Discuss the Pertrarchan Context in Philip Sidney’s “Astrophil and Stella”

‘O Petrake hed and prince of Poets all’: thus Tottel’s Miscellany introduces what for the whole period, especially in the last quarter of the 16th century, became an increasingly powerful literary space. The sixteenth century poets saw themselves both admiring and battling with one of European Literature’s most dominant and authoritative father figures. English lyric poetry in the sixteenth century is made up of the traces and struggles of many texts, but the single name that stands above them all is that of Petrarch, who gave not just Renaissance poetry but Western discourse one of the most hospitable conceptual schemes by which we have discussed sexual desire and its relationship with language. Francesco Petrarch remains of one Western Europe’s seminal figures. Sir Sidney Philip is one of the pioneers to have experimented with this tradition and as Gary Waller rightly states, “Sidney’s major poetic work, Astrophil and Stella marks the triumphant maturity of Elizabethan poetry and as well the first belated but spectacular adaptation of Petrarchanism to English aristocracy.” It remains today one of the most moving, delightful and provocative love poems in the language, all the more powerful in the impact because of the variety of discourses that strain within it for articulation – erotic, poetic, political, religious, cultural.

The first characteristic of Astrophil and Stella in the Petrarchan context that made it such a powerful collective text encouraging and requiring continual rereading and interpretation was its adaptability. Petrarchanism is characterized by a discursive space in which rhetoric, theatricality, individual and socio cultural codes were mingled and explored. The most prominent Petrarchan trait that strikes us in Astrophil and Stella is the rhetoric of erotic love and the conflict and dialectics involved. The portrayal of Astrophil’s love for Stella as a frustrating though inspiring experience, characterized by a melancholy yet obsessive balance between desire and hopelessness, possibility and frustration, conflict and resolution is clearly in the context of the essence of Petrarchanism as an intriguing, systematic ordering of the discourse of erotic desire. We are taken into the familiar world of Petrarchan convention and cliché: Astrophil is the doubting, self consciously aggressive lover, Stella the golden haired, black eyed, chaste and distant and unobtainable elaborated by a series of oxymoron and conceits. The landscape is familiar – Hope and Absence, frustrated desire alleviated temporarily by writing, the beautiful woman with the icy heart who pitilessly resists siege and yet encourages her admirer and the final misery of the lover who ends his plaints in anguish at her ‘absent presence’. Describing Stella’s ethereal beauty, Sidney says she has a ‘heavenly face’ akin to a celestial being, who radiates ‘beams’ whenever she looks. In sonnet 27, the physical presence of Stella puts Sidney in a “dark abstracted guise” with “a dearth of words” and answers “awry”. But equally frustrating is her mental image in Sidney’s dreams where she appears smiling only to wake and realize her unattainability. In sonnets 38 and 45, Sidney points to a poignant clique of the archetypal Petrarchan lover wherein the interpretation of Pleasure and Pain which was allied with the freedom-servitude paradox, with the servitude of the lady seen the highest freedom for love, by placing himself on the ‘servants wrack’ tormented to self-annihilation. In sonnet 2, Sidney aware of the existential dilemma that pursuing Stella entails – articulates the external Petrarchan paradox – ‘Now, even that footstep of lost liberty/ Is gone, and now, like slave-born Muscovite/ I call it praise to suffer tyranny’ and with undiminished vigour and love says, “I paint my hell.” Besides the motif of conflict of liberty and servitude, these lines also outline the convergence courtly and Petrarchan love in the earlier English Renaissance. To quote Anthony Low, “This love intimately combines concepts of honour and of feudal obligation with endless internal longing.” The feudal relationship implicit in this model of love obliges the lover, if he wishes to escape the stain of shameful recreancy, to remain loyal to his love and to his mistress until death, regardless of the length and intensity of his sufferings or the small chance of success. Here again, we observe the Petrarchan internalization in Astrophil and Stella which tangles loyalty with desire, and fixes them both on the unobtainable object.

In the Petrarchan convention, the Neo-platonic idea of love is reflected in which love is an independent cosmic force, creating a world of its own in which the lover must survive and alienate himself from the natural world. It is a fragmentation of the personality, an emotional dispersal under the influence of Desire. We also can identify in it another Neo-Platonist model, that of the idea of poetry where through his God-given power the poet creates ‘another world’ analogous to the way God himself created the world, a world not only superior to the actual world but capable of shaping and improving the everyday world. The Petrarchan ‘I’ is therefore, a device that puts into discourse two contradictory drives: an assertion of unity of selfhood and consistency as in the ‘I’ of the lover and other being of the radically de-centered self that the Petrarchan situation unfolds as an attempt is made to write itself into the world reference to self of the poet labouring in the process of creation of poem. To quote Gary Waller in the ‘Rewriting of Petrarch’, “The Petrarchan sequences are primarily a part of a struggle to fix or create the self by use of language (evidence of struggle within creator through use of oxymoron, paradoxes). The self that writes in the Petrarchan lyric often undermines itself. The more it writes, the more its words frustrate, the more it negates any detected congruence between ‘the spoken signifier and its signified.” The incomprehensive changeability of the self and its insecurity and lack of fixed identity in the world are the real object of fascination — Petrarchanism, therefore, finding natural expression in paradox. Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella also works strongly under this framework. Sonnet 14 and 18 reveal that the heart, the seat of reason, once a victim of love is given over to passion. There is a continuous parallel between the act of writing poetry and making love. Any consummation would lead to removal of the need to write poetry. Astrophil writes poetry not only to persuade Stella but also as surrogate for the act of loving itself. As Garry Waller states, “Absence is a seeming necessity: presence is not conducive to poetry” (‘absent presence’, Sonnet 104). This temptation to create a self-satisfying world of poetical feigning is concentrated in the desire to isolate the self from any problematic, self-fragmenting encounter with the Other – embodied as Stella. The paradoxical desire to escape the source of inspiration in whom one’s poetry is ostensibly grounded is common to Petrarchan concention, who, as John Freccero and others have noted, appears almost to celebrate his beloved’s absence, because he may fill the space left by his absent beloved with his own controlled re-imagining of her. From this perspective, sonnet sequences may be read as dramas that portray how a male poet, threatened by his chaotic passion for the female Other, regains his autonomy when he replaces the wild, elusive original with an artificial representation of her – a “snowy maiden” in place of each fleeing Florimell. This revision of the process of creativity allows the poet to fantasize that he is the Horatian Orpheus who controls – even creates – his elusive beloved.

Petrarchan conventions provide Astrophil the space to articulate the multiple changes of self that occur under the transforming power of love. This leads to the idea of metamorphosis, a tension between unity and fragmentation of the self. The very nature of the paradox is such that closure is always undermined even while it is being asserted; the result is that resolution, even meaning is always questioned, identity always de-centered. Self division is noticed when debates take place between passion and reason inside Astrophil. Reason tells him that Stella is not able to pity him and that he should stop expressing himself through poetry, “How can words ease, which are/ The glasses of they daily vexing care? Oh cruel fights well pictured-forth do please/ Art not ashamed to publish thy disease.” (Sonnet XXXIV). Another instance is his divorce from the external world in his separation from his friends and his loss of social identity as expressed in Sonnet XXVII, “Because I oft in dark abstracted guise/ Seem most alone in greatest company.” The microcosmic relation between the body of man and the body of world is disrupted due to his love for Stella. Astrophil acknowledges the rational relationship between beauty virtue and love, yet there occurs an objectification of desire whose presence still dominates in his mind unlike Plato who believed that all human beings should be guided by the superior faculty of reason. Desire is Astrophil’s old companion which ultimately leads to Astrophil’s frustration and fragmentation of self and he is driven to various acts of self-revelation, beautifully put in the lines “Of lover’s ruin some thrice-sad tragedy/ I am not I…” in Sonnet XLV. A traditional and practical reason for writing Sonnet 45 is to persuade Stella to return his love by an appeal to pity. In the last line he highlights this motive, “pity this tale of mine”. The presumption in this sonnet is that Stella can be induced to pity this fictionalized tale of woe more easily than she can pity him as a person drawing on the Petrarchan as well as Neo-Platonist vision of poet as an autonomous maker.

Contrary to fragmentation of the poet-lover, stands the unity of the lady love. The lady love’s beauty and virtue torment the poet-lover and leads to conflict between wit and will. Such a dilemma is very much Petrarchan. According to the Petrarchan convention, such a situation can be overcome by the metamorphosis of the living women into the work of art. By writing about his love, the poet creates a work of art whose beauty and permanence redeem the sensuality of human passion. Such a situation occurs in Petrarch in which lover is distant inspiration and there’s no interaction between her and her lover. The Petrarchan Rime traces the process of sublimation of human desire into heavenly love – a process helped by Laura’s death. However, in Sidney, Astrophil does not allow Stella’s unity to appear in sublimated form as a Star, “True that on earth we are but pilgrims made/ And should in soul up to our country move:/ True, and yet true that I must Stella love.” Anthony Low points out that the conflict is thus, not only between ‘reason’ and ‘desire’ as Kalstone and most interpreters since would have it, but between two forms of desire: ideal and sexual. After all from a rational Christian perspective there, there is no excuse for Astrophil or for Sidney to continue to indulge himself on love for a married woman either lustfully or idealistically. Still, he wants to fragment Stella to fetishize each part of her body and enjoy her in fragments as elucidated in his sexually charged fantasy in Song 10. “The Kiss” would make all the difference for Astrophil and thus, he not only accepts the woman as inspiration but also desires ‘the kiss’ which would inspire him. Such a dominance of desire and refusal to sublimate it is a suggestion of the fact that the poem will remain incomplete as long as it pursues physical consummation rather than aesthetic satisfactions of formal completion. Here, Sidney deviates from Petrarchan vision in his emphasis on sexual desire. In the eight song, in a scene of intense sensuality, he pleads for Stella’s surrender. When she refuses, his song is ‘broken’, rejection leads Astrophil into bleak despair with which the sequence ends. Yet in this same song Astrophil also speaks of an ideal beauty which is surely the epitome of the high Petrarchan unreachable ideal, but he also emphasizes on how it is inseparable from his sexual longings. This powerful combination of longings for a spiritual ideal and a sexual object proves impossible for Astrophil to maintain – yet equally impossible for him to relinquish.

Another major characteristic of Petrarchanism seems to be a discourse of control and domination while on the surface seeming to focus on the depicting and idealizing of the beloved and to offer her patient unrewarded service. The Petrarchan mistress is less the subject of eroticization than of power. In this context, is then Stella’s silence the repression of the poet or the dominant male character, a whole cultural blindness that fixed women as objects of gaze and analysis within a discourse they did not invent and could not control? Astrophil’s shifting desires and projections in the sonnets make them into a theatre of his desires, not hers, one in which the poet takes the active role and in which Stella is assigned silent, iconic functions. She is subject of his anguish, manipulation and struggles of conscience under a discursive structure already and seemingly always in place, an apparently natural language of sexuality and sexual difference which can provide Stella visibility only within the poet’s powers.

Petrarchanism hence, was more than a poetic rhetoric. In Petrarch’s own works, the relationship between the poet and his beloved seems to reflect the uneasy reorganization of feudal class relations: Laura is the suzerain, her poet a vassal, eager to follow her yet aware of his unworthiness and the hopelessness of attaining her. In the same way, the political relations of the Elizabethan court are being articulated through Petrarchanism in Astrophil and Stella. Especially in England, the fact of a Virgin Queen on the throne produced an extraordinary transference of the Petrarchan manner to politics. In England the fact Elizabeth systematically encouraged her male courtiers to relate to her in the role of Petrarchan lovers, always in hope, caught between desire for advancement and fear of losing their places, single mindedly devoted to the hopeless attainment of her favour and grateful for any token. The traditional formula by which man is subjected to his lady while at the same time the situation gives him the autonomy and power to seduce her is, not coincidentally, homologous with relationship between the courtier and the monarch. Thus, while Astrophil speaks of the ‘joy’ inspired by Stella and his own ‘noble fire’ he is attempting to manipulate Stella’s vulnerability, seeking power over her in the way the devious courtier seeks hidden but real power over the monarch. In terms of the sexual politics of the Renaissance Court, Astrophil’s world is one shared primarily by other male courtiers in relation to the monarch. Thus we watch Astrophil indulging himself in small but subtle ways. He continually twists Stella’s words; he speaks openly of his love; but off-handedly and half seriously, allowing the emergence of an underlying physicality of his desires in a series of fantasies of seduction. He professes great unselfish devotion. He argues his love transcends any base motive; it is a private world of high ideals. But while Astrophil claims his love is independent of and superior to the public world, such an anti-thesis is self deceiving. At the root of Astrophil’s self deception are the contradictions of the Petrarchanism context in the whole of the Court’s life. Ann Jones and Peter Stallybrass argue that the compliments and manipulations Astrophil performs are curiously like those ‘necessary to the new courtier in relation to his prince’ and further down the social system the poet in relation to his patron. In Sonnet CVII, “And as a queen, who from her presence sends/ Whom she employs, dismiss from thee my wit, Till it have wrought what thy own will attends.” Petrarchanism provided a perfect language for the aspiring courtier and how it created a discourse in which his restless anxious ‘self’ could be located. Gabriel Harvey comments, “Petrarchanism, a tablet of rare conceits, a rhetorical master piece, adaptable to the increasingly self-conscious rhetorical world of the Elizabethan Court, where show display, self aggrandizement were seemingly inevitably associated with becoming humility  and thus the means of acquiring place, and if not power, at least the possibility of power.” This view is more consolidated by the fact that Sidney always aspired for a more authoritative political role; he wanted to be one of the Renaissance’s influential statesman but however as fate would have it, was not one of Elizabeth’s favourite courtiers and was subject to royal disfavor many a time, especially during his unequivocal expression of disapproval of Elizabeth’s decision to marry the Catholic Duke of Alencon.

While discussing the Petrarchan context in Astrophil and Stella, it is interesting that Sidney puts the Petrarchan convention to question in the opening sonnets of his sequence; “You that poor Petrarch’s long deceased woes/ With new born sighs and denizen’d wit do sing”. Sidney will take his muse’s advice, look into his heart and write. However, we immediately realize that in saying this Sidney is performing one of the expected rhetorical moves – indeed, that he is still thoroughly within the Petrarchan tradition. His protests of sincerity and of naturalness are a nice instance of courtly sprezzatura, to quote Anthony low, “of art concealing art yet allowing itself to be seen and to be admitted for its skill.” This is only a superficial or pretended resistance to convention. The real signal that the tradition no longer suffices emerges only gradually toward the close of the sequence, as Astrophil sinks into flat hopeless despondency. He neither attains his desire nor repents of it – nor is he able to any longer even capable of sustaining it. He can find no outlet from his predicament. As we shall see, for Astrophil to escape the Petrarchan conventions would require of him a basic change of stance rather than a mere tinkering with rhetoric. Sidney finds, in Astrophil and Stella, that the courtly Petrarchan stance of endless desire without requital sublimated in a spiritual cause no longer works. But he is still too much immersed in an older aristocratic culture to find a way out of this dead end.

Another distinctive feature of the Petrarchan context which applies to Astrophil and Stella is the emphasis on self examination – seen in the continual insistence on the inner experience of the ‘lover’, and hence of the reader, requiring an unusually active involvement from their readers, producing meanings within the changing encounters between poem and readers. The Petrarchan lyric is typically inaugural, requiring its completion in its audience’s experiences and responses. The continual isolation of the ‘I’, especially as it is focused in Astrophil’s obsession with self, directs us continually to our own self consciousness. What Rudestine calls the Sidney’s style “the outward sign of a particular sign of life” refers less to Sidney than to his audience. One such audience is fellow lover-poets in Sonnet 6, where Sidney distinguishes his ‘trembling voice’ and sincerity of love from those of other lovers thereby forcing them to respond. At times, his suffering hero will address another rather special named audience or will address a friend or occasionally even himself. But always the most important audiences are the ones unnamed those of us who through the poem’s history will read them, mediate upon and act out their drama: “You that with allegorie’s curious frame”. Such a scope for reader/audience participation also arises from the fact that most important role of the medieval poet was as announcer or spokesman of the court’s values and it hence made the Petrarchan tradition as Zumthor says “less as an individual creation…..than as a mimetic activity, derived from a need for collective participation, comparable to coral song or dance.”


  • Reading the Poetry of the Sixteenth Century by Gary Waller
  • General Introduction to Sidney, Spenser and Donne by Rina Ramdev
  • Sidney: Introduction by Novy Kapadia
  • Sir Philip Sidney “huge desire” by Anthony Low
  • Three Sidneys: Philip, Mary and Robert by Gary Waller
  • The Petrarchan Manner: An Introduction by Leonard Foster
  • Sidney: The Critical Heritage by Martin Garrett
  • The English Renaissance Identity by Alistair Fox
  • Sir Sidney Philip’s Work: School of Correspondence
  • Petrarchanism, Neo-Platonism: Wikipedia
  • The Unauthorized Orpheus of Astrophil and Stella: Maria Prendergast

7 Responses to “Pertrarchan Context in Philip Sidney’s “Astrophil and Stella””

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  2. deepak Says:

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  3. Sukirti Says:

    Its very helpful.Thanks a lot!

  4. Roxy Says:

    This is very interesting and helpful, thank you so much

  5. Asmita Says:

    Very helpful. Thankyou.

  6. rakesh Says:

    We need some introductory quotation

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