Lanham, Richard A. "Astrophil and Stella: Pure and Impure
Christopher A. Hill
Astrophil and Stella: Sonnet 2 ("Not at first sight, nor with a dribbed shot") Sir Philip Sidney (ca. 1582) The second poem of the sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella begins with the speaker, Astrophil, describing how he has fallen in love with the addressee, Stella. This description of the inamorata is anti-Petrarchan. Petrarch falls in love when he first sees Laura, whereas Astrophil specifies that he falls in love with Stella "Not at the first sight" (l. 1). Immediately, the speaker grapples with how complex and contradictory love can be. Astrophil realizes that he loses his freedom when he is in love. As time passes, however, lovers like Astrophil forget what it was like not to be in love and embrace love's "Tyrannie" (l. 11). Finally, the SoNNET asserts that poetry itself can make the suffering of love beautiful.
The sonnet begins as a standard Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet, with an initial octave rhyming abba, abba. Astrophil describes the process of falling in love with Stella. Though he does not fall immediately in love, the "wound" (l. 2) he receives from Cupid's arrow is long-lasting. Cupid's shot is not "dribbed" (l. 1) or wide of the mark. Rather, it hits him squarely, meaning that once he falls in love with Stella, his love for her is absolute. As long as he remains alive to draw breath, he says, he will be in love with Stella.
Although his love for Stella begins with the typical Petrarchan image of the lover being struck by Cupid's arrow, Astrophil does not fall immediately in love. Rather, he says that though he knows Stella's worth, his love for her "did in mine of time proceed" (1. 3). This ambiguous phrase has been variously interpreted. on the one hand, Astrophil might be referring to the extremely long time it takes him to realize he is in love with Stella. In the 16th century, a "mine" could also mean a strategic tunnel dug under an enemy's position to gain entrance or to make buildings collapse. By this definition, Stella is so worthy that she slowly undermines Astrophil's defenses until he falls in love with her. This martial metaphor is elaborated by the word conquest in the line "Till by degrees it [Stella's worthiness] had full conquest got [of Astrophil's heart]" (l. 4).
After this brief summary, Astrophil describes falling in love with Stella in more detail. At first he likes her but does not love her. Then he comes to love her but is unwilling to admit it. Finally, the power of his love forces Astrophil to acknowledge his feelings for Stella. Feeling trapped by love and deprived of his freedom, Astrophil is still not content as a lover. As time passes, however, he no longer remembers what it was like to be free from Stella's love, finding that "even that footstep of lost libertie / Is gone" (ll. 9-10). He compares his state to that of a "slave-borne Muscovite" (l. 10), a serf who does not know freedom and so is content to live under tyranny.
Sidney uses the formal aspects of the Italian sonnet to mark thematic developments in Sonnet 2. Employing the typical turn from the octave to the SESTET, Sidney charts Astrophil's progress as a lover. At the turn, Astrophil stops struggling against falling in love and accepts it begrudgingly. The sestet rhymes cdc, eff, deviating slightly, though unremarkably, from the usual pattern.
The poem's final couplet is typical of Sidney's pithy rejoinders. Astrophil says that after Stella has enslaved his emotions, he will use what mental power he has left to convince himself that he is happy as a lover by writing poetry about his love. These final lines also complicate the issue of naturalism or originality in the sonnets. Suggesting that most of his wit has been destroyed by love, Astrophil says he will use what remains of his wit to convince himself "that all is well / While with a feeling skill [he paints his] hell" (ll. 1314). Sidney implies that he may be manipulating not only his readers' emotions but his own as well.
Most scholars focus on the beginning lines of this sonnet, noting its strong refusal of the Petrarchan commonplace of "love at first sight." In the first sonnet of the sequence, Astrophil claims he will not rely on other authors for poetic guidance but will look into his own heart for inspiration instead. The first lines of Sonnet 2 seem to further emphasize Sidney's quest for originality. Scholars point to a balance between the first two sonnets. Sonnet 1 describes how Stella might come to love Astrophil, while Sonnet 2 describes how Astrophil comes to love her.
Scholars have also commented on the parallel between Sonnet 2 and Sidney's own relationship with Penelope Devereux, the generally accepted model for Stella. Philip Sidney and Penelope Devereux probably had tentative plans to marry in 1576, but she married Lord Rich instead. This sonnet marks the beginning of the possible biographical parallels between Sir Philip Sidney and Astrophil and Penelope Devereux and Stella, a line of inquiry still debated by scholars.
See also Astrophil and Stella (OVERVIEW).
Astrophil and Stella: Sonnet 3 ("Let dainty wits crie on the Sisters nine") Sir Philip Sidney (ca. 1582) This sonnet opens with the narrator stating that "dainty wits" (l. 1) must call on the muses ("the sisters nine," l. 1) for help when writing, but Astrophil needs no such aid because the only inspiration he looks to is that which he receives from Stella (l. 9). The narrator says that those who look to the muses and who do not have moving inspiration as he himself does may fall victim to several circumstances: perhaps these poets who rely on the muses will make themselves into "Pindar's apes" (l. 3), a reference to those who attempted to imitate the great Greek poet Pindar, though the narrator suggests that these "apes" will then have "thoughts of gold" (l. 4). This is the first instance in which Stella is referred to as a "book of nature," so in this phrase, the word gold has a negative connotation. Astrophil is not concerned with riches or material wealth, but with what is completely natural and beautiful: Stella.
The narrator goes on to suggest that the "apes" can only "enrich" their poetry with "strange similes" (l. 7). Here "strange" signifies the opposite of natural (Stella). The next line, "Of herbs or beasts which Ind or Afric hold" (l. 8), reinforces the notion of the unusual and the uncommon, as well as English imperial expansion, which set English culture in conflict with "strange" native "herbs and beasts."
The focus of the third quatrain turns inward. The narrator moves from commenting on the practices of other poets and now focuses solely on himself, emphasizing the personal connection he feels for his subject/ muse. Again, the narrator refers to "strange things" and explicitly states that they "cost too dear for [his] poor sprites" (l. 10); this means that writing about the unnatural and alien is too taxing, but that writing about what he knows, what is natural to him, takes little effort at all. The narrator makes it clear that his task of writing—which is really no task at all but rather a joy—is incredibly simple. All he must do is look into Stella's face, the pinnacle of what is natural and good, and copy what he sees (l. 13).
Astrophil pays Stella one of the greatest compliments of all in this sonnet by stating that "Nature writes" (l. 14) in her directly. If only all poets could be so lucky as to have Stella as a muse, there would be no literary "apes" plaguing poetry.
See also Astrophil and Stella (overview); Sidney, Sir Philip.
Devereux, E. J. A. "Pindare's Apes' in Sonnet 3 of Astrophil and Stella." N&Q 24 (1977): 521.
Astrophil and Stella: Sonnet 5 ("It is most true that eyes are formed to serve") Sir Philip Sidney (ca. 1582) Sonnet 5 of Astrophil and Stella structurally resembles an English sonnet because it has three quatrains and a couplet. Thematically, the sonnet is typically Petrarchan, demonstrating the poet's inner conflict with love and reason.
Sir Philip Sidney spends the first 13 of the poem's 14 lines discussing inner beauty as virtue and physical beauty as temporary and shallow. Sidney writes that the "heavenly part" should rule and guide one's actions and feelings, and that anyone who swerves from this rule "Rebels to Nature" (l. 4). Sidney next challenges the typical Petrarchan image of Cupid being responsible for people falling in love. Instead, he says that Cupid's dart is but an image that "for ourselves we carve" (l. 6), and that we foolishly worship this image in our hearts until this image of love (that he terms good god) starves the churchman and the church (the lover and his body). This image of Cupid's dart, or infatuation with physical beauty, is not true love for the speaker. He states that true beauty is virtue, and that physical beauty is temporary because it is comprised of the four elements—earth, air, water, and fire. The volta occurs in line 13, where Sidney states that "people are pilgrims whose souls journey to Heaven."
He then concludes, "[It is] yet true that I must Stella love" (l. 14).
See also Astrophil and Stella (OVERVIEW), ITALIAN
(Petrarchan) Sonnet, sonnet sequence.
Astrophil and Stella: Sonnet 7 ("When Nature made her chief work, Stella's eyes") Sir Philip Sidney (ca. 1582) Sonnet 7, like a number of others in Astrophil and Stella, combines features from both the Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet tradition and the English sonnet form. Its rhyme scheme—abba, abba, cdcd, ee— more closely follows the Italian form of octave and sestet, but the concluding rhyming couplet is more typical of the English tradition.
This sonnet deviates from the standard by celebrating the beauty of black—or, rather, Stella's ability to overcome black and still be beautiful. This contrast is introduced immediately: "When Nature made her chief work, Stella's eyes, / In color black, why wrapped she beams so bright?" (ll. 1-2). Darkness obscures sight— and thus beauty—so the speaker is both distressed and confused. To resolve this dilemma, he turns to art: "Would she [Nature] in beamy black, like painter wise, / frame dantiest luster, mixed of shades and light?" (ll. 3-4). The 15th century witnessed the development of a new school of painting, chiaroscuro, favored by Michelangelo Caravaggio and Rembrandt. This style of painting accentuates beauty by representing only light and shade, relying on varying and complex plays of light and dark to convey what varying shades of colors do in other works.
If artistry was not Nature's intent, however, the speaker must find another solution. Perhaps, he muses, Nature ". . . that sober hue devise, / In object best to knit and strength our sight" (ll. 5-6). In this case, Nature is doing the speaker a favor. If Stella's eyes were not dimmed at least a little, he would be so blinded that he could not appreciate their beauty. Thus, Stella must be diminished so the speaker can flourish, but with his capacities intact, he can recreate her.
Not content with either of these options, the speaker proposes a third: "or would she her miraculous power show, / that whereas black seems beauty's contrary, she even in black doth make all beauties flow?" (ll. 911). The traditional English standard of beauty included a fair complexion, blue eyes, and blond hair—the opposite of black. Darkness was unattractive and potentially evil; why would Nature burden Stella in such a manner? The apparent question answers itself, however. Nature, it seems, is merely showing off her power by rendering Stella the finest creation, even though she has a touch of darkness. The feminine Nature has applied her cosmetics properly, so that Stella's beauty is enhanced, tying all the possibilities together: Painting and writing, like cosmetics, can create and preserve beauty, but can also change it.
The final three lines demonstrate the effectiveness of Nature's work, as the speaker insists that Nature has darkened Stella's eyes in mourning "to honor all their deaths, who for her bleed" (l. 14). In vying for her love, many have fallen. This image is particularly intriguing. In medieval and Renaissance belief, sight was the initial step to love (or lust)—a penetrative look. Stella's gaze, therefore, has pierced many a man, leaving them to die. Again, the inherent pun may refer to la petit morte (the little death)—the belief that each time a man ejaculated, he lost some of his life's essence (sperm), thereby reducing his lifespan. In this case, Stella's beauty has inspired the "deaths" of many men, perhaps through masturbation or nocturnal emissions. As these activities usually occur in darkness, the blackness imposed by Nature serves a greater purpose—fulfillment.
See also Astrophil and Stella (OVERVIEW), Shakespeare's Sonnets: Sonnet 127 and Sonnet 129.
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