Sir Philip Sidney (ca. 1582) Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, a monument of English Renaissance verse, is considered the first complete SoNNET sequence in English. Though its exact date of composition is unknown, the poems are thought to have been written in the early 1580s, and the sequence was first published in 1591. Publisher Thomas Newman released two editions of the poems during this year: The first was unauthorized, based on a circulating manuscript, and the second was reportedly based on a manuscript provided by the Sidney family. What has become the authorized and authoritative version appeared in the 1598 printing of The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. The 1591 edition excluded Sidney's Sonnet 37, the 11th Song, and portions of the Eighth Song, placing them at the end of the sonnets, while the 1598 edition distributes the songs throughout the text. The substance and ordering of the 1598 edition is taken among scholars to be authoritative since its publication was overseen by Mary Sidney Herbert, countess of Pembroke, the poet's sister and editor.
Scholarly debates abound concerning efforts to ascribe a set plot to Astrophil and Stella, and little agreement exists on how to interpret the sequence's structure. Nonetheless, a narrative does emerge. The series contains a total of 119 poems: 108 sonnets in either iambic pentameter and iambic hexameter, all of which are variations on the English sonnet and Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet forms; and 11 "songs" of varying prosody. With the exception of the Eighth Song, which is written in the third person, the speaker of the poems is Astrophil ("star-lover") who is in love with Stella ("star").
The first 35 poems introduce Stella and meditate on Astrophil's love for her. Sonnet 36 is the first poem that addresses Stella directly and initiates a series of poems that attempt to obtain her affections. Sonnet 37, the Fifth Song, and the Eighth Song hint that Stella could already be married, which may explain her refusal of Astrophil's advances. Nonetheless, by Sonnet 69, Stella agrees to a virtuous reciprocal love for Astrophil. Astrophil breaches his promise to love her chastely in the Second Song, stealing a kiss from Stella as she sleeps and incurring her anger. Astrophil continues to struggle with his strong physical desire for Stella, again seeking consummation in the Fourth Song. Stella's anger only cools in the Eighth Song as the couple reconciles and she departs. The remainder of the series bemoans the lady's absence, ending with a final meditation on Astrophil's continued loneliness and despair.
Astrophil and Stella has had a significant influence on the development of English poetry, in part because of Sidney's approach to the dominant poetic influence of the day: Petrarchism, the legacy of the 14th-century Italian poet Petrarch. Sidney's response to the mode of writing prescribed by Petrarchism introduced a new era of poetic production in England. Unlike earlier English Petrarchists, like Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, Sidney did not directly translate Petrarch's poems. Yet Astrophil and Stella is highly Petrarchan and is widely held responsible for sparking the so-called sonnet craze of the 1590s. Sidney was so strongly identified with Petrarchism that a contemporary called him "our English Petrarke." The poems in the sequence are spoken by Astrophil to his beloved Stella. As is typical of Petrarchan poetry, Astrophil loves Stella ardently and pursues her despite her tenacious rebuffs. The uncomplicated resemblance of this series to Petrarch's Rime Sparse ends here.
Astrophil and Stella has been admired since its publication because of Sidney's effort to reinterpret, rather than merely reflect, Petrarchan paradigms. The primary relationship that Sidney's sequence describes differs provocatively from the typical Petrarchan love relationship. Sidney's Stella does not have the combination of blond hair and blue eyes, of the typical Petrarchan mistress. Though Stella's hair is blond, her eyes are black. This seemingly minor detail invokes a new vision of the beloved, separating her from preconceived notions about how the beloved, and even the lover, should be described in verse. Thus, Sidney sets the stage for a very different courtship.
unlike the typical Petrarchan beloved who is admired chastely from afar, Astrophil struggles openly with physical desire, and his relationship with Stella does have a physical component. Stella is married and is certainly both worshipped and unreachable through much of the series, but Sidney innovates by maintaining a close physical proximity between lover and beloved. In the Second Song, Astrophil kisses Stella as she sleeps, an act that approaches violence and is incommensurate with the distance of the typical Petrarchan beloved. In the Fourth Song, he seeks consummation of their now reciprocal affection, asking "Take me to thee, and thee to me," to which Stella responds, "No, no, no, no, my Deare, let be." Though Stella obviously refuses Astrophil's advances, it is more typical of Petrarchan verse to avoid such overt entreaties for physical love.
Even the resolution of this sonnet sequence both approaches and avoids Petrarchan influence. Petrarch's Laura finally dies, becoming absolutely unattainable. His sequence then turns to a more virtuous meditation on spiritual love. While Astrophil also fails to win Stella, her life continues and Astrophil even looks, though briefly, to other women for solace (Sonnet 106). Although other poets of the day used Petrarchan conventions to discuss physical love, notably Sir Thomas Wyatt in "They Flee from Me," Sidney is the first to so fully address desire in love.
The language of the sequence further reveals Sidney's difficult relationship with the Petrarchan influence. While the circumstances portrayed in the sequence do have original aspects, the language Sidney uses to describe them often makes use of Petrarchan tropes, including, among others, the oxymoron of the "cruel fair," which identifies the lady as beautiful but cruelly dismissive of his love; frequent use of the blazon, a part-by-part description of the beloved; and the highly Petrarchan notion that the lady's eyes can pierce the lover's heart. On the other hand, Sidney also uses Astrophil and Stella to cultivate his own signature literary devices. Sidney's speaker famously calls for poetic originality in the first line of Sonnet 1: "Foole, said my muse to me, looke in thy heart and write" (l. 14).
The sequence is very witty, and Sidney typically ends his sonnets with a pithy final couplet which often subverts or reframes the poem that precedes it. As many critics have noted, it is the very tension between Petrarchism and originality that make the sequence both difficult to read and compelling. The version of Petrarchan love Sidney presents in Astrophil and Stella both broadened and altered the type of influence Petrarchan verse had on Renaissance poets and has contributed to the slipperiness of this term in contemporary criticism.
Astrophil and Stella has been consistently read and revered since its publication, yet critical interpretations of the series vary widely. one major line of critical debate concerns the sequence's biographical elements. From the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, Astrophil and Stella was considered primarily a portrayal in verse of Philip Sidney's thwarted love affair with Penelope Devereux, the oldest daughter of the earl of Essex. There is evidence to suggest that the earl wished Penelope to marry Sidney; however, she married Lord Rich in 1581. Puns on rich throughout the series, the most provocative perhaps being Sonnet 24, have been taken as textual support for this hypothesis, as has Stella's implied married status. Today the solely autobiographical interpretation of the sequence is increasingly rare; many contempo rary critics downplay it, while some argue that the historical evidence for a romantic liaison between the two is virtually nonexistent.
Recent criticism has also produced numerous other approaches to understanding the sequence. The tension in the series between Sidney's devout Protestantism and the primarily secular, even bodily or worldly, goals of the Petrarchan love lyric has received much scholarly attention. The structure of the sequence has also been variously interpreted. Do the poems, read in sequence, tell a coherent story? Or do they only reveal a tenuous narrative with each sonnet as a discrete part? Sidney's poems have additionally been brought into discussions about 16th-century concepts of the self. To this end, more recent criticism has even compared Sidney's poems to other types of artistic production and the material culture of the English Renaissance. Notably, the scholar Patricia Fumerton has explored how Sidney's sonnets relate to miniature portraits in their efforts to both conceal and reveal their subjects' internal experiences.
The continued interest scholars and students have shown in Astrophil and Stella and its complex discourse of love attests to the strong influence Sidney's poetry has had both on English literature and on contemporary concepts of how love can be represented through language.
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Margaret M. Simon
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