Astrophil and Stella

“What idler thing, than speak, and not be heard?
What harder thing, than smart, and not to speak?”

Philip Sidney

I feel like I’ve already written a post about Astrophil and Stella, but if I have then has lost it, and anyway there’s nothing like a good snarky rant to blow off steam after a day of revision.

Astrophil and Stella, then, is a sonnet sequence from the sixteenth century about a guy called Astrophil (who may or may not be a thinly disguised version of Sidney himself) writing love poetry to a girl called Stella.

That’s pretty much it. It’s dull.

Here’s the thing, though: dullness is, to a certain extent, its point. Or, not exactly, but close enough: Astrophil and Stella is designedly not about love. It’s about wit: sixty pages of Astrophil/Sidney showing off how clever he is, how good at wordplay and punning and playing with the conventions of courtly love poetry. If that sounds irritating, that’s because it is. Consequently, it’s actually really hard to read closely: once you’ve read one finely-crafted, carefully-wrought, undoubtedly lovely sonnet, you’ve read them all, and nothing really remains to the mind forced to read the whole thing but occasionally pencilling expletives in the margins at the sexist bits, which are copious. I said to Northern Friend recently that if Sidney were alive today he’d be an apologist for rape culture, which may be a little extreme but essentially sums up Astrophil’s attitude to Stella’s refusal of him, which amounts to: “look how much I love you, you ungrateful b****”, and “WHY ARE YOU SO BEAUTIFUL IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT I’M SUFFERING SO MUCH”.

Which makes me spittingly angry, of course, but it makes me wonder if Astrophil is actually meant to be unlikable (rather than Sidney being quite so violently sexist). It removes all possibility of actual identification with his plight, and makes us focus on the poetry itself, its artfulness and wit; the narrative gets undercut, and the artificiality of the form played up. If Astrophil and Stella is about anything, it’s about artificiality.

None of this makes it any fun to read, of course, not as a whole, though some sonnets stand well on their own (I particularly like Sonnet #1, “Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show”). However, I’m somewhat loath to push it all the way into the Troilus and Criseyde revision camp (currently also occupied by Joseph Andrews). It is clever, and it is interesting, and a second read only highlights those things. Ugh, the difficulties of revision.

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