Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney

Genre: poetry (sonnets)
Published: 1591
Pages: about 80


Poor, lovelorn Philip Sidney!  He anguished so much about his romantic misfortunes that he absolutely had to pen a sonnet cycle about his beloved, or, more accurately, about the complex and mutable emotions that he felt towards his beloved, Stella.  He often decries his own lack of poetic wit with a kind of transparent modesty, and just as often declares, sometimes quite vehemently, his absolute aversion to borrowing from other poets' work:

"And this I swear by blackest brook of hell,
I am no pick-purse of another's wit" (Sonnet 74)

The source of his inspiration?  His beloved, of course:

"My lips are sweet, inspired with Stella's kiss."

Be that as it may, with his 108 sonnets and 11 longer songs, Sidney was following in the sonnet-writing tradition of Petrarch, who wrote dozens of Italian sonnets addressed to his beloved "Laura."  It has been quite a while since I read those for a class, but I don't recall that Petrarch ever did more than regard Laura from afar (in other words, subtly stalk her).  After Laura died young, Petrarch continued to write sonnets about her, complete with imagery of Laura as a heavenly angel, even more worthy of his worship and praise than she had been while alive.
Sir Philip Sidney

Now, that's romantic!...or maybe that's just creepy?  Personally, I feel it's more than a bit creepy, but one cannot deny that both Petrarch and Philip Sidney wrote some beautiful sonnets about their respected beloveds which went on to have a huge influence on literary conventions and the way people write/think about love, desire, beauty, and especially unrequited love.

Reading some of Sidney's sonnets, I could not help but draw a parallel between

"Her eyes, her eyes
Make the stars look like they're not shining" (Bruno Mars, 2010)


"When Nature made her chief's work, Stella's eyes,
To color black why wrapped she beams so bright?" (Sonnet 7)

Sidney continues later in that sonnet, still writing of Stella's dark eyes,

"That whereas black seems beauty's contrary,
She even in black doth make all beauties flow"

making me think immediately of Shakespeare's very famous "dark lady" sonnets.  Since Sidney's sonnets predated Shakespeare's, might he have been inspired by Sidney just as Sidney was by Petrarch?

I have also read Shakespeare's sonnets, and enjoyed them perhaps more than Astrophil and Stella.  Shakespeare (or, at least, Shakespeare's speaker) constructs elaborate puns and playful metaphors, and attempts to bring most of the sonnets to a quasi-resolution in the final quatrain.  Sidney, on the other hand, tends to come across as more solemn, melancholy, and tormented, as in sonnet 2:

"Not at first sight, nor with a dribbèd shot
Love gave the wound, which while I breathe will bleed,
But known worth did in mine of time proceed,
Till by degrees it had full conquest got.
I saw and liked, I liked by lovèd not,
I loved, but straight did not what Love decreed;
At length t Love's decrees, I forced, agreed,
Yet with repining at so partial lot.
Now even that footstep of lost liberty
Is gone, and now like slave-born Muscovite,
I call it praise to suffer tyranny;
And now employ the remnant of my wit,
To make myself believe that all is well,
While with a feeling skill I paint my hell."

He writes of how he can scarcely eat, think, converse with women (who he says can only appear as poor "models" of Stella), cannot produce any writing which does not fixate on Stella, feels driven to paint his living hell with his words.  He suffers from an eternal wound made by Cupid's arrow (before that was such a huge cliché as it is today!)  He pines for the sight of Stella constantly and feels miserable in her absence:

"Since Stella's eyes, wont to give me my day,
Leaving my hemisphere, leave me in night" (sonnet 89)

 The hopeless melancholic in me just eats that stuff up!  Sidney might not have been as original with his extended metaphors or as clever with his sexual puns as Shakespeare, but he is perhaps more heartfelt.  While scholars can never seem to agree on who the "dark lady" and "beloved youth" of Shakespeare's sonnets might have been (or if they were real people at all), Sidney made it pretty transparent that "Stella" was in fact one Penelope Devereux, later called Lady Penelope Rich after her marriage.  He puns on her married name, "rich," quite a few times and, unlike Petrarch, Sidney actually had something of a history with Penelope.
Penelope Devereux, "Stella"

When Penelope was a young teenager and Sidney about twenty, their families had began negotiations for the two of them to be betrothed.  However, probably as a result of financial circumstances, the betrothal never happened and Penelope instead was forced to marry another nobleman whom she hated.  Indeed, she hated him so much that she had an affair with yet another nobleman, an earl, secretly married him, divorced her husband, married the earl "officially," and was banished from court shortly before she died.  (Sidney died many years earlier, a "heroic" death in battle which solidified his reputation as the ultimate Renaissance courtier/poet/soldier.)  Characteristically, Sidney sulkily blames himself for the marriage negotiations having fallen apart in his thirty-third sonnet:

"I might (unhappy word), O me, I might,
And then would not, or could not, see my bliss:
Till now, wrapped in a most infernal night,
I find how heav'nly day, wretch, I did miss.
Heart, rent thyself, thou dost thyself but right:
No lovely Paris made thy Helen his;
No force; no fraud robbed thee of thy delight;
Nor Fortune of thy fortune author is;
But to myself myself did give the blow..."

He laments,

"How fair a day was near.  O punished eyes,
That I had been more foolish, or more wise!"

How much of this was written in earnest and how much of it was Sidney self-consciously trying to introduce Petrarchan sonnets in England, no one can say.  But the result was quite extraordinary, that much is certain.  I enjoyed reading these sonnets and now intend to read Sidney's Defense of Poesy, which is an essay he wrote defending the merits of fiction against the criticisms of Puritans who called imaginative writing immoral.  I also would like to read more sonnets by a later English poet, perhaps Sir Thomas Wyatt, though I have heard his are not as good as Sidney's or Shakespeare's.


This book is the first I have read and reviewed for my Classics Club challenge!  Next, I will review The Awakening by Kate Chopin.

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