Perhaps because Sidney did not intend to publish the sonnets, they are more intimate in tone and appear more genuine than those of Petrarch or his French imitators; to Sidney's contemporaries, Astrophel and Stella seemed a revelation of the poet's soul. He puts forth his claim to sincerity in the famous phrase of the first sonnet, "look in thy heart and write,"1 and recurs to it several times.2 As the series progresses, however, the claim relapses into the conventional compliment that he writes not for fame, but because her beauty moves the pen--a theme that had helped on many a French sonneteer.
Next to this theme of the source of his inspiration, Sidney takes up the conflict between love and virtue. In view of the persistence with which it haunts him,3 this motive can be explained only by the theory that Lady Penelope was already married. Fourteen sonnets are devoted entirely to this theme, and it appears at times in others. According to the sonnets, Stella encouraged her lover to be true to his nobler self, and would pardon not even the one kiss he stole when she was asleep.4
In the first part of the series, there are several descriptions of Stella, from which it would appear that she had black eyes.5 The other details of her beauty, fair hair, white cheeks, red lips, are not
1 English Garner, i. p. 503.
2Cf. Nos. iii, xv, liv, xc, etc.
3Cf. Nos. iv, v, x, xiv, xviii, xxi, etc.
5 No. vii.
distinctive. These latter charms were familiar through the Italian and French lyrics; after Sidney, however, the English sonneteers were partial to the black eyes.
Besides the several disagreeable sonnets satirizing Lord Rich,1 the most important lyrics in the first part of the series are those built on images from the profession of arms. The tournament,2 the siege,3 skill with the quarter-staff,4 and horsemanship,5 all are vividly pictured. Probably the most charming of this class, and the best known, is the sonnet to the roadway that leads to Stella:--
"Highway, since you my chief Parnassus be."6
The last part of the series, in which Astrophel leaves Stella at her request, though she loves him--
"Stella! while now, by honour's cruel might,
I am from you,"7
has not the interest of the first part, especially as the series first was printed. With the addition of the sonnets recovered from the manuscripts, above all the noble sonnet that now ends the series in some editions,
"Leave me, O love! which reachest but to dust,"
the poet's final state of mind is made clearer and more satisfactory.
1Nos. xxiv, xxxviii, etc.
Among the non-biographical sonnets, the address to the moon1 and the prayer to sleep2 are the best known. Introduced merely for their own sake, and usually translated or borrowed from French sonnets, this decorative class of lyrics is nevertheless bound into the series both by the turns of love compliments introduced at the end, and by Sidney's personality, which is as discernible in these as it is in the biographical sonnets. The full scope of Sidney's art is not grasped until we realize with what precision he has made these decorative poems fit the mood of the lover at the stage of the sequence in which they are introduced. It is by this dramatic arrangement of his themes that he secures the most subtle unity of the lyrics, and in this success he seems to be a pioneer. It will be profitable to note how far his English successors aim for this structural skill, or attain to it.
At intervals among the sonnets of Astrophel and Stella Sidney interpolated eleven songs. In general these lyrics are considered inferior to the sonnets, with two notable exceptions. If we are to trust the autobiographical interpretation of the series, the eighth song gives explicitly the reasons why Stella rejects her suitor, and the high ideal of honor she points out for him. The meter, as well as the subject, deserves attention. It is the first important example of the trochaic tetrapody catalectic, though occasional glimpses of it have already been noted:--
"If to secret of my heart,
I do any wish impart,
Where thou art not foremost placed,
Be both wish and I defaced.
* * * * *
"Trust me, while I thee deny,
In myself the smart I try.
Tyrant Honour doth thus use thee.
Stella's self might not refuse thee!"1
The other song, remembered for its literary beauty alone, is the first:--
"Doubt you to whom my Muse these notes intendeth;
Which now my breast o'ercharged with music lendeth?
To you! to you! all song of praise is due:
Only in you, my song begins and endeth.
Who hath the eyes which marry State with Pleasure?
Who keeps the key of Nature's chiefest treasure?
To you! to you! all song of praise is due:
Only for you, the heaven forgot all measure."2
This is a fair illustration of those Elizabethan lyrics which, employing conscious effects of art, still keep some quality of spontaneous song. It is purely an art-lyric; the verbal music is sufficient of itself. It recalls the old miscellany poetry only in the device of questions and answers, which was noticed in Grimald, and is here used for every stanza. Sidney's fondness for refrains, which indeed he shares with most of his contemporaries, appears here in the unusual internal refrain of the third line. This line is really composed of two
1English Garner, i. p. 574.
2 Ibid., p. 558.
short staves, riming together. If they be taken as a single line, the stanza then has the effect of Fitzgerald's Omar quatrain. Finally, Sidney's careful workmanship is seen in the exact distribution of masculine and feminine rimes.
The importance of Astrophel and Stella lay in its intensely personal quality. This had two results: it gave Sidney's own sonnets an effect of unity, by relating them all to his passion, thus setting a standard of such unity for the sonnets that were to come; and it revived for this decade the practice of sincere self-revelation, the subjective lyric quality, which in the Petrarchan imitators had become almost confessedly a mask.