Philip Sidney – Astrophil and Stella (ctd.)

Sonnet 16 is the comparison between what love used to mean to the poet – he felt admiration for certain beauties and he even thought he was full of love for them. So he didn’t understand other lovers complaining about their pain and thought they were babes whining at pin pricks. But then he saw Stella and he learnt what love is, “as who by being poisoned doth poison know”.

Sonnet 18 is a financial metaphor – Reason calls the poet to the audit and the poet has to declare himself bankrupt. His youth, his knowledge, his talent – all are spent on Stella and writing poetry for her, and the only thing he regrets is that he can’t lose even more.

Sonnet 20 is a warning to his friends to fly from the Cupid, settled in Stella’s black pupil. The poet, like a passer-by, stopped and admired the beautiful view, but then he was shot with a dart of love that pierced his heart.

Sonnet 21 quotes an imaginary dialogue with a friend rebuking the poet wasting his time on this unhappy love. The poet should have learnt from Plato how to tame desires, and he should also remember what he owes to his social position and great expectations that presumably his family have for him. If Sidney was so promising in March, meaning as a young boy, and now wastes his time in May, that is as a young man, what will his harvest be? The poet cannot but agree, and yet is there anything more beautiful in the world than Stella?

In Sonnet 27 the poet presents himself as often lost in thought and not speaking in the company, which others often mistakenly take for a sign of pride (a bit like Mr Darcy…) But no, he is not guilty of pride, he is too self-aware for that. What he is guilty of, he admits, is ambition. He seems to ignore his friends because all his thoughts are preoccupied with Stella. I must admit that in this sonnet her name appears almost as a kind of afterthought and the sonnet would be as effective as a reflection upon Sidney’s character and the gap between self-perception and the way others perceive us.

Sonnet 28 in a way addresses all the critics who claim that Stella stands for someone or something else (like all the critics who say that Laura or Beatrice are not real women, they  are just poetical constructs). No, Sidney says, do not look for allegories in here. I did not invent her to have a subject to write about, or to make her the personification of some philosophical ideas. Stella is Stella and I am writing about my love for her.








Philip Sidney – Astrophil and Stella (ctd.)

Sonnet 6 is another meditation upon the poetry, or rather its inadequacy to express love. Some poets when writing about their love use elaborate language, and other mythological allusions. Some go for the pastoral style and some for “lovers’ complaints”, writing about their woes. But Sidney can only say that he loves Stella, which is a bit disingenuous, taking into account that he is in the process of writing the whole sonnet cycle about her. I guess the paradox is the point here. Interestingly enough, in this and some of the following sonnets Sidney switches from the English sonnet (3 x 4-line stanzas plus the finishing couplet) to the Italian sonnet (2 x 4 line stanza and 2 x 3 lines stanzas, linked by rhyme patterns).

Sonnet 7 is about Stella’s black eyes. Did Nature give her black eyes to offset better her beauty, like the painter who puts his picture in the black frame? Or did she do it to protect her lovers, who would be dazzled by the brightness of her eyes if they were not black? Or to show that even though black is stereotypically the antonym of beauty, she can overcome it and create something beautiful and black? All of these, and also to give the mourning weed for Love residing in Stella’s eyes and mourning all those dying for her. Sidney here makes a slight mistake, since the line 12 doesn’t rhyme with any other line in the poem. Or maybe I should get all litty-critty and argue that of course it is on purpose, because the slight imperfection in his poem is like the blackness of Stella’s eyes, offsetting her beauty.

Sonnet 9 is a rather belaboured extended simile, comparing Stella’s face to a building made of various precious stones: her forehead is of alabaster, her lips of red porphyry etc. Her black eyes are like “touch”, which was apparently Elizabethan English for jet, black stone, which when rubbed can generate static electricity and attract small straws. The sonnet ends with a complicated pun on “touch’ the stone, and the eyes who can touch the poet without touching.

Sonnet 10 sends away the Reason to its proper occupations – knowledge, poetry and souch, instead of quarrelling with the poet’s love and sense, because, as soon as he sees Stella, Reason himself has to bend his knee and admit that it is reasonable to worship her.

Sonnet 15 is another meditation on poetry. Sidney discusses in this text what he considers derivative poetry: using elaborate language, searching dictionaries, ransacking the poetry of Petrarch for figures of speech. But these are “stolen goods” and if you want to become famous, get your inspiration directly from the view of Stella.


Philip Sidney – Astrophil and Stella

This is the first sequence of love sonnets in English poetry. Normal people will want to know who Stella was, and critics will tell them, of course, that it is just a literary convention and Sidney may have invented his love and lover while sitting at his desk. Stella is believed to be Penelope Devereux, with whose family Sidney’s family apparently conducted marriage negotiations. The negotiations broke through for some reason, Penelope married Lord Rich and Sidney married a few years later Frances Walsingham, the daughter of Elizabeth’s powerful minister. There are some puns in the sonnets on the word “rich”, so he may have meant Penelope.

(Biographical sidenote – after Sidney’s death Frances married Penelope’s brother, the volatile favourite of the Queen, Earl of Essex. Penelope in the meantime carried a very public affair with her lover lord Charles Blount. Her husband did nothing while Essex enjoyed Queen’s graces, but after his failed rebellion and execution he kicked Penelope out of his house, probably seizing the chance finally to get rid of the unfaithful wife, but also trying to avoid the taint of being married to the traitor’s sister (whom Essex very publicly accused of collaborating with him). Penelope moved in with her lover and when her husband finally filed for and got the divorce, she wanted to marry Blount, but the law forbade him to make an honest woman out of her (and legitimate children out of his bastards). She married him in secret private ceremony, for which contravention of the ecclesiastical law they were both kicked out of James I’s court. But this didn’t seem to harm them much and they continued to live together until dying a few months later, both rather young (in their forties).

Sonnet 1 is one of these rare birds in English poetry, written in hexameters. It’s a kind of meta-sonnet, not so much about love, but the role of poetry in love and how this poetry is created. The poet wants to write to please his lover and through the logical sequence from pleasure to knowledge to pity win her love. He is looking for the inspiration in other poets, but Invention, which is the child of Nature, flies away from Study, which is its wicked stepmother. Finally the Muse tells him “Fool, look in thy heart and write”. The sonnet is almost romantic (as in prefiguring Romanticism) in its emphasis on inspiration rather than study.

Sonnet 2 is a return to the familiar pentameter. The sonnet describes the development of love, which is not a “coup de foudre”, but a gradual development from liking to love, and from the love unwillingly accepted  to the love that he embraces like “slave-born Muscovite”. (Elizabethan England had very lively trade and diplomatic relations with Russia.) So now he employs whatever is left of his wit to convince himself that he is happy under tyranny of love.

These two sonnets, with their focus on the role of poetry as the vehicle for love make me think that there may be some truth to the theory that Penelope Devereux was Sidney’s Stella. They seem to present the story about somebody who talks himself into being in love, so to say. He meets an attractive girl, learns that she is his intended, thinks “not bad” and starts to find her more and more appealing. In addition, having a love object can provide him with the inspiration for poetry, either if love is happily consummated, but if it’s unhappy, it’s even better!

Sonnet 5 is a polemic with what various moralists say about love. It is true that the eyes should be servants to the reason and that love is an image which we ourselves carve and then foolishly adore in the temple of our heart. (Sidney was an ardent Protestant and of course he believed that the worship of images is idolatry.) It is true what Neoplatonics say that love should raise us to higher things (viz. The Courtier) and that Christians say that we should be thinking about the afterlife. “True, and yet true that I must Stella love.”


Philip Sidney – The Defense of Poesy (the end)

in the last but one excerpt Sidney compares the ancient and modern modes of versification, the ancient relying on the metre and length of syllables and the modern relying on rhyme. His argument, in short, is that both are good in their own way, and English is unique among European languages to be adaptable to both. I don’t aspire to Sidney’s vast knowledge of languages, but I think he confuses the length of syllables with the accent. Ancient Greek had long and short vowels and built its metrical lines accordingly, while English and I guess most European languages replaced it with the stresses. But his point is that English is the best and I guess that’s the key.

In a rather charming conclusion Sidney lists an impressive number of authorities, both ancient and modern, supporting his view that poetry is the crown achievement of humankind and says “if you can’t understand it, I won’t rhyme you to death like Irish bards, but I wish you fell in love and never found favour with your lover for lacking the skill to write a sonnet, and when you die, I wish your memory died with you for want of an epitaph”. The places like this, when Sidney is ironic and self-mocking are the best. In other places he is a bit school-marmish, with his constant quoting of the ancient Greek and Romans as the utmost authority.

I’ve been thinking about Sidney’s insistence on the didactic purpose of literature. This is of course very alien to us and I would say about some very dark and nihilistic texts. You don’t have to go as far as Sarah Kane and Elfride Jelinek – if he had lived long ago to see King Lear, what would he say? There is no redemption in this play, no glimmer of hope – sure, the evil are punished but the good die too. Sure, you can argue that the play does teach you not to rely on your children’s declarations of love, but is it enough? Food for thought.

Philip Sidney – The Defense of Poesy (ctd.)

Sidney continues his attack on the playwrights who do not follow the three unities. You do not have to show everything, he argues, you can just tell what happened (in this way going against the classical rule of screen-writing), and you do not have to tell the whole story ab ovo but only the most salient part. He also argues against mixing comedy and tragedy, and he makes some interesting points about laughter and delight. Our playwrights keep on inserting comic relief into tragedies because they can’t imagine delight without laughter. But in fact they are quite the opposite – we delight in a beautiful woman, we laugh at a cripple. But let us bear with Sidney before we call him insensitive. In fact, he says, there are some instances when you can mix delight with laughter, for instance men in drag! Always funny! Well, he doesn’t mean just any man in drag, he refers specifically to the story about Hercules at the court of Queen Omphale, wearing woman’s clothes and doing the feminine job of spinning. Seeing the strongest man in the world in love gives us delight, and his clothes make us laugh. But since literature should both amuse and teach us, the kind of laughter produced by misfortune, which should inspire pity, or vice, which should inspire contempt, is wrong. That is why it is wrong to laugh at beggars or foreigners “who speak not English as well as we do” (foreigners speaking funny! always funny!) Instead, the proper objects of comedy are a courtier in love, a braggart soldier, a conceited scholar and somebody Sidney calls “an awry-transformed traveller” are the proper objects to mock. Now, the editors of the NAEL, usually so busy with giving so many notes along the lines “Priam and Hecuba were the king and queen of Troy” here must have fallen asleep. I had to look up myself the meaning of “Thraso” (a braggart soldier from a comedy by Terence, and I’ll dare say, a lesser-known figure than Hecuba), and I still have no idea who the “awry-tranformed traveller” is. Perhaps somebody who after travelling a bit affects foreign customs and accent?

As for poetry, Sidney writes, it would leave him cold if he were a woman courted in this way. English love poets are like the man who once over-eagerly told Sidney’s father that the wind was from the northwest and south – they want to have all their bases covered and they throw together any phrases that come to their minds.



Philip Sidney – The Defense of Poesy (ctd.)

In this section Sidney provides a kind of review of literature in England. I must admit that I find this argument particularly hard to follow, with his Elizabethan diction, but as far as I could make out his point, it was that English poets are careless both in choosing subjects and words. If you take any poem in English and rewrite it in prose, Sidney argues, you see that the poet has no idea where he’s going. The few exceptions which deserve his very qualified praise are Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (with allowances made for Chaucer’s living “in that misty time”. Other poems singled out for praise are a collection of moralistic poems Mirror of Magistrates and Spenser’s Shepherds’ Calendar (which Spenser dedicated to Sidney), although Sidney criticizes Spenser’s archaizing language.

As for drama, the only praiseworthy play is Gorboduc, a Senecan tragedy in blank verse by Sackville and Norton. At the same time Sidney criticizes that apparently all the English plays he’s seen don’t preserve the (falsely  so called) Aristotelian unity of time and place, which he finds a sine qua non. He dismisses the few ancient examples (Terence, Plautus), which don’t follow these unities either and seems to be completely unable to comprehend such a thing as a dramatic convention. How can you believe that Africa and Europe are on the opposite ends of the stage, or that the events of twenty years are squeezed within the span of a few hours? It’s completely ridiculous!

Philip Sidney – The Defense of Poesy (ctd.)

In this excerpt Sidney refutes several charges of the enemies of poetry, which is unfortunately reprinted only in part. The 1st charge is that there are better ways to spend your time. Second that poetry is a lie. Third that poetry makes people sinful and effeminate. And the fourth one, says Sidney in a delightful touch of irony, is “they cry out with open mouth as if they had overshot Robin Hood, that Plato banished him out of his commonwealth.” Sidney easily refutes the first charge, since he has already argued that poetry is the noblest of arts. As for lying, “the poet… nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth”. Nobody is so stupid as to take poetry or drama literally, while on the other hand astronomers, physicians and historians do affirm truth of their statements and they are often wrong. (But it is not surely a lie when you believe something is true, you are just mistaken? I guess it just fitted Sidney’s rhetorical purpose better.) Unfortunately the excerpt ends here, so I don’t get to read Sidney’s sophistical attempt to prove that Plato actually honoured poets, and didn’t want to banish them.