“‘Fool,’ said my Muse to me, ‘Look in thy heart and write.’”
(Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella,
Sonnet I, Line14.)
This line has been taken from court poet Philip Sidney’s ‘Astrophil and Stella,’ first published posthumously in 1591 (but which he began writing in 1581). It captures accurately the Petrarchan influence as well as deviation in the sonnet sequence. The collection of 108 sonnets (and 11 songs) draws largely from the Italian poet Petrarch’s ‘Canzoniere’ (or ‘Songbook’), also called ‘Rime Sparse’ (‘Scattered Rhymes’), written sometime after 1327. Sidney is credited with being a major contributor to the “Englishing” of the genre, in critic Gary Weller’s words. He goes on to claim that Sidney “marks the triumphant maturity of Elizabethan poetry and as well, the first full, belated but spectacular, adaptation of Petrarchanism in English aristocratic culture.” Although he does deviate from the Petrarchan sonnet form, such as in terms of the meter where he occasionally uses twelve syllables (alexandrines) instead of the standard iambic pentameter, he mostly conforms to the structure. For instance, he uses alliteration as Petrarch does and adopts the same rhyme scheme- abbaabba in the octave (first eight lines) and either cdcdee or cdecde in the sestet (last six lines).
Sidney also conforms to the tradition of Petrarch in terms of most of the themes, as reflected by the line quoted above, such as the idea of self-praise. This is seen in the quoted line as Sidney’s poetic persona Astrophil, who represents Sidney, is unable to find inspiration in others’ work (implying they are not good enough) and the true best lines that do justice to his muse Stella come to him naturally and from the heart. In this way, the superficial flattery of Stella is a front for his indirect praise of himself. Even though he is the ‘Astro-phil’ or star-lover, while ‘Stella’ means star, the real focus of attention is Astrophil himself. Moreover, according to critic Katherine Duncan-jones, in the Oxford University Press compilation of Sidney’s works, “the ‘phil’ element [alludes], no doubt, to Sidney’s Christian name.” However, the title (and thus the names of the eponymous characters) also signifies the distance between them and the impossibility of their union, suggesting another major theme Petrarch dealt with in his sonnets- that of the unattainable beloved placed on a pedestal.
Stella, modelled on Sidney’s childhood sweetheart Penelope Rich (née Devereux), is the beloved that the pining Astrophil (and in turn Sidney) tries to woo. However, due to class constraints coupled with the fact that the real-life Penelope was married to another man, Lord Rich, makes her unreachable. This is similar to the device Petrarch employs, as he wrote of a woman called Laura, probably based on Laura de Noves, with whom he was infatuated. Penelope and Laura both were of dignified birth, which is part of the reason why they rejected the advances of their admirer, as Stella expresses in Song Eight (the only time she speaks at length) and accuses “Tyrant honour” of stopping their union, though she wants him as well. Petrarch frequently made puns on Laura’s name,using the word “l’aura” (Italian for ‘the wind’) often in his sonnets, such as in the line “the wind (l’aura) blew through her hair” (translated by A.S. Kline). Similarly, Sidney would use puns on the English word ‘rich,’ to refer either to Penelope herself or her husband.
Another theme common to Petrarch and Sidney is the freedom-servitude paradox. The service to the lady both liberates and imprisons the lover. As the service does not always lead to rewards, imagery of bondage comes up in Petrarch’s poems and Sidney describes a similar loss of liberty in Sonnet II of ‘Astrophil and Stella,’ proclaiming, “Now, like slave-borne Muscovite/ I call it peace to suffer tyranny.” However, Sidney remains socially ambitious; he studies others’ work in order to outdo them and simultaneously seeks inspiration. It is also implied that Astrophil will be able to impress Stella if he is a better poet and thus must impress the courtiers and Queen Elizabeth I. Sidney also clears derision due to his failure and rejection faced as a lover and wants to project a positive image before fellow courtiers. Wyatt and Sidney both employ and revise the Petrarchan convention in order to explain and understand their political careers. Their use of this form draws attention to the patronage system as the means of distributing power in Tudor politics; they apparently discard politics and choose to write the Petrarchan love poems and yet their verses reflect their political careers. The private and public lives merge because of the desire to share poetry in the court and gain approval.
As a consequence of his public, political ambition taking precedence over the private one, critics claim that Sidney did not truly love Penelope. In the opinion of Novy Kapadia, “The sequence displays detachment from the realities of ordinary passion. […] The feelings ascribed to Stella may have been invented,” and it was thus not ‘forced honour’ that made her reject Sidney’s advances. Sidney also can be seen to use Penelope (or Stella, in the world of his sonnet sequence) in order to win pity, and there was a large element of fiction involved. This can be noted in his dramatic (and largely similar) lines such as “the blackest face of woe,” “the very face of woe” and “beclouded stormy face.” It has been speculated that Petrarch, too, used the idea of the beloved that can never be his to induce pity and receive poetic “laurels.” Due to the similarity of the word to the name ‘Laura,’ it is argued that that is what he desired she bring him. Sidney’s fictionalisation can be attributed to him attempting to prove that the sonnet form in English can be used to express personal mood and feelings, from conventional compliments to bitter self-questioning.
He is therefore able to relate the concept of self-fashioning (a term coined by Stephen Greenblatt) in his poetry. Preached by Machiavelli in his treatise ‘The Prince,’ posthumously published in 1532, self-fashioning relates to creating one’s persona as the situation necessitates, and adapting it according to circumstances. Sidney can be seen as strongly influenced by Machiavelli, as he feigns devotion to Penelope (or Astrophil to Stella) in order to gain pity, which he hopes will win him favours (from his lady), patronage (from his Queen) or admiration (from fellow courtiers). He shares this Machiavellian nature with Petrarch since they both write calculated lines in perfect meter, claiming they flow naturally. (This also represents their inclination towards self-praise.) An example of this tendency can be seen in ‘Sonnet XLV,’ where Astrophil declares, “I am not I: pity the tale of me,” reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Machiavellian villain Iago from ‘Othello’ (performed 1603, published 1622) who also fashions his own appearance and proclaims, “I am not what I am.” (Act I, Scene i.) Astrophil here professes that his immaculately-fashioned self is unmade due to Stella, and implores that his story be pitied (imaginary though it is). He assumes a new method to woo the beloved, utilising the Aristotelian notion of objects in art holding an emotive effect that they lack in life. This represents the importance of imagination to Sidney, in his seeking sympathy for a fictionalised tale of woe from Penelope, the Queen, as well as his fellow courtiers (the “greatest company” he is exceedingly conscious of).
This is a theme he discusses further in his essay ‘An Apology for Poetry’ (also known as ‘The Defence of Poesy’) written in 1579 and published posthumously in 1595. He here solicits value to be attributed to poetry and thus stresses on the significance of the creative. He propagated that the world created by a poet can be superior to the real world and that a poet is capable of reshaping the existing world. For instance, in Sonnet XXXVIII, Astrophil believes Stella to be more satisfying in his dreams and in Sonnet XXXIV, a dialogue between Astrophil’s passion and wit takes place, rationalising how writing alleviates frustration. Sidney hence calls the poet a “diviner, foreseer, or prophet” in response to Plato, who believed that all humans must be guided by reason and consequently disregarded the fanciful form of poetry on the basis that it is twice removed from reality. (With the image in god’s eye being the primary representation of reality and the visual world of mortals being the second, art becomes merely a third representation and is considered unimportant and wasteful by Plato.) Sidney, on the other hand, as a Neoplatonic poet, feels that through the beloved, one can attain the ultimate beauty in life (by finding what makes beautiful things so) and reach god. As a result, the beloved is exalted to an impossible level. Rina Ramdev in her ‘General Introduction’ to Sidney, Spenser and Donne posits that,
“Sidney using the Neoplatonist model sees the poet as the creator of another world, analogous to the one that god created. This […] is a reworking of ideas received […] by thinkers such as Pico della Mirandola and subsequently popularised in Castiglione’s ‘The Courtier.’ Poets like Sidney and Spenser energise their poetry and their theorising by raiding Neoplatonism both for compliments to the beauty of the beloved as well as to make claims for the status of the poet as a prophetic articulator of truth.”
Despite this discourse, some critics are of the opinion that Astrophil truly loved Stella (and that Sidney, in turn, loved Penelope). Critic Jennifer Laws is among those that attempt to display that Sidney did not “reduce Stella to an object of beauty to be adored and worshipped but presented her as a human being.” They postulate that since at first Astrophil “loved not” (Sonnet II), and gradually grew to develop feelings for Stella, his affection is sincere. In Sonnet XXXIII again, he laments having loved her only after she was married. This however may be because he desires her only when he can no longer have her, or may even be a ploy for pity. Laws maintains, however, that Stella’s “worth, which [Astrophil] gradually comes to know, is the important factor, not her physical beauty” but that there are times when she appears the typical Petrarchan beauty, when lifted out of context, as she appears dismembered with her separate parts described as though she were an unfeeling object. This distinguishes Sidney’s poetry from Petrarch’s, as the former even gives his beloved a voice in Sonnet Eight, and affords her a language of her own through gestures and expressions, something Petrarch does not allow for his Laura.
Sidney’s deviations from the Petrarchan tradition can thus be observed. In Sonnet XV, he directly addresses the followers of Petrarch, writing,
“You that poor Petrarch’s long-deceased woes
With new-born sighs and denizen’d wit do sing;
You take wrong ways.”
He criticises them for blindly following Petrarch. Sidney himself adapts the form as it suits him. His departure from the convention can be noted in terms of the blame he deflects to Stella. Her lack of pity at Astrophil’s devotion and distress in addition to (indirectly) holding her responsible for any creative blocks he suffers show the extent of his tendency to displace blame from himself onto Stella. He does not accept responsibility for any shortcomings in his sonnets as the poet but is quick to accept the praise for good work done.
Additionally, as a converted Protestant, Sidney’s ideology differs vastly from that of the devout Catholic Petrarch. Sidney does not shy away from expressing carnal desires unlike Petrarch for whom marriage is a compromise allowed for those not strong enough to abstain from sexual intercourse. Sidney also draws upon figures that are free with their sexuality in his ‘The Defence of Poesy’ as well, not allowing their sexual life to impact how he receives their political significance. In his own life, too, there were rumours surrounding Sidney of his being a transvestite and having relations with men. Had he been a strict Catholic, these rumours would not have surfaced, and neither would he have pursued a married woman. Not only does Sidney attempt to woo Penelope as Astrophil does Stella, he shows the reader Stella’s desire as well, and even gives her her own language of gestures and expressions. Sidney portrays a sense of equality through mutual attraction in his sonnets, that Petrarch does not, as he gives Laura no voice. As a Protestant, Sidney is more open to the idea of women’s desires than Petrarch. However, this turns into a lopsided, masochistic equality since Astrophil continues to pursue Stella despite the knowledge that he can never attain her (and that if he does attain her, the appeal is lost) while Stella continues to deny and reject him for honour even though she returns his affection.
Some readers and critics also feel that Sidney attempts to criticise Petrarch’s sonnet form, using it to show its inadequacy and limitations. The most significant flaw that emerges is the certain failure of the poetic persona since the woman he desires is unattainable (and must remain so in order for her to stay desirable). He will thus never be accepted and thus it is believed that Sidney is thus mocking the Petrarchan convention, making use of fragmentation, as T.S. Eliot later does when depicting the incoherence and inadequacy of language in poems such as ‘The Wasteland’ and ‘The Hollow Men.’ In fact, Sidney appears to fail in every other aspect of his life; making Astrophil fail is the only thing he does successfully, since he is a failed courtier, lover and diplomat. Ultimately, the sonnet sequences of both Sidney and Petrarch lead nowhere, unlike later poet Spenser, whose works reveal not only a reciprocation of desire but also a consummation of it. Critics Rina Ramdev and J.W. Lever both comment on the lack of conclusion, with Lever saying, “the romance experience itself is purged away by circumstances, duty, and the poet’s spiritual creed.” Therefore, with both deviation and conformity, Sidney uses the Petrarchan form as he finds comfortable, contributing significantly to its adaptation into England.