A summary of a classic Sidney poem
Astrophil and Stella is one of Elizabethan poetry’s finest achievements. In 108 sonnets and a handful of songs, Sir Philip Sidney produced the first sustained sonnet sequence in English (though not, contrary to popular belief, the very first). Sonnet 71, beginning ‘Who will in fairest book of nature know / How virtue may best lodged in beauty be’, is one of the best-known poems from the latter half of the sequence (many of the ‘greatest hits’ in Astrophil and Stella are found in the first forty or so sonnets). Here is Sonnet 71, along with some notes towards an analysis of this intriguing and deftly crafted poem.
Who will in fairest book of Nature know
How virtue may best lodged in beauty be,
Let him but learn of love to read in thee,
Stella, those fair lines which true goodness show.
There shall he find all vices’ overthrow,
Not by rude force, but sweetest sovereignty
Of reason, from whose light those night-birds fly;
That inward sun in thine eyes shineth so.
And not content to be perfection’s heir
Thyself, dost strive all minds that way to move,
Who mark in thee what is in thee most fair;
So while thy beauty draws the heart to love,
As fast thy virtue bends that love to good.
But, ah, Desire still cries: ‘Give me some food.’
Beauty is meant to lead us to virtue, according to Renaissance ideas of virtue, at least. So, in summary, Sidney (or Astrophil) says in Sonnet 71: ‘Anyone who wants to know where in nature you can observe beauty and virtue together should look at you, Stella, the woman I love – for the lines of your figure reveal what true virtue and decency are. All vices are overthrown in you, whose sweet and graceful demeanour overpowers dark things through the sheer force of your beauty’s radiance. What’s more, you don’t limit your ambitions to being the heir of perfection yourself; you seek to make all of us, who look on you, better by association – because as soon as men look on you, they love you, and your inner virtue makes that love a force for good.’ But then, in the final line, we get a classic Sidney twist: into this Edenic world of beauty and virtue, Desire (personified, and suggesting lust and baser drives) is heard to cry out for satisfaction.
In other words, then, Sidney says that virtue in love is all well and good, but in real love, passion must play a part, and this implies desire and lust as well as the more ‘wholesome’ and virtuous (i.e. to be selfless and do good deeds because one is inspired by the love of one’s life). Sonnet 71 encapsulates one of the core features of Astrophil and Stella as a whole, and one of the things which made Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence a significant development of the form, building on what had gone before: here, the courtly lover is not content with being the virtuous admirer from a distance, worshipping the beautiful woman and putting her on a pedestal. Instead, he craves fulfilment. After all, Sidney appears to be saying, what sort of love is it if it’s only Platonic and pure? What sort of favour would I be paying the woman I love, if I said I didn’t also fancy the pants off her? (Okay, so we’re paraphrasing Astrophil and Stella here; though, curiously, Sonnet 100 does contain the racy lines, ‘O honeyed sighs, which from that breast do rise, / Whose pants do make unspilling cream to flow …’)
Sidney is a master of language. Tennyson once said that he knew the quantities of the vowel sounds of every word in English except ‘scissors’, but Sidney is a master of vowels too. Look at the long ‘I’ sounds in these lines, mirroring the idea of Stella’s beauty radiating light:
… from whose light those night-birds fly;
That inward sun in thine eyes shineth so.
In a later sonnet in the sequence, Sonnet 99, Sidney ends every single line with an ‘I’ sound of some sort. Astrophil and Stella is worth reading just to analyse the clever use of such sound-effects; but it’s also a significant step forward in English love poetry, because Sidney does not shy away from the realities of unrequited love. We may kid ourselves that our motives and intentions are entirely pure and selfless, but Desire will always be crying, from the dark recesses, ‘Give me some food.’
You can learn more about Sir Philip Sidney’s fascinating life and work here.