Sir Philip Sidney:
Astrophil and Stella 1

 

N.B.: the spelling varies between Astrophil and Astrophel for different editions. I prefer the former, since it means "Star-loving", while Stella, of course, means "Star."

This is mostly to suggest a general pattern for in-class presentations, so that you can give us your reflections and ideas as quickly and directly as possible, and we can have time to discuss them. You can vary your presentation style as you like, but it would be helpful for you to have your comments entered as a brief text file, from which you could cut and paste pieces for each section. It is probably longer than what you are likely to find, and certainly I wouldn't expect you to come up with nearly as much of the classical material.


 

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 step-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.'


 

Overall

This is one of those (fairly frequent) love poems that is more about the composition of love poetry than about love itself. Its chief narrative thread is this: the author has tried to express his love in poetry, but has been relying on study, rather than on direct perception of the truth to do so; when this fails, the muse advises him, "Look in thy heart and write," a phrase that will serve as a theme for the whole set.

The poem is either self-exemplifying or self-negating, depending how one views it; for, even though it stands as a denunciation of "learned" techniques in poetry, it also relies on the devices of classical rhetoric and poetry. In the end, even the muse's advice in the end is an appeal to an established topos of its own going back to Plato's suspicion of rhetoric and the Sophists. One can see echoes of Cato the Elder's advice, "Rem tene, verba sequuntur" -- "Pay attention to the matter; the words will follow." In a parallel vein, Ovid develops the idea (Amores I.1) of a frustrated poet going about his job the wrong way, only to be released when he capitulates to Cupid.

Structure

Like most Italianate sonnets, this one breaks down into two parts of eight and six lines, respectively. The turning point in line 9 is introduced by the adversative, "But...". The first eight lines set out the idea and the motivation, and describe the failed technique, in a classic (and rational) mode; the last six create a sense of increasing agitation, both through their use of subject matter and by metrical manipulation, until the final release in the end of the last line with a romantic (primarily emotional) advice.

Grammar

The poem's syntax not only carries the message, but also embodies it: the first eight lines are in fact a single periodic sentence exemplifying a rational relationship of cause and effect. The first four contain only dependent material: 1) a complex participial phrase ("loving...and fain...to show)" and 2) a lengthy dependent clause of purpose ("That she...") filling lines 2-4 with the rhetorical figure known as a *climax*, a linked stair-step sequence of terms in which one leads to another. The main clause is thus deferred, but is fairly simple when it arrives in the first half of line 5. From it almost immediately grows another elaboration of purpose and another participial phrase ("Oft turning...") with another dependent infinitive of purpose ("to see..."). With delicate irony he expresses the hope that this over-wrought start (which, if not stale, is at least itself a very studious product) will produce something "fresh and fruitful."

The second half is different; whereas the entire structure of the first eight lines balances on a single independent clause, lines 9-11 offer three independent clauses in rapid succession, and loads them up with lively and direct words. The effect is a grounding of the elaborately poised structure of the first part, with a commensurate discharge of energy. The final three lines give us a lengthier sentence-structure, but one filled again with powerful imagery heaped up in disarray: indeed, the final line of the poem is strictly an anacoluthon (that is, it does not follow properly from what comes before): the participles and adjectives of lines 12-13 ("great with child", "helpless", "biting", and "beating") all must be understood to refer to the poet himself; but syntactically they owe allegiance to the subject of the main clause on which they depend -- not the poet at all, but "my muse". Whether this is an error or whether it is a deliberate anacoluthon to express emotional agitation (the same technique is found in classical Latin poetry as well) would be hard to say, though it seems unlikely that a person of Sidney's learning would have made so prominent (and so effective) an error unintentionally.

Vocabulary

Possibly problematic words include:

Metrics and rhyme scheme

The meter is an unusual six-foot line (twelve syllables); there are a handful of other sonnets in this collection that fit this description. Two lines might be misread by modern readers as having thirteen syllables:

"Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain." Here I believe the "y" of "studying" needs to be treated as a semivowel/glide -- thus making it a word of two syllables.

"Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburnt brain": here, "showers" (sometimes written "shoures") needs to be considered a monosyllable.

The rhyme scheme can be represented as: ABAB ABAB CDCD EE

Sidney varies his rhyme schemes rather freely throughout Astrophil and Stella; here the monotony of the ABAB ABAB tends to reinforce the notion of the tedious but fruitless study. The rhyme scheme tends to pick up speed, leading to the acceleration of the climax.

 

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