Sir Philip Sidney. Brief Background. The Sonnet Tradition. Atrophil and Stella

March 1, 2009 at 7:49 pm 3 comments

Sir Philip Sidney: a nobleman, knight and poet. The Real Renaissance Man.

Sir Philip Sidney is one of the most important Renaissance poets of England. Because of his famous essay, “The Defense of Poesy,” Sidney is also perhaps one of the ten or so most famous authors in British history.

Importantly, Sidney is the one poet we will study who was of nobility. He was a knight in Queen Elizabeth’s court. An adventurous and thrill-seeking knight, he became famous for his involvement in battles and espionage. All of his life he sought heroic action, wanting to be in the thick of things, which made Queen Elizabeth cautious about him. So Sidney was a very well connected courtier, who knew about life of the court and such experiences as courtly love first-hand. Having access to University education, he also was very passionate about literature and learning, and  encouraged such famous authors as Spenser.

Heroic Ambitions

But Sidney always wanted to be more than a man of letters, and his political and heroic ambitions would often get him in trouble. In 1580, his strong Protsestant convictions made him publicly oppose a projected marriage between Queen Elizabeth and a Catholic duke. The Queen, who loathed meddlers in her affairs, dismissed Sidney from her court. He spent most of the rest of his life retired at Wilton, a family estate overseen by his sister, Mary Herbert, countess of Pembroke, and also a person of letters who admired her brothers writing and literary acumen.

Sidney’s Death in Battle.

Sidney’s life, however, did not end with his nose in books. In 1585, he took up an offer from the queen to serve as governor of Flushing in the Netherlands, where as a knight-errant, he served in many skirmishes  against Spain. In a battle in 1586, he was fatally wounded in the thigh after taking off his armor in some sort of chivalric gesture–for another knight? To show how brave he was? History is not sure. His death was a huge event in England, and his funeral almost stopped all activity in London.  He was a hero almost of a romantic sort, a brave and adventurous knight, courtier, poet and thinker, he seemed to encapsulate what everyone believed were the virtues of the “Renaissance Man.”

The Sonnet Tradition

Although the sonnet as a poetic form evolved in thirteenth and fourteenth century Italy with poets like Petrarch, it became most famous as the dominant poetic tradition in sixteenth century Renaissance England. Poets like Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare wrote well-crafted sonnets. But their sonnets were not just separate poems written here and there. They wrote their sonnets in cycles, a lifetime of sonnets combining to form a long narrative. Sonnet cycles were very long: Sidney’s has more than 100 sonnets. Shakespeare’s is 147 sonnets long.

The sonnet is a very crafted, and difficult structure. Generally, sonnets are all fourteen lines long, each line in imabic pentameter, and each poet using a particular rhyme scheme that remains consistant through the whole sonnet cycle. The ability to write so many excellent sonnets within such a strenuous structure made the sonnet cycle one of the major Renaissance triumphs. They were seen and admired with the same awe and respect as a symphony, or a cathedral. And it was even more admired in England as an example of their greatness, fostering cultural pride that begins to grow during this time when England is trying to edge forward as a super-power in the world.

Astrophil and Stella

Sidney’s sonnet cycle is Astrophil and Stella. It chronicle’s the poet, a knight named Astrophil, in the middle of an affair of courtly love with a Lady already taken, Stella. We hear the poets thoughts and see his experience as he suffers miserably in his futile attempt to win Stella’s love, a love he desires but a love he also knows he could never realize. So we get all of the mental arguments the Astrophil makes with himself, where he tries to justufy his love, or when he tries to bend the love he feels for Stella into something virtuous.In the end, we get a portrait of a poet in deep anguish, struggling with unrequited love like someone being slowly roasted over coals. Readers have debated for centuries as to whether the portrait of Astrophil is meant to be taken seriously, and that we should have pity for him, or if the portrait is ludicrous, and we are supposed to laugh at him and judge his emotions and actions.

Metaphor: the Heart of a Sonnet: Painting Pictures with Words.

Sidney himself defined metaphors in poems as ideas turned into pictures painted with words. This is a very apt description. When you read each sonnet, look at how Sidney (or any of the other sonneteers) uses a central image, or a couple of images, in each sonnet that he draws through it to its conclusion. Each sonnet is dominated by a scene, or an action, or an event that serves to illustrate a meaning or concept.

The title of the sonnet cycle creates an image that becomes a metaphor. Astrophil means “star gazer,” and Stella means “star.”

For instance, in Sonnet 1, we have the image of a poet with writer’s block, and his muse over his shoulder.

In Sonnet 2, we have the image of Cupid shooting his arrow, surrounded by other martial imagery.

Try to find an image, an action, event, whatever, that Sidney presents in a sonnet and how he uses it in his context, and how he draws it to a conclusion.

Astrophil: an Inner Voice as Figure of Inner Suffering

Although Sidney is writing 200 years before the Romantic revolution, he presents a very inward, self-absorbed narrator in Astrophil and Stella. We read the thoughts and the private emotional life of an individual. This was a pretty daring and new thing in literature. Up until the late 1700s, authors did not write about or express the feelings or inner-life of an individual. In fact, a literature of individuality and concerning the emotions and dreams of an individual would be considered either bad taste or lunacy. Up until the Romantic revolution, literature was not considered a private affair, written about private lives or the feelings of an author. Literature was written about community, nation or civilization, and dealt with the actions of humans within a social world. Usually when something in literature suggests privacy, or the interior workings, dreams or emotions of a character, it does so (like in Shakespeare) in a cautionary or prescriptive way.

The Centrality of REASON / PASSION

It may be hard for us to understand this, since we are essentially heirs of a Romantic revolution. But before the late 1700s, literature that focuses on the individual, or the thoughts and feelings of the author would be considered lunacy or a heresy of sorts. For centuries up through the Renaissance and into Neo-classicism, literature was in the shadow of ancient Greek mimetic and metaphysical notions that literature should and must reflect the healthy dominance of REASON over human PASSION. This strong and prevailing dichotomy in both literature and philosophy cannot be understated. Literature until the Romantic revolution subscribed to the belief that REASON must be in control and dominant over human PASSION.  REASON means our ability to think clearly, to rationalize, to be judicious, to act moderately, to be sensible, and to remain an emotionally healthy member of society. PASSION means our emotions, our desires, our dreams, our imagination, our carnal needs, the primal aspects of our human nature.

If you look at any piece of literature since ancient Greek drama, you will see that when a protagonist allows his passions to erode his reason, he and things in the world around him begin to fall apart. Despite the fact that we like to think of Shakespeare as our champion of the imagination, he continually shows in his plays the consequences of excessive imagination on both Reason and society.

One could bifurcate the Reason / Passion dichotomy in many different ways: Mind / Body; Thought / Action; Virtue/ Vice.

The Romantic Revolution: the Subversion of Reason / Passion.

In the late 1700s, philosophy and literature underwent the Romantic revolution, which forever changed literature. For the first time, philosophers and poets (such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Goethe, etc) initiated an attack upon neo-classical precepts concerning Reason, and argued that, in fact, Passion was the route to the intellect, knowledge and virtue. From the 1790s on, for the first time, poets and authors began to write from personal and emotional points-of-view, and began to value (in manifestos, even) the imagination, dreams, emotions, individuality, and poetic freedom. We owe a great deal of our American values of freedom, liberty, individuality and free speech to the Romantic revolution. With our belief in poetry as the expression of feelings, that writers are individuals with private lives, and our inclination to keep journals and diaries, we are very much heirs of the Romantic revolution.

Sidney as a Romantic Revisited.

So it would seem that Sidney, writing from the point of view of an emotionally anguished knight who bears his heart and soul, was a romantic before his time. Yes and no.  Yes, the portrait Sidney presents resembles the inner-life spirit of a Romantic. But the figure Astrophil is very much part of a social system as a knight in a court that configures his identity, and he always must balance his thoughts, desires and actions against a society. Too, his self-absorption and his frequent detachment from society would not be read as representing virtue, nor did Sidney probably intend Astrophil to be a virtuous figure. In other words, Astrophil is not meant to be the heroic romantic figure of a troubled and solitary soul emotionally suffering in a dissinterested society. This type of literary figure does not develop until the late 1700s.

Reason / Passion and Virtue / Vice — the Important Dichotomies in Astrophil and Stella.

Notice how central Sidney makes the relationship between Reason and Passion throughout the sonnets. The whole cycle is a drama about Astrophil’s struggle to use Reason in order to discern true and virtuous thought and action from his Passion. Notice how his Passion (desires, dreams, wants, carnal needs) constantly distorts his Reason (his ability to think clearly, be reasonable, be sensible, etc).

Also, notice how hard Astrophil attempts to twist and bend Vice and Virtue, as he attempts to turn his desires for Stella into something virtuous, or when he tries to justify his desire to bed her by turning his cravings into something virtuous. All of his efforts fail, of course, and he always remains stuck trying to bend something in a direction it will simply never go.

Entry filed under: British Literature.

Questions for Reading, Thinking, Writing: The Wife of Bath Analysis of Sonnets from Sir Philip Sidney

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. upinvermont  |  March 22, 2009 at 9:22 pm

    Hello Peter,

    I am more impressed by your posts than by any other blogger I have so far come across. I’ll be writing a post on Sidney’s sonnet practice this week (since there is some interest in this – based on searches at my blog) and will be definitely recommending your post.

    I invite you to take a look at my blog

    Traffic at my blog has been increasing tremendously. During one day, my post on Shakespearean, Spenserian and Patrarchan sonnets received over 60 hits and was translated into three different languages. I started my blog as a way to encourage readers to read *my own poetry and stories*, but it seems I’ve been providing a service no other online site has been providing – a close, metrical analysis of great poetry.

    My reason for mentioning this is not so much to toot my horn as to tentatively ask if you would consider contributing an occasional article to my blog? I think your work would mesh beautifully with my own. On the other hand, I am perfectly content to strongly recommend your blog to my readers (almost 400 a day), and would perfectly understand your desire to get your own blog off the ground.



  • 2. macsinclair  |  March 24, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    Hi Patrick. Thank you for the comments! This blog site is in conjunction with a course on British literature that I teach at Albertus Magnus College, but I am glad others are reading it. I have a few other blogs for different courses:

    whatapieceofwork is the blog for my Shakespeare seminar, which I also design as an introduction to critical theory.

    I’ll take a look at your site this afternoon, and I am sure I would be willing to write an article for you.

  • 3. upinvermont  |  March 24, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    //This blog site is in conjunction with a course on British literature that I teach at Albertus Magnus College//

    Yes, I saw that before I posted my comment. I think that the vast majority of the visitors to my blog are students. You’re obviously providing a similar venue here – which is why your posts appealed to me.

    I checked out your blog based on your Shakespeare Seminar. Fascinating stuff and of a somewhat different focus than my own – which is a good thing. I am, personally, a close student of Shakespeare’s language – his rhetoric and poetic techniques – Miriam Jospeh, Vickers, Kermode, Houston, McDonald, etc… Issues of authorship fascinate me.

    //I’ll take a look at your site this afternoon, and I am sure I would be willing to write an article for you.//

    Please do. I won’t bat an eye if you don’t like it… for whatever reason. But if you do, our didactic interests & bent might mesh nicely. You take an interest in certain aspects that I don’t.


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