A reading of a classic Sidney poem
Sonnet 31 from Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (sometimes Astrophel and Stella), which begins with the line ‘With how sad steps, O moon, thou climb’st the skies’, is one of the most famous poems in the entire sonnet sequence.
Astrophil and Stella was the first substantial sonnet sequence composed in English, in the early 1580s. Sidney (1554-86) was inspired by his 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 close analysis of Sonnet 31, which sees Sidney addressing the moon as a potential fellow-sufferer from Cupid’s cruel arrows.
With how sad steps, O moon, thou climb’st the skies;
How silently, and with how wan a face.
What, may it be that even in heavenly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?
Sure, if that long-with-love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case;
I read it in thy looks; thy languished grace
To me, that feel the like, thy state descries.
Then, even of fellowship, O moon, tell me,
Is constant love deemed there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be loved, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?
A short summary of ‘With how sad steps’ first. Sidney looks up at the pale moon in the night sky and says that it appears to rise in the sky sorrowfully, as though taking ‘sad steps’. Like many poets before him, Sidney picks out the ‘wan’, or pale, ‘face’ of the moon and interprets this paleness as a sign of sorrow.
He then wonders whether the moon’s sorrow is actually lovesickness, and that Cupid, the Roman god of love (‘that busy archer’), even seeks to pierce heavenly bodies with his arrows, so as to bring them under love’s spell. The moon obviously stands alone in the night sky – set apart from the stars by its relative size – and so becomes a symbol of the solitary lover who is suffering from unrequited love.
Sidney goes on to assert that the moon, if it has been ‘long-with-love-acquainted’, is a fit judge of love, and well-placed to feel what suffering lovers down on earth feel. Sidney states that he has read the moon’s love-experiences in its appearance and that its ‘languished grace’ (it’s graceful, but nevertheless weakened by the effects of love) reveals to Sidney, who is similarly afflicted by love, that the moon is a fellow-sufferer.
That concludes the first eight lines of this poem, which largely follows the Petrarchan sonnet model, with those first eight lines rhyming abba abba. Now we move to the sestet, or concluding six-line unit. Sidney now wants to know some home truths about unrequited love as the moon experiences it. If you are a true and faithful lover up there, are you considered foolish? Is the beautiful woman you love as proud (i.e. as superior and disdainful) as the woman loved by Sidney? Does the woman you love, moon, love the attention but at the same time feel disdain for the one who has been ‘possessed’ by love for her? Is ungratefulness (i.e. the way the woman treats the man who truly loves her so) considered a virtue up there as well as down here?
Any analysis of ‘With how sad steps’ should address the extent to which Sidney is being serious when he offers up this somewhat excessively romanticised (and, it has to be said, one-sided) conversation between the poet and the moon. Is he sending himself up? We believe not, but as with many of the poems in Astrophil and Stella, Sidney is aware of how ridiculous love can render us, even while that love is felt sincerely and keenly.
But courtly love, of course, was several centuries old when Sidney was writing, and so the idea of admiring an unattainable woman from afar needed to be explored with an awareness that these tropes were already familiar to many readers, especially the educated readers who would have read Sidney’s sonnets when they were circulated in manuscript.
Philip Larkin later took the phrase ‘sad steps’ from Sidney’s opening line and used it as the title of his poem about the moon, which Larkin associates with growing old while realising that elsewhere there are young people experiencing the first pangs of hopeless love.
‘With how sad steps, O moon, thou climb’st the skies’ is a brilliant opening line that would have made Sonnet 31 worth analysing regardless of what followed. But as it happens, the rest of the poem holds up to close analysis too. What do you think of Sidney’s poem?