Thursday, May 26, 2011

Required Poet: Sir Philip Sidney

This process wasn’t quite as painful as I was expecting it to be, but posting on it will most likely prove challenging as not only will I have to deal with sonnets, but the bulk of the reading for Sir Philip Sidney, when it comes to the M.A. Exam, actually comes from an essay. I almost chose the selections from The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia for my reading list, since I have actually read the whole thing, but I didn’t want to be bothered with reading Lady Mary Worth, which shares an item number with the Arcadia on the reading list. Either way, I do think my past experience with Sidney helped me when reading his The Defence of Poetry and Astrophel and Stella. Hopefully, I can pass whatever clarity I gained onto you.


Astrophel and Stella is an English sonnet sequence containing 108 sonnets and 11 songs. For the purpose of the M.A. exam, we fortunately only have to read seven sonnets and two songs. Sidney uses the Petrarchan model for the sonnets, where emotions vary from sonnet to sonnet in an ongoing yet somewhat obscure narrative. He also adopted the Petrarchan rhyme scheme, but through the use of different variations, he breaks free of the strict rhyming requirements of the Italian form.

The Defence of Poetry is an essay in which Sidney addresses the general objections to poetry, such as those of Plato. It is considered to be a significant contribution to the genre of literary criticism. His basic idea is that poetry combines the better parts of history and philosophy, therefore making it more effective than either history or philosophy in pushing the reader on towards virtue. He makes his point with comments on Plato, Aristotle, Edmund Spenser, and many references of the Bible.


For Astrophel and Stella, Astrophel (aster = star, phil = lover) is the star lover while Stella is the star. Included along with the 15 different variations of the Petrarchan rhyme scheme are the philosophical elements of the Petrarchan model with the poet contemplating love and desire. There are also thoughts from the poet on the art of poetic creation, another Petrarchan element (“Invention, nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows, / And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way. / Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,/ Bitiny my truant pen, beating myself for spite,/ Fool, said my muse to me, look in thy heart and write.”).

In his The Defence of Poetry, what Sidney is defending is poetry’s nobility and its place within the aristocratic state. His argument is that what makes poetry noble is its ability to move readers to virtuous action (“…but it is that faining notable images of vertues, vices, or what els, with that delightfull teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a Poet by.”). As I mentioned before, he comments on Plato and Aristotle, and actually uses drama as sort of the anti-poetry, since poets never claim to know the truth and do not try to manipulate the reader (according to Sidney), and drama does not deal in “honest civility” and also is not done as skillfully. Sidney also likens the poet to that of a soldier, drawing the conclusion that poetry requires some amount of courage. He also begins the argument with a horse and saddle metaphor and expands the metaphor as he continues with his defense. And of course, it is always good to throw in some references to the Bible to help your case, and when talking about poetry, Sidney goes right to the book of Psalms and its author David (“But even the name of Psalms wil speak for me, which being interpreted, is nothing but Songs: then that it is fully written in meter as all learned Hebritians agree, although the rules be not yet fully found.”).

Another prominent theme in The Defence of Poetry is its general structure as a judicial oration for an actual defense in a trial. He uses forensic rhetoric to state that poetry creates a separate reality, has a long history, and does not lie.


It has been suggested that the characters of Astrophel and Stella are based on Sidney himself and Penelope Rich, the wife of a courtier. Other critics, or course, reject this idea and believe Sidney just created a fictional persona for this set of sonnets. What is most notable about the work is that in it Sidney moved away from the strict Italian Petrarchan form and gave his distinctly English poems more freedom and variation. He took the key features of the Italian model and organized them to better for England.

It is believed that The Defence of Poetry was somewhat motivated by Stephen Gosson and his play The School of Abuse, which Gosson used to attack Sidney and imaginative literature in 1579. Its influence on the genre of literary criticism can be seen throughout history – from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to William Wordsworth, and even John Donne.

From here I would usually begin going into each individual sonnet from Astrophel and Stella, but I decided to dgo against that since they all contribute to one larger story and we are only reading seven non-sequential pieces and two songs. Also, to be completely honest, I am not sure what more I could say about them that would be at all helpful. The best thing to do at this point would be to just read them. And if you do gain anymore insights I do entreat you to please share them. We’ll need all the help we can get…

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