Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 1 by 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.”

Summary

I am truly in love and am desirous to show my sincerity through these verses so that she may understand the pangs of love and get some pleasure when she reads my poems. The pleasure may impel her to read, and by reading she may realize my intense love for her. This knowledge may cause or engender pity, and pity may bring favor. The poet assures the lady that he has explored all modes of expression to find most suitable words to reveal his frustration and misery. He has studied all fine inventions in order to entertain and please her. He has also read similar writings of other poet-lovers to ensure whether those expressions can bring some new ideas or fertilize his creative faculties which are now dried up by the heat or fire of passion or love. But the words came limping as they lacked the support of invention, which is the child (product of Nature, and step-mother of imitation, which, in turn is the product of study of ancients). All such poets were alien (and unsuitable) to his purpose, and hampered his creative process. Sometimes his mind is pregnant with ideas, but otherwise helpless, because those words of ancients and other love-poets are inadequate to express the intensity of his Passion, and his pen starts playing truant, shirking its duty to write, and the poet beats his head in sheer anger or spite. While the poet struggles to invent-words, the goddess of poetry, the Muse called him a fool, but advised him to look within and write as passions flow and erupt.

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 fol her. He hopes that the sonnets would provide her pleasure, for he has taken 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 favor 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 vigor, 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 step mother 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, he 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 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 labor-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 in 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 an advice to the contemporary and up-coming 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 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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