Analysis of Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 1

Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 1 (Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show) is written by Sir Philip Sidney.

Analysis

The first sonnet of Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella introduces the theme of love as well as his critical creed. This introductory sonnet performs the double function of praising Stella as the source of all poetical invention and providing a brief essay on the proper method of writing love poetry.

The poet says that his love is sincere and true, and that he is writing these sonnets so that his beloved may read them and thus come to know of his intense love for her. He hopes that the sonnets would provide her pleasure, for he has taken a great many pains in writing them. After reading these sonnets, she would understand or know how intense his love for her is. And this knowledge would make her pity him, and pity would soon make her favour or love him. Thus by gradation she would come to love him.

In order to attain this end, he has painted ‘the blackest face of woe’, i.e., to express the intense agony and anguish caused to him by her cruelty. The poet says that he made a thorough study of other poets, especially the ancients, to find suitable words for his purpose, so that his parched up brain may be fertilized, and he may be able to write better verses, but he was disappointed. He tried to imitate others, but such imitation hampered his poetic creation. With great difficulty, he could discover a few words and expressions but such expressions and words lacked dynamic vigour, and were inadequate to express the intensity of the passion. He realized that imitation of others cannot replace invention which comes from within, from the heart and mood of the poet, and not from reading the other poets. Nature is the mother of invention, while she is only the stepmother of imitation.

The ancients imitated nature and they were able to write original poetry, but the moderns start imitating the ancients and therefore they are twice removed from nature. In Sidney’s view, the poet who wants to write genuine love-poetry, must go to Nature and not slavishly imitate other love poets. The poet discovered that the poetry of all others which he studied rather hampered his poetic creation than being of any help. In fact, their poetry (which was mostly imitation) drove away from his own poetic faculties and this checkmated original creation.

When the poet was pregnant with passion and wanted to express his ideas, he remained helpless and suffered intense agony. His pen started playing truant and could not write; as a result, he often beat his head, so intense was his pain and frustration. His frustration and suffering were like the pangs of a woman in labour-pains, but who is not able to deliver the child. But soon he realized the truth that really great poetry results only when the poet looks within, into his own mind, and expresses his personal emotions. His Muse advised him to look into his heart and write. His Muse is Stella, whose figure is imprinted on his heart, she is the real source of inspiration.

This is the introductory sonnet, and in this sonnet, Sidney not only expresses his intense love for Stella (Penelope) but also intermingles his poetic creed so as to show how good poetry should be written. His love for Stella is sincere, but the sonnet as a whole reads like a piece of advice to the contemporary and upcoming love-poets as to how they should write. His poetic creed gets mingled up with his love for Stella, and thus lacks the purity a love poem normally shows.

The structure of the sonnet is Petrarchan, divisible into octave and sestet with a pause in between. His originality lies in the fact that he has used twelve-syllabled lines instead of the usual ten-syllabled. The rhyme scheme is abab, cdcd, efef, gg. The rhyme scheme is seemingly Shakespearean, but the octave consists of one sentence and the subject “l” comes in the fifth line. The two quatrains are interlinked to form a single whole (octave) by the use of strongly stressed participles—loving, turning, studying, etc. In the sestet he rejects imitation and lays stress on the invention. The development of thought is logical, but as a love-sonnet, it lacks the smoothness, the harmony and the melody. Thought supervenes the flow of emotions.

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