Analysis of the Poem Astrophil and Stella Sonnet 31 by Sir Philip Sidney

Updated on November 27, 2019
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney
Sir Philip Sidney | Source

Sir Philip Sidney And A Summary of Astrophil And Stella Sonnet 31

Astrophil and Stella Sonnet 31 is part of a long sonnet sequence Sidney put together at a time when the lady he was in love with, Penelope Devereux, refused to return his love.

She married another knight in the year 1581 - so unrequited love is the main theme of the 108 sonnets and 11 songs of Astrophil and Stella, in what is seen as the first proper sonnet cycle in English.

Five years later young Sidney was dead, succumbing to a leg/thigh wound whilst fighting against the Spanish in the Netherlands - Protestants against Catholics. But his reputation as a gentleman-soldier remained, as does his name in the world of poetry.

Though he died young Sidney's legacy is considerable. Not only did he pen a groundbreaking sonnet cycle he also wrote one of the first defences of poetry: An Apologie for Poesie (or The Defence of Poesy) in 1580.

His Astrophil and Stella sparked an increase in sonneteering that would last the best part of twenty years. Sidney's cycle is bettered by only one poet - yes, William Shakespeare.

  • Sonnet 31 is a 14 line poem made up of a Petrarchan octave ( after the Italian poet Petrarch who invented the form in the 14th century), these first eight lines describing the Moon whilst a Spenserian sestet (after the English poet Edmund Spenser), at the turn, consists of rhetorical questions posed by the yearning lover.
  • The title Astrophil (Star lover) and Stella (Star) reflects the relationship between Philip Sidney and Penelope Devereux. He wanted her as his wife, she shunned his approaches.
  • Each sonnet represents an aspect of Astrophil's love for Stella.

Life in the Elizabethan court for a young knight was highly competitive. Philip Sidney as an up and coming favourite of Queen Elizabeth would have been expected to make his mark. Devotion to a lady was all part of the tradition, as was fighting in battle and duty to Queen and country.

When Penelope married someone else - Robert Rich - Sidney must have been devastated. To help him get over such emotional disappointment he penned the sonnets and it's said circulated them out to friends and family. They were written around 1582 but not published until 1591, five years after his death.

Sonnet 31 as part of this sequence concentrates on the moon and the contrast between heavenly and earthly consequences of love.

  • The first eight lines (octave) focus on the lunar realm, the speaker identifying with the moon, and that of mythology, specifically Cupid the Roman god of passion and desire and affection.
  • The following six lines (sestet) are basically rhetorical questions asked by the speaker in an attempt to understand his own inner feelings.
  • The personification of the moon is what is known as a pathetic fallacy, a device where an inanimate object is given human attributes, feelings and responses.

In the end Astrophil is left frustrated and in near despair. Stella has shunned his advances, scoffed at him being in love (most aristocrats married for status in Elizabethan times) and left him asking questions there really is no answer to. The only triumph is Sidney's creation of a wonderfully crafted sonnet.

Astrophil And Stella Sonnet 31

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies!
How silently, and with how wan a face!
What, may it be that even in heav'nly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries!
Sure, if that long-with-Love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel'st a lover's case,
I read it in thy looks; thy languish'd grace
To me that feel the like, thy state descries.
Then, ev'n of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deem'd there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be lov'd, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call virtue there, ungratefulness?

Analysis of Sidney's Sonnet 31 Line By Line

Philip Sidney's Sonnet 31 is part of a long sequence of sonnets dealing with hope, frustration and despair within love.

Astrophil the speaker (Sidney) from the first sonnet is eager to express his love for Stella (Penelope Devereux soon to be or already Lady Rich) through his writing 'in verse my love to show' and so gain her favour. Starlover looks at star...the earthly male yearning for the heavenly female.

Title: Astrophil (Astrophel) and Stella

As already mentioned, the starlover together with the star...the title suggests that the two are a pair, a couple, bonded and never to part. Yet the irony is that one is bound to the earth, the other is way distant in the sky. Does this make them less of a couple?

Line 1

The pathetic fallacy starts here, the personification of the moon as it rises with sad steps according to the speaker. He is addressing the moon directly, using thou which is the Elizabethan for you.

And note the unusual use of how in With how sad steps....which could be ungrammatical yet seems to appeal to our modern minds. We're often saying How sad! How cool is that? How now!

That word climb'st is likewise Elizabethan climbest, the e omitted to allow for the iambic pentameter.

Line 2

The personification continues with repeated observation...how sad, how silently, how wan (pale)...the speaker identifying with and sympathetic to the state of the moon.

It's not the done thing surely, for a male to relate so strongly to the moon, such a symbol of all things feminine in mythology and folklore? Perhaps Astrophil has lost touch with his senses, after all the moon is also linked to lunacy and emotional turmoil...so perhaps the chosen stellar body is apt.

It takes one to know one the old saying goes....here are two locked in some sort of melancholy, the moon forever the prisoner of the earth and vice versa, gravity and orbit always entwined.

Lines 3 and 4

These two are a pair, enjambment running on into line 4 keeping the sense.

The speaker suggests that even in the lunar sphere, in heaven, Cupid (Roman god of desire and affection) fires his arrows into people's hearts, making them fall in love. Or in lust more to the point.

Astrophil is relating his own experiences of love on the earthly plane and sees mirrored exactly the same results (sadness, silence, paleness) with the Moon. Now, the Greeks associated the Moon with such elite gods as Selene, Artemis and Hecate. The Romans gave us Diana and Luna...all females.

In Sidney's time the Moon was related to virginity, fickle emotions and seen as an influence on behaviour.

So whilst there's ambiguity around the idea that Astrophil and the Moon are as one when it comes to love and desire, the reader has to consider that Sidney is referring to an ethereal/spiritual plane (heave'nly place) as opposed to the earthly plane of physical desire.

Lines 5 and 6, 7 and 8

These four lines work together. The speaker is basically saying that if the Moon with its long association with romance and mood change and mystery, is able to judge of love then it must also have feelings when it comes to a specific lover.

The speaker knows this from observation of the moon - he sees it carries the symptoms of lovesickness, like him, the languished grace, which the state of the moon shows all too well (descries).

Again, these two lines are joined by enjambment - no punctuation to halt the flow - and are crammed full of the letter l - long-with-Love/love/feel'st/lover's - which gets the reader's tongue and lips working in harmony, and the head a little giddy.

There's a compound adjective to start with long-with-Love then a prepositional phrase of love followed by a possessive a lover's case which impresses as a grammatical construct and gets the message over in triple.

The emphasis here is on love, obviously, but the question remains - is the speaker addressing the woman herself in these lines? Is he saying that she wants love, needs to be loved, it's crystal clear from the way she looks (at him?) and by her looks.

Lines 9 and 10

So the first eight lines have prepared the reader with descriptions of the state of the Moon and how the speaker relates to this. Now comes the turn or volta - the next six lines are full of questioning.

The first of four rhetorical questions aimed ostensibly at the Moon, which represents the spiritual side of the woman. In basic terms the speaker sees her as cold, distant and sad.

He asks if love there is seen as something unintelligent (want of wit) - in other words, does she think him a fool for being so persistent, so constant in his love for her? A fool for love?

Line 11

The eleventh line speaks for itself, the speaker asking if good looking women are as proud (aloof?) there, in the Moon's realm, as they are on earth, in the Queen's court.

Lines 12 - 14

Note the creative use of the verb love and infinitive loved, yet again a sort of play on grammar, a play on love. What makes line 13 so interesting is the caesura, break, just before the end....and yet...the enjambment running on into line fourteen as if the speaker cannot contain his frustration.

For, devastatingly, those same beauties who love to be loved also scorn those who are possessed by love, that is, those truly in love. The speaker is having a go at many (they) but is really focusing on his own would-be lover, Stella, who will not return his love.

The final line is written in near despair, for these same lovers not only scorn but translate virtue into ungratefulness. He is being ironic and bitter. Stella shows that she is not grateful, despite his love for her, and that she believes this is her virtue - she has the moral high ground.

In the end Stella remains at a distance, beautifully remote, proud, taking the speaker for a sucker, a dimwit. He has to be dissatisfied, the puzzled suitor left empty-handed, desperately seeking answers.

What Is A Pathetic Fallacy Used In Sonnet 31?

A pathetic fallacy is a form of personification where an object or thing is given human characteristics, feelings and traits. For example when a poet writes of an angry sea or a depressed sky, this is use of pathetic fallacy.

In Sonnet 31 Sidney writes of the moon's sad steps and wan a face. That word wan is archaic and means pale.

What is The Metre (Meter in American English) of Sidney's Sonnet 31?

Sonnet 31 is a 14 line sonnet, the majority of them following the traditional established iambic pentameter beat. Typically this means a line has ten syllables and five iambic feet, daDUM, the first syllable unstressed, the second stressed.

But not every line is pure iambic pentameter. Some have trochaic feet or spondaic, with stresses on different syllables.

Let's take a closer look:

1. With how / sad steps, / O Moon, / thou climb'st / the skies!
2. How si / lently, / and with / how wan / a face!
3. What, may / it be / that even / in heav' / nly place
4. That bus / y arch / er his / sharp arr / ows tries!
5. Sure, if that long-with love-acquainted eyes
6. Can judge of love, thou feel'st a lover's case,
7. I read it in thy looks; thy languish'd grace
8. To me, that feel the like, thy state descries.
9. Then, ev'n of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
10. Is constant love deem'd there but want of wit?
11. Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
12. Do they above love to be lov'd, and yet
13. Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
14. Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?

So, eight lines are full iambic pentameter (1,4,6,7,8,10,11,13) and have that regular familiar beat. Line 11 is a good example of this.

This leaves seven lines that break with the iambic and offer something a bit different:

Line 2: has a pyrrhic foot, no stresses in the end two syllables of silently.

Line 3: has a trochee, an inverted iamb....What, may....with stress on that first syllable. And please note that the word even is pronounced as a single syllable and the word heav'nly as two syllables.

Line 5: also a trochee...Sure, if...

Line 9: a pyrrhic, softer end two syllables...fellowship...and spondee, more emphasis on tell me ...a demand.

Line 12 : a trochee...love to ...in the third foot.

Line 14: a pyrrhic ends the sonnet, fading away....ungratefulness....

Literary/Poetic Devices In Sidney's Sonnet 31

Alliteration

When two words close together in a line begin with same consonant, bringing texture and varied sounds:

sad steps....long-with-Love....looks;thy languish'd....that feel the like, thy state....want of wit....love to be lov'd....

Assonance

When two or more words close together in a line have similar sounding vowels:

climb'st the skies....be that even....archer his sharp....me that feel....thy state descries....fellowship, O Moon, tell....

Caesura

When a line has a break causing the reader to pause on a comma or other punctuation. For example:

Can judge of love, thou feel'st a lover's case,

Enjambment

When a line runs on into the next without punctuation but maintaining sense. For example:

I read it in thy looks; thy languish'd grace

To me that feel the like, thy state descries.

Personification

When an inanimate object or thing is given human attributes. In this sonnet the Moon is personified.

Repetition

The word love and derivatives - lover's , loved, lovers - turns up no less that 8 times in this sonnet, 5 times in the sestet. There's no mistaking the emphasis on this most popular of topics.

Sources

www.poetryfoundation.org

The Poetry handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

www.jstor.org

Nature and Art in Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, Donald O. Rogers, LSU, 1971


© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      2 weeks ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Your analysis of this poem is so well done! You give me a much greater appreciation for this sonnet. Thank you!

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