Sir Philip Sidney

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How does the structure of Philip Sidney's sonnets compare to Petrarch's and Shakespeare's?

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Sir Philip Sidney's sonnets are collected in his sonnet cycle Astrophil and Stella, names meaning Star-Lover and Star, respectively. Sonneteers wrote a lifetime of sonnets that were unified in structure and rhyme to form an extended narrative. The unifying subject in Sidney's cycle is the unrequited love of Astrophil for Stella. His cycle has 108 sonnets in it and is generally accepted as having significant autobiographical elements.

Sidney follows the Petrarchan model of iambic pentameter, although some are in hexameter. He departs from Petrarch somewhat in rhyme scheme. Of several variations, abbaabba cdcd ee is an oft occurring rhyme scheme. Compared to the Shakespearean scheme, this may be considered an octave with interlacing rhyme (especially at the center aa) followed by a sestet in two rhyme patterns: cdcd and ee. Another way to analyze it is as an octave followed by a quatrain and couplet.

This differs from the Petrarchan abbaabba octave and cdcdcd sestet (one of many possible Petrarchan sestet schemes: e.g., cddcdc, cdecde etc), which has no couplet. Both sonneteers employ the volta, or turn in idea, at the ninth line. However, Sidney may on occasion delay the volta as in sonnet LXXI, where it occurs at the fourteenth line:

So while thy beauty draws the heart to love, 12
As fast thy Virtue bends that love to good.  13

"But, ah," Desire still cries, "give me some food."  14

Sidney differs from Shakespeare in that Shakespeare’s sonnets develop a different rhyme scheme altogether, that being abab cdcd efef gg: three quatrains followed by a couplet. Also, Shakespeare has double voltas at lines 9 and 5, producing two changes of idea.

Sonnet 8
Love, born in Greece, of late fled from his native place,
Forc’d by a tedious proof, that Turkish harden’d heart
Is no fit mark to pierce with his fine pointed dart,
And pleas’d with our soft peace, stayed here his flying race.
But finding these north climes do coldly him embrace,
Not used to frozen clips, he strave to find some part
Where with most ease and warmth he might employ his art:
At length he perch’d himself in Stella’s joyful face,
Whose fair skin, beamy eyes, like morning sun on snow,
Deceiv’d the quaking boy, who thought from so pure light
Effects of lively heat must needs in nature grow.
But she most fair, most cold, made him thence take his flight
To my close heart, where while some firebrands he did lay,
He burnt un’wares his wings, and cannot fly away.

Sonnet 8 follows the interlacing abbaabba cdcd ee rhyme scheme. The octave discusses Stella in relation to Cupid, with the first abba rhyme set devoted to Cupid ("Love, born in Greece") who flees "Turkish harden'd hearts" for England's "soft peace." The second abba set is devoted to showing Stella is better than others who “do coldly [Cupid] embrace":

At length he perch’d himself in Stella’s joyful face,

The volta at line 9 moves the sonnet from Cupid to a description of Stella that ends in chastisement as Astrophil says:

But she most fair, most cold, made [Cupid] thence take his flight

The couplet presents a paradoxical resolution as Astrophil writes that Cupid flew from Stella to himself--close by--where Cupid laid a fire of love that cannot be dampened because:

[Cupid flew] To my close heart, where while some firebrands he did lay,
He burnt un’wares his wings, and [now] cannot fly away.

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Sonnet 5 of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence is one of the most important sonnets of the entire collection.

The rhyme scheme of the sonnet seems to be as follows: abab baba cdcd ee. Alternately, the rhyme scheme could be read as follows: abab bcbc dede ff. Both of these two possible rhyme schemes differ from the standard rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet, which is as follows: abbaabba, cdecde (or some other variation in the last six lines). Meanwhile, a Shakespearean sonnet rhymes as follows: abab, cdcd, efef, gg. In other words, a Petrarchan sonnet consists of eight lines (the octet) followed by six lines (the sestet). A Shakespearean sonnet consists of three groups of four lines (called “quatrains”) and a final couplet. Sidney’s sonnet, then, is neither a strict Petrarchan sonnet nor a strict Shakespearean sonnet but contains elements of both, including a recognizable octet and a final couplet.

Sidney uses the structure of this poem to reinforce its meanings in a number of different ways.  For example, lines 1 and 5 begin with Astrophil admitting standard Christian truths of the period: that the senses should serve the mind or soul; that the mind or soul ought to rule human conduct; and that people who reject such rule are unnatural rebels who are seeking their own pain (1-4). The next four lines (5-8) clearly parallel the first four in structure and in meaning: Astrophil admits that he knows that selfish desire (symbolized by Cupid) is a form of idolatry, and he shows that he understands that such idolatry can harm both the body (the “church”) and the soul (the “churchman”) of the idolator. Lines 9-11 repeat this pattern in a slightly shorter and altered form; these lines show Astrophil conceding that true beauty is virtue (not physical attractiveness); that earthly beauty can only be a dim reflection of spiritual beauty; and that physical beauty is inevitably mutable because it is mostly material. In lines 12-13, Astrophil makes yet another specific admission: he shows that he realizes that all human beings are merely “pilgrims” (12) who were created by God in order to seek their heavenly home. Finally, in line 14, Astrophil does what he does in so many other sonnets (such as 18 and 21, to name just two): he reverses and undercuts the whole earlier thrust of the sonnet. In this case, he admits that everything he has just said is “true,” and yet he insists that in spite of all this truth, he “must Stella love” (14).

Sidney thus uses the highly repetitive phrasing of the first thirteen lines (with their emphasis on standard truths) to emphasize the startling irony of the end of the poem: Astrophil knows what the truth is, but he insists instead on following his own contradictory version of the truth, which is not true at all. The structure of the sonnet thus makes Astrophil seem either hopelessly obsessed or willfully rebellious.  He proves himself, at the very end of the work, to be one of those “Rebels to Nature” whom he had earlier condemned (4). The structure of this poem, in which Astrophil repeatedly admits that he knows right from wrong, makes his final insistence on pursuing a wrong course seem all the more blameworthy. The first thirteen lines show that he is capable of understanding truth as it was taught in his day; the final line shows that he nevertheless rejects that truth in order to pursue his “love” (really his selfish desire) for Stella.

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