Episode 58

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 1 by Sir Philip Sidney

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses Astrophil and Stella Sonnet 1 by Sir Philip Sidney.

Poet

Sir Philip Sidney

Reading and commentary by

Mark McGuinness

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 1

By Sir Philip Sidney

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 sunburn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seem’d 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.’


Podcast transcript

This is a poem about falling in love and wondering how to make the first move and let that special person know how you feel about them. And tying yourself in knots in the process!

It was written by a 16th century nobleman, so at first hearing it probably comes across as a bit mannered and old-fashioned, but the basic experience is something I think we can all relate to.

So Sir Philip Sidney was born into an aristocratic English family, in 1554, and he achieved considerable fame – as a poet, as a courtier, as a scholar, and as a soldier. Unfortunately for him, most of this acclaim came after his early death, aged just 31, at the Battle of Zutphen in the Netherlands.

During his lifetime, in spite of being brought up with ‘great expectation’ – a phrase from one of his sonnets – he experience mixed fortunes at court, his poetry wasn’t published, he was disappointed in love, and his social status was considerably higher than his bank balance. But after his death he was idolised as the archetypal Renaissance man. A bit like James Dean or Marilyn Monroe or Sylvia Plath – rightly or wrongly, talented people who die young are often mythologised in popular culture.

And in Sidney’s case, the mythographers had plenty to work with. Apart from his poetry, he wrote a very learned and eloquent Defence of Poetry that is still essential reading on the subject. He also achieved some significant things as a courtier and diplomat, and was evidently a skilled and courageous soldier.

And there aren’t many poets who can honestly begin a sonnet by saying, ‘having defeated all the other knights at the tournament, everyone had a different theory about why I’m so great at jousting’ – but Sidney could. Have a listen to this:

Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance
Guided so well that I obtain’d the prize,
Both by the judgment of the English yes
And of some sent from that sweet enemy France;
Horsemen my skill in horsemanship advance,
Town folks my strength;

And so on, with the various theories about the origin of his superpower, until at the end of the poem, he reveals that the true source of his prowess was the fact that ‘Stella’ – his code name for his beloved – was watching in the crowd. It’s all very dashing, isn’t it?

Not content with trouncing all his rivals in the lists for Stella’s sake, Sidney also wrote for her the first major sonnet sequence in English, Astrophil and Stella. And today’s poem is the very first sonnet in that sequence. His model for writing a sequence of love sonnets was the 14th century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca, known in England as Petrarch. And in writing Petrarchan love poetry in English he was following in the footsteps of earlier Tudor poets such as Henry Howard and Sir Thomas Wyatt, who we featured back in Episode 14.

Sidney’s sequence was published in 1591, and there were a lot of sonnet sequences published in the 1590s, but he died five years earlier, so he was certainly ahead of the trend when he wrote it.

These days, Astrophil and Stella is not the best known sonnet sequence of its era, that’s obviously Shakespeare’s. Some people, probably not me, would argue that Sidney’s is the better sequence. But it is certainly a much more typically Petrarchan sequence than Shakespeare’s.

Sidney firmly established the Petrarchan sonnet sequence as a thing in English poetry, with a set of conventions about romantic love – an idealised lady, who is admired from a distance by a suffering male lover who positions himself as an abject, smitten creature, whose very life depends on a sign of favour or ‘grace’ from his lady.

By the time Shakespeare wrote his sonnets, he took these and played with them, giving us his own ironic and subversive and somewhat bitter take on the genre. So at the very least, reading Astrophil and Stella will help you to appreciate the game that Shakespeare is playing. But it’s well worth reading in its own right, it might sound a bit dry, but it’s a surprisingly good read.

Anyway. When Sidney’s sequence was published after his death, it was given the title Astrophil and Stella. ‘Stella’ meaning ‘star’ in Latin, was the name of the woman addressed by the speaker of the poem. And the speaker called himself ‘Astrophil’, based on the Greek for ‘star lover’.

‘Phil’, is also to this day a shortened version of ‘Philip’. So it’s not a great leap for us to associate Astrophil with Philip Sidney. And it’s pretty clear from the historical record as well as clues in the poems themselves, that ‘Stella’ bears some resemblance to Lady Penelope Devereux, who had been betrothed to Sidney when she was still a child.

For some reason lost to history, the engagement was broken off and she married Robert Rich, the 1st Earl of Warwick, around about the time that Sidney was writing Astrophil and Stella. And in this context, it’s clearly no coincidence that Astrophil laments losing his chance of winning Stella, and also writes some pretty brutal attacks on somebody called ‘Rich’.

Now, as I said last month in relation to Wilfred Owen, poetry scholars are always keen to remind us that we should beware of equating the speaker of a poem with the author of a poem, even when the situation is transparently autobiographical, and the poet is using the word ‘I’ to speak in what sounds like a very heartfelt manner. Writing a poem is different to saying something in real life, it always introduces some kind imaginative transformation, however subtle.

And in the case of Astrophil and Stella, by creating these alter egos, Sidney is clearly signalling some kind of disguise or dramatisation, so it’s not surprising that the scholars advise us to be particularly careful about reading this sequence as straightforward autobiography.

And you know, I personally don’t like to go too far down the biographical rabbit hole when interpreting poems. But for our purposes, it feels important to say that there does seem to have been a real life passion behind this poem, which gives it an authentic emotional charge. It certainly doesn’t feel as distanced from the author’s life as the characters in a play.

And whether or not we are poets, one of the intoxicating effects of falling in love, which we all experience, is that we have a tendency to tell a story to ourselves, about the person we’re in love with, and who they are to us, and who we hope to be for them. And this becomes problematic, of course, when that story doesn’t match up with the way the other person sees the situation!

And that intoxicated state of mind is what I think we are presented with in this first sonnet of Astrophil and Stella. And I absolutely love the opening of the sonnet, where he lays out his predicament:

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;

So it sounds like he’s trying to think things through and get them straight in his mind, to make some sense of the state he’s in.

And he starts off, by saying, ‘Loving in truth’, as if to say to himself, ‘Well one thing I can be sure of is that I am truly in love’. And then ‘fain in verse my love to show’, I want to show my love by writing poetry, in order ‘That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,—’.

So he’s thinking, ‘if I write my poem then I can turn my pain into her pleasure’. And this apposition, of pain and pleasure, is very typical of the Petrarchan mode. It is a form of antithesis, where opposites are brought into play, and create tension as they pull in different directions. As Sidney says in Sonnet 6 of Astrophil and Stella, this kind of love poetry was full of ‘living deaths, dear wounds, fair storms and freezing fires’. Which sounds ridiculous and logically impossible, but if you’ve ever been in love, then you’ll know it’s a pretty accurate description of the delightful agony of the experience.

OK, so in the first two lines he’s established that he’s in love, and is writing about his love in order to transmute his suffering into his lady’s pleasure. Which sound pretty reasonable, doesn’t it? But the next line is where things start to get out of hand:

Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,

So he’s gone from his pain to her pleasure, now he’s hoping that her pleasure in the poem will entice her to keep reading, and the more she reads, the more she will know about his condition. And he’s starting to sound a bit feverish and desperate, isn’t he? As if he’s trying to convince himself that this will work. He’s placing one conjecture after another, and trying to imagine himself into a plausible future where his cunning plan comes to fruition. So he keeps going:

Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—

And this sounds a bit pathetic doesn’t it? Flopping about on the floor and hoping she’s going to pity him. But it’s a strategy that men have been known to employ even in modern times. And it is very much in the Petrarchan vein – the male lover was supposed to abase himself, to appeal to his beloved as if she were some higher power, and hope that she will ‘pity’ him, enough to bestow her ‘grace’ upon him.

But before we get too excited, ‘grace’ in a Petrarchan context, would typically be not much more than a kindly glance, or bearing him in mind. In Sonnet 40, for example, Astrophil asks Stella whether

       from the height of virtue’s throne
Thou canst vouchsafe the influence of a thought
Upon a wretch, that long thy grace hath sought.

Okay, turning back to Sonnet 1. On the one hand, we can sense ‘Astrophil’, the speaker of the poem, losing control, starting to lose his mind in love; but on the other hand, in good antithetical fashion, Sidney the poet is very much in control of his material, in the sparkling cleverness of his rhetoric. He is not only using antithesis, but also another figure of speech, called climax, an ancient Greek word which, of course, means ‘staircase’ or ‘ladder’.

My old voice teacher, the late great Kristin Linklater, gave a great description of this ladder in her book, Freeing Shakespeare’s Voice:

This is a device for building the intensity of a feeling. The ladder starts with a statement or an image or a feeling which is capped by one that outdoes the first, and then another and another rising to the top climactic rung of the ladder.

So Sidney starts with his love, then he puts the love into verse to show it to his lady, and go from his pain to her pleasure, then on from pleasure to reading, from reading to knowing, from knowing to pitying and from pitying to bestowing grace. And hopefully you can hear in my voice as I read it, the emotional intensity ratchets up from one image to another, until we reach that climactic ‘grace’:

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,—

So Sidney has built his rhetorical ladder up to heaven, and it sounds like the perfect plan, doesn’t it? There’s only one problem: it’s all in his mind. He’s trying to convince himself, but he’s far from convincing the reader that this is going to work, let alone his ‘dear she’.

It’s like that moment in the Looney Tunes cartoon when Wile E. Coyote doesn’t realise he’s run off the edge of the cliff, and he keeps going until he looks down and realises there’s nothing holding him up, whereupon gravity kicks in and he falls to the ground.

And sure enough, Astrophil comes down to earth with a bump:

I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;

He’s back in his study, all alone and full of woe, racking his brains for the words to describe his condition.

Obviously the phrase ‘the blackest face of woe’ has unfortunate connotations for us these days. But for an Elizabethan poet, there would have been a straightforward and unproblematic association between blackness and sadness.

So what can Astrophil do about his predicament? Well, it’s pretty obvious that he’s a highly educated man, with fancy rhetorical figures on the tip of his tongue. So naturally, he turns to his library for inspiration:

Studying inventions fine her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn’d brain.

He reads through others’ books, presumably poetry, to see if he can pick up some ideas that will ‘entertain’ the evidently sharp mind of his beloved. And these days this is frowned on isn’t it? Ransacking other’s books for ideas, but for writers in Elizabethan England it was a pretty respectable modus operandi. Shakespeare famously liberated stories wholesale from all kinds of sources, rather than trouble himself with the effort to invent new ones.

But unfortunately for Sidney, this strategy doesn’t work for him. By the time we get to ‘my sunburn’d brain’ we’re at the end of the second quatrain, and he’s spent the whole of these first eight lines in telling us about his quest for the right words to express his feeling. And as seasoned sonnet readers, we should expect a ‘turn’ at this point, a shift in the argument or the action, and that’s exactly what we get.

But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.

So the words were ‘halting’, i.e. ‘limping’, ‘hesitating’, or ‘faltering’. They are ‘wanting invention’s stay’, ‘lacking imagination’. And then we get this rather laboured personification of book-learning stifling imagination: ‘Invention, Nature’s child’ being beaten like a naughty pupil by ‘step-dame Study’ and running away. Invention and Study here being both capitalised, as abstract entities.

And when he says ‘others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way’, that’s a poet’s joke. The metaphor is again pretty laboured, saying that the feet or maybe the footsteps of other authors were like strangers blocking his path. But he’s also making a pun, on poetic ‘feet’, the standard unit of metrical analysis, suggesting that others’ poems are hindering rather than helping him. And in case we’re tempted to groan and roll our eyes at this pun, we should perhaps remember that both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and W. H. Auden claimed that ‘good poets have a weakness for bad puns’.

So as the sestet, the final six lines of the sonnet, progresses, the poetry feels like it’s getting worse. Maybe we could offer Sidney the excuse that he was deliberately writing badly in order to show how bereft of invention he was, but I think he’s too clever to need excuses like that. In any case, this downward spiral reaches its nadir in the next two lines:

Thus great with child to speak and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,

I’m sorry, but that image of the poet as woman in labour, ‘great with child… and helpless in my throes’, just feels awkward and absurd. ‘Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,’ is better, as it’s a situation most writers can recognise, and the words ‘truant’ and ‘beating’ hark back to the schoolroom imagery of the pupil being beaten. But the metaphors are getting horribly jumbled up at this point. Which again, may conceivably be deliberate, as a way of conveying Astrophil’s disordered state of mind.

But either way, the final line comes as a glorious relief, to us as readers as well as to Astrophil:

‘Fool,’ said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart, and write.’

This is delightful, isn’t it? It redeems the poem, just as we might be starting to lose faith in it. And certainly just as Astrophil was losing his bearings, it restores him to some kind of sanity and integrity: if you’re really in love, your heart is a better guide than your head, trying to persuade yourself that you can persuade her to love you. And better than copying other people’s poems. It feels like a very modern piece of creative writing advice. And what a terrific starting point for a sequence of love poems.

So one way that Sidney ratchets up the tension before the final relief is that he delays the resolution until the very last line. In the typical Petrarchan sonnet, as we’ve seen, there is a turn between lines 8 and 9, as the argument or perspective shifts. And as Mimi Khalvati pointed out in Episode 3 of the podcast, the English or Shakespearean sonnet developed as a variation on this, where you have three quatrains, that ratchet up the intensity of the sonnet, before the couplet offers some kind of resolution. But Sidney doesn’t quite do this.

We can see Astrophil’s distress intensifying quatrain by quatrain: firstly starting his quest to find the right words to persuade her; secondly, looking through other’s books for inspiration; and finally being ‘great with child to speak and helpless in my throes’ in the third quatrain. And he does end with a rhyming couplet:

Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
‘Fool,’ said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart, and write.’

But the line about biting his pen and beating himself for spite is syntactically and thematically, all of a piece with the stuckness and self-flagellation of the third quatrain. It’s only in the very last line that we get the breakthrough, which is all the more welcome for having been delayed.

And there’s another technique that Sidney uses to ratchet up the tension in this poem. Because in one key way, this is an unusual sonnet. When you look at the opening pages of Astrophil and Stella, this one looks fatter than the ones that follow it. And when you heard me read it, you may have noticed that the lines are a bit longer than we are used to in a sonnet. And that’s because it’s written in iambic hexameter rather than the pentameter which is usual for sonnets in English.

For example, here’s the opening line of Sonnet 5 in the sequence:

It is most true, that eyes are formed to serve

This is a perfect iambic pentameter, with its familiar five beats: ti TUM ti TUM ti TUM ti TUM ti TUM. But if we contrast this with the opening line of Sonnet 1, we can hear an extra ti TUM, giving it the six beats of the hexameter:

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,

So why does Sidney use hexameters for this sonnet?

We can get at the answer by asking why English poets have mostly used iambic pentameter for sonnets – and not just sonnets, but lots of other forms, including blank verse, which we have previously explored in a mini-series on this podcast. There have been several explanations for the popularity of iambic pentameter in English, including the claim that it lasts for the length of a breath when speaking or a unit of attention while thinking. But one of the most persuasive arguments has more to do with mathematics and symmetry.

According to this view, one of the features of iambic pentameter that makes it sound so natural, and also allows for so much expressive flexibility, is that it is impossible to divide it exactly in two. Lines of poetry often contain a pause, known as a caesura, that divide them into smaller units. So if we listen again to the opening line of Sidney’s Sonnet 5:

It is most true, || that eyes are formed to serve

We can hear a little pause after ‘It is most true’, a phrase which has two iambic feet and therefore two beats, and before ‘that eyes are formed to serve’, which has three feet, and three beats. So the line is divided unevenly. And whichever way you divide an iambic pentameter, you will never get two equal halves, which means the metre can hold together even with lots of variations.

Now it’s also perfectly possible to divide an iambic hexameter into two uneven parts, which is what Sidney does in the first line of Sonnet 1:

Loving in truth, || and fain in verse my love to show,

So ‘Loving in truth’ has two beats, then we get the caesura, followed by the four beats of ‘and fain in verse my love to show,’.

But there is a tendency with longer lines, especially when they have an even number of feet, for the lines to break into two halves, with a caesura in the middle. And this is what happens in third line of Sonnet 1:

Pleasure might cause her read, || reading might make her know,

Can you hear that? Even though I read it quite quickly, we experience a slight pause between ‘Pleasure might cause her read’ and ‘reading might make her know,’. And both phrases are metrically identical – they both have three feet, an initial trochaic foot, which starts with a stress, followed by two iambic feet. The syntax is also deliberately symmetrical; with both halves saying: ‘something might make her something’.

So what we can see here is one of the big problems with hexameters in English: when the lines keep breaking in half like this, they start to sound like trimeters, three-beat lines, when spoken aloud, and we can lose the sense of a six-beat line. But with a pentameter, the line is long enough to express a fairly complex thought, but because it’s asymmetrical, it’s never in danger of breaking in two.

Okay, so why didn’t Sidney use a pentameter, which would have been a safer option for this sonnet? He was certainly clever enough to understand the problem, and innovative enough to write in different metres. But instead of avoiding this pattern, he doubles down on it: because after the first two lines, every single line in this sonnet has a medial caesura, a pause in the middle of the line. So that we get: three beats. Pause. Then another three beats.

Pleasure might cause her read, || reading might make her know,

But why?

Because of antithesis. As we have seen, the tension between two opposites is integral to the argument of this poem, so it makes perfect sense for this tension to be embodied in the poem’s form.

Let’s have a listen to lines 3-14 of the sonnet, with that pause in the middle of the line slightly lengthened, to help us hear it:

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 sunburn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, || wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, || fled step-dame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seem’d || 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.’

You hear that? Yes, I’ve exaggerated it for effect, but the effect is there, and I reckon it’s there by design. Sidney has noticed this tendency of the hexameter to pull in two directions at once, and on some level he’s realised it’s perfectly suited to his purpose.

So what we are hearing, in the rhythm of the poem, is Astrophil being pulled in two directions at once. Which, as I say, really helps to ratchet up the tension as the poem progresses. Until, in the final line, the tension is resolved, with that beautifully simple advice from his Muse.

And it’s probably no accident that that final line is balanced out by a couple of smaller pauses. Firstly after the word ‘fool’ in:

‘Fool,’ || said my Muse to me,

And another pause just before the words ‘and write’:

‘look in thy heart, || and write.’

These extra pauses slow the line down, so that we can weigh each syllable, and it puts a lot of emphasis on those final two words, ‘and write’, which somehow make the whole business of writing seem so much simpler than we writers often make it.

But of course, the beautiful simplicity of the ending wouldn’t be half as beautiful without the tortuous complexity that precedes it. So like a true oxymoronic Petrarchan, Sidney is having his poetic cake and eating it.

 


Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 1

By Sir Philip Sidney

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 sunburn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seem’d 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.’

 


Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney portrait

Sir Philip Sidney was an English poet, scholar, soldier, and diplomat who was born in 1554 and died in 1586. As a nobleman he received an excellent education, mastering several languages and immersing himself in literature. His works include Astrophil and Stella, the first major sonnet sequence in English, and a prose romance, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. His passionate and brilliant Defence of Poesy is a landmark in the history of poetry criticism. He served as a courtier and a valiant soldier, fighting in the Netherlands, where he was killed at the age of 31. His reputation blossomed after his death, as both a poet and a paragon of chivalry, and he remains an influential figure in the theory and practice of English poetry.  

 


A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

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The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

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