From Astrophel and Stella, Sir Philip Sidney
Greville Press Pamphlets, 2016 £7.50
Stilts of fear
What is it about sonnet sequences and painful love? From Petrarch to Marilyn Hacker? Of course, it’s a place to pour obsession: into crafting these tightly-woven sonnets. And a whole sequence of them provides another holding space.
Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, Wikipedia tells me, consists of ‘108 sonnets and 11 songs’. Greville Press here presents a pamphlet selection of just eight. Still, they chart an arc — as is the nature of such sequences — in this case, something like: discovery, fear, hope, ‘O JOY’ (LXIX). (Unusually for such sequences, the group selected here ends on a high — a high, with a lovely repeated ‘I, I, oh I, may say that she is mine’ — although at number 69 of 108 there’s still plenty of scope, sadly, for reversal.)
Sidney’s sequence was composed in the 1580s. The sonnets remain remarkably fresh and readable today: hot, where he’s hot; down where he’s low. I warm to this open character.
But mainly what catches my attention is the universal cycle of hope and dejection, the source of his writing inspiration: 'Fool, said my Muse to me, look in thy heart and write’ (I) — an optimistic thought perhaps, which swiftly changes to ‘While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.’ (II)
Later, things look up: he’s jumping up and down in excitement in LXXXVII — ‘Stella’ appearing in every one of the first four lines — because he’s noticed she seems miserable in his absence:
I sigh’d her sighs and wailèd for her woe,
Yet swam in joy, such love in her was seen.
These sonnets jump off the page as alive as ever they were. His hopes, his fears, his highs, his slumps.
Here's a favourite line that seems to me to capture the endless human cycle of painful, longed-for, idealised, romantic love:
‘Desire still on stilts of Fear doth go.’
How precarious. How true.