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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
Type of Work and Publication Years
.......Astrophel and Stellais a series of sonnets on the same theme. The work contains one hundred eleven sonnets in all, along with eleven songs. A sonnet is a form of lyric poetry with fourteen lines and a specific rhyme scheme.
(Lyric poetry presents the deep feelings and emotions of the poet.) Thomas Newman printed editions of the sonnets in London in 1591. However, these editions contained errors resulting from sloppy copying and proofreading. Sidney's sister, the Countess of Pembroke, supervised preparation of an improved copy of the work in 1598 and published it in Arcadia, which contained other works besides
Astrophel and Stella.
.......Astro- (the first two syllables of Astrophel) derives from the Greek word for star, astron; -phel (the last syllable of Astrophel) is a loose transliteration of part of
the Greek word philos (love or loving) or philein (to love). Thus, Astrophel means star-lover or loving a star. Stella derives from the Latin word stella, meaning star. The title is apt, for the sonnets center on a man who loves a shining beauty. She is the star that illuminates his life.
.......Some publishers print the title as Astrophil and Stella, because the third syllable of Astrophil repeats the first syllable of philos and philein. The third syllable of Astrophil also contains the first
syllable of Sidney's first name, a nice pun. All well and good. But the first published edition of the sonnet series entitled the work Astrophel and Stella.
.......Sir Philip Sidney was a poet, statesman, soldier, courtier, member of Parliament, and patron of scholars and artists during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. While in his early twenties, he began his career at court in a ceremonial position, cupbearer to the queen. Later, he carried out missions on behalf of
the queen and corresponded with and hosted important foreign officials. His service earned him knighthood. However, after he was passed over for positions to the highest echelons of the queen's government, he began concentrating his energies on writing. His greatest literary achievement was Astrophel and Stella. In sheer technical bravado, this series of sonnets ranks second only to
Shakespeare's sonnets in excellence.
Topic of the Sonnets
.......Sidney's sonnets center on the love of a man named Astrophel for a beautiful woman named Stella. Sidney based Astrophel on himself and Stella on a woman his aunt introduced to the queen's court in 1581, Penelope Devereux (1562-1607), daughter of the 1st Earl of Essex. Earlier, when she was just emerging
from adolescence, Sidney exhibited an interest in her; her father hoped she would marry Sidney. But after her arrival at court, she married Robert Rich, 1st Earl of Warrick. Nevertheless, Sidney fell in love with her. In 1582, he wrote Astrophel and Stella.
.......In the sonnets, Astrophel says Stella keeps her distance and in time marries another man. But she is not happy in her marriage and eventually falls in love with Astrophel. However, she remains true to her marriage vows and declines his invitation to become intimate.
Analysis of Three Sonnets
.......Following are three examples of the sonnets.
.......Astrophel explains why he is writing the sonnets. When he began his task, he says, he wished to express in verse his love for Stella and the pain of separation from her. Reading his poetry might help her to know how he felt. This knowledge could win him her pity and then her love. But, he says, he found it
difficult to find the right words to describe his anguish. To remedy this problem, he studied the poetic art and the works of other poets. Still the words came only haltingly. Finally, he decided to write straight from his heart—and the words began to flow.
Loving in truth, and fain1in verse my love to show, Sonnet 38
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 inventions2fine, her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others' leaves,3to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burn'd
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention's stay,
Invention, Nature's child, fled step-dame Study's blows,4
And others' feet still seem'd but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak,5and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite—
"Fool," said my Muse
to me, "look in thy heart and write."
.......Astrophel falls asleep and dreams of Stella. He not only sees her image—created by "Love's own self"—but also hears it sing. Suddenly, however, the image
disappears as he awakens. Lamenting its passing, he calls after it and tries to go to sleep again—but cannot.
This night while sleep begins with heavy wings Sonnet 39
To hatch6mine eyes, and that unbitted7thought
Doth fall to stray,8and my chief powers are brought
To leave the scepter of all subject things,9
The first that straight my fancy's error10brings
Unto my mind, is Stella's image, wrought
By Love's own self, but with so curious draught,11
That she, methinks, not only shines but sings.
I start, look, hark, but what in clos'd-up sense
Was held, in open'd sense it flies away,
Leaving me nought but wailing eloquence:
I, seeing better sights in sight's
Call'd it anew, and wooed sleep again:
But him her host that unkind guest had slain.12
.......Astrophel, now very tired, begs Sleep to allow him to slumber again. Astrophel is willing to give Sleep his pillows, bed, quiet chamber, and a garland of roses if Sleep grants him his wish. But if these gifts prove unsatisfactory, Sleep will have the privilege of seeing the beautiful Stella in Astrophel's
Come Sleep! O Sleep, the certain knot of peace, Notes
The baiting place13of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man's wealth, the prisoner's release,
The indifferent14judge between the high and low;
With shield of proof,15shield me from out the prease16
fierce darts Despair at me doth throw;
O make in me those civil wars to cease;
I will good tribute pay, if thou do so.
Take thou of me smooth pillows, sweetest bed,
A chamber deaf to noise and blind to light,
A rosy garland17and a weary head:
And if these things, as being thine by right,
Move not thy heavy grace, thou shalt in me,
Livelier than elsewhere, Stella's image see.
1.....fain: Ready; eager.
2.....inventions: Creative writing, imaginative writing.
3.....leaves: Pages of a book.
4.....step-dame . . . blows: Study, the step-mother (step-dame) of the creative process, only hindered
Astrophel's attempt to write poetry.
5.....great . . . speak: Pregnant with words; ready to give birth to a poem.
7.....unbitted: Unrestrained, uncontrolled, unbridled; released.
8.....fall to stray: Wander, roam. Astrophel's thoughts wander.
9.....my chief . . . things: Astrophel loses control over his
ability to choose what he thinks about.
10...my . . . error: The errant (roving) ways of Astrophel's imagination.
11...curious draught: Strange outline, drawing; unusual picture of Stella.
12...him . . . slain: Stella is a guest in Astrophel's dream. When she leaves
abruptly—that is, when the dream dissolves—he awakens. She has killed ("slain") her host, sleep.
13...baiting place: Place that provides refreshment on a journey. In other words, sleep nourishes and rejuvenates a writer's intellectual powers (wits).
14...indifferent: unbiased, impartial; objective.
15...shield of proof: Shield that has been tested and proven to be strong.
16...prease: Barrage; volley; bombardment; rush;
17...rosy garland: Garland of secrecy and seclusion. Since ancient times, the rose has been a symbol of secrecy. The Latin term sub rosa (under the rose) means secretly or privately.
.......Love is the theme of Astrophel and Stella—anguished love, passionate love, joyous love. But in the end, it is unrequited love; for Astrophel and Stella remain separated.
.......The end rhyme in each sonnet is as follows:
Sonnet 1:...abab abab cdcd ee Meter
Sonnet 38: abba abba cdcd ee
Sonnet 39: abab abab cdcd
.......Sonnet 1 is in iambic hexameter, as in the first two lines of the poem.
.....1................2................3..................4................5..................6 Sonnet 38
Lov ING..|..in TRUTH..|..and FAIN..|..in VERSE..|..my LOVE..|..to SHOW
That SHE..|..(dear SHE)..|..might TAKE..|..some PLEAS..|..ure OF..|..my PAIN
.......Sonnet 38 is in iambic pentameter, as in the first two lines of the poem.
.......1.....................2...................3................4..................5 Sonnet 39
NIGHT..|..while SLEEP..|..be GINS..|..with HEA..|..vy WINGS
HATCH..|..mine EYES..|..and THAT..|..un BIT..|..ted THOUGHT
.......Sonnet 38 is in iambic pentameter, as in the first two lines of the poem.
SLEEP!..|..O SLEEP,..|..the CER..|..tain KNOT..|..of PEACE
BAIT..|..ing PLACE..|..of WIT,..|..the BALM..|..of WOE
.Figures of Speech
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
pleasure of my pain (Sonnet 1, line 2) Apostrophe
I sought fit words to paint the blackest
face of woe (Sonnet 1, line 5)
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burn'd brain (Sonnet 1, line 8)
scepter of all subject things (Sonnet 38, line 4)
she, methinks, not only shines but sings (Sonnet
38, line 8)
But him her host that unkind guest had slain (Sonnet 38, line 14)
The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe (Sonnet 39, line 2)
make in me those civil wars to cease (Sonnet 39, line 7
And if these things, as being thine
by right, / Move not thy heavy grace, thou shalt in me (Sonnet 39, lines 12-13)
Come Sleep! O Sleep, the certain knot of peace (Sonnet 39, line 1 Metaphor
The speaker addresses Sleep.
I sought fit words to paint (Sonnet 1, line 5) Metaphor/Personification
Comparison of words to painting instruments
my sun-burn'd brain (Sonnet 1, line 8)
Comparison of Stella (whose name is Latin for star) to the sun
Comparison of Astrophel's
brain to sun-burned skin
This night while sleep begins with heavy wings (Sonnet 38, line 1)
Comparison of sleep to a flying creature
Come Sleep! O Sleep, the certain knot of peace,
The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man's wealth, the
The indifferent judge between the high and low (Sonnet 39, lines 1-4)
Comparison of Sleep to a knot of peace, a baiting place, a balm, wealth, a prisoner's
release, and a judge
make in me those civil wars to cease (Sonnet 39, line 7)
Comparison of Astrophel's inner turmoil to civil wars
Invention, Nature's child, fled step-dame Study's blows (Sonnet 1, line 10) Metaphor/Pun/Synecdoche
Comparison of Invention to a child and Study to a stepmother
those fierce darts Despair at me doth throw (Sonnet 39, line 6)
Comparison of Despair to a person throwing darts
Invention, Nature's child, fled step-dame Study's blows, Paradox
And others' feet still seem'd but strangers in my way. (Sonnet 1, lines 10-11)
Metaphor: Comparison of the feet of other poets to strangers
Pun: Feet has two meanings: (1) the feet on which other poets walk and (2) the feet that the poets use in lines of verse (such as iambs and trochees).
Synecdoche: The word feet (meaning parts
of the human anatomy) is used to represent persons (strangers)
The poor man's wealth (Sonnet 39, line 3)Study Questions and Writing Topics
- Write a sonnet that imitates the rhyme scheme of one of Sidney's sonnets. The topic is open.
- Write an essay on the social graces required of a courtier, such as Sidney, in Elizabethan England.
- What was a Muse? (Sonnet 1, line 14)
- What is the meaning of truant pen in Sonnet 1 (line 13)?