Astrophil and Stella is the first sonnet sequence in English. Even Shakespeare drew inspiration from him. Shakespeare’s Sonnets have a number of references to Sidney according to the notes supplied by Katherine Duncan-Jones. But while Shakespeare raises the game in rational poetry, (where imagination builds castles of praise for his beloved through rhetoric), Sidney is really the pure poet of the lyric. Sir Philip Sidney was a courtier, and for a time the cup-bearer of Queen Elizabeth, and also a war-minded man who felt duty to his country, but if the sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella can be taken as a fair record of his heart, at bottom his only concern was his love affair.
It was a storybook love which hardly knew touch. Sidney claims Stella too virtuous to give away the love that dwells inside her, but in real life, in the end, she marries another man. At one point Sidney thought he had her, or thought he was on the verge, and even stole a kiss while she was asleep, and the throes of ecstasy and doubt about that kiss register as credible to me. The first two thirds or so of the book swoon with his lover’s praise of Stella. When she ultimately rejects him, Astrophil falls very hard, (in the Fifth Song) in a poem resembling a Miltonic Satanic rebellion against the divine. He recovers and preserves his pure love. But he has lodged the word of his death knell.
In the Fifth Song he says,
The name of ‘murderer’ now on thy forehead sitteth;
And even while I do speak, my death wounds bleeding be,
Which, I protest, proceed from only cruel thee.
And as early as the second poem Sidney also writes,
Not at first sight, nor with dribbed shot,
Love gave the wound which while I breathe will bleed.
[There “dribbed” means ineffectual or random.]
These lines are prophetic because not long later Sir Philip Sidney, fighting in his second encounter, was shot in the thigh and died of the wound.
This sonnet sequence is full of steady bursts of pure passion aimed always straight at Stella. In Shakespeare’s Sonnets though the first 120 or so sonnets are focused on the youth explicitly, because they contain very little detail relating to the boy other than his physical appearance, I believe they are more an occasion for versification and establishing a new style of praise. The last 30 or so of Shakespeare’s sonnets veer in a different direction in which he suffers the horrifying consequences of his failed relationship with the youth. At that point Shakespeare really opens up terrain through drama and plotting of emotions closer to his soliloquies and closer to religious drama I suspect.
In a somewhat similar way, the early part of Astrophil and Stella is essentially lover’s praise, but when she rejects him and he is so thoroughly shaken the entire course of the sonnet project begins really what is a desperate search for mercy and pity. And in this dark final section (22 sonnets and 6 songs) Sidney also calls on much ingenuity in the plotting of the sequence. This run of poems brings out in the author wrath at her alleged betrayal (though she had made no promises); deepest grief; a restoration of her fond image in his heart; the rejection of all other potential lovers (this is a love which buried Sidney); and a final meeting when the two exchange very touching oaths but she rejects him again.
We also see Sidney alone and not always with his sweet blissful thoughts. So for instance he writes letters to the river Thames (fortunate to carry Stella), to a “dead glass” which did not afford a sight of Stella, we see him with insomnia, and avoiding the company of other women. Also shortly before this section, he addresses a poem to the highway where she travels. All these different approaches allow Sidney variety of experience but again, aside from Stella, for him, there is darkness.