compassion and condemnation of their activities. In Arcadia, Sidney attempted to solve in fiction many of the tensions that beset his life, and Astrophel and Stella similarly served as an outlet for political and social frustration. In the prose romance, Sidney’s narrative irresolution and (in an early version) premature and repressive closure reveal deep and unsettling doubts; similarly, the ambivalences and hesitations, the shifting distance between poet and character, and the divided responses to intellectual and emotional demands in Astrophel and Stella articulate Sidney’s ambivalent roles within the court.
One of the fundamental influences giving Sidney’s life and poetry their particular cast is Protestantism. Indeed, perhaps the most potent factor disrupting the repleteness of the court poetic was Sidney’s piety and his struggle with creating a Protestant poetic. In A. C. Hamilton’s phrase, Sidney was “a Protestant English Petrarch.” Unlike his close friend Fulke Greville, for whom a radical Augustinian suspicion of metaphor and writing itself consistently undermined poetry’s value, Sidney tried to hold together what in Defence of Poesie he terms humanity’s “erected wit” and its “infected will.” Indeed, what Sidney perhaps uniquely brought to the Petrarchan lyric was a self-conscious anxiety about the tension between courtly celebration and Protestant inwardness, between the persuasiveness and rhetoric and the self-doubt of sinful humankind, between the insecurity of people’s word and the absolute claims of God’s.
The tension in Sidney’s writing between the courtly and the pious, John Calvin and Baldassare Castiglione, disrupts Astrophel and Stella most interestingly. Sidney’s own theory sees poetry focusing on the reformation of will and behavior, and it is possible to read his own sequence as an exemplum of the perils of erotic love, or, in Alan Sinfield’s words, “the errors of unregulated passion.” Sidney displays Astrophel deliberately rejecting virtue, treating Stella as a deity in a “direct challenge to Christianity” and to right reason. His cleverness is displayed in trying to avoid or repel the claims of reason and virtue, and the outcome of the sequence is the inevitable end of self-deception. The inwardness of Astrophel and Stella—not necessarily, it should be noted, its supposed autobiographical dimension, but its concern with the persona’s self-consciousness, even self-centeredness, as lover, poet, courtier—is thus a fascinating blend of Petrarchan convention and Protestant self-concentration, and one that points to a distinctive late sixteenth century strain within the inherited vocabulary and rhetoric of the poet in his role in the court.
The court poet
When Sidney returned from his Grand Tour, he looked back across the Channel to the sophisticated academies and court circles that were encouraging writers, scholars, and musicians, and that were united by a synthesis of Christian, usually Protestant, piety and high Neoplatonism. The French academies, in particular, displayed a self-consciousness that distinguished them very strongly from the medieval courts. Shortly after Sidney’s return, his sister Mary became the countess of Pembroke and established at Wilton what one of her followers was to term a “little Court,” dedicated, both before and after his death, to continuing the renaissance of English courtly culture. Sidney’s whole literary career became a frustrated attempt to realize a new role for the court poet, one based on the integrity and responsibility of values that he was unable to embody in his public life, and that more and more he poured into his writing. His remark to the earl of Leicester that he was kept “from the courte since my only service is speeche and that is stopped” has wider application than to its occasion, the French marriage crisis. It articulates a frustration toward the traditional subservience of a poet to the court, a stubborn insistence on forging a distinctive role for the poet.
Part of the fascination Sidney has traditionally evoked is what is often perceived as his ability to balance opposite ideological, rhetorical, or vocational demands on him. Certainly in Defence of Poesie and Astrophel and Stella, the elements of such a dialectic can be found. The promise of divinity that Astrophel perceives in Stella’s eyes is, in Sidney’s sympathetic comedy, wittily undermined by his self-consciousness, bashfulness, physical overeagerness, and human imperfection. In Defence of Poesie, Sidney describes poetry as a fervent reaching for the sublime, veiling truth to draw its reader toward it, and asserts that the power to move and so to bring about an enactment of poetry’s transforming powers certainly lies within humankind’s godlike nature. Yet for Sidney there was the seemingly inseparable problem of humanity’s “infected will,” and the reformed emphasis on human depravity and the untrustworthiness of the mind seems to have posed crucial problems for him and for the possibility of creating a Protestant poetic. Although elements of an opposition between rhetoric and truth, humanism and piety, Calvin and Castiglione, can be isolated, despite his most anxious intentions, Sidney does not manage to hold them together satisfactorily. In fact, his very fascination for later ages and his centrality for understanding sixteenth century poetry are grounded in such contradictions. “Unresolved and continuing conflict,” in Stephen Greenblatt’s phrase, is a distinctive mark of Renaissance culture, and Sidney’s is a central place in that culture.
The Psalmes of David
The versification of the Psalms, started by Sidney about 1579 and revised and completed by his sister, the countess of Pembroke, after his death, comprises the first post-Reformation religious lyrics that combine the rich emotional and spiritual life of Protestantism with the new rhetorical riches of the secular lyric. There are distinctive Protestant notes—a strong stress on election in Psalm 43, echoing Théodore Bèze’s and Calvin’s glosses rather than the original text, for example—and other psalms, where a strain of courtly Neoplatonism is highlighted, notably in Psalm 8, which (like Pico della Mirandola rather than Calvin) presents humanity as a privileged, glorious creation “attended” by God, an “owner” of regal and “crowning honour.” Humans emerges as free and wondrous beings, like their creator, “freely raunging within the Zodiack of his owne wit,” as Sidney put it in Defence of Poesie. Here Sidney juxtaposes, without integrating them, the great contraries of his age.
It is now generally believed that the psalms were originally drafted by Sidney early in his career, perhaps about 1579. Also written in this early period are a number of miscellaneous poems, including the so-called Certain Sonnets and many of the poems inserted into Arcadia. These are mainly of interest for showing Sidney’s eager experimentation—with quantitative verse, pastoral dialogue, song, metrical and stanzaic patterns, and above all the appeal to the feelings of the reader, notably in “Leave me ô Love, which reachest but to dust” and the magnificent double sestina from Arcadia, “Yee Gote-heard Gods.”
Astrophel and Stella
Sidney’s most sustained and most celebrated work is his sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, probably written in 1582, which dramatizes a frustrated love affair between a courtier and an admired lady. As Germaine Warkentin has shown, Sidney may have been tinkering with his “Certain Sonnets” during 1581-1582, abandoning them the next summer “to compose one of the three most distinguished sonnet sequences of the English Renaissance.” Certainly Astrophel and Stella conveys an intensity that suggests a short burst of concentrated writing.
This sequence of 108 sonnets and eleven songs anatomizes the love of a young, restless, self-conscious courtier, Astrophel, for a lady, Stella, his star. His purpose is set out in the opening sonnet, in which he claims, “I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe/ Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertaine.” The reader is taken into the familiar world of Petrarchan convention and cliché: Astrophel the doubting, self-conscious, aggressive lover; Stella, the golden-haired, black-eyed, chaste and (usually) distant and (finally) unobtainable lady. The figures are equally familiar—debates between Hope and Absence, denials of loving at first sight, the frustrated desire alleviated by writing, the beautiful woman with the icy heart who pitilessly resists siege, and the final misery of the lover who ends his plaints in anguish, swearing in the end by all he has left, her “absent presence.” Like the best Petrarchisti, Sidney makes the traditional motifs intensely dramatic. For the first time in English poetry since Geoffrey Chaucer, C. S. Lewis suggests, “a situation is not merely written about: it is created, presented, so as to compel our imaginations.” Earlier Petrarchan poets such as Sir Thomas Wyatt had conveyed urgency and conversational informality, but, read as a whole, English poetry had not, since Chaucer, been distinguished by such continual, even restless, conflict and energy.
Uses of rhetoric
Modern critics, reacting against earlier impressionistic, Romantic criticism, have shown how the energy and variety of Sidney’s poetry rests on a thorough exploitation of the riches of Renaissance rhetoric—through his use of apostrophe, dialogue, irony, shifts in decorum, and modulations of voice. As Ringler points out, perhaps “the most valuable product of his studies and disputations in Oxford was the thorough training he received in logic and formal classical rhetoric”; to these he added intense study and practice in ways of loosening the rhythmic movement of English line and working within the formal demands of stanzaic and metrical form. By a thorough familiarity with the conventional techniques of Renaissance love verse—which he parodies in 6, 9, and 15, for example—Sidney works within the eloquent courtly poetic, mocking and adapting it where necessary. Sidney uses his poems as workshops, experimenting with a great variety of stanzaic patterns and with devices such as inversion and feminine rhyme. Above all, he tries continually to juxtapose the movement of formal verse with an immediacy of idiom and logical development to involve his reader in the often tortuous movements of his character’s broodings, arguments, and self-deceptions. Especially notable is the lightness and wit with which even Astrophel’s most tortured self-examination is presented. Parody, the exaggerated use of erotic or literary clichés and puns, are all obvious enough, but the whole sequence is characterized by a sophisticated playfulness—the outrageous puns on “touch” in 9 leading to the self-pity (Astrophel’s, not Sidney’s) of the last line, the tongue-in-cheek anguish of the sonnets on Cupid, and the uproariousness of some of the erotic sonnets. Above all, the humor of the poet, indulging in his own mastery of language and able to dramatize his character, invites his readers to share his enjoyment at the varied follies and complexities of human love.
If the Petrarchan tradition and the resources of Elizabethan rhetoric afforded Sidney a wonderfully flexible and rich poetic vehicle, there is nevertheless something limiting, even disturbing, about the literary mode in which he is working. Petrarchanism purports to be about love, and specifically about the obsession of a lover for a lady before whom he feels inferior, humble, and yet ennobled. Paradoxically, the sonnets become a weapon in an attempted mastery of the woman and their focus is exclusively on the anguish and achievements of the male lover. The conventions of Petrarchanism are those of a male-dominated society and its rhetorical strategies serve to elevate the woman only to subjugate her.
As Ann Jones and Peter Stallybrass have argued, “to Stella, Astrophel may speak of love as service,” but outside his devotion to friends, “he can suggest a sub-text of masculine domination.” Within the struggle for mastery, rhetoric and erotic convention alike become means of domination. Stella herself is, like other Petrarchan mistresses, reduced to a disconnected set of characteristics, acknowledged only as they are manipulable or impinge on her lover’s consciousness. She is entirely the product of her poet-lover’s desires. Astrophel and Stella is a theater of desire in which the man has all the active roles, and in which she is silent or merely iconic, most present when she refuses him or is absent. Astrophel does not want—although it is arguable that Sidney might—to call into question the power of his anguish or the centrality of his struggles of conscience, yet it seems legitimate to ask what Stella might reply to Astrophel’s earnest self-regarding pleas for favor. Even if her replies are not “in” most of the poems (and where they are, as in Song 8, they are reported through Astrophel), what might she say? Is her silence the repression of the character or of Sidney? Does her silence reflect a whole cultural blindness that fixes women as objects of gaze and analysis within a society they did not invent and could not control? When one considers in these ways how the dynamics of Sidney’s text function, once again one finds “literary” and “cultural” texts interacting.
An older criticism faced (or perhaps avoided) these issues by focusing on the biographical “origins” of the sequence. In part an outcome of the Romantic valorization of poetry as the overflow of sincerity or genuine experience, criticism sentimentalized the obvious connections between Sidney’s life and the fiction of Astrophel and Stella into a poetic roman à clef. Undoubtedly, Sidney plays with his reader’s curiosity about some kind of identification between himself and Astrophel and between Stella and Lady Penelope Rich (née Devereux), to whom as a youth Sidney’s family nearly arranged a betrothal and in whom he may possibly (though there is no firm evidence either way) have had more than a literary interest. Sidney certainly builds into his sequence references to his career, to his father, to contemporary politics, to his friends, and—of most interest to the curious—to Lady Rich’s name in two sonnets (24, 37) that were omitted from the first publication of the collection, perhaps for fear of embarrassing repercussions. Even so, the relationship between Sidney and his characters and between the events of his life and those seemingly within his poems should not be simplified. Just as Sidney manages simultaneously to have much in common with Astrophel, be sympathetic with him, and yet to criticize or laugh at him, so the gap between Stella and the historical Lady Rich is even wider—at best one can regard some of the references to Stella as sly or wistful fantasies. As to whether Sidney and Lady Rich were sexually involved, Astrophel and Stella gives no firm evidence.
Love and courtly behavior
A more rewarding approach is to try to trace the way the poems are traversed by a variety of overlapping and in many cases contradictory influences, including court politics, the psychology of love, poetry, rhetoric, and Christianity. Within its confusions, tensions, and contradictions, Astrophel and Stella highlights the diverse and often contradictory pressures and possibilities that constitute the situation of an Elizabethan poet and lover. One of the distinctive possibilities of Petrarchanism was to set the traditional medieval debate on the nature of love in terms of the lover’s psychology and within the demands of the codes of courtly behavior. Part of the fascination Petrarch had for English poets in the late sixteenth century was their puzzlement about how the Petrarchist conventions might fit their experiences. The prestige and suggestiveness of Petrarchanism allowed poets to examine not only the relationship between love and poetry, but also the way its worldview, its rich schematization of human experience, and their own changing social and individual realities intersected.
One of the dominant concerns of the sequence is undoubtedly that of the problems and difficulties of erotic experience—although depicted entirely from the male viewpoint. Astrophel and Stella typically focuses on the “thrownness” of love—on the lover finding himself within a preexisting structuring of experience, a “race” that “hath neither stop nor start” (23), but which continually disrupts his sense of a preexistent self. Sexuality becomes an object to be examined, supervised, confessed, and transformed into poetry. It should be noted, however, that the “self” that is put into question in Astrophel and Stella is not, or not primarily, that of Sidney. The poet offers his poems to an audience of sympathetic listeners as a mirror less of his experiences than of theirs. The intellectual tensions observable in Astrophel and Stella are dramatized as paradigms, the effect of which is to highlight the readers’ or hearers’ awareness of their own experiences. Sidney’s poems work on their readers, suggesting and manipulating although never compelling into meaning. At times he refers to quite specific members of his audience—to other lover-poets in 6, in which Astrophel distinguishes his own “trembling voice” and the sincerity of his love from those of other lovers and so provokes them to respond by praising their own mistresses or talents. At times his suffering hero will ostensibly address a rather special audience—“I Stella’s ears assayl, invade her ears,” he says in Sonnet 61; or he (or Sidney) will address a friend (as in Sonnet 14), and even occasionally himself (as in 30). Yet the most important audience is unnamed: the readers who, through the poem’s history, will read them, meditate on, and act out their drama.
Surveying the history of Sidney criticism, especially that of the modern era, one discovers a curious anxiety to find a coherent, sequential organization not merely made possible by the poems, but as a required means of reading them. Astrophel and Stella is thus often read as if it were a poetic novel. C. S. Lewis cautions against treating the Petrarchan sequence as if it were “a way of telling a story”; Astrophel and Stella is, he says, “not a love story but an anatomy of love,” while Max Putzel speaks of the poems’ “careful disorder.” On the other hand, A. C. Hamilton argues that “the sonnets are organized into a sequence with a unifying structure,” and other critics have written of what they see as careful structure and sequence. In Hamilton’s scheme, sonnets 1-12 form an introduction, 13-30 concentrate on Astrophel’s isolation, with 41-68 concerned with his moral rebellion, 71-85 with his attempt at seduction, and the remainder with his failure. Such divisions differ radically among the proponents of a narrative structure; in short, if a reader wishes to find a narrative development and final irresolution rather than an exercise in love’s variety, then Astrophel and Stella is open to such a reading. Perhaps the most satisfying sequential reading of the collection is that by Ann Rosalind Jones, who stresses that although it is possible (and peculiarly satisfying) to see Astrophel as undergoing a gradual disintegration and loss of control, Sidney’s sequence does not use the linking devices of other poets, such as Dante or Maurice Scève, which might strongly encourage a reading of the sequence as a growth in self-knowledge. Even when one constructs a sequence, it is primarily characterized by an unstable, eddying movement, “dramatically disordered,” as Jones argues. “Even at the end of his experience,” Astrophel can “predict the course of his writing no better than the course of his love” and so each sonnet becomes a new starting place. In short, while Astrophel and Stella allows for a linear development, it does not force one on a reader, encouraging the reader just as readily to view Astrophel’s experience as unpredictable, random, and even as an exemplum of failure.
One recurring pattern is a tension between the demands of the public world of politics and responsibility and the private world of erotic desire. In many sonnets, Astrophel presents love in terms of a debate between traditional abstractions such as desire and reason, love and duty. Part of the reader’s enjoyment lies in watching him, through Sidney’s fond but penetrating perspective, indulging himself in false logic (52) or in seeing his dutifully constructed arguments against love undermined by the simple appearance of his beloved, as in 5, 10, or in the amusing self-contradictions of 47. Astrophel tries in vain to keep his two worlds and their demands separate. He claims that love gives him a private place, a sense of self from which the demands of courtly responsibility are shown to be trivial, but caught between conflicting worlds of self-indulgence and political responsibility, he ends by succeeding in neither. The reader watches him corrupting his avowedly pure love into sensuality by the deviousness of political rhetoric. In Sonnet 23, he appears to reject the world, but in Sonnet 69, he expresses Stella’s conditional encouragement of his advances in terms of the court’s own language. Since, he argues, she has “of her high heart giv’n” him “the monarchie,” as a king, he too can take some advantage from that power.
At the root of Astrophel’s self-deception is the structure of Petrarchanism itself, which, as John Stevens and others have pointed out, was at once a literary convention and a very serious courtly game, one “in which three powerful discourses meet and join hands: love, religion, and politics.” Astrophel and Stella is based on a formula by which the man is subjected to his lady while, at the same time, the situation enables him to pour fourth his eloquence in an attempt to influence her. The relationship is parallel to the relationship between courtier and monarch—built on absolute loyalty and subjection, frustration and rejection—interlaced with devious manipulation for the favors of the capricious, distant beloved. Thus while Astrophel speaks of the “joy” inspired by Stella and of his own “noble fire,” he is attempting to manipulate Stella’s vulnerability, seeking power over her in the way the devious courtier seeks hidden but real power over the monarch. In terms of sexual politics of the Renaissance court, Astrophel’s world is one shared primarily by other male courtiers, using language as a means of domination and treating women as subject to their desire, much in the way courtiers themselves were at the mercy of the monarch.
Thus the reader watches Astrophel indulging himself in small subtle ways—playing on grammar in 63, twisting Stella’s words, speaking openly to her in a kind of “manic playfulness,” and allowing (or being unable to prevent) the emergence of the underlying physicality of his desires in a series of fantasies of seduction (71, 72, 74, 79, 80, 81). The songs serve especially well to highlight the wish-fulfillment of Astrophel’s frustrations—especially the dramatization in Song 5 of Astrophel’s self-involvement, and the graceful fantasy of Song 8, viewed wistfully by the narrator from a distance and culminating in Sidney’s clever and moving breaking down of the distance between narrator and character in the final line, where he confesses that “my” song is broken.
As the sequence draws to its inevitably inconclusive end, Astrophel’s fantasies become less and less realizable. He indulges in self-pity and then more realistically accepts the end of the relationship, vacillating between joy and grief, optimism and despair, dedication and unfaithfulness. As Hamilton points out, the mutability of human love which haunts so many Elizabethan sonnet sequences, especially Shakespeare’s, enters Sidney’s only indirectly, but where he immerses himself in the intensity of the living moment, as the sequence ends, he realizes he is “forever subject to love’s tyranny, a victim of chronos forever caught in time’s endless linear succession.”
Readings of Astrophel and Stella inevitably point to it as a quintessential ideological and literary struggle, where a variety of impulses struggle for mastery. Like the best love poems, it asks its readers to look at themselves. Stella herself, the guiding metaphor of the sequence, is distinguished by her nature, behavior, influence, and power, always requiring, like a text, interpretation. Astrophel, like the reader of his creator’s sequence, is an exegete of love. “What blushing notes doest thou in margin see,” he asks, and goes on, as all readers do with the whole sequence, to choose his own convenient misunderstanding of Stella. Astrophel may state that all his “deed” is to “copy” what in Stella “Nature writes” (3) or assert that “Stella” is, literally, the principle of love in the cosmos (28), and that the words he utters “do well set forth my mind” (44), but Sidney knows, as his readers do, that love and its significance and its expression in language are far more complex matters.
Astrophel and Stella is what Roland Barthes terms a “playful” text, one that depends strongly on its audience, inviting participation both to reproduce the process, intellectual and emotional, by which the poem’s struggles came to be verbalized and to go beyond them, adding one’s own preoccupations. Astrophel and Stella has a capacity to invade its readers, to direct and inform their responses, but as well, to open them to an awareness that it functions only through a process of deliberate reciprocity. It is this joyful welcome to its readers that makes it such a landmark in English poetry.