My essay in the course Eng2301 at UiO.
“Compare and contrast two of Sidney’s sonnets, paying attention to the poetic imagery and themes, as well as the poems’ relation to the sonnet tradition.”
Word count: 1985
Together with Arcadia and The Defense of Poesy, Astrophil and Stella is one of Philip Sidney’s most important and influential works, the first of the great Elizabethan sonnet cycles. Sidney, like many sonneteers of the sixteenth century, inherited the Petrarchan tradition and at the same time protested against conventions and tried to be inventive and original. This essay is going to be a comparison and contrast between his sonnet 15 and sonnet 45 in Astrophil and Stella, and an examination of their relation to the sonnet tradition.
Like Petrarch, whose songs and sonnets are “designed to represent a life-time of passionate attention to one mistress”- Laura, Sidney does the same to Stella in Astrophil and Stella. Sonnet 45 begins with Stella; sonnet 15 seems to deal with another topic but in the last line comes back to Stella.
Let us first look closer at sonnet 15. The poem begins with addressing poets who look for symbols or similes in nature, such as flowers, and bring them into their poetry.
“You that do search for every purling spring
Which from the ribs of old Parnassus flows,
And every flower, not sweet perhaps, which grows
Near thereabout, into your poesy wring”
The first four lines of sonnet 15 are a description rather than a comment. The speaker is yet to express approval or disapproval of such practices.
“You that do dictionary’s method bring
Into your rhymes, running in rattling rows”
There is now a slight change. The alliteration on r in these two lines (rhymes, running, rattling and rows) creates a different effect- it does not sound as soft as the sounds /s/ and /z/ in the first four lines (search, spring, ribs, Parnassus, flows, sweet, perhaps, grows and poesy). More important is the slight shift in tone. If at the beginning the speaker only describes, neutrally, in lines 5-6 he seems to be more critical. The phrase “dictionary’s method” suggests conformity, lack of creativity and inventiveness. Sidney’s attitude becomes clearer, more strongly expressed, in the next lines:
“You that poor Petrarch’s long-deceasèd woes
With new-born sighs and denizened wit do sing:
You take wrong ways, those far-fet helps be such
As do bewray a want of inward touch,
And sure at length those stolen goods do come to light.”
By employing the rhyme scheme abbaabbaccdeed in this sonnet, Sidney already departs from the Petrarchan convention and its typical rhyme scheme abbaabbacdecde or abbaabbacdcdcd, but he goes one step further in these lines, especially in the phrase “poor Petrarch’s long-deceasèd woes”. Petrarch, in order to praise Laura’s beauty, often makes use of objects in nature for comparison, such as “Her teeth were pearls—the rose's softest glow/ Dwelt on that mouth, whence woke to speech grief's sighs/ Her tears were crystal—and her breath was flame”, “That starry forehead and those tranquil eyes/ The fair angelic mouth, where pearl and rose/ Contrast each other...”, “Ye herbs and flowers, so sweetly press'd/ By her soft rising snowy breast!”, “These blossoms to her lap repair/ These fall upon her flowing hair/ (Like pearls enchased in gold they seem)”, “Fine gold her hair, her face as sunlit snow”, “Tears I saw shower'd from those fine eyes apace/ Of which the sun ofttimes might envious be”, etc. Lines 7-11 in sonnet 15 could be seen as partly a critique of Petrarch’s similes, but Sidney puts more focus on those poets who “take wrong ways”, who blindly conform to conventions and rely on “those far-fet helps” for “a want of inward touch”, i.e. for lack of genuine talent. Not only does he say that such poets lack talent, but he also compares uninventive poets to thieves, with the phrase “those stolen goods”.
However, after some severe criticisms, there is a shift in the last lines:
“But if (both for your love and skill) your name
You seek to nurse at fullest breasts of Fame,
Stella behold, and then begin to endite.” 
Whereas a typical Petrarchan sonnet has a shift between the eighth and ninth lines, as it consists of an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet (the final six lines), this sonnet makes a turn between the eleventh and twelfth lines. In the first part, Sidney introduces the problem, then, he gives the solution and settles his argument in the last three lines. The whole weight of the argument, or the focus of Sidney’s “advice”, is in the last line: “Stella behold, and then begin to endite.”
Instead of standing at a distance, unthinkingly following predecessors and searching for some images commonly used to describe beauty in general, you, the speaker argues, should look at your lover, focus on her and write with your true emotions, with the images and sensations that her beauty evokes. Stella is enough. Stella is implied as Astrophil’s muse, his source of inspiration, better than all the empty images and platitudinous symbols out there. Sonnet 15 is a poem about poetry, about the right and wrong ways to write poetry, but because of the last line, it is also a love poem.
The other poem has a different tone. Whilst in sonnet 15 Astrophil sees Stella as a source of inspiration, in sonnet 45 he reproaches her:
“Stella oft sees the very face of woe
Painted in my beclouded stormy face,
But cannot skill to pity my disgrace,
Not though thereof the cause herself she know.”
Astrophil reproaches Stella for seeing his “stormy face” yet not understanding him, not pitying him. These four lines describe the bitterness and despair in love that can be found in traditional love sonnets. For example, Petrarch once wrote:
“Through the long lingering day, estranged from rest,
My sorrows flow unceasing; doubly flow,
Painful prerogative of lover's woe!
In that still hour, when slumber soothes th' unblest.
With such deep anguish is my heart opprest,
So stream mine eyes with tears! Of things below
Most miserable I; for Cupid's bow
Has banish'd quiet from this heaving breast.
Ah me! while thus in suffering, morn to morn
And eve to eve succeeds, of death I view
(So should this life be named) one-half gone by—
Yet this I weep not, but another's scorn;
That she, my friend, so tender and so true,
Should see me hopeless burn, and yet her aid deny.”
Petrarch also describes a man’s suffering (“sorrows”, “woe”, “anguish”, “miserable”, “suffering”, etc) as his beloved does not respond to him. This poem, especially the two lines “That she, my friend, so tender and so true/ Should see me hopeless burn, and yet her aid deny”, is strikingly similar to the first four lines of Sidney’s sonnet 45.
However, the next four lines of Sidney’s poem point to an irony:
“Yet hearing late a fable which did show,
Of lovers never known, a grievous case,
Pity thereof gate in her breasts such place
That, from that sea derived, tears’ spring did flow.”
This comes as a surprise. After saying that Stella pays no attention to him and his anguish, Astrophil describes her as crying for some tragic characters in “a fable”. Then, in the last part the poem, Astrophil directly addresses her:
“Alas, if fancy, drawn by imaged things,
Though false, yet with free scope more grace doth breed
Than servants’ wrack, where new doubts honor brings,
Then think, my dear, that you in me do read
Of lover’s ruin some sad tragedy;
I am not I; pity the tale of me.”
He says, ironically, that if she has more sympathy for fictional lovers (“false”, “imaged things”) than for him and his real suffering, he implores her to imagine him to be a character in a “tragedy” and “pity the tale of [him]”.
Like the other sonnet, this one is unconventional. The rhyme scheme is abbaabbacdedee, different from the standard Petrarchan rhyme scheme as written above (and different from the rhyme scheme of sonnet 15- abbaabbaccdeed). The structure can be said to be the same as the Petrarchan sonnets, the shift occurs between the eighth and ninth lines as Astrophil switches from addressing the public to addressing Stella, but one can also argue that the shift takes place after the first four lines, with the irony and with Sidney’s attempt to break away from conventions.
More importantly, it is unconventional in content. We can place sonnet 15 and sonnet 45 side by side. Besides their both being love poems, with Stella as the beloved (who has a more prominent role in sonnet 45), they are also connected because sonnet 15 deals with writing/ creation and sonnet 45 deals with hearing “a fable”, which is comparable to reading/ reception. Both are about the line between artificial things, i.e. literary conventions in sonnet 15 and some fictional story in sonnet 45, and real, sincere feelings. Both are about the distance between lovers- in sonnet 15, because the poet lover seeks some images in nature that are commonly used to describe beauty, instead of looking at his beloved and creating something inventive and genuine; in sonnet 45, because the woman cries for a couple in a fictional story and absurdly fails to see her lover’s suffering and pity him. It is, first of all, a departure from the Petrarchan tradition in the sense that the distance in Petrarchan poems comes from the depiction of the beloved as an unattainable ideal. At the same time, sonnet 45 also points to “the way [the Petrarchan conventions] encourage satisfaction with a literary passion and draw attention from the experience on which the original poems were based”, as David Kalstone argues. The imaginative world of love is reduced to “courtly affectation and literary mannerism”. The poem begins like a Petrarchan poem, then suddenly changes and becomes anti-Petrarchan.
It is ironic that in sonnet 15, the lover and the poet are one and Stella inspires Astrophil to write, or one can say that love inspires poetry, whereas in sonnet 45, the reading of and excessive identification with characters in poetry affect love and cause a distance between the lovers. Sonnet 45 is in close affinity with sonnet 15 and at the same time a reaction against it.
In short, both of these sonnets are anti-Petrarchan. However, that is also a tradition in itself. We can look again at Sidney’s sonnet 15. It can, for example, be the antithesis of sonnet 64 in Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti, in which the features of the beloved are compared to various kinds of flowers such as “gillyflowers”, “roses”, “bellamoures”, “cullambynes”, etc . However, the mockery of the mindless application of conventions can also be found in Shakespeare’s sonnet 130, for instance, though a different method is employed- throughout the poem he says that his mistress is not like the sun or coral or snow, etc. and then concludes with a twist “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/ As any she belied with false compare”.
Shakespeare and Sidney are not the only ones. As written in Elizabethan Women and the Poetry of Worship, Elizabethan love poems are rarely aPetrarchan, but (pseudo)Petrarchan or anti-Petrarchan. In this period there are also poets who are not exactly anti-Petrarchan, but who attempt to create an individual style and achieve a distance from Petrarch. For example, Richard Barnfield redirects the Petrarchan conventions of praise to a man, Michael Drayton “pushes the trope of the lady’s cruelty to a wildly sadistic extreme”, etc. It is a tradition in itself to protest against Petrarch and find a distinct voice. And the two sonnets above by Sidney are part of it.
Both being love poems, both examining the distance between lovers and the line between artificial things and sincere feelings, sonnet 15 dealing with the writing of poetry and sonnet 45 with the perception of poetry, these two poems simultaneously oppose and complement each other, simultaneously explore the different states in love like Petrarch and protest against the Petrarchan tradition. The protest is itself conventional, but Sidney does it with freshness and originality, and creates beautiful poems.
 “Sir Philip Sidney”, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol.I, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (The US: W. W. Norton& Company, Inc, 2012), 1038
 David Kalstone, Sidney Poetry: Contexts and Interpretations (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1965), 108
 Philip Sidney, “Astrophil and Stella: sonnet 15”, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol.I, 1087
 “Poetic Form: Sonnet”, http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/poetic-form-sonnet
 Petrarch, The Sonnets, Triumphs, and Other Poems of Petrarch, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17650/17650-h/17650-h.htm
 Sidney, “Astrophil and Stella: sonnet 15”
 “Poetic Form: Sonnet”
 Sidney, “Astrophil and Stella: sonnet 45”, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol.I, 1092
 “Introduction to Astrophil and Stella”, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol.I, 1084
 Petrarch, The Sonnets, Triumphs, and Other Poems of Petrarch
 Sidney, “Astrophil and Stella: sonnet 45”
 Sasha Roberts, “Shakespeare’s Sonnets and English Sonnet Sequences”, in Early Modern English Poetry, ed. Patrick Cheney et al. (NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 172
 Kalstone, Sidney’s Poetry, 158
 Ibid, 159
 Edmund Spenser, “Amoretti: sonnet 64”, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol.I, 987
 William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 130”, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol.I, 1184
 Ilona Bell, Elizabethan Women and the Poetry of Courtship (The UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 3
 “Renaissance Love and Desire”, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol.I, 1002
Bell, Ilona. Elizabethan Women and the Poetry of Courtship. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
“Introduction to Astrophil and Stella”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume I, edited by Julia Reidhead. United States: W. W. Norton& Company, Inc, 2012.
Kalstone, David. Sidney’s Poetry: Contexts and Interpretations. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1965.
Petrarch. The Sonnets, Triumphs, and Other Poems of Petrarch. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17650/17650-h/17650-h.htm
Poets.org. “Poetic Form: Sonnet”. http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/poetic-form-sonnet
“Renaissance Love and Desire”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume I, edited by Julia Reidhead. United States: W. W. Norton& Company, Inc, 2012.
Roberts, Sasha. “Shakespeare’s Sonnets and English Sonnet Sequences” in Early Modern English Poetry, edited by Patrick Cheney, Andrew Hadfield, Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007): 172- 183.
Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 130”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume I, edited by Julia Reidhead. United States: W. W. Norton& Company, Inc, 2012.
Sidney, Philip. “Astrophil and Stella: sonnet 15, sonnet 45”. The Norton Anthology of English Volume I Literature, edited by Julia Reidhead. United States: W. W. Norton& Company, Inc, 2012.
“Sir Philip Sidney”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume I, edited by Julia Reidhead. United States: W. W. Norton& Company, Inc, 2012.
Spenser, Edmund. “Amoretti: sonnet 64”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume I, edited by Julia Reidhead. United States: W. W. Norton& Company, Inc, 2012.