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February 8, 2012

Astrophil and Stella 31 by Sir Philip Sidney- Analysis

Astrophil and Stella 31 by Sir Philip Sidney- Analysis

Sidney's Astrophil and Stella is largely accepted to be an intimate portrait of Sidney and his beloved Penelope Devereux relationship. Sidney imitates Petrarch's poetic style in this series of poems. The narrator describes himself as the typical Petrarchan lover; he is obsessed with Stella because she is physically and emotionally unavailable to him. It has been reported that Sidney proposed to Penelope in 1576 but after talking about it for years, Penelope married Lord Robert Rich in 1581, thus shattering his hope to be with her. At the time, marriages amongst the elite were negotiated based on the interests of influential families, instead of on love. Stella is Latin for "star", and in this sonnet sequence Stella is supposed to be Penelope. Astrophil is derived from two Greek words meaning "star lover;" Sidney is in love with Penelope a.k.a. Stella, so he is the lover of Stella/Penelope. In Astrophil and Stella: "Sonnet 31," Astrophil finds a certain kinship with the moon, and asks the moon for love advice.

The poem begins with a scene change: the day is slowing turning to night, the sun sets and the moon rises. This change is described as being "sad," which leads us to believe that something distressing has happened that day. The narrator recognizes in the moon's ascent into the sky the same sadness and loneliness that he feels; thus the narrator feels a kinship with the moon. In symbology, the moon is "the most important heavenly body next to the sun" (Biedermann, 224). In general, the word "wan" is used to describe a humanface that is sickly, pallid, dim, or faint, but "wan" is also a way of describing the moon as being in a crescent shape; the narrator assuming that the moon must be sad/lovesick like him because it is in the shape of a crescent instead of being full is called a pathetic fallacy-the attribution of sentiment to natural phenomena, as if they were in sympathy with human feelings. The narrator wants to know that there is someone else out there that is feeling the same way he is, and the fact that it is such a powerful entity only makes him feel more justified to feel the way that he does. The moon is described as being in a heavenly place, which reminds us that in Christian iconography, the Virgin Mary is often likened to the moon or is shown as standing/ enthroned upon a lunar crescent (Biedermann, 224). The "busy archer" refers to Cupid. The narrator is both shocked and happy by the prospect that the moon also knows the pitfalls of love; Diana-the goddess of the moon-is supposed to be above human emotion.

The moon is said to affect women's feelings, so the moon has to familiar with what women want. He is asking for a female perspective on his predicament; "the moon is usually thought of as 'female,' primarily because of its passivity as the receiver of the sun's light" (Beidermann, 224). The narrator is also personifying the moon here by giving the moon "eyes," which the moon uses to see all those who are affected by love. Because the moon has this unique advantage point of both seeing and feeling love, the moon must have some very valuable insight into the narrator's plight. The narrator believes that the moon knows what it feels like to be the lover. The narrator can see the moon's lovesickness by the expression on its face, which is that of languish-to appeal for sympathy by assuming an expression of grief. He tells the moon that they are feeling the same thing.

In the name of fellowship-a group with similar interests, comradeship-the narrator wants the moon to give him a logical explanation as to why Stella acts the way she does. He wants to know if the women are scornful-an emotion involving both anger and disgust-of love in heaven as they are on earth. He begins to ask the moon a series of questions. "Is constant love deemed there but want of wit?; meaning, is love considered to be the result of a lack of intelligence. "Are beauties there as proud as here they be?: meaning, are beautiful women as proud-having or showing excessive self-esteem, arrogance, or overbearing-there as they are here? "Do they above love to be loved, and yet those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?; meaning, do the women there loved to be loved, but scorn those who love them? "Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?; meaning, do they call ungratefulness a virtue-morality, valor, merit, chastity. He wants to know if he is at fault for loving Stella or is it Stella who is being unfair and cruel. The moon doesn't answer, and the narrator is left to wonder whether or not his love for Stella is in vain.


Greenblatt, Stephen. "Astrophil and Stella 31." The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century/ The Early Seventeenth Century. Vol. B. 8th ed. Norton: New York, 2006. 980-1.

Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and The Meanings Behind Them. New York: Meridian, 1994.