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Astrophel & Stella VI: A Sonnet Explicated

Astrophel & Stella VI: A Sonnet Explicated

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

Titles are important when considering any text but are of particular importance when considering poetry. Stella is from the Latin word for star and Astrophel is derived from two Greek words: astro which means star and phil which means lover. Astrophel and Stella VI is part of a sequence of sonnets. A typical sonnet sequence has many conventions. Opening and closing sonnets will usually inform the remainder of the sequence. These sonnets tell the story of a developing relationship between two lovers, the sonnets focus on changing emotions of the speaker. The sonnet is fourteen lines long, there are two basic forms eight lines followed by six with a

volta on line nine or, as in the instant case, four quatrains followed by a couplet that contains the twist.

The first sonnet in the sequence describes how the poet is struggling to find words to describe his love, how he cannot study the writing of others to find inspiration in the same way that Shakespeare did. In sonnet VI he returns to this theme and describes why he cannot copy other authors and poets. Iambic hexameter is utilised throughout the sonnet

Sidney was particular in his use of metrics, but the use of rhyme is not conventional. There are no polysyllabic rhymes and each line is end-stopped. The meter and unconventional rhyme scheme emphasize the narrator’s meaning that Astrophel is a unique poet who follows no formal patterns or rules of convention. The language is rich, and full of imagery, held together by the accurate use of the meter. . In lines 1 to 11 he effectively provides a list of various conventions traditionally used when writing sonnets.

In some sonnets the message is that love is a force which can overpower us and will make us suffer. The use of oxymorons (a term that is self-contradictory) is almost obligatory, he points this out vividly, and utilises the convention, when he refers to: “living deaths, dear wounds, fair storms and freezing fires”. The use mythology within sonnets of the period is also discussed in the poem and again the convention is adopted when

Sidney refers to the various disguises used by Jove or Zeus to get to the women he wanted:

“Someone his song in Jove, and Jove’s strange tales, attires, Broidered with bulls and swans, powdered with golden rain;” He refers to how some poets of the time and classical poets would use references to a pastoral tradition, in which ladies and gentlemen masquerade as shepherds:“Another, humbler, wit to shepherd’s pipe retires, Yet hiding royal blood full oft in rural vein”Incorporating the device of the “conceit” or comparisons to describe the act of writing the sonnets is utilised and described when he writes how:“…tears pour out his ink, and sighs breathe out his words:” The twist in the sonnet is contained in the couplet at the end of the sonnet when he describes how he can say what he feels and how he loves as well as any of them without the use of such rigid formulae when he says that all he to do is to softly say in a trembling voice “that I do Stella love”. Structurally, in sonnet VI of Astrophel and Stella, the lines are full of images of opposites, and contrasts such as pastoral imagery being next to images of violence and pain. Astrophel, the narrator, argues that poets, with all of their technical rules for the use of language in a sonnet, are restricted and repressed in the manner in which they are permitted to express themselves because of this strict adherence to a body of rules. Whilst he amply demonstrates his skills in the use of these conventions he is nonetheless being critical of them and essentially saying that he can be poetic with the best of them, but his love is so powerful that words and expressions cannot describe adequately his love for Stella; he is only able to feel, sense and think about it. In the second poem the title provides the reader with a clue that the lover to be discussed is untouchable or unreachable in some way. Shirley strictly adheres to the convention of iambic pentameter in the form of the poem and utilises rhyme throughout it. In the same way that Astrophel, as the narrator in Astrophel and Stella VI is discussing and describing the love he has for a woman, so in this piece the narrator is describing his love for a woman. The difference is that he woman does not appear to exist. The theme is that of the unknown or unknowable mistress. Given the uniqueness of the topic is is a challenging subject for the renaissance poet. The poem opens with moving lines that describe the frustration of the narrator in his desire to love and to speak to his lover. It provides an image of pent up frustration. The poem goes on to describe how much he would be able to love this idealized beauty. (Richmond H. M. 1959). The poem however, in dealing with a non existent lover may be described as dealing with the frustrating evanescence of some idealized sexual fantasy; love is seen as being distinct from a corporeal body and able to exist independently. The use of references to the senses which are themselves intangible lends weight to this image. By its nature, because the poem is dealing in what would be a paradigm of feminine beauty and grace, but which does not exist, it dwells more upon the egocentric, introspective thought processes and emotions of the writer, a man, rather than those of the subject matter, a woman. Utilising this particular lyrical renaissance device and in adhering to strict conventions of rhyme and meter and structure the narrator is reducing women in general to the status of desirable object that will be able to satisfy the sexual frustration of a lonely man. The view that women were mere chattels was reinforced with legal precedent at the time of writing. (Norbrook D., 1984). The strict adherence to rules of writing by Shirley would strongly suggest his belief in that particular rule set. In contrast

Sidney is challenging the standardised format, in his discussion of love, which would tend to suggest that he is challenging the status quo. He uses poetic structure as metaphors for the way in which women must abide by man made rules and is saying that even without these rules, which by implication he disagrees with, he is simply in love.


Richmond H. M. 1959, The Intangible Mistress, Modern Philology, Vol. 56, No. 4. pp. 217-223.Corns T., ed., 1993, The Cambridge Companion to English Poetry, Donne to Marvel, Cambridge,


University Press.

Norbrook D., 1984, Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance, Croom Helm.Rivers I., 1994, Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry,

London, Routledge.Wilcox H. ed., Women and Literature in Britain 1500 – 1700, Cambridge,


University Press