‘Astrophel and Stella,’ Sonnet 1 by Sir Philip Sidney

A courtier of Queen Elizabeth struggles to express himself in this sonnet.
‘Astrophel and Stella,’ Sonnet 1 by Sir Philip Sidney
"Ask Me No More," 1906, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. (Public Domain)

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 sunburned 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.”

Sometimes there aren’t enough words to express certain emotions that are so clear in our hearts. Sir Philip Sidney describes just such a struggle in Sonnet 1 of “Astrophel and Stella.” 
Born in 1554 in Kent, England, Sir Philip Sidney rose to prominence in English politics. He became cupbearer to Queen Elizabeth, served as a diplomat, and eventually became a Member of Parliament in the early 1580s only to die in battle as a soldier at the age of 31. 
A portrait of Sir Philip Sidney, circa 1578, by an unknown artist. (Public Domain)
A portrait of Sir Philip Sidney, circa 1578, by an unknown artist. (Public Domain)
“Astrophel and Stella,” the first Elizabethan sonnet cycle, was written in 1582 and tells of the unrequited love of Astrophel, the narrator, for a woman named Stella. The narrator’s name identifies him as star-lover, and Stella serves as his star. 
Sonnet 1 is a Petrarchan sonnet, composed of one octet, or group of eight lines, that is followed by a sextet of six lines. Astrophel declares his purpose in the first line: to express his love in verse.
This seemingly simple task then proves difficult: Astrophel characterizes it as an attempt to find “fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,” and suddenly the task becomes far more daunting. At the sonnet’s close, Sidney brings the poem to a far simpler resolution than the reader was led to expect from the earlier complex struggle.

Finding the Right Words

The poem is the product of a conflicted relationship with language as well as the beloved. In “Astrophel and Stella,” we see how Sidney was imitating past writers and innovating within traditional forms, breathing life back into the English literary scene while following the tradition of Petrarchan love poetry. A. C. Hamilton remarks, “Sidney is the English Petrarch because his poem [Astrophel and Stella] has the comprehensive scope of a love epic.”
There are differences between “Astrophel and Stella” and “Il Canzoniere,” Petrarch’s famous collection of poems. Here, the speaker’s love for Laura conflicts with the knowledge that he should love God with greater ardor.
While Petrarch struggles with his desire to direct his love for Laura into a properly ordered love of God, Sidney’s struggle is of a different sort. Sidney doesn’t idealize his beloved, and he doesn’t characterize Stella as an irresistible force who captivates him right from the start, a theme common in Italian love poetry of the Middle Ages. However, he paints a similar scene: The lover admires from afar, praising, doubting, and hoping in rapid succession. In this particular sonnet, he wrestles with language, desperately trying to shape it to his needs.
Petrarch and Laura in a miniature of “Il Canzionere,” circa 14th–15th<br/>century. (Public Domain)
Petrarch and Laura in a miniature of “Il Canzionere,” circa 14th–15th
century. (Public Domain)
The first two lines create the impression that Astrophel seeks only to bring Stella happiness with writing the poem, even if he is in pain. As the poem progresses, each verse compounds the layers of reasoning: He writes to give some small pleasure to Stella, but by the end of verse four, we realize that he actually hopes to obtain her favor through the poem. The first four verses, starting with Astrophel as a selfless giver, end with him becoming the recipient of her love.
Seeking to craft verses to dazzle his reader, Sidney riddles the poem with figures of speech. From the parallelism in the first four lines, to the pun on the “feet” (units of poetic measure) of other writers, to the personification of Nature, Study, and Invention, the reader can easily observe the poet’s intention to craft a playful and elaborate work. The word “invention” (meaning imaginative writing and ingenuity), is repeated three times, desperately sought after by the poet as the necessary ingredient to a uniquely entertaining and original poem. The first 13 lines are the fruit of a great struggle: “helpless in my throes,/ Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite.” The writing process turns violent and agonizing, and the speaker is desperate to bring forth his artistic product. 
In fact, the poem seems to be the expression and product of a vicious cycle. While Invention flees Study’s blows, the speaker beats himself for spite, and his pen is newly adorned with teeth marks. It is an altogether violent sequence, hoping to elicit her pity. If her heart is wrung by pity, perhaps this cycle will end with him finally winning her heart. Sidney here shows poetry’s effect on a reader: The verses themselves bring pleasure, and in obtaining knowledge, the reader may carry that knowledge outside the poem and apply it to life, and be moved to a different feeling towards people.
The title page of the second edition of "Astrophel and Stella," 1591, from the British Library's holdings. (Public Domain)
The title page of the second edition of "Astrophel and Stella," 1591, from the British Library's holdings. (Public Domain)

The Muse’s Reprimand

The blunt, monosyllabic final line undermines the foregoing lines of the poem; the muse laughs at the fretful poet, deflating his attempt to create a grandiose work replete with soaring rhetoric. The speaker’s muse interrupts the self-reproaching of lines 12–13 in order to redirect the poet, bidding him to speak plainly and preserve the purity of the emotion. The final line abruptly unravels the complexity of the former 13, urging the poet to the simple solution of sincerity.
Whatever the pain of loving the elusive beloved, whatever the outcome of the love story, the poet draws consolation from writing the poem. Writing and producing the poem is the only immediate means of bringing the absent into presence, since a tangible creation is the successful end of writing. The reader is not the only one to delight in the poem. He can rest contented, having found fit form for his thoughts and communicated them unhindered through a sincere medium.   
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Marlena Figge received her M.A. in Italian Literature from Middlebury College in 2021 and graduated from the University of Dallas in 2020 with a B.A. in Italian and English. She currently has a teaching fellowship and teaches English at a high school in Italy.