Chapter 4: Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophel and Stella
Sir Philip Sidney is not well known by today’s reading public, but he is actually better known as an author today than he was in his own time. When he died, at a young age in 1586, he was honored as a statesman and a warrior, but only a small group of family and friends knew him as a prolific and accomplished writer. Nevertheless, he was one of the most important writers of his time, which is especially surprising when we realize that even he did not consider himself primarily a writer. Like those who honored him, he thought of himself as a courtier, a statesman, and a warrior, but had he not written some of the most important works of the English Renaissance, he would be little more than a footnote to history, known only to Renaissance scholars. It was his writing that made him into a Renaissance man, that immortalized him, and that made him such a fascinating figure. Poetry does triumph over arms.
Philip Sidney was born in 1554, received an excellent renaissance education, which means that he was fluent in the classics, travelled extensively on the European continent, and spent time at the court of Queen Elizabeth, where his headstrong ways often got him into trouble and forced him on occasion to be exiled from the court. In fact, it was during some of those periods of exile and enforced idleness that Sidney wrote several of his works. In 1585, he accompanied his uncle, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to the Netherlands, where they were supposed to help the Protestant Dutch in their struggle with the Catholic Spanish who were trying to dominate their land. The expedition was a thorough disaster, largely because Leicester ignored the queen’s orders. In 1586, Sidney was wounded when he and a small group of men, again against orders, attacked a much larger Spanish force. Although his wound appeared to be healing, it suddenly turned gangrenous and Sidney died shortly thereafter at the age of nearly thirty-two.
Sidney’s death was widely mourned, but he was not buried until five months later, when an enormous funeral was staged in London. Cynics believe that the funeral was intended to distract public attention from the recent execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. They are probably correct. Elizabeth knew how to handle her people. Sidney’s death was also accompanied by hundreds of eulogies, many in Latin and Greek and one in incomprehensible Hebrew, as well as many in English, including Edmund Spenser’s “Astrophel.”
None of Sidney’s works was published during his lifetime, which is hardly surprising since, like many others at that time, he did not write for publication. Instead he wrote for a relatively small coterie of friends, family, and fellow poets. It was only after his death, in circumstances that we still do not completely understand, that Sidney’s works were published, but even before their publication they were influential, and after their publication they were popular indeed. King Charles I, in the next century, quoted from Sidney’s Arcadia before his execution.
What were those works and why are they so important? Sidney’s major works are The Defence of Poesy (also known as The Apology for Poetry), a treatise in which he defends poetry against numerous attacks and in the process discusses the purposes and techniques of poetry; the Arcadia, a long prose romance that exists in two major versions (since Sidney left it partially revised at the time of his death); and Astrophel and Stella, the sonnet sequence that will be the subject of this chapter. There are a few shorter works as well, including a translation of the biblical Psalms that Sidney began with his sister Mary, the Countess of Pembroke, and that was completed by her. (Mary was an accomplished poet in her own right.) Even these few works were an amazing accomplishment for someone who died so young and who had so many other interests. I still find what Sidney wrote in The Defence of Poesy valuable for the study of literature, and much of what he says has influenced this book.
At the time Sidney started writing, English literature had not achieved the eminence it was to reach before the end of the sixteenth century. The century had begun in a positive way for literature: the War of the Roses was over, a vigorous, young Henry VIII was on the throne, and England seemed poised for literary greatness. Poets like John Skelton, Sir Thomas Wyatt, and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, were writing in the traditions of the Continental Renaissance. Then came the English Reformation and both political and cultural chaos descended on England. In the middle part of the century, poets began writing again, but most of them were not terribly distinguished. The best of them was probably George Gascoigne, who deserves to be more widely read than he generally is. Then in 1579, a young poet named Edmund Spenser published The Shepheardes Calender, a series of twelve poems using a variety of verse forms, and a new age of English poetry was born. Significantly, The Shepheardes Calender was dedicated to Philip Sidney.
The major works written during the 1580’s were Spenser’s Faerie Queene, whose first three (of six) books were published in 1590, and the works of Sidney, though they were not published until later in the 1590’s. Even before their publication, however, they had circulated in manuscript; and in the 1590’s they were followed by numerous prose romances, while sonnet sequences became one of the most popular forms of poetry. Sequences were composed by such notable poets as Spenser (the Amoretti), Samuel Daniel (Delia), and Shakespeare. Even in death Sidney was a trendsetter, and as we read his sonnets today, we can still be amazed at how current they seem.
Before we can proceed to Astrophel and Stella, we must give some consideration to the sonnet as a poetic form. In the early nineteenth century, Wordsworth wrote “Scorn not the Sonnet,” a sentiment that may reveal how the sonnet was regarded in Wordsworth’s time, but in the sixteenth century the sonnet was extraordinarily popular. In fact, for more than two centuries before Sidney wrote, the sonnet had been one of the favorite forms of Continental poets, largely because of the influence of the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch. Petrarch wrote hundreds of sonnets, mostly about a woman named Laura. We know that this Laura actually existed, and we also know that Petrarch never let the fact that he had had no personal contact with her interfere with his writing love poems to and about her. The first half of his collection of sonnets consists of straightforward love poems, in which he bewails his misfortune in never having his love returned. But then Laura died and Petrarch, like Dante before him, realized that his lady was in some way a heavenly being who had been sent to give him guidance, so that the second half of his sonnet collection both mourns her and celebrates her heavenly attributes.
Our concern at the moment is the sonnets of the first half, the ones in which Petrarch complains about unrequited love. In these sonnets he uses many of the conventions of that medieval form of love that is often called, with some license, courtly love: the lover virtually worships his lady, but at the same time he suffers. He alternates between burning fevers and shivers of cold, he cannot eat or drink, he certainly cannot sleep. He is, in short, rather like a lovesick teenager (and I mean no disrespect either to Petrarch or to lovesick teenagers—those teenagers, whether they know it or not, are also using ancient conventions). So insistent was Petrarch about his woes in love that modern critics often refer to his tone as the “Petrarchan moan.” Although the poetry can be ravishingly beautiful, cynical modern readers may be excused if they occasionally find Petrarch’s sentiments at least slightly excessive, but in the centuries following his death, his poetry was both popular and influential. He had numerous imitators on the Continents, and when Wyatt and Surrey began to write English sonnets, they started by penning translations of Petrarch’s works and gradually moved to creating their own works in the Petrarchan style. Sidney took Petrarch a step further.
By the time Sidney began writing Astrophel and Stella in the early 1580’s, the Petrarchan conventions were well known in England, but like all great writers, Sidney did not merely adopt the conventions. Instead he adapted them, made them his own, transformed them. Furthermore, it was not only the conventions of love that Sidney transformed. He also transformed the sonnet form itself.
What is a sonnet? Basically, it is a fourteen-line poem with five or six feet to a line. That does not seem terribly complicated, but poets have used that fourteen-line form in a variety of ways, changing rhyme schemes, meters, and even the organization of the poems. For example, many sonnets use the first eight lines (the octet) to express some sort of problem or dilemma and the last six lines (the sestet) to offer a solution. (We saw this scheme in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur” in the Introduction.) But there are sonnets in which those numbers are reversed. There are also sonnets in which the first twelve lines explore a point and the last two (the couplet) comment on that point. Or there are sonnets in which the first thirteen lines make a clear point which is then contradicted by the last line. When these structural variations (and others) are combined with the large variety of rhyme schemes that poets have used in their sonnets, the number of permutations that are possible becomes astronomical, and poets, opportunistic creatures that they are, have used the versatile sonnet as a means of performing poetic acrobatics. John Keats, the great Romantic poet, records in his letters instances in which he and his friends held sonnet-writing competitions.
In fact, writing sonnets is a very difficult task. Try it. Not only do the rhyme and meter have to be precise, but a complete thought must be presented and examined in a limited space. I like to think of sonnets as diamonds, small, multi-faceted, and precious. That Sidney wrote one hundred eight of them for Astrophel and Stella (Shakespeare’s collection consists of one hundred fifty) is amazing. Not all of them are perfect, but enough of them are to convince us that Sidney was a very great poet indeed. Furthermore, Sidney used his sonnet sequence to tell a fairly clear story. As in Spenser’s Amoretti, we can see the outlines of a plot in Astrophel and Stella, though the Amoretti ends happily, culminating in the “Epithalamion,” a wedding song, while Astrophel and Stella ends in sadness. In both of the sonnet sequences we can see the individual sonnets as isolated “spots” in an extended period of time, and each of those “spots” illustrates some aspect of the speaker’s relationship with his beloved or, more often, some aspect of the speaker’s consciousness. In Astrophel and Stella, for example, though Astrophel appears to direct our attention to Stella, almost every poem focuses somehow on his thought processes. There are, however, several poems in the sequence, especially among the eleven “songs” that are interspersed among the sonnets, in which Stella is given more objective attention.
There is one more background point that we must consider before we actually get to the poetry, the question of autobiography in Astrophel and Stella. Sidney’s use of the names “Astrophel” and “Stella” is a nice touch, since the former means “star-lover” and the latter, appropriately enough, means “star,” and we know that Sidney was occasionally referred to as “Astrophel,” which was the name Spenser used for his elegy after Sidney’s death. But to what extent is the sequence autobiographical? It has long been thought that Astrophel actually represented Sidney, while Stella was Penelope Devereux, sister of the Earl of Essex and wife of Robert, Lord Rich. In fact, several of the sonnets seem to refer to Lord Rich, for example Sonnet 24, “Rich fools there be,” which uses the word “rich” four times. Readers who emphasize this aspect of the sequence try to identify when each poem was written by referring to episodes in the lives of Philip and Penelope and examining the course of their alleged adulterous relationship. I reject such a reading of the poems for several reasons. First of all, my major interest is not in the life of Philip Sidney, fascinating though he may be. I read poems for the value of the poems, not because they might illuminate the poet’s biography. Furthermore, poets may use elements from their biographies in their works, but they transform those elements. The characters Astrophel and Stella may be modeled on Philip and Penelope, but the sequence is not the story of their love. And most of all, Astrophel, as we will see, is something of a dope, to put the case as nicely as possible, and it is difficult to believe that Sidney would present himself in the way he presents Astrophel. If he did, he surely had a poor self-image! Astrophel, we must remember at all times, is a fictional character who writes love poems both to and about his equally fictional Stella. The voice we hear in the poems is that of Astrophel, not Sidney, though Sidney is the intelligence that creates and controls the voice. It is essential that readers maintain this distinction.
And now to the poems. The sequence opens with an introductory sonnet in which Astrophel explains why and how he is writing his sonnets:
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she (dear she) might take some pleasure of my pain;
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know;
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain;
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburnt brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, nature’s child, fled ste-dame study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
‘Fool,’ said my muse to me; ‘look in thy heart, and write.’
We can see immediately that the poem consists of three sentences. The first eight lines comprise one long sentence, while the second and third sentences are each three lines long. Those first eight lines are also tied together by rhyme, for the rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b-a-b-a-b. The last six lines, however, have a rhyme scheme of c-d-c-d-e-e, which looks like a quatrain (four lines) and a couplet (two lines); but that rhyme scheme stands in a kind of counterpoint to the sense of the poem, since the sentences run c-d-c and d-e-e. Although we may not be conscious of this counterpoint as we read, it does have an effect on our appreciation of the poems, especially since Sidney uses the technique quite frequently. It throws us ever so slightly off balance and calls our attention to the conclusions of the poems in a different way than a single couplet might. (Musically it is analogous to the use of three-not figure, a triplet, against a two-note figure.)
The first line of the poem gives us a great deal of insight into what will follow in the whole sequence. Astrophel begins by telling us that he loves in truth. We may wonder exactly what that means, though it certainly sounds promising, but then he says that he is “fain in verse my love to show.” “Fain” means happy or obliged, and in either of those senses we get a picture of Astrophel wanting and needing to express his love in poetic form, but if we look again at the phrase “fain in verse,” it is hard to believe that the pun on “feign” is unintentional. In other words, Astrophel may protest that he loves in truth, but his language indicates that “loving in truth” may be little more than a pose and he is feigning that love in his verse.
Astrophel’s expectations for that verse are expressed in the next three lines, as he indicates what he wants to accomplish. Sidney, in his Defence of Poesy, says that poetry should do two things that lead to its ultimate purpose. It should delight and instruct. If it delights enough, people will want to read it and will therefore be more likely to learn what it teaches. But the ultimate aim of poetry, he says, is to move readers to virtuous action. People who read and are delighted enough to read more should learn what virtuous action is and, since it is more virtuous to perform virtuous actions than not to perform them, should be moved to perform them. Astrophel—not Sidney—uses similar reasoning. He wants Stella to find pleasure in his pain, that is, to enjoy reading the poetry in which he describes the pain he suffers because of his love. If she enjoys reading about pain, she will read more, which will make her know about his pain, which will make her pity him, which will move her to bestow grace on him. At first glance, this plan seems straightforward enough, but we must ask what kind of woman would enjoy reading about someone else’s pain. Does Astrophel think that Stella will enjoy his pain? Further, we must ask exactly what it is Astrophel hopes to obtain from her. He says “grace,” but that is at best a vague term. Sidney, as a devout Christian, would have known that in a religious sense “grace” would have meant unmerited favor bestowed by God on human beings, but we may justifiably doubt that this is precisely the meaning that Astrophel has in mind. He may mean that what he hopes to attain is unmerited, but what does he hope to attain? He might mean that he simply wants her to look favorably on him, but that explanation hardly seems likely when we consider the bulk of Astophel and Stella—even before we know what the poems say. More probably, he wants what all writers of love sonnets want, his lady’s love. That love, of course, is almost invariably unattainable. After all, if the lady returned the speaker’s love, there would be no reason for him to write more sonnets and he and his lady might be otherwise occupied, so love poetry flourishes as a result of unrequited love.
But what do we mean when we say that Astrophel desires Stella’s love? If grace means “unmerited favor,” what kind of favor could Stella give him? There is a hint in this first sonnet, a hint that develops throughout the sequence, that Astrophel desires some kind of sexual favor. I want to emphasize here that Astrophel is probably not aware of the implications of all that he says. In fact, throughout the sequence we can see that Astrophel seldom understands his actions, his words, or even his own feelings. He is not, at this point, being intentionally deceptive. He is, in his limited way, being perfectly honest. It is Sidney, the genius behind Astrophel, who makes his words so ambivalent, because what Sidney is giving us in Astrophel and Stella is a portrait of a young man in love, a young man who is not at all certain what it means to be in love. Like so many of the speakers in Renaissance (and medieval) love poetry, he is at least initially confused over the relationship between love and sex. He resembles Romeo in the early sections of Romeo and Juliet or Colin Clout in Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender: he is a young man who thinks he should be in love and who thinks that he knows how a young man in love should behave.
In pursuit of his goal, whatever that goal may be, Astrophel has sought the proper words to convey his pain, and he has sought them in the works of other poets. He has turned their “leaves,” their pages, to find inspiration, which he describes by punning on “leaves.” He has turned their leaves to see if, like the leaves of trees, they have any moisture to soothe his “sunburnt brain” (which is one of my favorite phrases in the whole sequence). Why is his brain sunburnt? As the sequence develops, he frequently refers to Stella, his “star,” in terms of brightness and light, so perhaps he simply has too much Stella on the brain. Whatever the precise cause may be, however, love has not inspired him. Instead, it has dried up his brain and he has turned to the work of other poets for relief. It is quite clear that Astrophel is not writing poems about Stella but about himself, and even in this first sonnet we can see the problems that plague him until the end.
Astrophel’s attempt to harness the words of others is as unsuccessful as we might expect, and he explains, in a mini-allegory, that “Invention, nature’s child, fled step-dame study’s blows.” Invention, the ability to construct a poem, is according to Astrophel, a natural ability, the child of nature. Study can only be the stepmother of invention, and, in keeping with the stereotype of a stepmother, study is cruel to invention, forcing invention to flee. In short, leafing through other poets’ works is not helping. Their feet—the metrical units of their poems—simply get in his way. Consequently, he is “great with child to speak and helpless in my throes.” This image of the poet gestating and giving birth to poems is wonderful, for it expresses a truth about the process of poetic composition and about the relationship between poets and their poems. Astrophel knows what he wants to say (or thinks he does), but he cannot get it out. The ideas will not take the proper form no matter how much he struggles with them. Finally, in desperation, he realizes what he must do as his muse, presumably an inner voice, tells him to “look in thy heart, and write.” Surely this advice is good, but the curious reader might well wonder at a young man who claims that he loves truly and yet does not know that his poems should come from his heart. There is at best a kind of naiveté in this declaration, if not a real attempt at “feigning” in verse.
In fact, as we read the poems of Astrophel and Stella, we quickly realize that although Astrophel thinks that Stella is his subject, Sidney’s subject is actually Astrophel. Stella is certainly a real character, especially later in the sequence when she tries, sometimes gently and sometimes not so gently to dissuade Astrophel from his obsession with her, but generally what we find in this sequence is a revealing portrait of Astrophel, and what it reveals is not always flattering. Although Astrophel writes wonderful poems, those poems are often on the traditional subjects of love poetry rather than reflections of what is in his heart, and frequently they contain hints that undercut the supposed purity of his love.
An example of the former quality, the traditional nature of his subject matter, is sonnet 9, in which Astrophel plays with the traditional blazon, a description of the beloved lady. Astrophel confines himself to describing her face, again in a kind of mini-allegory. Her face, he says, is so beautiful that it is like the court of Queen Virtue: her forehead is like alabaster (women in Elizabethan times wore a heavy coat of white make-up), her hair is like gold, her mouth is like porphyry, and her cheeks are like red and white marble. These may be valuable materials, and they are surely colorful and beautiful, but they are also cold and hard. Does Astrophel want us to think that she is cold and hard? There is no question that she has been so toward him, though he finds that he is the straw that has been ignited by the heat of her eyes. Furthermore, there is no relation between these hard, cold minerals and the virtue he professes to find in her face.
The word “virtue” also plays a part in the sonnets in which Astrophel undercuts himself, even as early as sonnets 4 and 5. In sonnet 4, he addresses virtue, which he says has created a debate between his will and his wit on the subject of his love. Instead of engaging in the debate and trying to investigate the nature or meaning of his love, however, Astrophel, after referring to “the little reason that is left in me,” concludes that virtue itself will love Stella. That sentiment may be cute, but it also dodges the issue, the very issue that is raised in sonnet 5:
It is most true, that eyes are formed to serve
The inward light; and that the heavenly part
Ought to be kind, from whose rules who do swerve,
Rebels to Nature, strive for their own smart.
It is most true, what we call Cupid’s dart,
An image is, which for ourselves we carve;
And, fools, adore in temple of our heart,
Till that good god make Church and churchmen starve.
True, that true beauty virtue is indeed,
Whereof this beauty can be but a shade
Which elements with mortal mixture breed;
True, that on earth we are but pilgrims made,
And should in soul up to our country move;
True; and yet true, that I must Stella love.
In this poem, Astrophel spends thirteen lines declaring Neoplatonic truths about love—Neoplatonism, to offer a very sketchy definition, was a Renaissance philosophy that emphasized the metaphysical value of spiritual rather than physical love. In these thirteen lines, Astrophel argues that the spiritual aspects of love are truly superior. A traditional symbol of fleshly love, Cupid’s arrow, is an image that we create and “adore in temple of our heart”—it is an idol that we worship instead of directing our faith where we should. Instead of thinking about our heavenly goal, we allow ourselves to be distracted by transitory earthly beauty. Astrophel knows all of these truths, he says, but he persists in loving Stella, implying that his love is largely physical. While the poem is beautifully and cleverly written, it is no longer cute. Rather, it allows Astrophel to express and gloss over serious problems that he should really consider before he continues in his current course. Does he really believe those Neoplatonic sentiments? If he does not, then perhaps he can justify his physical love for Stella. But if he does think those sentiments are true, as he says he does, then he must explain how he can continue loving her the way he does, which apparently is not so spiritual.
Similarly in sonnet 14 Astrophel argues that love is only sinful if we consider faithfulness in word and deed to be sinful, if we consider “a loathing of all loose unchastity” to be sinful, and he concludes, “Then love is sin, and let me sinful be.” In a Romantic poet, such a declaration would be challenging, but in a poet writing in Elizabethan England, it is positively startling. His argument should be that his love is not sinful, not that if what he perceives as love is sinful, then he is willing to be sinful. This point is especially important because Astrophel has clearly not considered what his love means. As we saw in sonnet 1, he is not entirely sure what he wants from Stella, and in sonnet 5 he is willing to continue loving her even though that love verges on idolatry.
This particular theme in Astrophel and Stella reaches its climax in sonnet 71, in which Astrophel once again devotes thirteen lines to the elaboration of Neoplatonic doctrine and then demolishes that doctrine in the fourteenth line. As he does so many times in the sequence, he argues here that Stella’s beauty teaches him virtue, and he refers again to the inner light of reason. Not only is Stella herself virtuous, but she moves everyone who sees her to be virtuous, and while her beauty makes him love her, her virtue moves him to perform good actions. Here we have a beautiful description of the potential of love as a positive force in the world, a fine expression of Renaissance Christian Neoplatonism. If the poem ended after thirteen lines, we could have nothing but praise for Astrophel. The poem, however, is a sonnet, and the fourteenth line undermines everything that Astrophel has said: “But ah, desire still cries: ‘Give me some food.’” Astrophel is moved not by love but by desire, and despite all his protestations about love and virtue, what he wants, as he told us in sonnet 52, is “that body.” His reason may tell him how pure and heavenly love should be, but he is being controlled by his desire.
Perhaps we should say that there is nothing wrong with Astrophel’s physical desire. After all, he is human. But even if we make this allowance, we must recognize his fundamental dishonesty. From the very beginning of the sequence, he has focused on virtue, on love, on beauty as a heavenly attribute, when what he has wanted all along, whether he acknowledges it or not, is her body. He wanted her to pity him so that she would bestow grace on him. Pity is hardly a basis for love, and, as we saw, grace is a vague term in this context. Now we can see what he really meant by grace, and we can see how blasphemous his use of the term was. The question that we must consider is whether Astrophel is consciously dishonest. At the beginning of the sequence, we might be justified in arguing that he is more confused than dishonest. After all, sexual desire is a natural feeling, and Astrophel, like any young man of his time, must balance that feeling against such societal strictures as the Neoplatonic emphasis on spiritual love. How can Astrophel reconcile his natural feelings with what he has been taught that he should feel?
His confusion becomes less honest, however, as the sequence goes on and as he continues to proclaim the spiritual purity of his love while increasingly declaring the frankly physical nature of his desire. Thus sonnet 72 begins
Desire, though thou my old companion art
And oft so cling to my pure love, that I
One from the other scarcely can descry,
While each doth blow the fire of my heart…
I must no more in thy sweet passions lie…
Astrophel can no longer distinguish between pure love and desire, but there is no doubt that he feels sympathetic to the desire that he personifies in this poem. Again, that sympathy might be understandable if it were handled properly. We can see examples of physical desire being handled sympathetically in Sidney’s contemporaries Spenser and Shakespeare. Astrophel, unfortunately, is not capable of handling it so. Instead he becomes positively willful in his treatment of Stella, so that in sonnet 72, though he seems to be ridding himself of desire, he is actually expressing the impossibility of doing so.
We can also see willful behavior in sonnet 63, in which Astrophel announces his joy at Stella’s having finally responded positively to his love. This poem is probably the best poem ever written about grammar rules. Astrophel is simply delighted at the way grammar works, he says. Recently, he tells us, he “craved the thing, which ever she denies.” This “thing” is as vague as the “grace” he mentioned earlier, but we can be pretty sure that they refer to the same thing, and we can see that not only is he communicating with her outside the context of the poems, but he is communicating with her in frank terms. As always, Stella denies him that “thing,” but this time she does so emphatically: “‘No, no,’” she says, almost the only words we actually hear from her, and Astrophel responds in this sonnet by saying that grammatically two negatives make a positive and so her “No, no” means “yes.” We might be inclined to regard his reaction as a joke. After all, no one could really believe that “No, no” means yes, and Renaissance grammar would have shown him his error. But whether he really believes what he is saying or not, he behaves as though he believes it, and we know that there are men today who believe that even a single “no” means “yes.”
After this sonnet, we find the first of the sequence’s eleven songs, that is, poems not in sonnet form. Most of these songs further the action in some way, but the first song only praises Stella and shows his devotion to her. In each of the song’s nine stanzas, the third line reads
To you, to you, all song of praise is due.
We may regard this line as evidence of his deep love, though we already know that we must be suspicious of his emotions; but even more important, we must see that in the sixteenth century such a line could not—or at least should not—be directed to one’s human lover. All song of praise is due only to God, and in fact this line sounds rather like something Astrophel would have heard in a hymn. Understanding “no, no” to equal “yes” might be regarded as cute in some quarters, but now he has crossed the line into blasphemy, and in the next sonnet, he tells poor Stella—for we must regard her as virtually being persecuted, or in modern terms, stalked by him—that he will not be dissuaded by her advice to give up on his courtship. Clearly, Stella has told him to stop, and just as clearly he has convinced himself that she is playing some sort of courtship game, that she is playing hard to get. In sonnet 67, addressing his own personified Hope, he says,
I am resolved thy error to maintain
Rather than by more truth to get more pain.
He refuses to admit that Stella does not love him, that she wants him to go away, though apparently he knows. Instead, in the next several sonnets he fans his passions to such an extent that, as we saw in sonnets 71 and 72, his actions are controlled by Desire.
The second song shows us that if we have not believed Astrophel, or if we have thought these poems were just the musings of a lovesick young man, we have been quite wrong. In this song, Astrophel finds Stella sleeping and he contemplates his action, for he wants to teach her that she “is too too cruel.” At first he seems to be taunting her: she may say “not” when she is awake, but what kind of “no” can she say when she is asleep? And then, in the most frightening line in the sequence, he thinks, “Now will I invade the fort.” All pretense of love is gone here, and he is being ruled by Desire, both for sex and for revenge, as he contemplates forcing himself upon her. Eventually he decides not to rape her, but only from fear of her anger, and instead he kisses her. When the kiss awakens her and she is angry, Astrophel berates himself for not having taken more than a kiss.
Astrophel is no longer a lovesick swain, if ever he was simply that. He is a dangerous young man who equates lust with love and has no real regard for the lady he allegedly loves. Even if we in the twentieth century regard a kiss as relatively innocent, especially compared with what he might have done, he has run the risk of compromising her reputation, a very serious matter in Elizabethan England. Furthermore, in the next several sonnets he makes light of her anger. In sonnet 73 he says, in effect, “You’re cute when you’re angry, so cute that I want to kiss you again.” Not only does he show here how old this line is, but he also reveals his total insensitivity to her. In sonnet 74 he says that his poetry is as good as it is because he has been inspired by Stella’s kiss, and in sonnet 81 he says that if she wants to make him stop talking about the kiss, she should shut his mouth—with another kiss. Finally in sonnet 82 he seems to be apologizing to her, but even there he asks for another kiss.
Astrophel may appear charming, then, and Sidney certainly makes him the author of beautiful poetry, but Astrophel also reveals the failings of so much love poetry. It is deceptive, focusing on the wrong things, revealing more about the speakers than about love. And since the speakers in English love sonnets are overwhelmingly male, these sonnets reveal important facets of male approaches to love. What has only recently been noticed by a number of scholars, however, is the extent to which Stella is given a voice by Sidney. Certainly Astrophel does most of the talking, but it is clear that between sonnets, Stella has done her best to disabuse Astrophel of his mistaken notion that she will fall in love with him. In fact, since Astrophel is playing what he thinks is the game of love and she is not, she ultimately appears to be more real while he seems more foolish, as he moves from infatuation to obsession. This sense of Stella as a real person is extraordinary when we consider how little she actually says. In sonnet 63 we heard her “No, no,” and that sentiment is repeated in the fourth song, in which Astrophel offers one reason after another for her to “Take me to thee and thee to me,” after each one of which she responds, “‘No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.’” Although she repeats the same line nine times—and Astrophel, as we understand, does not grasp the meaning of “no”—that line tells us much about her. It indicates her firmness with him. She is not flirting or leading him on, and despite his clear persecution of her, she is not even rude to him. Unfortunately for her, her politeness involves addressing him as “my dear.” All she wants is for him to desist, but he pays more attention to “my dear” than to “no, no, no, no.”
The last stanza of this song is especially interesting, for in it Astrophel threatens that if she continues to hate him—and we must notice that she has never said that she hates him—he will die, possibly by killing himself. We might well wonder how much more of a cliché he can make himself, but Stella responds with the same line, “‘No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.’” At this point the line is dismissive, as she tells him laughingly (at least I hear laughter) that he will not kill himself, that she sees him as a little boy who needs to go away and grow up. She is not a romance heroine, nor is she someone who plays at being a romance heroine. She is a real woman who wants to be left alone.
Astrophel’s response, of course, is not what she hopes for. In the fifth song he calls her, among other things, a witch and a devil, but then he admits that he will love her anyhow. In the eighth song she tries another strategy, saying that she does love him (if he understands her correctly) but that she must keep her feelings concealed. By the ninth song, however, Astrophel realizes that she was just pretending and the rest of the sequence, including the eleventh song in which she dismisses him more forcefully than she had earlier, is one long paean to self-pity. Even when Stella is ill, Astrophel interprets her paleness as evidence of her love. By the end of the sequence, he is truly a pathetic creature, and it is probably no accident that the last word in the sequence is “annoy,” which is what Astrophel has been doing to Stella.
Like Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender, its most important English predecessor, Astrophel and Stella ends without resolution. Sidney’s Astrophel, like Spenser’s Colin Clout, remains confused and distraught. These works are not like Victorian novels in which all the loose ends are tied up, and they may consequently leave readers feeling dissatisfied. If we do not expect closure, however, we will not be disappointed. Our pleasure must come from the intricately worked sonnets themselves and from watching Sidney’s skill as he depicts Astrophel’s changing relationship to love and to Stella, and I will conclude this chapter by looking more closely at three of my favorite sonnets.
Sonnet 17 comes at the point when Astrophel is still infatuated and his feelings are still more innocent than they will later become. A number of the sonnets at this point in the sequence describe Stella’s charms and her beauty, and several focus, as does this one, on her eyes. Eyes, of course, have always played an important role in love poetry. Lovers look deeply into each other’s eyes and fall in love with what they see there. This phenomenon led poets like Sidney (or characters like Astrophel) to imagine that Cupid lived in the beloved’s eyes, from where he shot his arrows:
His mother dear Cupid offended late,
Because that Mars, grown slacker in her love,
With pricking shot he did not thoroughly move,
To keep the pace of their first loving state.
The boy refused, for fear of Mars’s hate,
Who threatened stripes if he his wrath did prove.
But she in chafe him from her lap did shove,
Brake bow, brake shafts, while Cupid weeping sate:
Till that his granddame, Nature, pitying it,
Of Stella’s brows made him two better bows,
And in her eyes of arrows infinite.
O how for joy he leaps, O how he crows,
And straight therewith, like wags new got to play,
Falls to shrewd turns; and I was in his way.
Astrophel actually uses a clever idea here: Cupid’s bow is broken, Nature replaces it with Stella’s eyebrows, and when Cupid tests his new bow, poor Astrophel is shot, which is why he loves Stella. Astrophel is here the accidental victim whose own will has nothing to do with his situation. Still, the way Astrophel makes the point is interesting. First, in explaining why Cupid needs a new bow, he refers to the well-known myth of an adulterous affair between Venus, goddess of love, and Mars, god of war. This myth was popular in the Renaissance, when it was cited as an allegory of the relationship between love and war, between harmony and disharmony. In the National Gallery in London, for example, is a painting of Mars and Venus by Botticelli, in which Mars lies sleeping after his tryst with Venus, while a group of little satyrs lay with the armor he has discarded. Love and harmony clearly triumph over war and disharmony.
Sidney’s use of the myth, however, is somewhat different. Astrophel’s Venus is upset that Mars’s love has grown weaker and she wants Cupid to shoot him again, to give him, in effect, a booster shot, or, as Astrophel puts it with an intentional pun, a “pricking shot.” But Cupid is afraid of Mars’s wrath and refuses, so Venus pushes him off of her lap and breaks his bow. Astrophel’s Venus certainly demonstrates an odd kind of love here. She is petulant and violent, not unlike Astrophel himself. It is no wonder that Mars’s love has grown slack, and if this is how Astrophel pictures the goddess of love, we cannot be surprised at his behavior as the sequence continues. Once again, Astrophel has revealed an important facet of himself even while writing a clever and charming sonnet.
Another revealing sonnet is the forty-ninth. Philip Sidney took great pride in his horsemanship, a skill that was most important for a courtier, and he even began The Defence of Poesy by telling a story about horsemanship. His character Astrophel, too, is a good horseman, as we learn in sonnet 41, where he tells of having won the prize at a tournament. In sonnet 49, he uses the image of a rider on a horse to describe his relationship with love:
I on my horse and love on me doth try
Our horsemanships, while by strange work I prove
A horseman to my horse, a horse to love…
Like the story of Mars and Venus, the image of a man mounted on a horse had traditional associations. Together the man and the horse represented a human being, with the human part signifying the spiritual and intellectual aspect and the horse signifying the carnal, bodily aspect. In theory, the man should control the horse, just as the spirit should control the flesh; and when we give in to our bodily desires, we allegorically allow the horse to take control. It is significant, then, that Astrophel says that he is to his horse as love is to him. In other words, as a horseman, he can control his horse, but as a lover he is controlled by love and he takes the carnal, bodily role. This description, of course, reinforces what we have already seen about Astrophel, that he is motivated more by his bodily desires than by real love.
After this strange admission, Astrophel allegorizes the equipment used in horsemanship to illustrate how he is controlled. The reins that love uses to control him are “humbled thoughts,” for instance, the bit is “reverence” and it is held in place by “fear” and decorated with “hope.” Again the concept is clever, but Astrophel reveals things about himself that might better be kept secret—and even better, reformed—especially when he says that love “spurs with sharp desire my heart.” Not only does the horse image show us Astrophel’s state, but now he advertises his impure motivation. And not only does he proclaim his tainted motivation, but he concludes the sonnet by announcing that “in the manage myself takes delight,” that is, he loves being under the domination of love, he loves being controlled, and he loves being subject to desire. Astrophel is not, perhaps, the kind of lover one would want courting one’s daughter.
We must wonder what makes Astrophel behave as he does. Is his case a simple matter of testosterone poisoning or is there another explanation? One possible explanation is that Astrophel, the fledgling poet, is behaving the way he thinks young men in love should behave, the way Colin Clout believes in The Shepheardes Calender or as Romeo behaves at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet. After all, he has learned his amorous stance from reading love poetry, from, as he said in the first sonnet, “turning others’ leaves.” His problem is not so much that he is in love as that he thinks he should be in love; and as the sequence progresses and his plans do not work out, he becomes increasingly belligerent, increasingly self-centered. The pattern that he had expected from his acquaintance with literary love just does not work, and finally the sequence ends in despondency. In this sense the sequence is consistent with what Sidney said in The Defence of Poesy, when he noted that if he were a woman, he would never be persuaded by love poetry, which tends not to be persuasive because so much of it does nothing but repeat the same motifs. Despite the claims of so many of Astrophel’s poems, then, we can say that he has been more influenced by reading other lovers’ writings than he has been by love itself.
The final sonnet that I will mention is also concerned with the real and the fictional aspects of Astrophel’s passion. In sonnet 45, Astrophel tells us again that Stella has ignored all the evidence he has provided her of his love. He has shown her “the very face of woe” and a “beclouded stormy face” to no effect, but what most upsets him is that recently she heard a fictional tale about “lovers never known,” that is, about made-up people, and she wept at their plight. Astrophel is struck by her reaction to fiction and her complete lack of reaction to him; and he decides that if fiction so moves her, she should think of him as a fiction:
Then think, my dear, that you in me do read
Of lover’s ruin some sad tragedy:
I am not I, pity the tale of me.
This sonnet shows Astrophel at his most pathetic. In the cause of a hopeless and largely self-inflicted love, he is willing to deny his own reality, to sacrifice his sense of a self. Love, as he should know from his reading, is supposed to be an ennobling sentiment, but his mistaken notion of love has reduced him to self-abnegation. If only Astrophel would become a bit more rather than a bit less self-aware, he would be much better off.
But of course Sidney is playing with us in this sonnet. Lest we forget, Astrophel really is a fiction, and when he denies his reality, he is only telling us what we already know. However, if we have forgotten that he is a fiction, if we think of him as a real person who has denied his own reality, then we have made the same error that Astrophel has made in reading other love poets, thinking that they, too, have been creating fictions. Sidney has played a neat trick on us, leading us to think of Astrophel as real. Such is the power of literature. Unlike Astrophel, we must be aware of its fictionality, so that, for one thing, we do not confuse Astrophel with Sidney, and we must also be aware of the conventions of love poetry and the proprieties of love so that we do not confuse Astrophel’s behavior with the behavior of a true lover.
My approach to Astrophel and Stella makes Astrophel seem like a truly repugnant character, and in some ways he is. At the same time, he is rather pathetic. Every time I read the sequence, I hope that this time he will stop and think about what he is saying. Of course, he never does. In this way he resembles most of us: his confusions are human, and we, like him, are frequently not clear about what we want or why we want it. So Astrophel is not a monster. He is a person who has been influenced by the culture that surrounds him and who has not begun to think for himself.
Sidney asks us to do many things as we read his poetry, because he knows that reading should not be a passive activity. We must be aware not only of the surface meaning of Astrophel’s sonnets but of the deeper (not hidden!) implications as well. Reading these sonnets is not like reading a novel. The sonnets must be read slowly and several times before they begin to make sense and before those deeper implications become evident. Reading in this way may sound like work, but it is work that provides rewards. Not only do we get an intimate portrait of Astrophel, but we also get a good picture of Stella and, in addition, we are treated to language used in masterful ways. The pleasures of reading Astrophel and Stella are well worth the effort.