Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 15 by Philip Sidney

You that do search for every purling spring
Which from the ribs of old Parnassus flows,
And every flower, not sweet perhaps, which grows
Near thereabouts, into your poesy wring;
Ye that do dictionary’s method bring
Into your rimes, running in rattling rows;
You that poor Petrarch’s long-deceased woes
With new-born sighs and denizen’d wit do sing:
You take wrong ways; those far-fet helps be such
As do bewray a want of inward touch,
And sure, at length stol’n goods do come to light.
But if, both for your love and skill, your name
You seek to nurse at fullest breasts of Fame,
Stella behold, and then begin to endite.

Summary

This sonnet is addressed to contemporary protestors who seek the aid of the Muses and search for inspiration the poetry of the classical poets and their stock images. Thus they write imitating the style and modes of the ancients and use as images all objects on the Mount-Olympus and from the waters flowing of from the fountain Parnassus, whether sweet or bitter. And then there are others who use the dictionary methods to choose and select words to make noisy rhymes, and others who follow Petrarch in expressing their feelings in the conventional mode, though the great poet is long dead. Sidney seems to criticize the contemporary poets like Gascoigne and Wharton (without naming them) who make extensive use of dictionaries to find suitable words for their rhymes. The result is awkward and rhymes make rattling sounds. He says that they are mere plodders and lack invention. (Sidney calls them almost dullards devoid or bankrupt of creative faculties). Sidney goes on to mention those who still continue to sing their woes as Petrarch who is long dead; such poets lack invention and are mere imitators. Their poems are full of images of sighs, woes (taken from Petrarch), stolen from the great poet though they wish to pass for great ‘wits’. But they are wrong to seek the far-fetched help of others in a slavish manner.

But (perhaps they are unaware) the stolen (borrowed) parts get revealed quickly; such poets lack inspiration, real or true feeling. Their process of getting fame with the help of borrowed material comes to nothing. They stand exposed. In the last lines the poet sums up his ideas. Look within and start writing – they should look at the beautiful (breastfull) image of their Stella (beloved), real or imagined and then write — because there lies the real source of inspiration. Once again Sidney brings Stella before the readers for she is equated with the classical Muses. She is a better, rather true, source of inspiration.

Analysis

Like Sonnet 1, this sonnet too is an exposition of Sidney’s poetic creed, and also a compliment to his beloved Stella, whom he considers to be his true Muse who, (unlike the Muses invoked by the ancients) lives in the heart of the poet; and it is she who is the real source of inspiration.

The poet criticizes the contemporary poets who try to seek inspiration from the ancients or the Italian poet Petrarch. They freely borrow their images and rhetorical devices to embellish their verses. Some of them use dictionaries to find suitable words for their rhymes. All their borrowed material is soon exposed. This also shows that these poetasters are bankrupt of inherent poetic ability nor do they have any real inspiration. Their verses are thus hackneyed and stale having no freshness of a true poetic genius.

The frequent use of dictionary is still worse. They hunt for rhyming words and alliterative words to decorate their verses. This practice makes their poetry look artificial and consequently boring. Their main interest seems to discover rhyming words whether they make any sense or not. Sidney advises such poets to give up their practices, instead of seeking far-fetched help, they should seek inspiration from within—from their own feelings and emotions. They should look into their heart and write.

Sidney is closer to the Romantics who gave importance to their own feelings — poetry was considered to be “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. For Sidney, ‘Stella’ is his true Muse. She inspires him to write. Thus the sonnet becomes both an exposition of Sidney’s poetic creed and a great tribute to his beloved.

The structure of the sonnets is Petrarchan. It is divided into an octave often followed by a sestet with a pause in between. Sidney’s rhyme scheme varies from sonnet to sonnet, sometimes it is Petrarchan, and sometimes he follows the English pattern with a little modification. The rhyme this sonnet is: abba, abba, ccde, ed. A Shakespearean sonnet follows abab, cdcd, efef, gg rhyme-scheme with three quatrains followed by a rhymed complete which sums up the idea.

Sidney feels that the poets should seek inspiration from within their own mind and heart and express their own feelings arid emotions as they flow out rather than slavishly imitating the method or the style of the ancients or foreign poets. They are a liberty to use any rhyme scheme which may beautifully embody their feelings, restricting to the overall unity and the fixed number of lines, i.e., fourteen, if they choose to write a sonnet. They can use any rhyme scheme and use any number of lines if they wish to write a lyric or a song.

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