“She moved not like a mortal, but as though
she bore an angel’s form, her words had then
a sound that simple human voices lack;
a heavenly spirit, a living sun
was what I saw; now, if it is not so,
the wound’s not healed because the bow goes.”
– Francesco Petrarch, Sonnet 90 from Il Canzoniere
Petrarch’s words capture the essence of the courtly love tradition derived from Neo-Platonic ideology that emerged in medieval Europe and continued to inspire the works of writers and poets like Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spencer and William Shakespeare in the Renaissance age. Petrarch is credited with being the most prominent proponent of the sonnet form and incorporating the theme of an idealized visionary love. This essay analyses the Petrarchan sonnet convention and its subsequent use by Sir Philip Sidney in his collection of sonnets titled Astrophil and Stella (1591).
The Petrarchan sonnet was a succinct fourteen line poem divided into two parts – an octet and a sestet. He most often employed the popular ABBA ABBA rhyme scheme for the octet and sometimes the ABAB ABAB or ABAB BAAB scheme. The sestet varied between CDE CDE and CDCDCD. The central event in Petrarch’s poetry is his unrequited love for his mistress Laura, an idealised woman whose name he was to immortalise in his three hundred and seventeen sonnets compiled under Rime in vita e morta di Madonna Laura or Il Canzoniere (1327). Petrarch’s unattainable beloved Laura became a definitive model for the construction of the beautiful pedestalized mistress in the love poetry of the Elizabethan age. Laura is depicted by Petrarch as being in possession of both outer and inner beauty, and in her perfection she was seen as helping the male poet lover in accessing the divine. This idea of the beloved being a route to the divine has its roots in the philosophy of Neo-Platonism wherein it was believed that the ultimate divine Beauty of the metaphysical world manifests itself as material beauty in the body of the beloved. By pursuing the beloved, the lover gathered the essence of beauty in the material world which further helped him attain the ultimate Beauty and hence attain God. A morbid and deeply afflicted lover pining for the affections of a highly idealised and ethereal woman, a pre-occupation with the representation of the self and the thought of love being a spiritual entity are all part of the Petrarchan treasure trove.
The courtly love tradition seen in Petrarch’s poetry can be further explained through Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier (1528). Castiglione posits that “Love is simply a longing to possess beauty.” He explains that human beings perceive things through three faculties namely the senses, rational thought and intellect. If men rely only on their senses and use women’s beauty purely to quench their sensual appetites, then they fall to the level of beasts and brutes. However, if they use their intellect and attempt to acquire the spiritual aspect of beauty, they find a link to the pure spirit of the divine through their beloved. According to Castiglione, “Beauty is an influx of the divine goodness which, like the light of the sun, is shed over all created things but especially displays itself in all its beauty when it discovers and informs a countenance which is well proportioned and composed of a certain joyous harmony of various colours enhanced by light and shadow and by symmetry and clear definition.” He thus emphasises the divine aspect of love which is understood through intellect and rational thought. He also believes that beauty is not acquired through a communion with the beloved. An intimate union with the beloved will falsely satiate the hungry lover and ultimately, out of distaste, he will begin to hate what he loves. The beloved must therefore be forever unattainable. Petrarch’s beloved Laura died soon after he met her and thus their love was never consummated. In the three hundred and seventeen sonnets he wrote for her, he is only seen to be suffering due to dejection from his unreciprocated passions. In all subsequent constructions of the female gender in Renaissance love poetry, the beloved is depicted as the Angel in the House. She must, unavoidably, be unobtainable for if she gives in to the lover’s flattery, she becomes the Fallen Woman or the “whore” and loses her virtue. She is unchaste once she exhibits her sexual desires and hence can no longer inspire poetry.
Sir Philip Sidney, in his collection Astrophil and Stella, makes use of the same sonnet conventions as Petrarch but plays with these conventions by creating a developed dramatic narrative, and, even more importantly, creating a self-conscious study of poesis that is ultimately as much about the creative and poetic process as it is about any idealized mistress. The composition comprises one hundred and eight sonnets in the Petrarchan form, all addressed to the beloved Stella. The fictive Stella was inspired by Sidney’s childhood sweetheart Penelope Devereux who later married Lord Rich, embittering Sidney. The frustration of his unreconciled love for Penelope is expressed in his sonnet sequence. This forms the first resemblance to Petrarch’s paean of his beloved Laura. Sidney also complies with Neo-Platonism and sings hyperbolic praises for the beloved Stella whom he places on a pedestal. The title of the publication itself can be literally interpreted as “Star-lover and Star”, which shows that the lover does not have an identity of his own, and is only identified through his unparalleled love for Stella. Sidney’s poetry, at various places, poignantly highlights the impact of an unrequited love on the lover:
“Stella oft sees the very face of woe
Painted in my beclouded stormy face,
But cannot skill to pity my disgrace” [Sonnet XLV, Astrophil and Stella]
In the above lines, the speaker Astrophil attempts to persuade Stella to return his love by an appeal to pity. He hopes that Stella will be moved by the distress and anguish on his face which looks like a sky covered with grey stormy clouds. In such a situation he is a typical Petrarchan lover, languishing for his beloved.
Astrophil’s anguish over his beloved and his idolisation of her is also visible in the very first sonnet:
“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”
Here, Astrophil expresses his anxiety to write good poetry that is worthy of appreciation. He wishes for Stella to read his poetry so that she can be educated about his love for her. Reading well-written love poems will give her pleasure and knowledge of the poet’s sincerity and his extreme unhappiness at being unable to woo her.
He further goes on to say:
“Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
‘Fool,’ said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart, and write’.” [Sonnet I, Astrophil and Stella]
The dramatic twist in the last line of the sonnet re-iterates the fact that the beloved is equivalent to the divine Muse. When the poet looks into his heart he will see the image of Stella, which will provide him all the inspiration and the material he needs to write poetry.
There is also a masochism attached with Astrophil’s pursuit of Stella. Her unattainability fuels his sexual hunger. There is an element of erotic fun in the way she’s hard-to-get. The closest that there is to a seduction occurs when Astrophil steals a kiss from a sleeping Stella. This is representative of Sidney’s Protestant views on sensual intimacy and highlights the belief that sex in itself is not a wrong, as opposed to the previously followed doctrine of Catholicism wherein sex was a sin. In his publication The Defence of Poesy (1595), Sidney mentions characters like Hercules and Ulysses who had major sexual drives which shows that he does not cringe away from the idea of physical lovemaking. Sidney slightly deviates from the courtly love tradition here. Although lovers were advised against giving into their senses which demanded sexual gratification, Sidney is articulate about the revolt of his senses in appeal of Stella:
“True that on earth we are but Pilgrims made,
And should in soul up to our country move;
True, and yet true that I must Stella love. [Sonnet V, Astrophil and Stella]
Sidney also deviates from the conventional form of sonnet-writing when he criticises other poets for strictly following the Petrarchan theme blindly and scourging through dictionaries to make words rhyme forcefully in Sonnet XV. Sidney is not rejecting the Petrarchan conventions of the elevated mistress and adoring lover but is implying that they should make judicious use of this tradition. Sidney also deviates from Neo-Platonism in Sonnet XXXIV when describing his poetic composition he remarks:
“Thus write I while I doubt to write, and wreak
My harms on ink’s poor loss; perhaps some find
Stella’s great powers, that so confuse my mind.” [Sonnet XXXIV, Astrophil and Stella]
He blames Stella for being a source of bewilderment, and not inspiration. He claims that Stella, as his personal muse, should keep inspiring his poetry endlessly but all she does is drive him into a frenzy.
In addition to this we observe that unlike Petrarch, Sidney does not write his poetry purely as means of expressing his unfruitful pursuits of true love. Being a court poet, Sidney’s intention seems to be more about seducing fellow courtiers into reading and enjoying his circulated poems than to seduce his beloved Penelope. He is seems to be seeking inspiration from Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) which brings to the forefront the idea of appearing in accord with your subjects so as to gain popular support. Sidney is hence also writing his sonnets in order to look like what he “ought to” look like. Stephen Greenblatt terms this as “Renaissance Self-Fashioning” – a process of constructing one’s identity and public persona according to a set of socially expected norms.
However, despite these occasional deviations and digressions, Sidney does form the image of the submissive, abject and servile lover in his poetry. Defining the role of the male lover in the tradition of courtly romance, writer C.S. Lewis says, “Obedience to his lady’s lightest wish, however whimsical. And silent acquiescence in her rebukes however unjust, are the only virtues he dares to claim. There is a service of love closely modelled on the service which a feudal vassal owes to his lord. The lover is a lady’s man.” Sidney’s Astrophil perfectly aligns himself with this description and creates a panegyric for his beloved Stella.
Thus, we conclude that Sidney’s sonnets are infused with inspirations from traditional Petrarchanism but also depart from convention to form a new genre of court poetry.