Analysis of Sonnets from Sir Philip Sidney
As I said in the previous post, Astrophil and Stella is a sonnet sequence written from the point of view of a nobleman in love with a Lady who is already taken. It explores his despair over the unrequited love, and his desparate attempts to both woo her and to rationalize in his mind the virtue of his futile love.
In the first sonnet, Sidney introduces us to the poet / lover, struggling to find the words to put the pain of his love for Stella. He seeks “fit words to paint the blackest face of woe.” In other words, he wants to find the best way with his poetry to show how miserable he is. He hopes that his words of misery “the dear She might take some pleasure of my pain,” and then argues from lines 3 -5 that if she reads his sonnets, she would realize how in love he is, come to pity him, and this pity would somehow turn into love for him. (Notice right away that the poet’s motives and rationalization is not the best.)
From lines 6 – 9, the poet racks his brain, trying to come up with “inventions,” or clever turns of phrase, “Of turning others’ leaves,” meaning looking at other poet’s works to find inspiration. But “words came halting forth.”
Lines 12 – 13, a typical place for an emotional climax in a sonnet, the poet feels so tortured he describes it like giving birth to a child. But then his Muse tells him, “Fool, look in thy heart and write.” The advice of the Muse means that the poet, Astrophil, is beating his brains too much, and the he must turn inward to his heart, or his passions. Right away there is a cautionary ring to this, similar to the Wife of Bath invoking “Experience” as her source in her Prologue. As I said in the previous post, Passion in the Renaissance is a dangerous, untrustworthy human faculty, so to abandon the mind, or Reason, means to forgo ones clear thinking.
In this sonnet, Astrophil gives us a brief account of how he fell in love with Stella. He uses the image of Cupid shooting him with his arrow throughout the poem, and maintains a somewhat martial and wounded tone throughout. Cupid’s shot wounds him, but does not make him fall in love with Stella immediately–He describes falling in love from lines 5 – 8 in terms of a sort of battle in which he unwittingly surrenders. He becomes more of a prisoner of love. “At length to Love’s decrees, I, forced, agreed / Yet with repining at so partial lot.” Falling in love Astrophil presents as something that happens almost out of your control, causing you to suffer “lost liberty,” and being in love turns him into a “slave-borne Muscovite.”
Notice in the last couplets of the Sonnet, lines 11 – 14, how upside down is Astrophil’s world. He claims “I call it praise to suffer tyranny,” meaning he worships being under the cruel leadership of his love for Stella. And he employs “the remnant of my wit” (his last bit of rationality) “To make myself believe that all is well / While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.” He claims he now tries to convince / fool himself that he is fine while in fact falling in love is hell.
The yoking together of extreme terms in the first two sonnets is common throughout Sidney’s sonnets and the sonnet tradition. Notice in Sonnet 1 he talks about how his “pain” might bring Stella “pleasure.” The spring “sunburns” his brain. In Sonnet 2, he “praises” to “suffer tyranny,” and makes himself believe “all is well” while “I paint my hell.” This tradition of oxymoron goes back to the earliest Italian sonnets, in particular, Petrarch’s sonnet sequence concerning his unrequited love for Laura. In these sonnets, she is “firy ice,” and “cruelly kind,” and all sorts of other contradictory things. Petrarch also established the classic use of hyperbole in love sonnets and poems. Hyperbole means exaggerated descriptions or comparisons, like claiming that your tears create floods, or your woeful sighs stir up storms. Shakespeare, in sonnet 130, makes fun of the Petrachan conceit and hyperbole hysterically.
Notice that the first line almost states one of the central themes of the sequence. “A strife is grown between Virtue and Love.” He continues claiming that both Virtue and Love battle to claim Stella. Love beckons “Her eyes, her lips, her all.” But Virtue argues that what is important is Stella’s “virtuous soul, sure heir of heavenly bliss/ Not this fair ourside, which our hearts doth move.” Astrophil, with seeming virtue, says that Love cannot claim these most important inner qualities of Stella. But notice how, in the last couplet, Astrophil, as usual, buckles: “Let Virtue have that Stella’s self; yet, thus/ That Virtue but that body grant us.”
He knows that he must be virtuous, and restrain himself and his longings for her physically. But he constantly wants Virtue to bend to his desires, at the same time.
Astrophil continues the endless debate concerning Virtue and Passion. He wonders how to put Virtue into the context of his immense physical attraction for Stella. The image / conceit in this sonnet is that Stella is the Book of Nature, a common Renaissance conceit. The idea is that a person or a scene is like God’s book that we can read. Astrophil believes one could read Stella’s beauty to “learn of Love.” He argues that her beauty shows only goodness, and overthrows “all vices.” She overthrows vice because of her sweet gift of “reason,” her “inward sun.” And those who see and read in her this beauty of reason will also be moved toward virtue. Notice, though, how Astrophil, in the final lines, claims that her beauty born from her gift of reason “draws the heart to love” and makes Virtue want to him to do good, BUT . . . “ah,” Desire sill cries, “give me some food.”
The sonnet sequence ends with nothing really resolved for Astrophil, because there is no way for him really to resolve his situation. He is in love with someone taken, and who he desires physically. There is no way in which he can twist physical craving into something Virtuous, no matter how hard he tries. He can only spin around in circles in his head.
There are many ways in which scholars have interpreted the sequence as a whole. Many have seen it as Sidney portraying a fallen Renaissance man, a sinner suffering from many different things. Deception: Astrophil continually deceives himself about Stella and his feelings for her. Pride: Astrophil is self-engrossed, full of his own woe, puffed up by his own pain. Despair: a big sin back then. Astrophil has allowed himself to wallow in his feeling of hopelessness.
Some readers see Astrophil as heating up and then burning out on his own emotions by the end. There may be some hope, then, that he can rise from the ashes, and finally see Reason and Truth, the light of God as opposed to the light of truth he deceives himself into seeing in Stella’s eyes.
Other readers have seen the sonnet sequence as actually a comedy. We are supposed to laugh at Astrophil’s bloated sense of himself, his hyperbolic despair, his constant attempts to deceive himself, to twist the truth, to twise philosophy and theology, his attempts to bend things to his own mental advantage.
Some readers have also seen Astrophil and Stella as a sort of mirror for nobleman and courtiers. Guidebooks for courtly behavior were growing popular in England in Sidney’s time. These guidebooks gave rules and advice of conduct, such as proper manners and tasteful speech when in the court, the rules of conduct surrounding courtly love, etc. Some have seen the sonnet sequence as giving guidence by example: in this case, an example of what not to be or what not to do if / when you fall in love with a woman alrady taken or out of your league.
Needless to say, I think there is a lot of humanism in Astrophil and Stella. Even though he is writing it a couple hundred years before literary Romanticism, Sidney explores greatly the despair involved with “falling in love.” Have you ever wondered why we call it “FALLING in love?” Why not “RISING in love?” Evidently, the phrase evokes that feeling Sidney represents of being helpless when we are in love, of having something happen to us out of our control. But that it is also a but dangerous feeling, a bit scary. “Falling” also connotes the Christian sense of fallibility, of stumbling, of, well, sinning. Notice throughout Astrophil and Stella that Love is usually divided from Virtue. Love is generally connected to the carnal, to those cravings that led Adam and Eve to their temptation, fall and shame.
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