...he called for drink, which was presently brought him; but as he was putting the bottle to his mouth, he saw a poor Souldier carryed along, who had eaten his last at the same Feast, gastly casting up his eyes at the bottle. Which Sir Philip perceiving, took it from his head, before he drank, and delivered it to the poor man, with these words, Thy necessity is greater than mine. And when he had pledged this poor souldier, he was presently carried to Arnheim.He died in agony nearly a month later, of complications to the wound.
But Sir Philip was also a literary man. In fact, for at least a century after his death, his contribution was ranked above Shakespeare’s (who flourished a decade later). Sidney’s Defence of Poesie was the first major sustained work of literary theory in English, and his prose work Arcadia presented a new and influential form of pastoral romance (Charles I is said to have quoted from it as he mounted the scaffold). His crowning literary achievement was Astrophil and Stella, which pioneered the English sonnet sequence. Sonnet-making had become popular in the early 1500s with the work of writers such as Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey, but Astrophil and Stella was the first attempt to create a sonnet sequence in English after the manner of Petrarch or Dante, a unified collection with a semi-dramatic progression of thought. It was the precursor of the sonnet sequences of Spenser and Shakespeare.
Astrophil and Stella was also a coded text reflecting a love affair. Stella (‘star’) was Lady Penelope Devereaux, the 14-year-old to whom Philip had been promised in marriage. Astrophil, or ‘star-lover’, was Philip himself. The stellar theme was perfect for Philip, whose last name contained the first three letters of ‘sidus’, star, and whose first name was also present in truncated form as the ‘phil’ of ‘Astrophil’, a name that thus neatly united lover and beloved. That Philip intended a pun can be seen in another invented name, this time from the Arcadia, that of ‘Philisides’, ‘lover of a star’, a character also thought to represent Philip.
The marriage never happened, though. In 1581 Penelope was married off to a better prospect, Robert Rich, the Earl of Warwick. In that year Philip appeared at tilt with the word ‘Speravi’ — ‘I hoped’, written on his shield, but crossed out with a thick line.
Astrophil and Stella is presented as a drama, in which 108 sonnets are interspersed with 11 songs. Astrophil loves Stella, although she does not explicitly return his love. The poet begins by appealing to the moon, praising his loved-one’s beauty, bemoaning his fate and her indifference, toying with ideas to do with the nature of true virtue, true love and true wisdom. Then the wedding to Rich is announced and in sonnet 37 the poet is in despair:
My mouth doth water, and my breast doth swell,The heavy playing on ‘Rich’ reveals Stella’s identity as the newly-married Lady Rich. It was, significantly, one of the very few sonnets suppressed in the first printing of 1591. Other clues to the lovers’ identities can be gleaned from sonnet 65, where Astrophil asserts ‘Thou bear’st the arrow, I the arrow head.’ An arrow head was part of the Sidney coat of arms. There is also a reference to ‘Penelope’ in the fact that there are 108 sonnets, and 108 stanzas in the 11 songs that intersperse the sonnets. 108 was the number of Penelope’s suitors in the Odyssey. Each sonnet, and each stanza, is a suitor standing in for the ever-importuning Astrophil.
My tongue doth itch, my thoughts in labor be;
Listen then, lordings, with good ear to me,
For of my life I must a riddle tell.
Toward Aurora's court a nymph doth dwell,
Rich in all beauties which man's eye can see;
Beauties so far from reach of words that we
Abase her praise saying she doth excel;
Rich in the treasure of deserved renown,
Rich in the riches of a royal heart,
Rich in those gifts which give th' eternal crown;
Who, though most rich in these and every part
Which make the patents of true worldly bliss,
Hath no misfortune but that Rich she is.
There is another way of looking at all this. Perhaps Philip never loved Penelope. In the twentieth century we all ‘grew up’ about Astrophil and Stella. Despite all the coded references to the lovers’ identities, the sonnets were a self-conscious game with language and imagery, the fashionable discourse of a courtier-poet. The poet says and does all the things that are expected of the Petrarchan sonneteer. If it had not been Stella it would have been some other maiden. Critics have even speculated that Astrophil and Stella was a witty present to Stella on her bridal-day, intended to point out the importance of virtue by presenting her with a fictitious, unvirtuous lover. Others have surmised that Philip may not have been interested in Penelope until her marriage, at which point he was stimulated to produce the sonnets, since a married, and therefore inaccessible, woman was required by the genre.
But if all Philip wanted was to praise some - any - young woman in Petrarchan fashion, would he have gone to the lengths of inaugurating a new literary genre? It is tempting to feel that something more than a courtly game must have been fuelling this dazzling experiment. Stella was, as a matter of historical record, promised to Philip, and then given to someone else. We don’t tend to dismiss Donne’s or Shakespeare’s love-sonnets as mere fantasies. Shouldn’t we accord Sir Philip Sidney the same courtesy?
Sidney, Sir Philip: Astrophel and Stella (introduction by Alfred Pollard, David Stott, 1888)
Brother Anthony of Taizé: Literature in English Society Before 1660: A Historical Survey (Sogang University Press, 1998)
Stewart, Alan: Philip Sidney: A Double Life (Pimlico, 2001)