Astrophil and Stella is a sequence of sonnets and songs written by Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586). It tells the story of Astrophil (or Astrophel), whose name means star-lover, and his hopeless passion for Stella, whose name means star.
Stella and Lady Penelope Rich: the inspiration behind Sidney’s work?
The poems seem to have been inspired by Sidney’s relationship with Lady Penelope (1563–1607), of the Devereux family. When she was 14, Penelope’s father, the Earl of Essex, tried to make a match between his daughter and Sidney. But at that time nothing came of it, and Penelope was married to Robert Rich in 1581.
Nevertheless, Sidney and Penelope seem to have met at court around the time of her marriage, and his feelings for her developed – at least in poetic form. There’s no proof that they had an affair, but there are many puns suggesting that Stella is based on Lady Rich. In Sonnet 35, for example, Astrophil says ‘long needie Fame / Doth even grow rich, meaning my Stellas name’ (p. 15).
What is a sonnet?
Sonnets are rhymed 14-line poems, usually on the theme of love. They were made popular in Italy by the Renaissance poet, Petrarch, and brought to England in the mid-16th-century. English sonnets usually have an iambic pentameter rhythm – each line has ten syllables with a ti-tum, ti-tum metre.
The Elizabethan craze for sonnets
The 108 sonnets and 11 songs of Astrophil and Stella were probably written around 1582, and circulated in manuscript form amongst Sidney’s noble friends. The book was not printed until 1591, when it seems to have kick-started a craze for sonnet sequences in late Elizabethan England.
Before this, English poets such as Thomas Wyatt had produced individual sonnets. But Sidney was the first to create a longer sequence, inspiring others such as Edmund Spenser to do the same. These poems are usually voiced by a male lover, who idealises his beloved but tells us little about them, focussing instead on his own joy and pain. The beloved is unattainable, socially out of reach or – as in Sidney’s case – married.
Philip Sidney and William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare used, but also subverted, the sonnet conventions employed by Sidney and others. The ‘Dark Lady’ with ‘raven black’ eyes in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 127 seems a little like the dark-eyed Stella of Sidney’s Sonnet 7 (p. 3). Indeed, Lady Penelope Rich has been seen by some as the real ‘Dark Lady’ behind Shakespeare’s last sonnets. But, unlike Stella, Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ is described with disdain as well as admiration, and, of course, in Shakespeare’s first group the beloved is a young man. The 1609 edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is sometimes said to signal the end of the sonnet craze in England.