Cupid, Choice, and Rewriting Petrarch in the Early Sonnets of Astrophil and Stella.
It is through linking the mythology and mythography of Cupid with the issue of choice that, in the main, he enacts his agonistic ambition. At the start of Astrophil and Stella, as he concludes the first and introductory sonnet itself, Sidney has the protagonist who re-presents or personates him indicate that to write authentically of love is to write with consciousness of Petrarch; in fact, that Petrarch's Rime sparse all but offers the natural way to articulate a lover's experience. That implicit affirmation of Petrarch foregrounds Astrophil's choice to accept--if not to be bound by--the authority of his predecessor. Indeed, it serves to highlight choice and its consequences as a central concern for Astrophil and leads directly to an instance of choice crucial to his characterization. Sidney proceeds to distinguish the protagonist of his sequence from Petrarch's speaker by having Astrophil relate that falling in love with Stella was a considered decision. Yet Sidney also has Astrophil concede that his free, deliberate commitment has now subjected him to desire. Astrophil thereafter recurrently portrays his condition as a troubled submission to the dominion of the Alexandrian Cupid, depicting what becomes in effect a microcosmic and personal counterpart to etienne de La Boetie's description of a people's voluntary assent to tyrannic rule. A further and related consequence of Astrophil's choice to love, and one likewise recurring throughout Sidney's sequence as a whole, is that of exile. Astrophil's submission to the Alexandrian Cupid has not driven him from his homeland but it has nonetheless, as he frequently laments, distanced him from his true self--from his normative sense of personal identity and from his public role within the Elizabethan courtly world.
The motif of exile of course pervades the Rime sparse. (6) When Sidney deploys it, however, he both affirms and re-fashions Petrarchan precedent. For Petrarch's speaker, the motif crystallizes an emotional dislocation caused by love's sudden seizure of his consciousness. For Sidney's Astrophil, it becomes a way of imaging the psychological, social, as well as political alienation sequent upon his decision to love. Its point of entry into Astrophil and Stella occurs in the thirteenth poem and forms the climax to this crucial phase of Sidney's sequence, which is to say, within the early sonnets where Sidney establishes the dynamic of Astrophil's characterization. There Sidney has Astrophil retell the Judgement of Paris myth, focusing it now upon the Alexandrian Cupid and Stella. Yet although Astrophil shapes the myth anew in order to explicate the various disruption to his personal experience, he also does more than modernize and individuate it. In reinventing the ancient story about choice of life--choice of the direction for one's life to follow--he narrates the myth setting all his 'tale of me' (45.14) in perspective. Thereby he fulfils Sidney's ambition to create a meta-Petrarchan sequence of love poems, and the means through which he has become instrumental to the success of Sidney's rivalrous aspiration can therefore be summarized briefly in these terms. By way of the Alexandrian Cupid, Sidney re-imagines the persona of the Rime and, in addition, supplants the myth central to Petrarch's collection (the fable of Apollo and Daphne) with a myth also made his own but about choice.
Nearly one third of the way through Astrophil and Stella, in sonnet 34, Sidney's protagonist declares his determination to write and then immediately asks himself whether it makes sense to write about love at all. Pondering that question, he stages an interior debate as to whether inscribing the woes of passion will merely iterate them or transmute them into aesthetic pleasure, whether his distress may become the occasion of fame rather than of shame, whether to write for his eyes only--in order to shield the tale of his pain from potential condemnation as folly--would be futile or therapeutic (1-11). This elaborately rendered moment of self-conscious and ironic hesitancy, in which Astrophil acknowledges the contrariness of writing about wariness of self-expression, he tentatively concludes with the hypothesis that from his perplexity notional readers may be able to infer the influence and mystique of his beloved. His final words are: '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' (12-14). The impulse to write and what he writes, even when ostensibly focused on himself, bespeak Stella. At once enlarging on that speculation, in the following sonnet he identifies the preliminary and more complex question therefore besetting him. If everything he writes tells of Stella, then the question is not about his writing's purpose (as voiced in 34.1) but, rather, how to write at all about Stella--whose very name of course implies otherworldliness, an incommensurable difference and distance between herself and her suitor that are akin to those between star and star-lover.
This he suggests throughout the subsequent poem's octave:
What may words say, or what may words not say, Where truth itself must speak like flattery? Within what bounds can one his liking stay, Where nature doth with infinite agree? What Nestor's counsel can my flames allay, Since reason's self doth blow the coal in me? And ah, what hope that hope should once see day, Where Cupid is sworn page to chastity? (35.1-8)
We recognize that, so as to emphasize his bewilderment at the phenomenon that is Stella, Astrophil's questions merge the inexpressibility topos and adynata. We recognize too that his sequence of questions proceeds from the problematics of decorous speech to the problematics of decorous desire; specifically, to his wavering between what Ficino, Pico, and Castiglione would designate as contradictory ways of loving, as loving either honourably (5-6) or dishonourably (7-8). (7) We see at once, moreover, that Astrophil shapes each of the declarations forming the sonnet's sestet through dementiens. Thereby he implies (particularly with reference to the last, then first, of the octave's questions) that Stella enables the triumphant resolution of all hesitancy, all uncertainty, the transcendence of all questioning. Nevertheless, we notice two additional things here as well; and they do not merely further illumine this pair of poems but serve to elucidate Sidney's sequence as a whole.
The first of those returns us to Ficino and the second to Petrarch. In combination, they take us back to the sonnet opening Astrophil and Stella; that is to say, they help directly clarify how Sidney seeks both to naturalize the Rime sparse and to create meta-Petrarchan erotic verse in doing so. Ficino heads the third chapter of the third speech in his Commentary with the maxim that 'Love is the master and governor of the arts'. (8) By way of explanation, in that chapter he writes: '[W]hoever greatly loves both works of art themselves and the people for whom they are made executes works of art diligently and completes them exactly. In addition to these points there is the fact that artists in all of the arts seek and care for nothing else but love'. (9) He later adds: '[I]t is possible to infer the same thing, and to conclude summarily that Love is in all things, for all things. That he is the author and preserver of all things, and the lord and master of all the arts'. (10) Astrophil affirms Ficino's sententia, whether by design or otherwise, at the close of sonnet 35. He asserts: 'Wit learns in thee [Stella] perfection to express; | Not thou by praise, but praise in thee is raised; | It is a praise to praise, when thou art praised' (12-14). He endorses the dictum more famously of course in sonnet 74. The poem's octave begins with his sardonic and disingenuous concession that he 'never drank of Aganippe well' (1). The poem's sestet opens with Astrophil's asking himself, 'How falls it then, that with so smooth an ease | My thoughts I speak, and what I speak doth flow | In verse, and that my verse best wits doth please?' (9-11). The poem concludes with Astrophil's proposing, in answer to that question: 'Sure, thus it is: | My lips are sweet, inspired with Stella's kiss' (13-14). And sonnet 79, unfolding as expolitio on what it means to kiss Stella, illustrates his assertion (cf. 80.5 as well as 81.4). Ye t Astrophil's emphasis throughout sonnets 34-35 upon love alone as being 'the lord and master of all the arts' is indivisible from his simultaneous engagement with Petrarchan precedent and tradition.
Reflection on the difficulty of writing about desire recurs across--in fact, becomes a topos within--the Rime sparse. Petrarch's speaker iterates how hard it is to articulate the complexity as well as force of desire, or sometimes wonders what trying to express them might achieve. (11) For example, in 73 the persona initially says: 'Since through my destiny that flaming desire forces me to speak which has forced me to sigh always, you, O Love, who arouse me to it, be my guide, and show me the way, and tune my rhymes to my desire' (1-6). (12) He wishes indeed for love to be the master of his art. He adds, a little later:
At the beginning I thought to find, through speech, for my burning desire some brief repose and some truce. This hope gave me the daring to speak of what I feel; now it abandons me in my need and dissolves. But still I must follow the high undertaking, continuing my amorous notes, so powerful is the will that carries me away [...] At least let Love show me what to say in such a way that if it ever strikes the ear of my sweet enemy it may make her the friend, not of me, but of pity. (16-24, 28-30) (13)
He continues: 'If only that knot which Love ties around my tongue when the excess of light overpowers my mortal sight were loosened, I would take boldness to speak words at that moment so strange that they would make all who heard them weep' (79-84). (14) By way of contrast, in 247 Petrarch's speaker insists: 'It will perhaps seem to someone that, in my praise of her whom I adore on earth, my style errs in making her noble beyond all others, holy, wise, charming, chaste, and beautiful. I believe the opposite, and I am afraid that she is offended by my too humble words, since she is worthy of much higher and finer ones' (1-7). (15) These paradoxes of co-existent incapacity and empowerment, of artistic failure elaborately confessed and in the same breath therefore implicitly refuted, of lofty celebration unable nonetheless to match aspiration or desert, reveal that when Astrophil in effect indicates love to be 'the lord and master of all the arts' he appears to gesture as well towards a problem recurrent within the Rime and so towards Petrarch's magisterial presence behind his verse. The authority of Amor, as it were, and that of Petrarch seem coterminous.
Just what this means becomes clearer if we return to the first sonnet of Sidney's sequence:
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show, That she (dear she) might take some pleasure of my pain; Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know; Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain; I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe, Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain; Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburnt brain. But words came halting forth, wanting invention's stay; 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, Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite, 'Fool,' said my muse to me; 'look in thy heart, and write.'
Astrophil begins with gradatio that develops a fin' amor counterpart to the scala perfectionis of religious contemplation (1-4), thereby imaging his quest for the erotic 'grace' of his beloved (4) rather than for adumbrations of beatitude. Gradatio is a rhetorical manoeuvre that Sidney will deploy again in Astrophil and Stella, although by no means as often as he will allegory; and, in fact, Astrophil goes on to unfold an allegory incorporating a further, briefer, but also affective instance of gradatio (5-14 at 9-10). (16) The psychomachia of his creative processes then presented is a fable of 'Invention' (10)--or, inventio--that initially proffers a georgics of failed literary creation (7-8). Next, a series of complementary as well as aptly disjointed narratives fables the same phenomenon in terms of crippled movement, comic violence, unsettling intrusiveness, anguished powerlessness (9-12 seriatim). The last, climactic narrative shows Astrophil picturing himself androgynously, his self-portrayal a conventional exercise in the grotesque, since to trope male authorship as child-bearing was a topos in Renaissance literature, but one that nonetheless encapsulates comic awkwardness as well as distress and evinces his fondness for calculated displays of melodrama. The elaborate and extended fable of Invention dominating the sonnet therefore makes two quite different emphases in communicating Astrophil's struggle to articulate desire. Its virtuosic intricacy of course refutes the very failure it asserts (which coincides with what we have seen in sonnet 34). More important, despite Astrophil's apparent railing against 'artificial' invention his allegory in fact stresses the naturalness of invention whether 'inartificial' or 'artificial': so the georgic imagery and imagery of childbirth within his fable especially imply. Art, that is to say, all artifice, is natural to humankind. (17)
In the poem's final line, Astrophil stages a dramatic conclusion to his fable, an end that seems to resolve its contraries yet nonetheless emphasizes the elegant duplicity and complexity of their interplay. He announces that his 'muse' suddenly manifested herself, as if a dea ex machina, and uttered this command: '"Fool," [...] "look in thy heart, and write"' (14). The meaning of those words has been widely discussed and a number of commentators, myself included, have suggested that the muse's instruction tells Astrophil to 'look in [his] heart' for inspiration, and then 'write', because within his heart he will find the image of Stella, which will enable him to express what he truly feels (given his loving 'in truth' and being 'fain in verse [his] love to show', as he declares at the sonnet's outset). Such an interpretation seems hard to deny. Astrophil explicitly tells us in sonnet 32 that he carries the likeness of Stella in his heart (13-14). However, as I have also noted, Petrarch's speaker variously tells us across the Rime sparse that he carries Laura's image in his heart (96.5-7), that her image impresses itself on his heart (94.1-2), that Amor has planted a perfect laurel--figuring Laura--within his heart (228.1-4), and on his heart has written her name (5.1-2). (18) Astrophil's conclusion to his monologue therefore reveals his muse instructing him at once to write spontaneously and to acknowledge Petrarchan precedent. Her imperative implies that to write with true feeling is to write with mindfulness of Petrarch: that Petrarch's rhetoric of desire is virtually the natural language of love. Nevertheless, I would argue that this coup de theatre, which spectacularly but nonetheless subtly closes the introduction to Astrophil and Stella, has a much larger significance for Sidney's sequence as a whole.
For a start, it qualifies Astrophil's earlier, rueful declaration, 'And others' feet still seemed but strangers in my way' (11). That remark has no chronological boundaries; it inherently includes authors past as well as present. Thus, in sonnet 3 we see Astrophil register his lack of sympathy with some aspects of how some contemporaries write--deriding, for instance, what he dislikes about Pleiade verse or the prose of John Lyly (3-4 and 7-8). In 15 he decries contemporary English poets who without discrimination imitate others' works, or whose technique is naive (1-6), climactically condemning poets who become mere English echoes of the long-dead Petrarch (7-8). The introductory sonnet of Sidney's sequence unmistakably foreshadows, then, Astrophil's subsequent revelation of a cosmopolitan artistic rivalry with his coevals; and, in doing so, it foreshadows his cognate revelation of sensitivity at being a very belated inheritor of Petrarchan tradition. Yet in the dramatic close of the introductory sonnet Astrophil deliberately connects portrayal of himself as a lover with the Petrarchan speaker's self-portrayal in that role throughout the Rime. Astrophil's decision to establish a distinct connection between himself and Petrarch's speaker--especially since he will soon suggest his awareness of Petrarchism's long history--implies that Petrarch's verse is not among the 'strangers in [his] way'. Moreover, the calculated, theatrical conclusiveness of his decision, which mythologizes it as having the force of external compulsion, emphasizes choice itself to be an issue of moment in his self-representation.
So it immediately becomes. We have just now seen that Sidney ends the first sonnet by showing Astrophil's decision to create a parallel between himself and the speaker of the Rime. He begins the second however with suggestion of Astrophil's having decided to distinguish himself from his archetype. There Sidney begins to differentiate portrayal of his protagonist from Petrarch's characterization of his speaker, and so to initiate development of Astrophil and Stella as not merely replicative of the Rime but meta-Petrarchan. With self-conscious transgressiveness, Astrophil announces at the start of the second sonnet:
Not at first sight, nor with a dribbed shot, Love gave the wound which while I breathe will bleed: But known worth did in mine of time proceed, Till by degrees it had full conquest got. I saw, and liked; I liked, but loved not; I loved, but straight did not what love decreed: At length to love's decrees I, forced, agreed, Yet with repining at so partial lot. (2.1-8)
Commentary on those lines often and rightly notes that, by insisting his love for Stella was neither love at first sight nor involuntary, Astrophil distinguishes himself from Petrarch's speaker in the Rime. In Rime 2.5-11 and 3.3-11, for example, Petrarch's speaker confesses that Amor one day took him by surprise, unexpectedly assaulted him when he was defenceless, and overwhelmed him. Certainly, then, this familiar gloss on the sonnet's octave is true. But it does not sufficiently identify the nature and importance of Astrophil's decision, insight into which begins with remembrance of this simple fact: two decisions are set before us simultaneously. Astrophil announces that his love for Stella at first resulted from a process of judgement, from reason and passion functioning freely together. Stella's 'known worth' (3) reasonably albeit gradually generated his love for her. Astrophil thus aligns his falling in love more closely with the workings of right reason than with those of unreason. (19) Choosing to recount the origins of his love for Stella in such a way, Astrophil at the same time gives his 'tale of me' a point of departure divergent from Petrarch's opening narrative in the Rime.
Yet how he positions himself there in relation to Petrarch also forms part of a diverse interaction--whatever his degree of intent--with various Renaissance fictions and philosophies of love. Astrophil does not significantly disagree with Petrarch alone, for instance. Ficino asserts in his Commentary: '[L]overs do not know what they desire or seek, for they do not know God Himself, whose secret flavour infuses a certain very sweet perfume of Himself into his works'. (20) On the other hand, Astrophil agrees with Ficino's proposition that 'love is free, and arises of its own accord in free will'. (21) Hence he concurs too with Pico on love as free choice (Commentary, pp. 101-02). While contradicting Ficino on the ignorance of lovers, moreover, he agrees with Cardinal Bembo in The Courtier, who says: '[Since] our desire is only for things that are known, knowledge must always precede desire, which by its nature turns to the good but in itself is blind and does not know the good'. (22) Astrophil's conspicuous denial of Petrarch's authority is therefore at the same time an interaction with later, influential theorists of love who were themselves interacting, at least in part, with the authority of Petrarch. He then ends his tacit dialogue with current (if not contemporaneous) thought on passion, knowledge, and freedom of choice by conceding that he has become a prisoner of the choice he freely made.
As we have seen, although Astrophil declares near the start of sonnet 2 that he has become a victim to Cupido Victor, for 'Love gave the wound' (2), straight after his declaration he makes clear that his wound is actually self-inflicted. (23) Thus if '[a]t length to love's decrees [he], forced, agreed' (7), it was in obedience to the desire generated by a personal decision--one made in light of Stella's 'known worth' (3), her established and acknowledged merit. Thereupon, nonetheless, Astrophil laments not that his own decision wounded him but that it effected his irrevocable subjugation. He suggests, in the ensuing account of his decision's consequences, that he has moved far past even lamenting loss of freedom, for 'now like slave-born Muscovite | [he calls] it praise to suffer tyranny' (10-11). This admission has several implications. Among them, first, we recognize Astrophil's complaint at enslavement by the Alexandrian Cupid to be complaint at subjection to his own passion. Further, we recognize Astrophil to be describing private experience that has significant affinities with--and contrasts to--etienne de La Boetie's portrayal of what he called voluntary servitude, that is, a people's willing assent to tyrannic government.
Not long after the opening of his tract, La Boetie writes: 'It is the people who enslave themselves, who cut their own throats, who, when they have the choice of being either free men or slaves, give up their freedom and take up the yoke if they accept their ill, or rather pursue it'. (24) La Boetie there describes a nation's entry upon subjection to tyrannic rule as political suicide; as he relates it, 'the people' mortally injure themselves when choosing to lose their freedom--for they do indeed voluntarily abandon it. Through the process of judgement from which has resulted his love for Stella, Astrophil tells us, he has at once irremediably injured himself and made a choice initiating loss of personal freedom. But his situation is clearly worse than that of 'the people' as described by the French writer. National self-enslavement, as La Boetie would picture acceptance of and obedience to rule by a single individual, can be repudiated. A nation can choose to recover its liberty. La Boetie sums up this notion with the words, 'Resolve no longer to be slaves and you are free!'. (25) For Astrophil, on the contrary, both freedom and the very wish for it are gone (2.10-11, quoted above). That is a phenomenon La Boetie understands:
It is unbelievable how people, once they are subjected, fall so quickly into such a deep forgetfulness of freedom that it is impossible for them to reawaken and regain it; they serve so freely and so willingly that you would say to see them that they had not lost their liberty but won their servitude. It is true that in the beginning one serves, constrained and defeated by force; but those that come after serve without regret, and do willingly what those who came before did under constraint. (26)
Nevertheless, Astrophil has made clear just how far his privately experienced servitude differs from its civic counterpart as theorized by his contemporary.
Although concerned to advance the proposition that citizens voluntarily enter into collective political servitude and can likewise voluntarily repudiate it, La Boetie offers no very detailed rendition of the processes through which a nation might abandon or could regain liberty. We expect Astrophil however to be closely focused on the mechanisms of voluntary servitude because, after all, he writes about personal experience from within the Petrarchan tradition (which prioritizes obsessive self-analysis)--and so he is. Thus, whereas La Boetie broadly juxtaposes the concepts of national freedom as willingly lost and of national freedom as recoverable by an act of will, Astrophil attentively recreates the stages that marked his loss of personal liberty. Further, he reveals this loss to have been a paradoxical phenomenon, and one in which the voluntary merged with the involuntary. In sonnet 2 for example, as we have seen, Astrophil says: 'I loved, but straight did not what love decreed: | At length to love's decrees, I, forced, agreed, | Ye t with repining at so partial lot. | Now even that footstep of lost liberty | Is gone' (6-10). Astrophil's irony becomes more insistent--the aristocratic sdegno directed against himself intensifies--as his narrative of diminishing control over his own life unfolds. Fully aware of the self-contradictoriness to which he admits, in other words, Astrophil reports that he fell voluntarily in love and at the same time declined to accept the subservience obviously as well as necessarily consequential upon his choice--thereupon unwillingly accepting it and at the last delighting in utter servitude. This has been, he thereby clearly implies, a trajectory towards self-created, self-enforced enslavement.
If there were any doubt that Astrophil portrays his devotion to Stella as an enslavement begun in paradoxical interplay between the voluntary and the involuntary, or that he uses the Alexandrian Cupid to figure the force of love not as some terrible, external power suddenly imposing itself on his life but as an irruption within his life at once generated by him and understood yet also underestimated by him, sonnet 5 resolves it. There Astrophil implicitly affirms all those things by conceding: 'It is most true, what we call Cupid's dart, | An image is, which for ourselves we carve; | And, fools, adore in temple of our heart, | Till that good god make church and churchmen starve' (5-8). Further, in affirming them, Astrophil's words harmonize with this maxim by Calvin on idols and idolatry: '[M]an tries to express in his work the sort of God he has inwardly conceived. Therefore the mind begets an idol; the hand gives it birth'. (27) Astrophil's demythologizing of the Alexandrian Cupid in this quatrain from the fifth sonnet, with its iconoclastically Protestant temper, thus does indeed emphasize his departure from Petrarch (as from La Boetie). One could add that it also ironically albeit obliquely supports Ficino's notion that 'love is the lord and master of all the arts'. Even though it denigrates what Ficino too condemns as a perversion of love--mere sensual desire--and calls amor ferinus, 'love' of that kind is what impels the poem and with what, for all his awareness of virtuous alternatives to amor ferinus, Astrophil finally associates himself. (28) Of more immediate pertinence here is however the fact that Astrophil's iconoclastic desacralizing of Cupid indicates both critique of Petrarch's authority and endorsement of it on his own terms.
I have mentioned above that Petrarch's speaker, when describing his innamoramento, insists on the involuntariness of his desire. He iterates a narrative of ambush, assault and conquest by Amor, suggesting that he was unexpectedly stricken with love as if it had been visited upon him by some irresistible, external force. Here one could again cite Rime sparse 2 and 3, and add the striking sixty-first sonnet with its series of blasphemously parodic beatitudes (61.1, 5, 9, 12; cf. 13.5-8). Astrophil's counter-narrative, just now discussed, insists on his love for Stella as directly although not immediately the result of knowledge, judgement, and free choice, yet as nonetheless proceeding at once to entwine the voluntary with the involuntary. Whereas Petrarch's speaker depicts himself, then, first in the role of victim to Amor and thereupon in that of love's martyr (the latter exemplified by 133.1-4 and 9-11), Astrophil at first repudiates the passivity of Petrarch's speaker only soon to re-enact it after his own fashion. To put this more comprehensively: his assertion of autonomy inasmuch as he chooses--at least, initially--to love, which is at the same time a statement of independence from the foundational portrayal of Petrarch's speaker in the Rime and an implicit criticism of it, leads nonetheless to a self-depiction akin (if not identical) to that displayed by his predecessor. Like Petrarch's speaker, he proceeds to reveal a pervasive consciousness of subjection, abjection, and conviction of sin. The last of those appears in the Rime as an intermittent mindfulness of cupiditas (so 62 makes clear, for instance, along climactically with 365-66), and in Astrophil and Stella as a recurrent awareness of concupiscentia--what might be called the Calvinist counterpart to cupiditas (so 5.5-8 make clear along with, for example, 71-72, passim). Elemental to Astrophil's sense of himself as a lover, in fact, essential to Sidney's characterization of him in the early sonnets of Astrophil and Stella, are choice and the contamination of choice, which is to say, exploration via the Alexandrian Cupid of freedom and constraint, of reason's assertiveness and yet powerlessness, of aspiration intricately aware of its own delusive heroics and twinned with consciousness that multifaceted loss must be its price.
The dynamic of Astrophil's characterization thus established in the very early poems of Sidney's sequence soon after receives its most elaborate formulation in sonnet 13. There, as was mentioned above, Sidney has Astrophil rewrite the Judgement of Paris myth so as to concentrate it upon the Alexandrian Cupid and Stella. Reinventing one of the best-known ancient myths about choice of life, Astrophil shapes a miniature narrative that explicates what he will subsequently represent as love's multifarious disruption of his personal experience. This is therefore a sonnet resonant throughout the rest of Astrophil and Stella, offering in effect the mythic narrative that informs Astrophil's consequent accounts of himself. Thereby the poem fulfils Sidney's ambition to create a meta-Petrarchan sequence of love poems, for in reinventing the ancient story about choice of life Astrophil discards the myth set at the heart of Petrarch's Rime sparse, namely, the fable of Apollo and Daphne. According to Astrophil:
Phoebus was judge between Jove, Mars, and Love, Of those three gods, whose arms the fairest were. Jove's golden shield did eagle sables bear, Whose talents held young Ganymede above: But in vert field Mars bare a golden spear Which through a bleeding heart his point did shove. Each had his crest: Mars carried Venus' glove, Jove on his helm the thunderbolt did rear. Cupid then smiles, for on his crest there lies Stella's fair hair, her face he makes his shield, Where roses gules are borne in silver field. Phoebus drew wide the curtains of the skies To blaze these last, and sware devoutly then, The first, thus matched, were scarcely gentlemen.
This is, I suggest, the poem in Sidney's sequence that most distinctly illuminates Astrophil's lament, 'I am not I, pity the tale of me' (45.14).
Fulgentius had interpreted the Judgement of Paris as an allegory about choosing whether to pursue a life centred on political power, or on wisdom, or on sensual pleasure--the gifts offered to Paris, as we know, respectively by Juno, Minerva, and Venus. Many later mythographers, including Sidney's contemporary, Natale Conti, would concur. (29) Sidney has Astrophil alter the story's cast and focus, fashioning a completely masculinized version of the myth in which the contest, although still connected with choice of life, is immediately over possession of the finest chivalric equipage rather than possession of pre-eminent female beauty. All the participants in his version are gods. Now, Jove replaces Juno (and again symbolizes political dominion), Mars replaces Minerva (symbolizing military prowess, an attribute shared with the goddess), and Cupid replaces Venus (while continuing to symbolize the power of love). Apollo now judges the contest since he has the capacity, being god of poetry, to confer eternal fame on whom he chooses as winner (13.12-13). By imagining the contest as among those male divinities and over pre-eminence of self-representation, Astrophil focuses the allegorical significance of the myth correlatively on masculine choice of life and public status: the public status attendant upon pursuing one masculine way of life rather than another.
That focus allows Astrophil to devalue pursuit of political or military success--and to do so with divergent consequences. He has Jove represent himself in terms evoking the rape of Ganymede: heraldic imagery suggesting the god's exercise of irresistible misrule in order to gratify illicit desire. Astrophil has Mars represent himself through reference to his adulterous affair with--in other words, his conquest by--Venus (Venus Victrix): a personal and dishonourable defeat. What the two gods publicly proclaim about themselves demeans them. Stella, whose presence makes Astrophil's fable at once contemporaneous and personally relevant, therefore becomes the determinant of triumph within it. Like Cupid, she too displaces Venus; further, her unflawed beauty empowers the Alexandrian Cupid to supplant his rivals and gain victory. Stella confers honour on Cupid, then, which of course means that loving Stella confers honour on Astrophil. The latter in fact implicitly denies either political or military pursuits the ability to bestow transcendent prestige; that, he contradictorily implies, derives alone from love for Stella, who embodies perfection. One consequence of Astrophil's metamorphosing the Judgement of Paris into the Judgement of Apollo, and thence devaluing pursuit of status via the political or the military, is thus hyperbolic praise of Stella, which is to say, the conferring of honour on her. Indeed, near his fable's end Astrophil tells of Apollo immortalizing, perhaps stellifying, the personal beauty of Stella and maybe the Devereux arms (12-13). Yet evidently there is an accompanying consequence. If a direct result of Astrophil's refocusing the Judgement of Paris is that he simultaneously eulogizes Stella and legitimizes his complete devotion to her, an indirect result is that he indicates how his obsession with her has reduced as well as enhanced his life.
It is through the figure of Apollo that Astrophil both concludes his praise of Stella and nevertheless suggests how his love for her has lessened his existence. True, Apollo adjudicates the fable's contest among the gods in favour of Cupid because of Stella's unique beauty; and, true again, the god of poetry honours Stella by glorifying her beauty among the stars. We see him provide justification for Astrophil's being preoccupied with her alone. We recognize however that, in this fable, Apollo is not merely Astrophil's re-creation; he is also a surrogate for Astrophil. Honouring Stella, setting her praise across the skies, he does either what Astrophil himself actually does or what Astrophil seeks metaphorically to do: he enacts what has now in fact become Astrophil's vocation. Moreover, his disdain of the equipage borne by Jove and Mars (13-14) anticipates and justifies what Astrophil will proceed to reveal as his own apparent distraction from, if not disdain for, pursuits political or military. Those pursuits are, Astrophil emphasizes throughout subsequent poems, elemental to a contemporary male courtier's public role and therefore expected to be priorities in his performance of that role although, as he makes clear, they are not. Through Apollo's refusal to honour Jove and Mars, Astrophil indicates that his love for Stella now diminishes his successful participation, much less achievement of pre-eminence, in the actual business of courtiership. Now he courts her in what for him has almost become a self-imposed isolation from the wider concerns of courtly life.
Astrophil's depiction of himself as the courtier who has sacrificed nearly all for love--whose choice to love has set him apart to varying degrees from his fellows and their professional preoccupations--features prominently throughout the sonnets that follow his recounting the Judgement of Apollo. In sonnets 18, 21, 23, and 27, for example, he variously acknowledges alienation from his own intellectual talents, his political responsibilities as a member of an aristocratic family, and his social environment at court. (30) Yet there is, as we might well foresee, an artful disingenuousness to his confessions of personal and public failure. Here one could cite sonnet 30 by way of illustration, a poem specifically political in its emphasis. Throughout the majority of the poem, Astrophil reveals his alertness to European matters of state before going on to suggest distracted indifference to them. (31) He is careful to intimate, when registering near-obliviousness, that his views are sought out by those more ostensibly concerned with politics than is he. 'These questions [on momentous current affairs] busy wits to me do frame', he says (12). Thus his self-deprecatory last words, in which he declares he 'know[s] not how' he responds to queries about politics (14), imply not his ineptness as a courtier but the talent that his devotion to Stella has suppressed ('for still I think of you', he tells her at the end of the poem's final line). One could add that, in sonnet 107, Astrophil deftly uses political terms when asking Stella to release him for a while from his duties to her, so that--it seems--he may pursue politics other than those of courtship. (32)
Similarly but not identically ambivalent is Astrophil's portrayal of his chivalric military skills and prowess as exhibited at jousts. He depicts himself throughout sonnet 41 in the role of victorious knightly hero: to be a courtier embodying chivalric triumph. Like some hero of romance, according to his narrative, he has achieved a success attributable to the 'heavenly' influence of his beloved, who here is Stella, his own fortunate star (12-14). By contrast, in sonnet 53 Astrophil relates that on another occasion he was altogether disempowered by the distracting, overwhelming beauty of his beloved. Then, he says, the Alexandrian Cupid jealously asserted lordship over him when he was acting with success '[i]n Mars's livery' (6) and ordered him to look at Stella, whereupon Astrophil was instantly stupefied by her supranatural beauty (8-13), rendered hors de combat and therefore militarily humiliated in her sight. This mock-heroic tale of failure accords with his pervasive complaints in other sonnets that Stella has conquered him, that whether as a type of Venus Victrix or of Petrarch's 'sweet warrior' (Rime sparse, 21.1-2) she has gained dominion over him. Sonnet 29, for example, shows Astrophil deploying an analogy at once political and military whereby he can describe Stella's heart as having allied itself with the Alexandrian Cupid in order to preserve its liberty, which has consequently effected his utter and hopeless overthrow (13-14). Astrophil may be now inspired to chivalric distinction, or now denied it, by his love for Stella, but he is always conquered by and subject to her.
Astrophil's Judgement of Apollo forms an explanatory preface to those accounts of statecraft foregone, of chivalric glory and humiliation interlinked, because it allegorizes his freely chosen commitment--freely chosen at first--to a life focused on desire for Stella rather than on pursuits political or military: priorities metonymic of the courtier's public role, his engagement with the business of courtiership. As we have seen, although Astrophil thus emphatically gives courtship precedence over courtiership in his fable, he carefully ensures thereafter that we understand his reflections on the consequences of his choice to unfold a 'tale of me' wherein failures follow from obsession, from distractedness, rather than from any want of gifts. Yet the shrewdness of Astrophil's individuated myth about his choice of how to live, and the significance of its early placement within Sidney's poetic sequence, lie perhaps most clearly in the fact that Astrophil's service to the Alexandrian Cupid itself results not just in failure but failure without end. In sonnet 72, Astrophil soliloquizes on the inseparability of carnal and spiritual desire in his devotion to Stella--on that internecine struggle in a male lover's consciousness identified by Petrarch's speaker as conflict between caritas and cupiditas or, by Ficino, between amor honestus and amor ferinus. (33) When, straight afterwards in the Second Song, Astrophil dramatizes his seizing a chance to make physically sexual contact with Stella and steal a kiss from her while she is asleep, he concludes with self-condemnation for timorous restraint (21-28). No hope of future and further consummation will be realized from that moment onwards. If Astrophil's spiritual love for Stella will find gratification in his adoring her as a donna angelica (indicated across the seventh and eighth songs), his physical desire for her will remain endless and unfulfilled (so the ninth song suggests, for instance, along with sonnet 108). His choice to serve the Alexandrian Cupid leads to self-division and, ultimately, incompletion.
The Judgement of Apollo clarifies, then, Astrophil's lament, 'I am not I, pity the tale of me', inasmuch as that metamorphosed myth of personal choice allows us to appreciate, when reading the interlaced reflections and narratives subsequent to it, how Astrophil becomes distanced from his normative sense of individual identity and his public role within the Elizabethan courtly world. Petrarch's speaker in the Rime had proposed that to love unrequitedly is to journey into exile. Ficino had later agreed, asserting that a lover's soul, spirit and even body all go into exile of a kind, since they are driven by desire from their customary courses: the lover's personal experience of exile is, in other words, total. (34) Astrophil insistently if not invariably images himself as estranged from the Elizabethan court, where not the Queen but Stella is his prime object of desire (cf. 107.9-10). He tends to portray himself as displaced from the court even though within it--often, as if in a self-imposed internal exile. Further, because it is not the myth of Apollo and Daphne but another fable of Apollo that most comprehensively illuminates Sidney's protagonist, we recognize the astuteness with which Sidney displaces Petrarch himself within Astrophil and Stella and thereby fulfils his aspiration to create a meta-Petrarchan sequence of sonnets. It is in the early sonnets of his sequence, one could not unreasonably suggest, that we come to understand Sidney's predominant tactics for engaging with the Rime sparse by way of imitating, affirming, and yet supplanting Petrarch.
(1) Reference to Astrophil and Stella is to Sir Philip Sidney: The Major Works, ed. by Katherine Duncan-Jones (1989; repr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 153-211. I have also consulted: The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. by William A. Ringler, Jr (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962); Sir Philip Sidney: Selected Writings, ed. by Richard Dutton (1987; repr. New York: Routledge, 2002). Pertinent discussions of Sidney include: Katherine Duncan-Jones, Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1991), pp. 230-47; Roland Greene, Post-Petrarchism: Origins and Innovations of the Western Lyric Sequence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), pp. 63-108; Ilona Bell, Elizabethan Women and the Poetry of Courtship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 16-21; Tom W. N. Parker, Proportional Form in the Sonnets of the Sidney Circle: Loving in Truth (Oxford: Clarendon Press,1998), pp. 35-85; Edward Berry, The Making of Sir Philip Sidney (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), pp. 102-41; Christopher Warley, Sonnet Sequences and Social Distinction in Renaissance England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 72-100; Robert E. Stillman, Philip Sidney and the Poetics of Renaissance Cosmopolitanism (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), pp. 139-40; Jane Kingsley-Smith, Cupid in Early Modern Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 36-37, 153-56; Ulrich Langer, Lyric in the Renaissance from Petrarch to Montaigne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 15-48; Richard McCabe, Ungainefull Arte: Poetry, Patronage, and Print in the Early Modern Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 23-24, 65-66.
(2) See Anne Vaughan Lock, The Collected W orks, ed. by Susan M. Felch (Tempe: ACMRS, 1999), pp. 62-71.
(3) Thomas Watson, Hekatompathia, ed. by Edward Arber (Birmingham: Arber, 1870). See, representatively, passions 5 and 75-79.
(4) On imitation and rivalry in the theory and practice of Renaissance art, see: Rona Goffen, Renaissance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), pp. 3-66; Frederick Ilchman, 'Venetian Painting in an Age of Rivals', in Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance V enice, ed. by Frederick Ilchman (Boston: MFA Publications, 2009), pp. 21-39; Alison Cole, Italian Renaissance Courts: Art, Pleasure, Power (London: Laurence King, 2016), pp. 140-44. See also: Philip Hardie, Rumour and Renown: Representations of Fama in W estern Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 439-84, 523-37; David Mayernik, The Challenge of Emulation in Art and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2016), pp. 15-48.
(5) Reference to the Rime is to Petrarch's Lyric Poems: The Rime sparse and Other Lyrics, trans. and ed. by Robert M. Durling (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976). For accounts of Sidney's dealings with Petrarch and Petrarchism, other than the account offered here, see especially in addition to Greene and Langer (cited above): Anne Ferry, The 'Inward' Language: Sonnets of W yatt, Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), pp. 119-69, chiefly at 127-39; Heather Dubrow, Echoes of Desire: English Petrarchism and Its Counterdiscourses (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), pp. 99-107. See, further, Michael J. Giordano, The Art of Meditation and the French Renaissance Love Lyric: The Poetics of Introspection in Maurice Sceve's Delie, object de plus haulte vertu (1544) (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), pp. 4-5, 32-41, 289-94.
(6) For example, Rime 17, 23, 35, 37, 45, 130.
(7) Marsilio Ficino, Commentary on Plato's Symposium on Love, introd. and trans. by Sears Jayne (Woodstock: Spring Publications, 1985), p. 54. Ficino, Commentaire sur Le Banquet de Platon, de L'Amour / Commentarium in Convivium Platonis de amore, ed. and trans. by Pierre Laurens, 2nd edn (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2012), pp. 41, 43. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Commentary on a Canzone of Benivieni, trans. by Sears Jayne (New York: Peter Lang, 1984), pp. 128-29; Pico, Commento sopra una canzone d'amore, ed. by Paolo de Angelis (Palermo: Novecento, 1994), pp. 73-74; Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, ed. by Daniel Javitch, trans. by Charles Singleton (New York: Norton, 2002), pp. 251-52; Castiglione, Il Cortegiano, or The Courtier, ed. and trans. by A. P. Castiglione, 2nd edn (London: Boyer, 1727), pp. 435-37. Subsequent references to Ficino, Pico, and Castiglione are to these editions.
(8) Ficino, Commentary, p. 66. In the Commentarium, 'Amor est magister artium et gubernator', p. 57.
(9) Commentary, p. 66. 'Artis [...] opera diligenter exequitur atque exacte consumat, quicumque et artificia ipsa et personas quibus illa fiunt, maxime diligit. Accedit ad hec quod artifices in artibus singulis nihil aliud quam amorem inquirunt et curant' (Commentarium, p. 59).
(10) Commentary, p. 67. 'Idem in ceteris artibus coniectari licet, atque summatim concludere amorem in omnibus ad omnia esse, omnium auctorem seruatoremque existere et artium uniuersarum dominum et magistrum' (Commentarium, p. 61).
(11) Rime 1, 5, 18, 20, for instance, establish and work early variations on those themes. See also, representatively: 125, 131, 252, 268, 354.
(12) 'Poi che per mio destino | a dir mi sforza quell'accesa voglia | che m'a sforzato a sospirar mai sempre, | Amor, ch' a cio m'invoglia, | sia la mia scorta e 'nsignimi 'l camino | et col desio le mie rime contempre'.
(13) 'Nel cominciar credia | trovar parlando al mio ardente desire | qualche breve riposo et qualche triegua; | questa speranza ardire | mi porse a ragionar quel ch' i' sentia, | or m'abbandona al tempo et si dilegua. | Ma pur conven che l'alta impresa segua | continuando l'amorose note, | si possente e 'l voler che mi trasporta, | [...] Mostrimi almen ch' io dica | Amor in guisa che, se mai percote | gli orecchi de la dolce mia nemica, | non mia ma di pieta la faccia amica'.
(14) 'Solamente quel nodo | ch' Amor cerconda a la mia lingua quando | l'umana vista il troppo lume avanza | fosse disciolto, i' prenderei baldanza | di dir parole in quel punto si nove | che farian lagrimar chi le 'ntendesse'.
(15) 'Parra forse ad alcun che 'n lodar quella | ch' i' adoro in terra, errante sia 'l mio stile | faccendo lei sovr' ogni altra gentile, | santa, saggia, leggiadra, onesta et bella. | A me par il contrario, et temo ch' ella | non abbia a schifo il mio dir troppo umile, | degna d'assai piu alto et piu sottile'.
(16) Other occurrences of gradatio notably include: 2.5-7; 44.1-4; 74.9-11.
(17) After all, 'artificial' invention may have 'study' as its 'step-dame' but it is nevertheless, as we are told, the 'child' of nature (10). In other words, it is the offspring of human nature nurtured--or in this case notionally (yet actually not) impeded--by the educative processes themselves born of human culture. 'Art is man's nature', as Edmund Burke remarks in his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (in The Works of Edmund Burke, 8 vols (London: Bohn, 1854-89), iii, 86).
(18) Cf. Ficino's Commentary, p. 129 and Commentarium, p. 171.
(19) On the concept of right reason see especially Robert Hoopes's classic, Right Reason in the English Renaissance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), pp. 1-33 and 123-45.
(20) Commentary, p. 52. '[Q]uid cupiant aut querant amantes ignorant, deum namque ipsum ignorant, cuius sapor occultus odorem quemdam sui dulcissimum operibus suis inseruit' (Commentarium, p. 37).
(21) Commentary, p. 97. 'Amor [...] liber est ac sua sponte in libera oritur uoluntate' (Commentarium, p. 115).
(22) Book of the Courtier, p. 243. 'amor non e altro, che un certo desiderio di fruir la bellezza; & perche il desiderio non appetisce, se non le cose conosciute, bisogna sempre che la cognition preceda il desiderio, il quale per sua natura vuole il bene, ma da se e cieco, & non lo conosce' (Il Cortegiano, p. 421).
(23) Stella is assigned the role of Venus Victrix in subsequent poems, such as 36 and 42 (where, as elsewhere, she also appears in the role of donna angelica). See also 85-86.
(24) Reference is to Etienne de La Boetie, Discourse on V oluntary Servitude, trans. by James B. Atkinson and David Sices, introd. and annot. by James B. Atkinson (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2012), p. 6. Reference to the French original is to La Boetie, De la servitude volontaire ou le contr'un, annot. by M. Coste and introd. by F. de la Mennais (Paris: Daubree et Cailleux, 1835). In this case: 'C'est le peuple qui s'asservit, qui se coupe la gorge: qui ayant le chois d'estre sujet, ou d'estre libre, quitte sa franchise, et prend le joug, qui consent a son mal, ou plustost le pourchasse' (p. 72).
(25) Discourse, p. 8.'Soyez resolus de ne servir plus, et vous voila libres' (De la servitude, p. 77).
(26) Discourse, p. 13. 'Il n'est pas croyable, comme le peuple, deslors qu'il est assujetty, tombe soudain en un tel et si profond oubly de la franchise, qu'il n'est pas possible qu'il s'eveille pour la r'avoir, servant si franchement, et tant volontiers, qu'on diroit a le voir, qu'il a, non pas perdu sa liberte, mais sa servitude. Il est vray, qu'au commencement l'on sert contraint, et vaincu par la force: mais ceux qui viennent apres, n'ayans jamais veu la liberte, et ne sachans que c'est, servent sans regret, et font volontiers ce que leurs devanciers avoyent fait par contrainte' (De la servitude, p. 89).
(27) John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John T. McNeill and trans. by Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1.11.8. See also, Calvin, Institutio christianae religionis (London: Thomas Vautrollerius, 1576): '[Q]uod homo qualem intus concepit Deum, exprimere opere tentat. Mens igitur idolum gignit: manus parit'. In Institutes 2.3.5 Calvin reflects, by way of Bernard, on the notion of voluntary servitude ('voluntariae cuiusdam servitutis') but his psychology of choice differs markedly from that indicated by Sidney's Astrophil and La Boetie, since he effectively denies that freedom of choice exists.
(28) On amor ferinus see Commentarium, 7.3, passim.
(29) Fulgentius the Mythographer, trans. by Leslie George Whitbread (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971), pp. 64-67. Natale Conti, Mythologiae, trans. and annot. by John Mulryan and Steven Brown, 2 vols (Tempe: ACMRS, 2006), ii, 554-62. Here, and at some points in later paragraphs, I revise and develop earlier work of mine on Sidney.
(30) Compare, especially: 18.5-11; 21.5-11; 23.5-11; 27.1-8.
(31) In verses 9-10 he pointedly alludes to the term that Sidney's father spent as Lord Deputy Governor of Ireland, referring to 'my father' (10) and so gesturing towards his role as a mask for, or re-presentation of, Sidney.
(32) See, in particular, lines 1-8 and the reference to 'this great cause' (8).
(33) Rime sparse at, for example, 365-66 with Commentarium respectively 2.7 and 7.3. With 72, compare 76.13-14.
(34) Ficino, Commentary, p. 123 and Commentarium, 6.9 ('Quisque istorum naturali amisso exulat domicilio').
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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