“You that poor Petrarch’s long-deceased woes
With new-born sighs and denizen’d wit do sing;
You take wrong ways….”
These lines are taken from Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet number XV (15). Believed to have been written in around 1580-81 and first published posthumously in 1591, Astrophil and Stella was Sidney’s masterpiece and was the first Elizabethan sonnet sequence to be bestrewed with songs. It is a sequence of 108 sonnets and 11 songs. Interestingly, the 11 songs in the sonnet sequence and the stanzas of these songs total one hundred and eight, the number of Penelope’s suitors in Homer’s epic The Odyssey. Penelope was Sidney’s unrequited love interest and the subsequent inspiration to write Astrophil and Stella, the success of which earned him the title of the English Petrarch. In the above quote, “You that poor Petrarch.…”, Sidney being the true spirit of a Renaissance man here, accepts his adoption and imitation of Petrarch in his sonnets but also asks the other poets and readers to dwell into imagination and original inspirations rather than fancily imitating the Petrarchan form because he was popular more than 200 years ago and that is not completely suitable in his day and age.
A sonnet is a concise fourteen line poem divided into two unequal parts: Octave ( first eight lines) and Sestet (the next six line). Italian poet, Francies Petrarch was the most well known promoter of it, though not the inventor of the sonnet form, it was under him that it took the inspiring form and the fulfilling proponent for the renaissance sonneteers. Oxymoron’s, metaphors and flexible rhetoric were made popular from Petrarch’s treasure trove.Through him was the tradition of ‘courtly love romance’ popularized. In this form the poet or the lover is wooing the beloved, and that beloved plays hard to get; this unattainability is due to the higher social status of the beloved or because she is already married. This is a significant part of a Petrarchan sonnet, where the beloved is pedestalized and idealized. This struggle of the poet is at the centre of the sonnets. Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, or popularly known as Surrey modulated the Petrarchan sonnet (Italian Sonnet). Sidney is the one who adds the couplet (last two lines) at the end of the sonnet. Petrarch adopts the platonic love concept and states the beloved as an intangible reality of his life- an impossibly idealized and ethereal mistress. According to Plato there is no reality which can be accessed by people. Hence, through his mistress the poet tried to attain the spirituality he wished to obtain. Sidney and Spencer, it is said, retained this unrealistic literary convention but modified it with their different views towards love and life and from this stemmed neo-platonism, taking from Plato’s original idea but adding some originality of genuine love and artistic genius to it. As Baldassare Castiglione puts it, “Love as a longing to possess beauty” shows that love is not something that is out of the grasp of knowledge. Neo-platonic love is governed by reason and is one of the aspect that idealizes marriage and the practices of chivalric love.
The title Astrophil and Stella can be literally be translated as Star-lover and Star, emphasizing the Petrarchan convention of putting the beloved at an unattainable position and pursuing her. But, unlike Petrarch who aimed for spirituality through his beloved, Sidney wanted to showcase his sincerity and love towards his beloved, Penelope but also obtain Grace from the Queen so that he is recognized as a successful court poet. Sidney tries to show that poetic creativity involves a lot of labour and pain which is allegorised with Childbirth. There are a lot other ways that Sidney uses to break away from the Petrarchan convention, he gives his beloved a voice which is uncommon in the Petrarchan form of sonnets. ‘Fool‘ , said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart and write.’ (Sonnet 1) Here, Stella is seen not just interrupting a masculine monologue but also advising against the conventional ways of writing by looking at other peoples work, she rather wants to stimulate originality from the lover. The concept of praise and blame relationship between the servile creature (lover) and the unattainable (beloved) is also unique here. Sidney does not just give his lover credit for his better performance in various field such as sports, etc. He also blames her for his writing block/ creativity block as well as being lost amongst fellow respectable , which makes him come across as proud and haughty courtiers because he thinks about her even when in company. Though in Sonnet XLV, he puts himself in a typical Petrarchan lover, languishing for his beloved and comes down to pity himself and begs for pity from Stella as well, ‘I am not I: pity the tale of me’ is a good example for this.
From here we can also pick up on the presence of self-fashioning, more dramatically understood as the melting of the self. It stems from the belief in Renaissance, where a person conveniently adopts an image or personality varying from his true self to show at a suitable occasion, this image/personality has nothing to do with adaptability or change it is merely for benefit to self. Sidney is often criticized for the undercurrent of self-fashioning in his Astrophil and Stella. Like in the line ‘‘I am not I: pity the tale of me‘, the deception of self and adoption of a more acceptable image in the eyes of the beloved is made as he’s creating tales to win pity. This can also be seen in Shakespeare’s Othello when Iago says that “I am not, what I am.” Also a pertinent theme in Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, where he suggests that the Prince can be deceitful and cunning by projecting an untrue image of himself to his subjects for the purpose of self-preservation.
In Sidney’s poetry, we witness the confluence of courtly and Petrarchan love in what can be termed as the earlier English Renaissance. The lover depicted in Sidney’s poems integrates the concept of honour of the Courtly love and feudal obligations with endless eternal longing. It was Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, that had infused vigour and new life into a neglected genre which was experienced during the lull after Wyatt and Surrey. Therefore, there is lot that Sidney takes from his predecessor Petrarch but there is a lot that he condemns as well and adds his creativity and originality to, hence Astrophil and Stella should be read as both a Petrarchan sonnet as well as a subtle discourse from this convention.