Philip Sidney (ca. 1582) Sonnet 1 of Astrophil and Stella, which reflects Sir Philip Sidney's authorial concerns about joining the formidable sonnet sequence tradition, serves an important in function: Through it, Sidney makes the genre his own.
The poem begins with a declaration of Astrophil's love, held in his heart but (as of yet) unknown to Stella. The entire sequence is aimed at obtaining "grace" (l. 4) by offering Stella the pleasure of his pain (l. 2). Astro-phil seeks "fit words to paint the blackest face of woe" (l. 5), thereby placing himself in the traditional Petrarchan position as supplicant. Desperately, Astro-phil examines "others' leaves" (poetry, l. 8) for inspiration. Unfortunately, as the last six lines of the poem indicate, the words do not come easily, and invention remains unresponsive. Astrophil bites his "truant" pen and "beat[s] himself" for not being able to perform better (l. 13), and the "blows [of] stepdame Study" (l. 14) fail, leaving other "feet" [poetry] useless. However, the "Muse," a figure representing poetic inspiration, interrupts and instructs him to look into his heart and simply write what he finds there. Thus the poem turns from the need to write to the external authorities offering proper models, and then to the surer guidance of the poet's own heart.
As the first poem in one of the most important sequences written in England, this sonnet is enormously significant in its own right, not least because it clearly states Sidney's own objectives in writing his sonnets. When he says that he is truly in love and struggling for words to fit that love, he means to be taken seriously. At the same time, these opening lines also draw explicit attention to Sidney's relationship with his sources, including his predecessors Petrarch, Sir Thomas Wyatt, and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey. Moreover, Sidney is referencing contemporary sonnets, suggesting that his sequence will be the outflow of his heart rather than an invention contextual-ized within a well-established genre.
Critical approaches to the poem focus on the sonnet tradition and its philosophical complexities, particularly in regard to Petrarch. Since Astrophil says that others' writing is unfit for his needs and that the rhetoric of the form is stale, critics often examine how (and if) Sidney is doing anything new, as he claims. The poem can also be read as the first salvo in a seduction or as an exploration of the relationship between the sexes, since the entire series of sonnets is written to achieve an erotic aim. Recent work in studying the early modern passions is likely to offer new insights into the love, pity, and spite that play such a large role in this dramatic opening statement.
See also Astrophil and Stella (OVERVIEW).
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