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Astrophil and Stella Sonnet Sequence Analysis

Analysis of Astrophel and Stella Sonnet Cycle



      Astrophil and Stella is a sonnet cycle of 108 sonnets and 11 songs whose prime focus is on Stella, Astrophil’s beloved. Most of Sidney’s sonnets in Astrophil and Stella have a volta towards the last couplet which give them an element of surprise. The name “Astrophil and Stella” is an interesting one. Astrophil means a star lover and Stella means a star. Hence, by default, they are distant from each other and it is impossible to bridge the gap between the two. Their incompatibility is also reflected by the fact that the two names are derived from two different languages Greek and Latin words. Astrophil is a Greek word for ‘star lover’ and Stella is a Latin word for ‘star.’ The word sonnet is an Italian word for a ‘little sound’ which was coined by Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374), an Italian scholar and a poet. Philip Sidney wrote Astrophil and Stella in 1582 which was published posthumously in 1591.

The sonnet cycle starts with Astrophil struggling to write a sonnet, biting his “truant pen” and “beating himself for spite”. Finally, he is advised by the Muse to look into his own heart and write. Although Stella does not show him any particular favor in the first thirty sonnets before eventually beginning to return Astrophil’s affection. She first begins to express affection for him around the sixtieth sonnet. From this point onwards Astrophil no longer describes Stella’s beauty, but the interactions that occur between the two. Astrophil loves Stella as a spiritual ideal but later, physical passion for Stella begins to overwhelm him. Several sonnets are devoted to this conflict: his rational mind recognizes that the only way to please Stella is to suppress his physical desire for her. Yet, Astrophil’s uncontrolled passion replaces his rationality. In Song 2, Astrophil kisses Stella while she is sleeping; an act which is the closest Astrophil ever gets to a physical consummation of his passion. Stella falls ill in Sonnet 101, which spurs Astrophil to confess his love for her again. Stella then dismisses him forever. Astrophil ends the sonnet alone and isolated, but with knowledge that he loved Stella and that she once loved him in return.

The first Sonnets itself has numerous offshoots of ideas and themes that are scattered all over the sonnet sequence. Even if autobiographical elements were to be completely removed from the sonnets, it would still be a very difficult to distinguish the two because of one important factor : Astrophil, like Sidney, is a poet. Hence, we see the narrator constantly cross dressing between the garbs of a lover and that of a conscious artist who is giving birth to a body of work. As in Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry where he says that poetry is a form of imitation, Astrophil says in Sonnet 3 that all that he is doing is merely copying what nature has already written in the form of Stella. At the outset, he is asked by the Muse to look into his heart and write. In doing so, a lover would see Stella’s face and a poet, originality. Instead of wringing every purling stream that flows from Parnassus, Sidney seems to say that looking into ones heart is more effective as one day or the other, “stolen goods do come to light.”

Immediately after, in sonnet 3 he contrasts the Nine Muses who have been used by generations of poets against his only Muse but who is his alone. He exposes the four modes of ornamentations used by other poets: invocation of the Muses, imitation of Pindar and the Greeks, rhetorical and logical tropes, and the use of exotic similes. This attack on the ways of other poets ensues in Sonnet 6.
Despite mocking the poets who imitate the Petrarchan style, as David Kalstone points out :

“Astrophil, in a more harmonious mood, invokes the Petrarchan contraries himself.”

This is very true especially in his rampant use of contradictions in his sonnets.
In Sonnet 6 he proclaims that he unlike them doesn’t seek fame on the strength of allegories:

“You that with allegory’s curious frame,
Of others’ children changelings use to make,
With me those pains for God’s sake do not take:
I list not dig so deep for brazen fame.”

He asks them not to seek anything great or philosophical in whatever he writes but to view them as the product of his love for Stella. However, one cannot resist asking the tantalizing question: Why does he have to repeatedly insist that he doesn’t seek Fame? And then he has already advised other poets in sonnet 27 to look at Stella and write if they seek to “nurse at fullest breasts of Fame”
It is precisely this poetic self consciousness which has, as many critics claim, led one to focus on Stella as an absent, silent subject. She first makes her appearance in the second person in Sonnet 30 and though she is addressed to directly in a couple of Sonnets, she herself doesn’t have much voice. The rare times we hear her say something is in the fourth and song where she denies Astrophil’s rather erotic advances, “Take me to thee and take thee to me” with
“No, no, no, no, my dear, let be.”

This also bring the issue of the conflict of emotions which Astrophil has to go through. Initially, we see him attribute a goddess like status to Stella, highlighting the spiritual side of love. In Sonnet 11 He asks Cupid to “Get into her heart” instead of being enchanted by her outward parts. In Sonnet 12, he reminds Cupid that though Stella is full of him, yet he cannot conquer the strong fortress of her heart , a classic use of war imagery by the courtiers. In Sonnet 13, Stella’s hair is shown to surpass what the Gods (Mars and Jupiter) have to display. Thus we see in three consecutive sonnets, Astrophil attributes great spirituality, almost Godliness to Stella. However, by Sonnet 20, the imagery of hunting is established where he is a prey to Cupid’s arrows. This imagery is continued in Sonnet 43 where he regrets that he made a mistake by trusting Cupid to help him to prey on her as Cupid would have her all by himself. Slowly, we see the physical aspect of love gaining prominence and a more sinister side of desire is revealed.

According to Kenny Savienne :

“It is a perpetual war of desire against reason and nature against nurture. Moreover he knows that no matter how much he craves for Stella it is a lost battle already and this is where the endless laments emerge. This incessant interplay of opposing forces, that is of paradoxes, is also considered an essential part of the sonnet structure.”

In Sonnet No 52, when the two aspects of Love, the spiritual and the carnal confront each other as Virtue and Love (Sidney doesn’t use Sense or Passion here), Astrophil decides to side with Love.

“ Let Virtue have Stella’s self, yet thus
That Virtue but that body grant to us.”

The carnality of love is more explicit in sonnet 71:

“But ah,” Desire still cries, “give me some food.”

By Sonnet 72, we see Astrophil unable to distinguish between the spiritual and carnal aspect of love :

“Desire, though thou my old companion art,
And oft so clings to my pure love, that I
One from the other scarcely can descry.”

Interestingly, it is immediately after this sonnet, in the Second song where he manages to steal a Kiss when Stella is sleeping. However, this kiss, when disrobed of its romantic vestments is not as innocent as it first appears. A close look at the following verses reveal the sinister side of passion where a kiss isn’t merely stolen, it is in many ways, practically forced :

“See, the hand which waking guardeth,
Sleeping, grants a free resort:
Now will I invade the fort;”

Stella on waking doesn’t approve of it. She is even angry about. Clearly, the kiss is non-consensual.  It is only because literary works have to be contextualized against their time and place before assessed that Sidney didn’t receive a harsh judgment, which also makes one question the very nature of “the norm” as being thoroughly being shaped by power relations. Patriarchal propaganda is valorized repeatedly in the Sonnets. In Sonnets12 she is likened to a fortress who is difficult to conquer In sonnet 61 we hear Astrophil say :

“Now with slow words, now with dumb eloquence
I Stella’s eyes assail, invade her ears;”

It has been suggested that Astrophil’s constant tug of war between desire and decorum is reflective of Sidney’s state, who despite loving Penelope Devereux, couldn’t direct it to a meaningful end due to her being already and his adherence o the Protestant moral code. Here it would not be far from proper in trying to view the autobiographical element in the sonnet sequence. It is only too well known that Stella is inspired by Penelope Devereux whose father wanted her to get married to Sidney. Astrophil , in Sonnets 33 regrets for letting the moment slip by when he could have made Stella his and even regrets that he didn’t foresee the beauty of her youth. Nevertheless, we can’t take his lines at face value as we don’t have substantial biographical evidence. What we do know is that Sidney suffered to see his lady love marrying someone else:

“Who though most rich in these, and every part
Which make the patents of the true worldly bliss
Hath no misfortune, but that Rich she is.”

In Sonnet 30 he displays his position as a diplomat and his knack in foreign affairs. In 70 Sidney hints at his role as the royal cup bearer to the Crown when he compares himself to Ganymede
Through biographical details we know that Mr and Mrs Rich didn’t have a very smooth marriage and perhaps we can read Sonnet 78 as Sidney’s commentary on the jealous nature of his rivalry and finally Sonnet in 83 we see him envying Penelope’s pet sparrow (also called Philip!) who has the luxury of being pampered by her.

Towards the end, when Astrophil has to leave the pace and go off to far off lands, he sees in Stella’s face the pain at their parting

“ Alas, I found that she with me did smart
I saw that tears in her eyes did appear
I saw that sighs her sweeteat lips did part
And her sad words my saddened sense did bear

The Ruin which he foresaw in sonnet 18 is established by the end of the sequence : “I see my way bending towards loss”

The final Sonnet with which Astrophil and Stella ends the cycle has an air of Petrarchan frustration and despair.

Astrophil and Stella can be read as a work reiterating the Petrarchan conventions of love in a modified manner. On the other hand, it can also be seen as a Christian homily on what happens if one succumbs to ones carnal passions and lets go of the spiritual and moral ideal. In either ways, Astrophil and Stella is a thoroughly entertaining piece of work which is replete with brilliant imageries, witty use of languages and above all, lines, which once read can never be forgotten. Exploring and exploiting the tropes of the courtly love tradition, Astrophil and Stella presents itself as a plea of a lover to his beloved. However, one mustn’t lose sight of the underlying power dynamics between the speaking subjects and the silent objects within the courtly love tradition informed by patriarchal power equation that characterises much of the Elizabeth Sonnet tradition.





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Works Cited

1. Astrophil and Stella – Sir Philip Sidney
2. Sir Philip Sidney and “Poore Petrarch’s long deceased woes” – David Kalstone, Harvard University
3. Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella: “See What It Is to Love” Sensually! – James J. Scanlon, Studies in English Literature, Rice University
4. The Sonnet, Subjectivity, and Gender-Diana E. Henderson
5. The Petrarchan Sonneteers and Neo-Platonic Love-Paul N. Siegel
6. The Politics of Astrophil and Stella Author(s): Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass
7. The Petrarchan Paradox- Kenny Savienne
8 Sidney ‘s Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 108 -Jeffrey P. Cain Sacred Heart University,













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