Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586)

Sonnets have always been an expressive device for poets to celebrate humanism and love and deliver emotions in the early times. Forms of dialogues have been established and adopted in, between, and amongst sonnets and poets. Building dialogues in English sonnets has become a sort of tradition which dates back to Sir Thomas Wyatt’s times, in which poets often write dialogic sonnets in response to, for example, Petrarchan themes. Those dialogic sonnets have a fundamental function of showing different points of view of the ‘voices’ involved in the dialogue (Calvo & Weber, 1998).

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542)

Sir Philip Sidney has also established forms of dialogues in his sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella. In this article, I will attempt to briefly explain how different forms of dialogue, in particular, intra-sonnet dialogue and inter-poet dialogue, affect the conveyance of messages and ideas in sonnets by examining a few Sidney’s sonnets from Astrophil and Stella and sonnets by Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch).

Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586)

Intra-sonnet dialogue is one of the forms that Sidney has established in sonnets from Astrophil and Stella. Dialogues can be easily identified by quotation marks in sonnets when reading through the sequence. Sonnet 34 exemplifies intra-sonnet dialogue.

Come, let me write. ‘And to what end?’ To ease

A burdened heart. ‘How can words ease, which are

The glasses of thy daily vexing care?’

Oft cruel fights well pictured forth do please.

‘Art not ashamed to publish thy disease?’

Nay, that may breed my fame, it is so rare.

‘But will not wise men think thy words fond ware?’

Then be they close, and so none shall displease.

‘What idler thing, than speak and not be heard?’

What harder thing than smart and not to speak?

Peace, foolish Wit; with wit my wit is marred.

Thus write I while I doubt to write, and wreak

My harms on ink’s poor loss; perhaps some find

Stella’s great powers, that so confuse my mind.

(Sonnet 34, Astrophil and Stella)

It seems, at first, that the poet, Astrophil, the name which Sidney calls himself in the sequence (Alexander, 2006), is having a conversation about writing sonnets with someone. Lines in quotation marks are said by someone who opposes the poet writing sonnets. The identity of the one who talks to the poet is not revealed until line 11. The poet cannot hold himself back any longer and had an emotional outburst, “Peace, foolish wit…” (11) The sole voice opposing the poet in the sonnet is his wit, in this case, his reason.

It turns out to be that the poet is soliloquising. The wit attempts to question why the poet should write, persuade him that composing can only make him vexed, writing about his annoyance is shameful, and say that his words would be recognised as foolish by the wise. The latter the question, the sharper the attack to the poet. The poet, however, reasonably answers every question that his wit has raised. He responds to the his wit that writing is not in vain and it is just his will to do so. It, paradoxically, seems that the poet is more rational than his wit when it comes to poetry. What on earth has made the poet so confused?

The source of such chaos and confusion in mind is eventually announced to be Stella, the name of Penelope Rich, whom Sidney loves, is called in the sequence (Henderson & Mack, 2018). The dialogue between the wit and the poet has obscurely but strongly shown Sidney’s enthusiasm in poetry and intensified his ambivalence as the wit, which is the most rational part, has failed to convince him to stop composing. The conflicts between emotion and reason are further magnified by the dialogue, giving his readers a deeper understanding of the poet’s subtle sentiments for poetry and Stella, who initiates the conflicts, exemplifying the Knight’s love. Intriguingly, it can be seen that such dialogue creates a similar yet more powerful sentiment when comparing to selected verses of the poem, Guan-ju (關雎) from The Classic of Poetry (詩經).


(He sought her and found her not, And waking and sleeping he thought about her. Long he thought; oh! long and anxiously; On his side, on his back, he turned, and back again.)

Translated by James Legge (1815–1897)

(Guan-ju (關雎) in Guo-feng (國風), The Classic of Poetry (詩經))

Sidney is not only sleepless but moreover, extremely infatuated with Stella, creating an impression that the desire of love has made the poet mentally unstable. The effect of establishing such dialogue is more poetic and less noticeable and trite than that of a plain and straightforward way of describing how much the poet loves poetry and Stella.

Inter-poet dialogue is another form of dialogue which has been adopted in Astrophil and Stella. Sidney, like many other poets, is greatly influenced by Petrarch, a famous Italian poet of the Renaissance. Cousins & Howarth (2011) observe that the Petrarchan traditions have continuous impacts on poets, even on poets as separated from Petrarch in many ways. They, moreover, point out that many sonnets engage in an implicit conversation with Petrarch. In Astrophil and Stella, for instance, Stella appears as ideally beautiful and virtuous (In sonnet 3, “… in Stella’s face I read / What love and beauty be… (12 & 13)).

Let dainty wits cry on the sisters nine,

That, bravely masked, their fancies may be told;

Or Pindar’s apes flaunt they in phrases fine,

Enam’ling with pied flowers their thoughts of gold;

Or else let them in statelier glory shine,

Ennobling new-found tropes with problems old;

Or with strange similes enrich each line,

Of herbs or beasts, which Ind or Afric hold.

For me, in sooth, no Muse but one I know;

Phrases and problems from my reach do grow,

And strange things cost too dear for my poor sprites.

How then? even thus: in Stella’s face I read

What love and beauty be; then all my deed

But copying is, what in her Nature writes.

(Sonnet 3, Astrophil and Stella)

Ladies with such image often appear in Petrarch’s sonnets. Sonnet 47 from Astrophil and Stella further demonstrates the impact of a number of Petrarchan themes and how and why Sidney establishes a dialogue in response to Petrarch.

What, have I thus betrayed my liberty?

Can those black beams such burning marks engrave

In my free side? Or am I born a slave,

Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny?

Or want I sense to feel my misery?

Or sprite, disdain of such disdain to have,

Who for long faith, though daily help I crave,

May get no alms but scorn of beggary?

Virtue awake; beauty but beauty is;

I may, I must, I can, I will, I do

Leave following that, which it is gain to miss.

Let her go! Soft, but here she comes. Go to,

Unkind, I love you not. O me, that eye

Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie.

(Sonnet 47, Astrophil and Stella)

In the first two quatrains, the poet adopts rhetorical questions for five times. Each is harsher than the one before, questioning himself how he betrays liberty, is engraved by black beams (Stella’s gaze), is born to be a slave and live underneath tyranny, desires his sense to feel misery, and gets no alms but scorn. All the misfortunes are due to Stella. Such self-examination and self-accusation echo to Petrarchan themes and repertoires, which Durling (1976) lists. These traditional elements can be found in Petrarch’s Rime Sparse. In the last stanza of canzone 70, for example, “Petrarch castigates himself for his inability to pass beyond the outer beauty of the world and for his ability to concentrate at those moments when he manages to do so” (Hainsworth, 1988, 159).

Tutte le cose, di che ‘l mondo è adorno uscïr

buone de man del mastro eterno;

ma me, che cosí adentro non discerno,

abbaglia il bel che mi si mostra intorno;

et s’al vero splendor già mai ritorno, l’occhio non po’ star fermo,

così l’à fatto infermo

pur la sua propria colpa, et non quel giorno

ch’i’ volsi inver’ l’angelica beltade

nel dolce tempo de la prima etade.

(Everything with which the world’s adorned

issued pure from the eternal Maker’s hand:

but I who cannot discern how to enter in,

am dazzled by beauty shown me all around:

and whenever I turn to the real splendour,

my eyesight cannot see true,

as if it has been weakened,

through its own fault, not by the day

when I first turned towards that beauty

in the sweet season of my early youth.’)

(last stanza of Canzone 70, Rime Sparse)

A similar idea of self-accusation can be found in Petrarch’s sonnets, despite the fact that Sidney and Petrarch have different reasons for that. Lines 13 and 14 in sonnet 47 from Astrophil and Stella, “Oh me, that eye / Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie”, express the poet’s obsessive yearning for love and lovesickness, which are ideas that Petrarch frequently recapitulates.

Il Canzoniere (Rime Sparse) by Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374)

The inter-poet dialogism, which Sidney establishes, between Petrarch and himself, is distinct and has three essential functions. The first and the principal function is to give readers a more profound experience in love amongst many other themes. Such dialogue doubles and underlines the poetic effect when associating Sidney’s sequence with those of Petrarch (the influential). Sidney makes a veiled reference to classic Petrarch themes by using allusion. The use of allusion serves as a caution to admonish readers to avoid falling into the same old trap, in this case, the infatuation for beauty, love, and women. The dialogue further develops the values and understanding of love based on Petrarch’s so as to illustrate Sidney’s love towards Rich better.

The second function is making Astrophil and Stella in accord with the consensual literary norm (sounding philistine but is, de facto, significant). As aforementioned, poets, no matter before or after Sidney, tend to converse with Petrarch in their works implicitly. Establishing a dialogue with Petrarch is the mainline style of writing sonnets. The inter-poet dialogue helps popularise the sequence and make it adapted to suit the public’s taste.

The third function is to extend a salute to Petrarch, the virtuoso. Paying tributes to widely respected predecessors is often seen in modern literature. By such a form of dialogue, Sidney shows gratitude to Petrarch, who might have acted as a goad to his path of composition.

This article is solely a experimental piece to dig into the world of sonnets. Please do favour and enlighten me with your opinions!


Alexander, Gavin. (2006). Writing After Sidney: The Literary Response to Sir Philip Sidney, 1586–1640. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Calvo, Clara & Weber, Jean Jacques. (1998). The Literature Workbook. London: Routledge.

Cousins, A. D., Howarth, Peter. (2011). The Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hainsworth, Peter. (1988). Petrarch the Poet (Routledge Revivals): An Introduction to the Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta. London: Routledge.

Henderson, Diana & Mack, Michael. (2018). Gale Researcher Guide for: Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella and the 「Sonnet Craze」 of the 1590s. Detroit: GALE.

Petrarca, Francesco. (1976). Petrarch’s Lyric Poems: The Rime Sparse and Other Lyrics. (Durling, Robert M, Trans.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

於香港大學主修英語研究及翻譯,副修音樂。香港大學教育學院研究助理、文學院中文學院研究助理,大學早期音樂合奏團成員。 2018 香港學生表演藝術節木笛二重奏、2020 英國 Early Music Shop #Recorder31 比賽冠軍。獲倫敦聖三一音樂學院木笛演奏文憑 (distinction)。

於香港大學主修英語研究及翻譯,副修音樂。香港大學教育學院研究助理、文學院中文學院研究助理,大學早期音樂合奏團成員。 2018 香港學生表演藝術節木笛二重奏、2020 英國 Early Music Shop #Recorder31 比賽冠軍。獲倫敦聖三一音樂學院木笛演奏文憑 (distinction)。

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