Astrophil and Stella is without doubt one of the most influential sonnet cycles of the Elizabethan Age. While many people simply dismiss Astrophil and Stella as a typical Petrarchian sonnet sequence filled with the familiar Petrarchian conventions of love and desire, Sidney actually is presenting a new perspective on love, one that is quite different from that of Petrarch, Wyatt, and many other earlier writers. Although many of the sequences are predictable in their course of recitation, Sidney still finds a way to infuse a force and energy into his writing that causes the reader, not only to be caught by the paradoxical verses but also to question the entire psychoanalytical process of love. Sidney effectively creates in his work an anatomy of love. He dissects, explores and analyses love in all its different facets and stages, laying bare to us the mechanism and etiology of love, essentially taking the reader on a tour of the lover’s mind and the psychological voyage that it induces upon all those that it wounds with it’s pointed arrow. More importantly, however, he shows us that the expression of love has no pattern, convention, or set model, and that to try and conventionalize love is impossible, because love follows no set course. He essentially uses the Petrarchian convention to deride not only that very same convention, but also to show that describing one’s love through the words or conventions of others is not only ineffective, but fails to express true love at all.
Wasting no time in getting his point across Sidney actually begins with his critique of love and its conventional word expressions with the very title he gives the sonnet sequence. Going against the normal practice of naming the sonnet sequences after the name of the lady that the sequence is about, Sidney decides to employ two words: Astrophil and Stella. By doing so Sidney effectively breaks with the accepted convention of naming, and he also immediately alludes to the disparate nature of the two main characters, thereby putting the focus of his work not on the unity or elation that love brings, which had been the popular use of the sonnet sequence before this time, but rather on the impossibility and ridiculousness of love. By employing both a Greek name (Astrophil) and also a Latin one (Stella), Sidney immediately introduces the idea of contradiction and ambiguity. This idea of paradox is furthered even more by the translation of these names. Astrophil, which literally translates as “star lover” [astro-phil being the combination of two Greek bases: astro (star) and phil (lover)] and the Latin name of Stella, that literally means “star,” illustrate the impossibility of the realization of their love. For, the star lover may love and admire the star but the actuality of reaching or obtaining one is not only ridiculous in idea but is impossible, just as we find out that the actuality of Astrophil reaching or obtaining Stella is also impossible.
In the very first sonnet Astrophil begins his passage through the twisting curvatures of his love for his “star.” We follow Sidney as he takes through a cause and effect series that describes the state of our “star lover,” his desire and struggle to express the love that he has for his unattainable “star,” and the eventual failure he finds in that endeavor:
Louing in trueth, and fayne in verse my loue to show,
That she, deare Shee, might take som pleasure of my paine,
Pleasure might cause her reade, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pittie winne, and pity grace obtaine, (1.1-4).
Notice in the first lines 1-4 how one thing leads to the next in his imagined chain of events. His pains lead to her pleasure; her pleasure may lead to her reading. Reading will bring her to the knowledge of his deplorable state by which he hopes to be able to gain pity. Pity he hopes will then gain him her grace. Essentially, he hopes to win her love by seeming pitiful. This again is a twisting of the conventional attitudes of the time, a man was not supposed to seem pitiful or weak. However, more importantly than that, he links his attempts at being pitiful with the idea of looking for inspiration in the works of others:
I sought fit wordes to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inuentions fine, her wits to entertaine,
Oft turning others leaues, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitfull showers vpon my sun-burnd brain. (1.5-8)
This linking of his attempt to be pitiful with the then accepted practice of turning to the works of others to find inspiration, effectively conveys to the reader exactly what Sidney thinks of such a practice. He finds it to not only to be pitiful but, as he describes in lines 9-13, to be completely ineffective. He becomes disgusted with himself for attempting such a pathetic approach and finishes the first sonnet reprimanding himself with the line: ” ‘Fool,’ said my Muse to me, ‘look into they heart and write’ ” (1.14).
In the following sonnet he describes to the reader how love conquered him He tells the reader that love conquered him not as the traditional conventions of the time usually portrayed, but rather in progressive stages, which actually are probably more “real” than the petrarchian convention of love at first sight:
Not at the first sight, nor with a dribbed shot,
Loue gaue the wound, which, while I breathe, will bleede;
But knowne worth did in tract of time proceed,
Till by degrees, it had full conquest got. (2.1-4)
He also, with this second sonnet begins a twist on the ancient convention of ” omnia vincit amor” (love conquers all) that lasts literally through the entire sonnet sequence. With phrase such as “…lost libertie /…like a slave borne… / …suffer tyrannie / …paint my hell” (2.9-14). He suggests that this convention of triumphant love is innately wrong, and that the correct reading of the phrase penned by Virgil should be that love doesn’t overcome all obstacles, but rather love conquerors all of us, and as a conqueror destroys us.
As the sonnet sequence progresses Astrophil sees no distinction between his Stella and Love, or Cupid, himself. Beginning in sonnet 11 and continuing most notably through sonnet 29, Sidney uses many commonplace petrarchian conventions, among others, to confuse the identity Stella with that of Cupid himself. While this practice of the embodiment of the object of their desire as love itself was common among earlier poets, Sidney uses this convention, not to further glorify his love with wit and poetic prose, but rather uses it to employ an emphatic change from wit into grotesquerie and bitterness. This shift is most notably shown when comparing sonnets 13 and 29. In sonnet 13 Sidney uses wit and poetic imagery having Cupid appear as a champion knight, glorifying Stella by using her hair as his crest and her face as his shield: “Cupid then smiles, for on his crest there lies / Stellas faire haire; her face he makes his shield” (13.9-10). Then in Sonnet 29 we see the shift to the bizarre and almost grotesque. Stella’s body has become Love’s tent and also his source of food and nourishment: “…her lips his heralds arre, / her breasts his tents, legs his triumphal carre, / Her flesh his food, her skin his armour brave…” (29.10-12).
This continual twisting and perverting of the Petrarchian and other conventions of his time creates an ironic, mocking, and humorous sequence in which his paradoxical descriptions of his struggles with desire and reason, show that the expression of love really has no pattern, convention, or set model, and that to try and express love in the conventional way is not only impossible, but also humorous in that it is ridiculous to even attempt to do so. The only way to truly express one’s love is not by the use of common convention and prose, but rather only by looking into ones own heart.