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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XII. The Elizabethan Sonnet

§ 6. Sir Philip Sidney’s Astorphel and Stella

Although the date cannot be stated with certainty, it is probable that Sir Philip Sidney’s ample collection of sonnets, which is known by the general title of Astrophel and Stella, was written between the years 1580 and 1584. Widely circulated in manuscript before and after Sidney’s death in 1586, they were not printed till 1591, and then surreptitiously by an enterprising publisher, who had no authority from Sidney’s representatives to undertake the task. It was not until 1598 that a fully authorised version came from the press.

Sidney’s sonnets, like those of Petrarch and Ronsard, form a more or less connected sequence. The poet, under the name of Astrophel, professes to narrate the course of his passion for a lady to whom he gives the name of Stella. The relations between Astrophel and Stella closely resemble those between Petrarch and his poetic mistress Laura, in the first series of the Italian poet’s sonnets, which were written in the lifetime of Laura. There is no question that Sidney, like Petrarch, was, to a certain extent, inspired by an episode in his own career. Stella was Penelope, the wayward daughter of Walter Devereux, first earl of Essex, and sister of Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, queen Elizabeth’s favourite. When she was about fourteen years old, her father destined her for Sidney’s hand in marriage; but that project came to nothing. In 1581, when about nineteen, she married Robert, second lord Rich, and became the mother of a large family of children. The greater number of Sidney’s sonnets were, doubtless, addressed to her after she had become lady Rich. In sonnet XXIV, Sidney plays upon her husband’s name of Rich in something of the same artificial way in which Petrarch, in his sonnet V, plays upon the name of Laura his poetic mistress, who, also, was another’s wife. Sidney himself married on 20 September, 1583, and lived on the best terms with his wife, who long survived him. But Sidney’s poetic courtship of lady Rich was continued till near the end of his days.

Astrophel’s sonneteering worship of Stella enjoyed a popularity only second to that of Petrarch’s poetic worship of Laura. It is the main theme of the collection of elegies which was written immediately after the tragically premature close of Sidney’s life. The elegiac volume bore the title Astrophel; it was dedicated to Sidney’s widow; his sister, the countess of Pembroke, wrote a poem for it; Spenser was the chief contributor. Throughout the work, Sidney’s lover-like celebration of Stella is accounted his most glorious achievement in life or literature.

Sidney’s sonnets rehearse a poetic passion, to which the verse of Petrarch and his disciples supplied the leading cue. The dedication to Sidney’s wife of Astrophel, that tribute of eulogy which acclaims his mastery of the sonnet, seems to deprive his sonnet-story of the full assurance of sincerity. Wife and sister would scarcely avow enthusiastic pride in a husband’s and a brother’s poetic declaration of illicit love, were it literally true. Sidney, as a sonneteer, was an artist rather than an autobiographer. No mere transcript of personal sensation won him the laurels of an English Petrarch.

Charles Lamb detected in Sidney’s glorious vanities and graceful hyperboles “signs of love in its very heyday,” a “transcedent passion pervading and illuminating” his life and conduct. Hazlitt, on the other hand, condemned Sidney’s sonnets as jejune, frigid, stiff and cumbrous. The truth probably lies between these judgments. Felicitous phrases abound in Sidney’s sonnets, but he never wastes his genius on a mere diet of dainty words. He was profoundly touched by lyric emotion. He was endowed with the lyric power of creating at will the illusion of a personal confession. He is capable of the true poetic effect. None the less, his poetic story of passion is out of harmony with the facts of his biography, and it is reminiscent of foreign models. Yet neither the intervals between the fiction and the fact, nor the indebtedness to French or Italian masters could dull the vivacious strength of Sidney’s poetic power.

None who is widely read in the sonnets of Petrarch or Ronsard fails to perceive the foreign echoes in Sidney’s sonnets. The appeals to sleep, to the nightingale, to the moon, to his bed, to his mistress’s dog, which form the staple of much of Sidney’s poetry, resemble the apostrophes of the foreign sonneteers far too closely to entitle them to the unqualified credit of originality.

Both in his Apologie for Poetrie and in his sonnets, Sidney describes with scorn the lack of sincerity and the borrowed artifices of diction, which were inherent in the sonneteering habit. He complained that his English contemporaries sang

  • poor Petrarch’s long deceasëd woes
  • With new-born sighs and denizëd wit.(Sonnet XV.)
  • Echoing Persius, he professes to follow a different method:
  • I never drank of Agannipe’s well …
  • I am no pickpurse of another’s wit.(Sonnet LXXIV.)
  • Yet the form, no less than the spirit, of Sidney’s sonnets renders his protest of doubtful significance. Sidney showed a higher respect than any of his native contemporaries for the metrical institution of the Italian and French sonnet. As a rule, he observed the orthodox Petrarchian scheme of the double quatrain riming thus: abbaabba. In the first eight lines of Sidney’s sonnets, only two rimes were permitted. In the last six lines his practice was less orthodox. Four lines, which were alternately rimed, were often followed by a couplet. But, in more than twenty sonnets, he introduced into the concluding sizain such variations of rime as ccdeed, which brought his work into closer relation with the continental scheme than that of any other Elizabethan.

    Although Sidney’s professions of originality cannot be accepted quite literally, he may justly be reckoned the first Englishman to indicate the lyric capacity of the sonnet. His supremacy in that regard was at once frankly and justly acknowledged by his contemporaries. On the first appearance of his effort in print, his admirer, Thomas Nashe, addressed contemporary practitioners this warning apostrophe: “Put out your rushlights, you poets and rhymers! and bequeath your crazed quatorzains to the chandlers! for lo, here he cometh that hath broken your legs.”

    Sidney’s example, far from discouraging competition, proved a new, and a very powerful, stimulus to sonneteering endeavour. It was, indeed, with the posthumous publication of Sidney’s sonnet-sequence, Astrophel and Stella, in 1591, that a sonneteering rage began in Elizabethan England. Each of the six following years saw the birth of many volumes of sonnet-sequences, which owed much to the incentive of Astrophel and Stella. Samuel Daniel’s Delia and Henry Constable’s Diana first appeared in 1592, both to be revised and enlarged two years later. Three ample collections followed in 1593; they came from the pens respectively of Barnabe Barnes, Thomas Lodge and Giles Fletcher, while Watson’s second venture was then published posthumously and for the first time. Three more volumes, in addition to the revised editions of Daniel’s Delia and Constable’s Diana, appeared in 1594, viz.: William Percy’s Coelia, an anonymous writer’s Zepheria and Michael Drayton’s Idea (in its first shape). E. C.’s Emaricdulfe, Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti and Richard Barnfield’s Cynthia, with certaine Sonnets, came out in 1595. Griffin’s Fidessa, Linche’s Diella and William Smith’s Chloris appeared in 1596. Finally, in 1597, the procession was joined by Robert Tofte’s Laura, a pale reflection of Petrarch’s effort (as the name implied), although travelling far from the metrical principles of the genuine form of sonnet. To the same period belong the composition, although the publication was long delayed, of the Scottish poet, Sir William Alexander’s Aurora and of the Caelica of Sidney’s friend, Sir Fulke Greville.

    All these collections were sequences of amorous sonnets. The Elizabethan sonnet was not exclusively applied to themes of love. Religious meditation and friendly adulation frequently commanded the attention of sonneteers. But the amorous sequence is the dominant feature of the history of the Elizabethan sonnet. The spiritual and adulatory quatorzains fill a subsidiary place in the picture. The amorous sequences incline, for the most part, to Watson’s level rather than to Sidney’s, and, while they respect the English metrical form, they generously illustrate the prevailing tendency to more or less literal transcription from foreign masters.

    The sonneteering work of Spenser in his maturity is to be linked with Sidney. But even his metrical versatility and genuine poetic force did not preserve him altogether from the injurious influence of the imitative tendency. Only a small proportion of his sonnets embody original ideas or betray complete freedom in handling old conceits. In his metre alone, did Spenser follow a line of his own devising; his prosody diverged alike from the ordinary English, and the ordinary foreign, model. Most of his sonnets consisted of three quatrains, each alternately rimed, with a riming couplet. Alternate rimes and the couplet were unknown to sonnets abroad. Yet Spenser followed the foreign fashion in restricting the total number of rimes in a single sonnet to five instead of extending it to seven as in the normal English pattern. He made the last lines of his first and second quatrains rime respectively with the first lines of his second and third quatrains, thus abab bcbc cdcd. Spenser approached no nearer the prosody of Italy or France. In three instances, he invests the concluding riming couplet with a wholly original effect by making the final line an alexandrine.