Structure, theme and convention in Sir Philip Sidney's sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella

By Donna

The names Astrophil and Stella mean Star-lover and Star, suggesting the impossibility of their union because of the distance between them


The sixteenth century was a time of scientific, historical, archaeological, religious and artistic exploration. More attention was being allotted to probing into the depths of the human psyche and it was up to the artists and poets rather than the priests and scholars to examine and mirror these internal landscapes. The 'little world of man' [1] was reflected through various artistic forms, one of which was the sonnet, which was conventionally used for dedications, moral epigrams and the like. Traditionally most sonnets dealt with the theme of romantic love and in general the sonneteer dealt with the over-riding concern of the self and the other, the latter of which normally referred to a mistress, friend, or a familial relation. One of the first important artistic creations witnessed by the Elizabethans was Sidney's sonnet sequence called Astrophil and Stella, a variation on Petrarch's Canzoniere. Sidney who was indeed acclaimed the 'English Petrarch', nevertheless wrote with his Elizabethan readers in mind as his characters spoke in English accents, voiced English concerns and evoked the spirit of the time.

The sequence, which like all Renaissance sequences is not a realistic autobiography, is about a man, Astrophil who is attracted to and in pursuit of a married woman, called Stella. On stealing a first kiss from Stella whilst she is asleep the male protagonist worries about her reaction lest she should find out, but later on chides himself for not taking advantage of the situation. He then goes on to recount how he is filled with hopes one minute and despair the next, whilst trying in vain to pursue her. In constantly being refused, he feels angered and offends her but does not wait too long before trying to seduce her yet again. After a few more refusals he is moved to desperation, evoking his misery in the last few sonnets.

Incidentally, although not a realistic autobiography, Stella is modelled on Penelope Devereux, who was supposed to marry Sidney but was then forced to marry Lord Rich, and 'phil' in 'Astrophil' is indeed an abbreviation of Sidney's first name, 'Philip'. After finding out about Penelope's marriage, fate had it that Sidney started to truly have feelings for her although by this time it was too late.

Astrophil's actions seem to be forgiven by some critics because he is after all driven by love. In fact Sidney's depiction of the male protagonist is one which makes some critics and readers empathize with him during his lamentations and praise of Stella. This may be because it is thought that Sidney's aim was to show readers how a man can let his emotions get the better of him, thereby leading him into eventual despair. It is through Astrophil's mistakes and negative example that Sidney is able to inculcate morality. This is also another typical quality of sonneteers, who aim to morally instruct through their art.

Beneath the witty surface of Astrophil's lamentations, Thomas P. Roche seems to feel that 'Sidney is using Astrophil's journey from hope to despair as a fictional device for the analysis of human desire in Christian terms.' [2] Consequently Roche points out that in witnessing Astrophil's despair the readers' reaction is supposed to make them conscious of his limitations from a Christian perspective.

Conventional topics such as addressing the moon, appealing to the world of sleep and dreams, bemoaning the lady's absence, praising her unique beauty and virtue, reprimanding her cold chastity and affirming his frustrated longings are all infused within the sequence, but the impossibility of the hero and heroine's relationship, coupled with Astrophil's weak and uninspiring character, are highlighted in the complementing structural and thematic devices which Sidney adopts.

In the opening sonnet Sidney explains how he painfully resorted to every aid to compose his sequence, 'oft turning others' leaves' but that his impotence grew to a climax whereby it dawned on him to 'look in thy heart and write.' In writing about how to compose a love sonnet he did just that and what formed itself on the page before him was pure spontaneous feeling. However it is apparent that the hero is a combination of both the besotted lover and the self-critical poet. His emotional conflicts increase as he grows aware of his sexual needs despite his knowing that he is ultimately a product of Protestant training and needs to restrain his longings. It is a perpetual war of desire against reason and nature against nurture. Moreover he knows that no matter how much he craves for Stella it is a lost battle already and this is where the endless laments emerge. This incessant interplay of opposing forces, that is of paradoxes, is also considered an essential part of the sonnet structure.

The impossibility of a successful relationship is also highlighted through the sonnet title. Whilst normally, sonnet sequences are entitled with the lady's name as she is typically regarded as the sole subject and object of the poetry, this poem's title: Astrophil and Stella immediately hints at the disjunction inherent in Sidney's subject. Other disjunctions are apparent, such as the title holding both a Greek name (Astrophil) and a Latin one (Stella). Furthermore the presence of the grammatical copula: 'and', immediately hints at the two people being a couple (like Romeo and Juliet for example), whilst in reality readers soon learn that they in fact are not. Indeed their names, which mean Star-lover and Star, further suggest the impossibility of their union because of the distance between them, whilst the name Stella immediately highlights how unattainable she is and that she is after all not quite as unique as Astrophil portrays her to be as her light is indeed shared and shown by thousands of other Stellas.

The impossibility of their union reflected in the title is reinforced in the sequence. Astrophil is adept at colouring a dark and sombre picture of his love life as, whilst his starlit stage has indeed become dark and dangerous, Stella's eyes which he calls, 'nature's chiefest work' are also black, 'sweet black which vailes the heav'nly eye.' The recurring metaphor of blackness is a result of his increasing preoccupations and he broods over the fact that his once starlit world seems none other than his own living hell. The Christian opposition of heaven and hell is evident from the verse in sonnet 2, 'No doome should make one's heav'n become his hell.' Whilst the word 'doome' suggests the speaker's Christian damnation, it is nothing more than Stella's rebuttal.

Astrophil's, bewildered feelings are made more explicit and reach a climax in Sonnet 89, the only sonnet to employ just two rhymes, where in 'suffering the evils both of the day and night' his infernal desperation is manifested. He confuses day and night where both have become one to him and from this point on the rest of the sequence is shrouded in physical and moral darkness.

Astrophil's obsession with conquering Stella is further amplified when he invokes Morpheus, the son of Somnus, god of sleep who appears to dreamers in human shape and who will therefore bring Stella with him. He cannot bank on meeting Stella in the waking world, so he succumbs to and relies on the world of sleep even though he is well aware of its artifice.

Sidney's sequence also reverberates with one of Homer's epics. It has been suggested that the 108 sonnets represent the 108 suitors in Homer's Penelope, who played a game of trying to hit a stone called the Penelope stone as a way of deciding who would win and court her. Just as the wooers banked on their fate pathetically and were aware of disappointment, so is Astrophil embarking on the same painful and disappointing journey.

Roche suggests that within the sonnet sequence there lies another Homeric metaphor. The 119 poems are one short of the number of months Ulysses spent returning home to Penelope and the very structure of the sequence therefore implies Astrophil's only-too-obvious defeat. Astrophil too may be looked upon as Ulysses' antithesis as he does not possess such qualities as strength, endurance and fidelity. Furthermore his lack of integrity and malice may be witnessed when he rebukes himself in Song II for not having seized the opportunity after secretly stealing a kiss from his sleeping sweetheart. He says;

Oh sweet kisse, but ah she is waking
. . .
Now will I away hence flee:
Foole, more Foole, for no more taking.

Astrophil presents Stella as his sun, which lights his world and warms his spirits yet as is always the case he finds a downside to this, saying that, moreover, 'it burnes', concluding in the couplet that 'that my sunne go downe with meeker beames to bed.' It is evident that he wants these burning beams to become meeker, really referring to Stella's meekness or rather submission to him in bed. The frequent use of sexual allusions are used in the sequence to portray the problematic nature of Astrophil's paradoxical obsession as he craves for her love but for her sex too.

The structure of the sequence also has a vital role to play. The sequence was probably composed in 1581-82 and is made up of 108 sonnets combined in the Petrarchan manner with lyrics in different forms.

Sidney uses a variety of rhyme schemes, which reflect Wyatt's influence. The structure of the individual sonnets amount to an octave constrained by some interlacing rhymes, followed by a sestet where the rhyme scheme is completed in the first four verses indicating an unexpected change in feeling or argument in the final couplet. Whilst the punctuation seemingly divides the sestet into two tercets the rhyme scheme creates two groups made up of four and two verses consecutively. The couplet normally consists of a paradox reflecting Stella's influence on Astrophil who on the one hand yearns for his love to be reciprocated but on the other feels angered at her for not quenching his sexual thirst; feelings which consistently run throughout the whole sequence.

The structure also enumerates the songs, which have a significant place in further explicating the course of events. Song I reflects Astrophil's idolatrous and blasphemous nature, Song II is about the stolen kiss, Song III is a praise of the power of music, IV is the conversation between the hero and heroine, in which she rejects his advances, and Songs V to IX evoke Aristophil's desperation. In fact in song V (which is the second longest song in the sequence) he vilifies Stella for her 'change of lookes' despite all the praise he heaped on her in the preceding 92 poems. What he obviously aims to do is seek revenge for his injured feelings by calling her all sorts of names such as a thief, a murderer, a tyrant, a witch and also a devil, the latter of which may preside over his hell. The irony lies in the fact that he used these same terms earlier on in the sequence in order to praise her.

Song VI is a debate between beauty and music, and some believe that it is more precisely a debate between Stella's beauty and Astrophil's music. He questions the reader about which of the two gratifies him more, and in describing how both the eye and ear are pleased to different degrees, his thoughts swiftly become more abstract reflecting the conflicts he is enduring internally.

Song VII rightly voices the words of reason (following the footsteps of Petrarch in Canzoniere) pointing out Astrophil's foolishness by citing his own words from the previous stanzas.

Like other sonnet sequences Astrophil and Stella concentrates primarily on attitudes and states of mind, whereby all the poems centre on a single all-absorbing experience, in this case Astrophil's obsessive and rejected love. The autobiographical element is evident and the sonnets voice Sidney's desires, regrets, and conflicts of conscience, which resulted from the social pressures and moral restraints of his time. Even though the reverberating theme of the poem is one of moral bleakness it was nevertheless greatly admired and appreciated by the righteous and virtuous Elizabethans because of the conventions it adhered to, such as the didactical element, and the complementing structural features.

1 Lever (awaiting details)
2 Roche, Thomas P. Petrarch and The English Sonnet Sequence (1989), p. 196

© Donna, May 2002


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