By Dr Oliver Tearle
Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86) is often credited with writing the first sonnet sequence in English, and he was certainly the first English poet to write a long cycle of sonnets. Composed in the early 1580s, Astrophil and Stella (sometimes Astrophel and Stella) is a sequence of 108 sonnets – and a few songs – inspired by Sidney’s unrequited love for Penelope Rich (nee Devereux), who was offered to him as a potential wife a few years before. Sidney turned her down, she married Lord Robert Rich, and Sidney promptly realised he was in love with her. What follows is a brief analysis of the opening sonnet in the sequence, beginning ‘Loving in Truth, and fain in verse my love to show’.
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.’
How autobiographical the sonnets in Astrophil and Stella actually are is disputed, and many scholars incline towards thinking Sidney is adopting a persona in these poems. Still, ‘Astrophil’ (meaning ‘star-lover’; sometimes rendered as ‘Astrophel’) is clearly meant to bring ‘Philip Sidney’ to mind, partly because of the ‘phil’ contained in the name, and partly because of an obscure pun (‘Astro’ means ‘star’, punning on the ‘Sid’ of Sidney – similar to the Latin sidus, ‘star’). So Sidney clearly did ‘look into [his] heart’ before he wrote.
This opening sonnet sees Sidney introducing – and, indeed, inducing – the sonnet sequence as a whole. (Compare the first sonnet in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which is somewhat less ‘introductory’ in nature.) In summary, he acknowledges that he truly loves the woman he is to write about, and wants to convey that through the poetry he writes, so that his pain – in being transmuted into great verse – will please the woman he loves.
This will have the knock-on effect of making her want to read on, and through reading on she will come to know how deeply he loves her, and when she realises this she will pity him, and thus he will win her ‘grace’ or attention and blessing. So far, so courtly love: that medieval tradition in poetry whereby the hopeless lover admires the woman from afar, and wishes to please her by praising her beauty in poetry, through immortalising her in verse. (Later on in the sonnet sequence, Sidney will critique this idea and give it a Renaissance twist.)
But Sidney says that he made the mistake of studying other writers’ words and trying to emulate them in order ‘to paint the blackest face of woe’. Sidney then creates a somewhat unusual ‘family’ whereby Invention (i.e. the poet’s creativity) is the child of Nature (Mother Nature, of course), but Invention is being governed here not by his natural mother, Nature, but by his stepmother or ‘step-dame’, Study.
And study is not the best way to beget invention – not if the words one invents are to ring true. What’s more, through copying what others have written, Sidney finds other writers hinder rather than help him, because – to use the old line – it’s all been said before. And because of that, his words will ring hollow and his beloved won’t believe them.
Sidney then returns to the mothering analogy, and likens himself to a woman ‘great with child’ – (so) to speak. Suffering the pangs or ‘throes’ of childbirth, he bites his pen and beats himself for not being able to write, and then – his Muse speaks, chiding him for a fool, and commanding him to look in his heart and start writing. Forget books, forget study: just be true to yourself. Look inside and write what you find there. (‘Heart’ in Sidney’s time wasn’t simply used to refer to romantic emotion; there was no strict divide made between the brain and the heart. So ‘look in thy heart’ isn’t a foolishly romantic command: it also means ‘examine your thoughts’.)
Thus, in a neat opening sonnet, Sidney declares that what follows will be ‘from the heart’. This is also a convention of courtly love, but Sidney is already giving it a twist. In terms of the form he employs, careful analysis reveals that Sidney innovates right from the start, in deploying twelve-syllable lines (known as ‘alexandrines’) rather than the conventional ten-syllable lines typically found in a sonnet.
Continue to explore Sidney’s remarkable sonnet sequence with our analysis of another classic sonnet from Astrophil and Stella, ‘With how sad steps, O moon …’ For another classic poem about poetic inspiration, you can read our analysis of Ted Hughes’s ‘The Thought-Fox’. For more Elizabethan sonnets, see our pick of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. For more classic Tudor poetry, check out our pick of the best Renaissance poems in English.
If you’re studying poetry, we recommend these five helpful guides for the poetry student.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Sir Philip Sidney, from 1912 book by Henry Thew Stephenson; Wikimedia Commons.