Sir Philip Sidney wrote the first Elizabethan sonnets cycle, “Astrophyl & Stella”, published in 1591. The stylistic features of the sonnet that Sidney uses to introduce the cycle — such as overlap of phrases, sensory details, imagery, personification — culminate in a speaker attempting to write a poem for his lover using the Petrarchan concept. The speaker’s frustration, anger, and despair are underlying this image. It is his attempt to compose a sonnet for his beloved in the style of traditional Petrarchan conceit.
The poet begins the poem by quietly stating his intent to communicate his love with poetry’s raw and disciplined power: “Loving truthfully, I am fain, in verse, to show, my love” (line 1). Line 3: “Pleasure would cause her to read; reading would make her realize.” In the scansion the speaker uses both anaphora and rhetorical devices, such as the overlap of phrases, to connect each phrase. It is not just a short and concise summary, but he also chose to organize his thoughts into a very structured format. The tone of his speech is contemplative, inviting, and seductive. The use of overlapping phrases sets the stage for later thematic developments in the poetry.
The pattern of overlap in imagery and themes continues even though the phrase overlap ends in the fourth-line. Line 7’s zeugma “Others’ Leaves,” (line Seven) links the image of flipping scholarly or literary papers with the introduction of more natural imagery. “Fresh, fruitful showers,” in line eight, adds alliteration as well sensory detail. In line 10, the image is personified as Nature, the mother of invention. The poem’s theme changes as images evolve.
When you follow the “sunburned-brain” metaphor from line eight, it leads to a similar personification. The poem develops from simple devices into a complex interplay. The second quatrain introduces three distinct personifications. Nature, Invention and Study, which are all part of Line 10, have taken on roles independent of the speaker. They not only subvert the authority that he had in the opening quatrain, but they also take over the speaker’s rhetorical control. The speaker is forced to take on the role of an observer. He tries to learn as much as he can, but remains temporarily passive. This position is usually occupied by the reader. Ironically, they were also the abstractions used to guide poets in their writing.
Line 11 returns to “others feet” and its double meaning, expressing the thematic revolution of the sonnet. Readers will notice the speaker’s tone waver at this moment. His simple, confident meditation morphs into an eerie amalgamation of ideas. The speaker loses his initial “fain”, (line 1) enthusiasm.
The speaker has lost his initial optimism. The voice of optimism is gone. Interesting, the first line of the quatrain features tight, well ordered rhetorical formations and wit. This seems to show a speaker with a high level of intelligence. The mood changes to confusion, frustration, and helplessness by the second quadrant. Line 12: “Biting at my truant pencil for spite” also refers back to childhood. In the modern sense, “truant” is a term used to describe a student who has not performed well in school: essentially – if you will -‘misbehaving idiots.
The paradox culminates when the phrase, “helpless and in my throes,” (line 12), is read in both ways. The final epigrammatic pairt seems to undermine the speaker’s initial assertion. It would appear that the original connotation “throes”, i.e., the speaker’s resignation, is the most accurate. The speaker’s personal meditation is then transformed into a plain, direct dialogue. With only seven monosyllabic, blunt words in the last line, the scansion of the poem is completely different.
The speaker seems to have no more to say in the dramatic, momentary pause that follows this interruption. He tried, but failed. Why would the speaker bother to invoke her Muse? He has been humiliated by his own invention, nature and study. Instead, his Muse calls on the momentarily inactive speaker:
It is important to note the context in which Sidney wrote his poem. The Petrarchan tradition of idealizing the beloved in a sonnet has been around for a long time. Stella, from Sir Philip Sidney’s “Astrophil and Stella,” a Petrarchan classic love object, is placed brightly in the stars to attract the starlover’s attention. She is the ideal lover: incomparably desirable but out of reach. This is the way the poet’s idealized love manifests itself in the form of a beloved who is both perfect and impossible to reach. The first quatrain of this introductory sonnet only mentions “Dear She” once, before moving on to the speaker’s inner thoughts.
The speaker is able to express his true feelings, but he struggles to translate them into a rhyme scheme that has been carefully crafted. “I searched for words that would paint the darkest face of woe,”(line five). Woe is a reference to the melancholy he feels about his unattainable beloved.
The “spite”, or childlike temper which rebels at the disciplined writing, gives the last quatrain a spontaneity that is genuine. The speaker will be less inclined to categorize his emotions. The speaker understands that only the private, personal plane of the muse can provide access to love. Look into your heart (line 14).
Sidney’s journey through composition suggests that love was not meant to be calculated, controlled or reduced to mere rhetoric. To write a Petrarchan sonnet, the writer must express his or her own feelings. The truth is revealed when emotions are expressed accurately: not in an orderly, beautiful manner to elicit praise from the readers, but in a way that is honest, genuine, and best reflects the emotions of the writer.