A Close Reading of Philip Sidney’s ‘Sonnet 27″

January 17, 2019 by Essay Writer

Phillip Sidney’s sonnet, ‘Because I oft, in dark abstract guise’, was published posthumously in 1591, and occurs as part of Sidney’s most critically acclaimed work, Astrophel and Stella[1]. Consisting of 108 sonnets and 8 intertwined songs, the sequence is predominantly concerned with the speaker’s emotional state during his obsessive love affair with the more passive Stella. It has been widely speculated by scholars that Astrophel acts as a parallel to Sidney, and his own captivation by the similarly unobtainable Lady Rich,[2] and the sonnet sequence has been considered a portrayal of Philip Sidney’s own thwarted love affair. In the twenty seventh sonnet, a distant Astrophel recognizes that his detached appearance is a result of his overwhelming desire for Stella, who he has preoccupied as his ‘ambition’ (1.11). By combining elements of precursor Petrarch’s style, and his own poetic variant, Sidney constructs a powerful rhetoric which succinctly captures the paradoxical states of isolation and infatuation.

In the opening lines the speakers secluded state is introduced:

‘Because I oft, in dark abstracted guise

Seem most alone in greatest company’ (l.1-2)

Plosive and consonants ‘b’, ‘d’ and ‘g’ produce sudden bursts of air, which help to pace the poem and offer an immediately abrupt, uneasy tone. Sidney’s iambic meter allows stress to fall onto the words ‘dark’ and ‘guise’, which elicit attention to themselves and provide a disturbing insight into the speaker’s mind. Additionally, the juxtaposition of ‘most alone’ whilst in the ‘greatest company’ further suggests Astrophel’s hopelessness, something immediately recognized as a typical Petrarchan convention. Sidney evokes rich imagery of the lonely, void like space where Astrophel resides.

The octave depicts rumors circulating about Astrophel’s aloofness, which are instead misjudged as ‘bubbling pride’ (l.6). When spoken aloud, the alliterative comparison of ‘pride’ and ‘poison’ (l.6) has a rather forceful effect, as the use of a trochaic inversion places two consecutive stresses together, producing an explosive effect. By negatively connotating ‘pride’, Sidney depicts the effeminate and scandalous reaction the trait would have in Elizabethan society[3]. The lexical choice ‘fawn’ is particularly striking, and appears to indicate a typical courtly action, but instead describes Sidney’s self-absorbed appearance, yet ironically it is Stella whom he is indulged by.

Sidney appears to mock the nature of rumors and how they quickly escalate and depart from the truth:

‘They deem, and of their doom the rumour flies’ (l.5)

The alliterative ‘deem’ and ‘doom’ quicken the pace of the line and increment to the rumor seemingly flying away. This evokes a sudden sense of motion, which contrasts to Astrophel’s passive state of stasis witnessed throughout the octet, and serves as a reminder that society continue to speculate despite his detachment. The use of enjambment quickens the pace and allows words to flow quickly and unconstrainedly onto the following lines, perhaps demonstrating the overwhelming effect of Stella’s presence, leaving Astrophel with ‘answers quite awry’ (l.3).

Heninger draws on biographical elements, arguing it is a gross oversimplification to read the text as a factual account of Sidney’s pursuit of Penelope Devereux[4]. However, in assuming that the sequence relates to elements of Sidney’s life, readers are able to somewhat justify reasons for the passive poetic voice in sonnet 27. Sidney was widely watched as a courtier and enjoyed many successes in the Elizabethan court, but his career did not go untroubled. Arthur Marotti argues that the sequence expresses Sidney’s frustrations at exclusion from court life, leaving many of his ambitions unfulfilled under the rein of Elizabeth I,[5] who often failed to reward Sidney for successful courier duties. It has been speculated that Sidney’s frustrations towards the court are expressed in much of his poetry, and perhaps denotes his lack of presence in the sonnet, which Jones suggests presents a sense of constraint, demonstrated by ‘repeated imagery of stagnation’[6].

Sidney is well known for experimenting with Petrarchanism, and the utilization and deviation from Petrarchan tropes are vital in describing the different emotional states that Astrophel experiences throughout the sequence. In sonnet 27, the religious use of Petrarchan meter is significant when comparing rhythm within Astrophel and Stella. Sonnet 86 is one of six sonnets written in alexandrines, and the deviation from the adhering Petrarchan meter is vital in denoting a changing mood within the sequence. Stella becomes enraged as a result of discovering Astrophel’s unwanted advances towards her, and the continual enjambment creates an uneasy rhythm as the speaker expresses confusion at Stella’s abrupt change of mood. Therefore, Sidney’s consistent use of Petrarchan meter in sonnet 27, when contrasted against the distant tone of the octet, constructs a powerful rhetoric which only enhances the sense of infatuation that Astrophel feels towards Stella. Furthermore, Gavin Alexander argues that the rigid sonnet form offers a desired discipline, which is more powerful in denoting emotion than raw and untamed passion[7].

A doting male lover is a typical feature within Petrarchan poetry. Astrophel’s poetic worship of Stella is pre-empted in the previous sonnet, where he becomes fixated on her eyes as ‘stars’.[8] This idea of wooing is continued into sonnet 27, and the assonated words ‘doom’ and ‘rumour’ add a smoothness to the lines, mirroring Astrophel’s infatuation.

Yet, Sidney does not exclusively stick to Petrarch’s model and uses 15 variants of rhyme throughout Astrophel and Stella. This sonnet is no exception of Sidney’s exploration of the mode: which attaches the much more English conclusion of a rhyming couplet, demonstrating Sidney’s ability to manipulate the form to it’s limits. Additionally, a typical Petrarchan sestet is divided into two tercets, by both thought and punctuation[9]. Sonnet 27 is remarkedly rare, in that Sidney does not make a strong break after line 11,[10] and instead runs his argument over the whole sestet, and his ability to reinterpret rather than purely reflect Petrarchan paradigms has been widely admired by critics. T

he volta at line 9 anticipates a new tone of realization as the speaker admits a bigger fault than pride: ‘ambition’ (l.11). The use of caesura slows the pace of the poem, and the speaker’s thoughts become more cohesive, highlighted by the end-stopped lines. This suggests that Astrophel’s alertness only regains when focussed on Stella, reflecting the Petrarchan trait of presenting Astrophel as being relentlessly driven by an overpowering desire. The verb phrase ‘I confess’ (l.11) provides a personal insight into Astrophel’s thoughts, a sense of intimacy which is foregrounded in the 1591 facsimile, where brackets are arranged around phrases in order for the lines to appear as follows:

‘Yet pride (I thinke) doth not my soule possess,

(Which lookes too oft in this unflattering glass)’ [11]

The brackets indicate a commentated demeanor, and imply the speakers sense of self-awareness, which is absent in the distant tone of the octave. The careless dismissal of his acquaintances as ‘to them’ (l.4) suggests a careless attitude to those around him, accentuated further by Astrophel being ‘unseen’ and ‘unheard’ (l.13) to his friends. These similarly syllabic words support the inward theme of the poem and could relate to Sidney’s withdrawal from his own social circles in 1580 leaving the court for a year due to temporary disfavour[12]. It is here that Sidney began to write his greatest works, including Astrophel and Stella and A Defence of Poesy.

Sidney provides a refreshing interpretation of Petrarch’s original model, whilst including typical tropes of desire and an unobtainable female figure. Similarly, the paradoxical states of desire and hopelessness perfectly capture Petrarchanism and create a powerful rhetoric which constructs Astrophel’s outward appearance. Sidney subtly expresses his own personal disillusionment with the Elizabethan court, allowing readers and critics an insight in Sidney’s personal life, which may have been premeditated through Astrophel’s poetic voice.

Works Cited

Alexander, Gavin ‘Writing After Sidney: the literary response to Sir Phillip Sidney 1586-1640’, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006)

Braden, Gordon. ‘Sixteenth Century Poetry; An Annotated Anthology’ (USA, John Wiley & Sons, 2004)

Duncan Jones, Katherine. ‘Sir Phillip Sidney: A critical edition of the major works’ (London, OUP Oxford, 2008)

Heninger, SK. ‘The Subtext of Form in the English Renaissance’ (USA, Pennsylvania University Press, 1994)

Hudson, Hoyt H. ‘Penelope Devereux as Sidney’s Star’ (USA, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1936)

Madsen, William G; Furniss, Todd W; Young, B Young. ‘Three Studies in the Renaissance: Sidney, Jonson, Milton.; Ben Jonson’s masques.; ‘English Petrarke: a study of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella.; The idea of nature in Milton’s poetry’, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1958)

Marotti, Arthur F. ‘“Love Is Not Love”: Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order’ ELH 40 (1982)

Sauer, Michelle M. ‘The Facts on File Companion to British Poetry Before 1600’, (New York, Infrobase Publishing, 2009)

Sidney, Phillip. ‘Astrophel and Stella’ (London: 1591), STC 22536, sig. c2v Smith, Jonathon. ‘Astrophil and Stella Sonnet 27’, Blogs Hanover Education, (2013) https://blogs.hanover.edu/astrophil/2013/07/11/astrophil-and-stella-sonnet-27/ [accessed 15th October 2018]

Whitaker, Jane. ‘An Old Arcadia: The Gardens of William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke, At Wilston, Wiltshire’, Garden History, Vol. 42, No.2 (2014)

[1] Gordon Braden, ‘Sixteenth Century Poetry; An Annotated Anthology’ (USA, John Wiley & Sons, 2004) p.357-358

[2] William G Madsen, Todd W Furniss, Richard B Young, ‘Three Studies in the Renaissance: Sidney, Jonson, Milton.; Ben Jonson’s masques.; ‘English Petrarke: a study of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella.; The idea of nature in Milton’s poetry’, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1958) p.20

[3] Michelle M Sauer, ‘The Facts on File Companion to British Poetry Before 1600’, (New York, Infrobase Publishing, 2009) p.28

[4] S.K Heninger, ‘The Subtext of Form in the English Renaissance’ (USA, Pennsylvania University Press, 1994) p.178

[5] Arthur F Marotti, ‘“Love Is Not Love”: Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order’ ELH 40 (1982) p.405

[6] Katherine Duncan Jones, ‘Sir Phillip Sidney: A critical edition of the major works’ (London, OUP Oxford, 2008) p.xii

[7] Gavin Alexander, ‘Writing After Sidney: the literary response to Sir Phillip Sidney 1586-1640’, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006) p.205

[8] Gordon Braden, Sixteenth Century Poetry; An Annotated Anthology (USA, John Wiley & Sons, 2004) p.357 [9] S.K Heninger, ‘The Subtext of Form in the English Renaissance’ (USA, Pennsylvania University Press, 1994) p.84

[10] Jonathon Smith, ‘Astrophil and Stella Sonnet 27’, Blogs Hanover Education, (2013) [accessed 15th October 2018]

[11] Philip Sidney, ‘Astrophel and Stella’ (London: 1591), STC 22536, sig. c2v

[12] Jane Whitaker, ‘An Old Arcadia: The Gardens of William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke, At Wilston, Wiltshire’, Garden History, Vol. 42, No.2 (2014) p.142

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