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Astrophel and Stella
By Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Title Information
Background
Topic of the Sonnets
Analysis of 3 Sonnets
Notes
Theme
End Rhyme
Meter
Figures of Speech
Questions, Writing Topics
Complete Free Text
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2011
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Type of Work and Publication Years

.......Astrophel and Stella is 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

Title

.......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

Background

.......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. 
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Analysis of Three Sonnets

.......Following are three examples of the sonnets. 

Sonnet 1

Summary

.......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 heartand the words began to flow.

Text

Loving in truth, and fain1 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 inventions2 fine, her wits to entertain: 
Oft turning others' leaves,3 to see if thence would flow 
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burn'd brain. 
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,5 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." 
Sonnet 38

Summary

.......Astrophel falls asleep and dreams of Stella. He not only sees her imagecreated 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 againbut cannot.

Text

This night while sleep begins with heavy wings
To hatch6 mine eyes, and that unbitted7 thought
Doth fall to stray,8 and my chief powers are brought
To leave the scepter of all subject things,9
The first that straight my fancy's error10 brings
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 decay,
Call'd it anew, and wooed sleep again:
But him her host that unkind guest had slain.12
Sonnet 39

Summary

.......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 dreams.

Text

Come Sleep! O Sleep, the certain knot of peace, 
The baiting place13 of wit, the balm of woe, 
The poor man's wealth, the prisoner's release, 
The indifferent14 judge between the high and low; 
With shield of proof,15 shield me from out the prease16
Of those 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 garland17 and 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.
Notes

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.
6.....hatch: Close.
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 abruptlythat is, when the dream dissolveshe 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; press.
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.

Theme

.......Love is the theme of Astrophel and Stellaanguished love, passionate love, joyous love. But in the end, it is unrequited love; for Astrophel and Stella remain separated. 

End Rhyme

.......The end rhyme in each sonnet is as follows:

Sonnet 1:...abab abab cdcd ee
Sonnet 38: abba abba cdcd ee
Sonnet 39: abab abab cdcd ee
Meter

Sonnet 1

.......Sonnet 1 is in iambic hexameter, as in the first two lines of the poem. 

.....1................2................3..................4................5..................6
Lov ING..|..in TRUTH..|..and FAIN..|..in VERSE..|..my LOVE..|..to SHOW

......1.................2...................3.....................4...................5...............6
That SHE..|..(dear SHE)..|..might TAKE..|..some PLEAS..|..ure OF..|..my PAIN

Sonnet 38

.......Sonnet 38 is in iambic pentameter, as in the first two lines of the poem. 

.......1.....................2...................3................4..................5
This NIGHT..|..while SLEEP..|..be GINS..|..with HEA..|..vy WINGS

.......1...................2..................3...............4...................5
To HATCH..|..mine EYES..|..and THAT..|..un BIT..|..ted THOUGHT

Sonnet 39

.......Sonnet 38 is in iambic pentameter, as in the first two lines of the poem. 

.........1......................2................3................4..................5
Come SLEEP!..|..O SLEEP,..|..the CER..|..tain KNOT..|..of PEACE

.......1..................2...............3................4................5
The BAIT..|..ing PLACE..|..of WIT,..|..the BALM..|..of WOE

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Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

Alliteration

pleasure of my pain (Sonnet 1, line 2)
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)

Apostrophe
Come Sleep! O Sleep, the certain knot of peace (Sonnet 39, line 1
The speaker addresses Sleep.
Metaphor
I sought fit words to paint (Sonnet 1, line 5)
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 prisoner's release, 
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

Metaphor/Personification
Invention, Nature's child, fled step-dame Study's blows (Sonnet 1, line 10)
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

Metaphor/Pun/Synecdoche
Invention, Nature's child, fled step-dame Study's blows,
And others' feet still seem'd but strangers in my way. (Sonnet 1, lines  10-11)
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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)
Paradox
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)?

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