Written in the early 1580s, Astrophil and Stella is the first substantial sonnet sequence in English literature, and sees Sidney exploring his own life-that-might-have-been with Penelope Rich (whom he turned down), through the invented semi-autobiographical figures of ‘Astrophil’ (‘star-lover’) and ‘Stella’ (‘star’). Sonnet 41, which begins ‘Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance’, may have been inspired by a real-life tournament at Whitehall in May 1581, and sees Astrophil attributing his success as a jouster and horseman to Stella, who ‘Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.’
Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance
Guided so well that I obtain’d the prize,
Both by the judgment of the English eyes
And of some sent from that sweet enemy France;
Horsemen my skill in horsemanship advance,
Town folks my strength; a daintier judge applies
His praise to sleight which from good use doth rise;
Some lucky wits impute it but to chance;
Others, because of both sides I do take
My blood from them who did excel in this,
Think Nature me a man of arms did make.
How far they shot awry! The true cause is,
Stella look’d on, and from her heav’nly face
Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.
In summary, then, Sonnet 41 outlines how ‘Astrophil’ (a semi-fictionalised version of Sidney himself – with the name ‘Phil’ even lurking within ‘Astrophil’) excels in the jousting tournament, and although others wish to attribute his success to ‘chance’ or luck, or else to his ‘blood’ (i.e. he’s inherited his horsemanship skills from his noble parents and ancestors), Astrophil himself knows better: it was the woman he loves, Stella, who inspired him to excel in the tournament, because she watched him and sent ‘beams’ (happy thoughts, or good vibes?) from her divine face which inspired Astrophil’s jousting success.
Sonnet 41 is a Petrarchan sonnet, comprising an octave (eight-line unit) and a sestet (six-line unit), rhymed abbaabbacdcdee. Petrarchan sonnets don’t tend to end with a rhyming couplet, but ever since Sir Thomas Wyatt introduced the sonnet form to England, English poets had made use of the concluding couplet, seeing it as an opportunity to end with a neat, punchy, self-contained summary. Here, the face/race rhyme perfectly sums up the thrust of the sonnet: Astrophil believes he won the race because of the beams sent forth from Stella’s heavenly face.
The whole of Astrophil and Stella is concerned with Astrophil’s inability to win Stella for himself: having previously been offered her as his bride, he turned her down, and she married another. Now, she’s off-limits. There is something a little ironic, then, in the reference in the second line of this sonnet to having ‘obtain’d the prize’: Astrophil/Sidney may have won the jousting tournament, but he lost the bigger prize of Stella herself.