“Fit Words to Paint”: The Rhetoric of Courtship and Courtiership in Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella

By Joe AlbernazHumanities, Cycle 1, 2010



This article examines the types and uses of rhetoric in Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence “Astrophil and Stella.” Astrophil’s rhetoric is informed by his roles as a courtier and lover, the two roles that define him. Rhetorical skill was an essential part of both of these spheres; navigating the court of a king (or queen, in Sidney’s case) and courting a lady both required skill in persuasion. Rhetoric works on more than one level in Asrophil and Stella, however, as Astrophil the character and Sidney the poet have different motives. This paper also examines Sidney’s philosophy on the nature of dialectic and poetry (referencing ideas from Sidney’s treatise “Defence of Poesy”), and how they relate to rhetoric and “Astrophil and Stella.”


One of the most intense and ongoing scholarly debates regarding Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella is concerned with exactly how much, if any, of the sequence is autobiographical (such biographical criticism is not uncommon with regard to Elizabethan sonneteers; the degree of autobiography in Shakespeare’s sonnets is also thoroughly questioned and debated). While proponents of the Sidney-as-Astrophil view point to the clever nominal puns (the most salient being Phil-Astrophil, and the numerous puns on the word “rich” – the married name of Penelope Devereux, a supposed love interest of Sidney’s) and apparent references to events in Sidney’s life, other critics have warned readers of Sidney to be cautious in such areas. They argue that a heavily biographical reading of Astrophil and Stella has scant historiographical evidence and “den[ies] negative capability” on Sidney’s part. Tom Parker goes so far as to decry the “fantastic projection” of scholars who equate the failed romance of Astrophil and Stella to that of Sidney and Lady Rich (Hager 63; Parker 21). Whatever the true nature of his relationship with the historical Sidney, the character Astrophil was indubitably a courtier like his creator, as he makes references to his noble birth in a number of the sonnets (among other such clues). As such, I would like to have my discussion and analysis of the rhetoric in Astrophil and Stella filtered through this paradigm of courtiership. This will allow us to keep in mind the relevance of not only the environment in which Sidney wrote, but also the environment in which he places Astrophil.

Taking advantage of the poetic and rhetorical tools that were afforded him given his role as a courtier, Sidney’s Astrophil employs certain rhetorical devices to explore the many complexities inherent in both being in love (or as we will see, in lust) and being a member of court, as lover and courtier are the two roles that best identify Astrophil; he also uses rhetoric in attemping to achieve his desired, but ultimately failed, seduction of Stella. Through the characters and events in the sequence, Sidney not only gains profound insight into romantic love, court, and the nature and uses of rhetoric, but also seeks to teach his readers about virtuous living (by setting up Astrophil as an example of how not to live and love) and engage them with important moral problems – tasks he believed belonged to the high office of poetry, as outlined in his ownDefence of Poesy.

Although Astrophil and Stella deals with universal human issues, not the least of which are the age-old battle of the sexes and the interplay between love and lust, it is important to remember the socio-cultural context in which Sidney is writing and the (rather similar) one in which he places his narrator-poet Astrophil (“Star-lover”) and the object of his (that is, Astrophil’s) unrequited desire, Stella (“Star”). Born into a rather prominent English noble family (the Sidney family owned the Penshurst estate that would later be immortalized in the poem by Ben Johnson), Sir Philip Sidney was a member of Queen Elizabeth’s court from a young age (Sidney x-xii). Being a successful – or even acceptable – courtier in the 16th century meant being extremely well rounded; one was expected, among other things, to be intelligent, athletic, and to display the elusive quality of sprezzatura – an untranslatable Italian word suggesting an ambiguous mix of grace, savvy gentility, spontaneity, and composure under pressure. Most importantly of all, the courtier was (ideally) expected to be a capable advisor to the “Prince” or ruler, helping the sovereign to make just and moral judgments in affairs of state.

The ideal courtier was also expected to be able to write poetry, something at which Sidney obviously excelled. This expectation, then, leads us to question the original reasons for the composition of the work, and Janet MacArthur accordingly examines the possibility of “Sidney’s impure rhetorical motives” in her overview of the critical history of Astrophil and Stella (MacArthur 84). She refers to the sonnet sequence as “a supreme example of Sidneyan sprezzatura” and mentions critic Daniel Javitch’s suggestion that “Astrophil and Stella is a display of rhetorical virtuosity for the sake of [Sidney’s] entry, acceptance, and advancement at [Elizabeth’s] court” (MacArthur 84). While this certainly may have been part of it, and while Sidney did circulate the sequence amongst friends and those at court, one must also note the power he imputes to poetry in his impassioned Defence of Poesy, that is, the “forcibleness” to spur men to righteous action and to “mak[e] things…better than nature bringeth forth” (Watson 118; Sidney 108). Sidney’s profound faith in the power of poetry leads one to conclude that Astrophil and Stella was more than simple Greenblattian “artistic self-fashioning” (as Javitch conjectures) for court (MacArthur 72). Astrophil and Stella has much to teach us about both the power of language and the human condition if we will pay close attention.

As mentioned above, the character Astrophil is most certainly a courtier (albeit a “busy loving courtier,” to borrow Sidney’s phrase from Defence of Poesy), and the loose narrative of Astrophil and Stella is played out against the backdrop of a noble or royal court (Sidney151). The fact of this setting is crucial to analyzing the sonnet sequence itself, and, accordingly, it informs and pervades the whole work. There are numerous clues within Astrophil and Stella that casually evince the courtly milieu. Intriguingly, Sidney makes a direct reference to his own father Sir Henry Sidney when he was Lord Deputy of Ireland (and has Astrophil call him “my father” in a line that would fuel speculation about the quasi-biographical nature of the work) in Sonnet 30, confirming that Astrophil is of noble birth (Sidney 179-180, 9-10). Parker points out the “exquisitesprezzatura” in the final couplet of this sonnet, where Astrophil responds to complicated questions about foreign policy “cumber’d with good manners” even though, as Parker suggests, he “appears to have neglected his duty at Court” because of his obsessive and all-consuming love for Stella (Parker 48; Sidney 180, 13). As a courtier, Astrophil would also be expected to have been well educated and be very widely read. Sure enough, Astrophil’s language and rhetorical skills (which will be covered in more detail later) are richly allusive, literary, and learned (Watson 119-120).

For the most part, Astrophil is disdainful toward both his own place at court and other courtiers. Even though he professes to practice the “good manners” of sprezzatura in Sonnet 30, he denies political ambition or even political involvement in Sonnet 23. What’s more, Astrophil laments his high birth and the heavy burdens of responsibility it brings in Sonnets 18 and 21. In Sonnet 104 he denounces the “envious wits” (i.e., gossip-mongering courtiers who look askance at Astrophil and his obsessive love) declaring “with such poisonous care my looks you mark” (Sidney 236, 1-2). Sidney’s unhappy narrator is also contemptuous of traditional conceptions of courtly love, complaining in Sonnet 54 that the “courtly nymphs” doubt his love “[b]ecause I breathe not love to every one, / Nor do not use set colors for to wear, / Nor nourish special locks of vowed hair, / Nor give each speech a full point of groan” (Sidney 192, 1-5). All of the listed traits (loudly proclaiming love, wearing black, keeping a locket of the hair of the beloved, and constantly sighing) are traditional signs of a courtly lover’s melancholy, but Astrophil labels them false posturing, confidently proposing that “[d]umb swans, not chatt’ring pies, do lovers prove; / They love indeed who quake to say they love” (Sidney 193, 13-14). The clash with and subversion of tradition so compactly exemplified in Sonnet 54 is a recurring theme throughout Astrophil and Stella, though on the whole the sequence displays a decidedly ambivalent relationship with the idea of “tradition” – courtly, Petrarchan, Platonic, and otherwise.

Another aspect of Astrophil’s courtiership – the equestrian and athletic aspect – comes into play in Sonnets 41 and 53, both of which see the narrator competing in a jousting tournament. Stella is in the crowd for both events, but, curiously, her presence has completely opposite effects on the two different occasions described. In Sonnet 41, Astrophil performs well in the contest and “obtain[s] the prize,” attributing his victory to the “heav’nly face” of Stella, whom he knew was watching in the audience (Sidney 185-186, 2, 13). In Sonnet 53, however, Astrophil “look’d, and Stella spied” in the crowd, causing him to lose control of his horse and be embarrassingly defeated (Sidney 192, 8). This apparent contradiction (Stella’s presence inspiring Astrophil to do well, then Stella’s presence causing him to fail) is one of many in the work, and brings up a question that is one of the central matters of Astrophil and Stella: does love exalt or degrade us? The answer, as we will see, depends on the type of love we are expressing or desiring; the struggle between virtuous, Platonic love and lustful, sexual love (often represented by Cupid) dominates Sidney’s sequence. Indeed, about one-fifth of the sonnets are specifically concerned with the conflict between reason and passion (Rogers 212).

Cousins to the two tournament sonnets are Sonnets 28 and 49, in which Astrophil invokes equestrian metaphors while proclaiming the controlling power that his unrequited love for Stella holds over him. Elizabeth Watson, who notes the extensive use of heraldic, chivalric, and courtly language and metaphors in Astrophil and Stella, argues that these sonnets also contain Platonic undertones related to the tug-of-war between chaste and sexual love (or, reason and passion): “classical precedent for images of an unruly horse to signify passion uncontrolled and of a tamed or bridled horse indicating the supremacy of the will over impulse or instinct [comes] from Plato” (Watson 119).

By innocently claiming to write with “pure simplicity” even though he “beg[s] no subject to use eloquence” in Sonnet 28, Astrophil is purposely misleading his readers; this denial itself is an act of “eloquence,” or rhetoric (Sidney 178, 12, 9). Parker astutely notices how “Astrophil’s [purported] spontaneity is set against the laborious construction of the sonnets that are his expression” (Parker 48). Far from rejecting the casuistry of “allegory’s curious frame” (which he also claims to do in Sonnet 28) and obeying his Muse’s famous imperative to “look in thy heart and write” in the opening sonnet, Astrophil writes poems that are, by and large, carefully constructed pieces of rhetoric (Sidney 178, 1; 163, 14).

It is made clear from the beginning of Astrophil and Stella’s very first sonnet that the audience is in for a dazzling display of poetic and (especially) rhetorical skill. The now-famous first quatrain in the sequence is, according to B.J.Sokol, a “textbook example” of the rhetorical device gradatio (Sokol 136):

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;

(Sidney 163, 1-4)

Gradatio is a device in which the rhetorician uses a successive series of terms of increasing magnitude in order to demonstrate the relationship between the terms or concepts and to emphasize his ultimate point. In his study of repetitive rhetorical figures in Sidney and Shakespeare, Sokol makes some comments on Astrophil and Stella’s two exordial poems that are worth quoting at length:

The uses in the first two sonnets of Astrophil and Stella of the figure gradatio are rhetorically “thick” in the sense that they speak not only on the level of syntax and surface semantics, but also on the level of poetic structures conveying tone. This practice allows a profound engagement between verbal form and poetic purpose.

These particular uses of gradatio involve play upon, and not only within, its rhetorical scheme. Specifically, the start of Astrophil and Stellasuccessively flaunts and then flouts the rigid form of gradatio. Sidney’s purpose is to reference the distinctive shape of the scheme in service of an underlying expressive strategy.

(Sokol 132)

Embedded in the “thickness” of Astrophil’s rhetoric are the dual and intertwined purposes of displaying poetic virtuosity and convincing Stella to grant him some of her “grace” (though the poet undoubtedly hopes the former purpose will also expedite the latter). Astrophil’s use of the gradatio in Sonnets 1 and 2 perhaps suggests that he wishes for a sort of literal gradatio of his and Stella’s relationship, increasing in magnitude until it reaches physical consummation. While the sexual component of the language may not be obvious from the first couple of sonnets, many scholars today agree that it does exist from the outset, emerging more definitely as the sequence progresses (Sinfield 343; Hernández Santano 86).

Throughout the sonnets, Astrophil frequently uses seemingly deceptive and/or ambiguous language and rhetorical devices such as paradox, contradiction, antithesis and oxymoron. Some examples of this paradoxical language are: the “darkness clear” in Sonnet 57, the “freezing fires” of Sonnet 6, and, importantly, the closing couplet of Sonnet 108 – the final sonnet in the sequence: “That in my woes for thee thou art my joy, / And in my joys for thee my only annoy” (Sidney 194, 11; 166, 4; 240, 13-14). In one sense, the prominence of these perplexing figures is perhaps Sidney’s way of metaphorizing the deception inherent in Astrophil’s entire scheme (that is, the poems), which is designed for the express purpose of seducing Stella. It also could be Astrophil’s way of obscuring and equivocating his own sinister purpose and “impure rhetorical motives.” Thus, we see Sidney himself actively engaging “verbal form and poetic purpose” in the internal dialect of the sequence.

Concerning these deceptive and ambiguous devices, Alan Hager finds that Astrophil’s “rhetoric of involvement” constitutes a “conscious manipulation of his readers through verbal duplicity” (Hager 82-83). Hager devotes an entire chapter of his book Dazzling Images to what he calls “Starlover’s ambiguity,” singling out a section of that chapter for the oxymoron (Hager 82). Paradox and oxymoron, for Hager, “become the most compact verbal expression of the unrequited lover’s nihilistic delusion” (Hager 91). Also interesting is the way in which Astrophil’s obscurity affects his reader(s). Trying to make sense of Astrophil’s deliberate “rhetorical ambiguity,” Hager writes about the language’s transformative influence: “Stirring admiration or wonder or shock in the hearer is certainly one of the love poet’s goals, but oxymoron is also designed to lead us into a mystical land where the distinctions that words make are obliterated…[and] self-destruct, like the poet himself” while “denotation and connotation collapse” (Hager 91). These ideas remind us, yet again, of the earlier comments of Sokol about the permeable stratification and “thickness” of Astrophil and Sidney’s complex rhetoric, a rhetoric that often strives to interweave “verbal form and poetic purpose.”

In her study of the influence of Aristotle’s Rhetoric on Sidney’s writings, Paula Payne finds a more apt comparison for Sidney in Plato, noting how both “wished to open a dialectic with [their] auditors so that they might find the answers for themselves” (Payne 244). While Sidney probably meant for his audience to read the whole of Astrophil and Stella and then engage the questions it raises about the nature and consequences of human love and lust, we find an abundant number of examples of what we will call “dialectical juxtaposition” within the individual sonnets themselves. Dialectical juxtaposition involves an invocation of two opposing ideas or images (usually representing ideas) followed by some sort of active struggle between them. Sidney often achieves this theoretical agon poetically in Astrophil and Stella, utilizing colorful imagery and metaphor: in Sonnet 4 there is a “bate between…soul and wit,” in Sonnet 52 we witness “A strife in between Virtue and Love,” in the Sixth Song there is another “bate,” this time between Beauty and Music, in Sonnet 10, reason “needs fight with both love and sense,” etc (Sidney 165, 1; 191, 1; 218-219; 168, 9).

On a larger scale, the characters Astrophil and Stella are themselves juxtaposed, and subsequently engage in a dialectical discussion that is the sonnet sequence; although Astrophil does the vast majority of the talking, Stella (representing chaste, virtuous love) actually speaks in Songs 8 and 11 (breaking from Petrarchan tradition, in which the beloved is always silent). On a still larger scale, there is a kind of meta-dialectics at work in Astrophil and Stella; that is to say, dialectic is juxtaposed with its natural opposite, rhetoric (these two are in conflict because rhetoric usually constitutes one voice speaking authoritatively, while dialectic, or, argumentation, necessitates two or more voices speaking on presumably equal ground). Of course by even framing this matter as a debate, Sidney shows who the clear and necessary winner is – logical argumentation. Accordingly, at the end of the sequence, Stella remains pure while Astrophil, with all of his (admittedly skillful) rhetoric, fails and is left mired in a seemingly endless cycle of fugacious joy and “rude despair” (Sidney 239, 7).

A refreshing and rather fascinating study of Sidney that deals in part with the idea of rhetoric’s failure (as mentioned in the preceding paragraph) is Lisa Klein’s book The Exemplary Sidney and the Elizabethan Sonneteer. Klein examines Sidney’s life and artistic body of work through the filter of his Defence of Poesy treatise and its bold claim that poetry’s ultimate purpose is to inspire men to virtue. Interestingly, one of Klein’s main theses is essentially that Sidney was extremely pessimistic about his own work, and eventually thought that he failed at composing “right poetry” – the kind of poetry that would motivate righteous action. For Klein, Astrophil is an ironic “self-image of Sidney”; he uses the powerful and potentially transformative rhetoric of poetry not to provoke moral action, but to encourage the exact opposite – namely, the adulterous sexual union of himself and Stella (Klein 80). Astrophil, however, ultimately fails in his conquest, and is in this way doubly a failure as a “right poet”: not only does he direct his poetic prowess (in this context, similar to or even synonymous with rhetorical prowess) toward immoral ends, he does not even possess the “forcibleness” to persuade his subject to carry out these ends. What’s more, Astrophil shuns his responsibility and role as a courtier by acting immorally. How could one expect him to be a moral advisor to the ruler if he uses his skills in attempting to seduce married women? Furthermore, in acknowleging the central role that rhetoric and language play in Astrophil and Stella, Klein emphasizes the puerile and pathetic sophistry found in both Sonnet 63 and the Fourth Song, making a point that could aptly serve as a summary of Astrophil’s rhetoric of seduction in the sequence: “In the face of persistent frustration and denial, Astrophil’s only triumph occurs in language” (Klein 82).

Having repeatedly claimed in this essay that Astrophil views Stella only in a purely sexual way and wishes to use his poetry to seduce her, I will now take a moment to demonstrate this to be the case. Although some of the sonnets suggest an inner struggle within Astrophil about the nature of his desires, all of these occur early on in the sequence. As Astrophil and Stella progresses, his nobler impulses disappear from view, either ignored or dissipated, and Stella herself becomes the sole voice of virtue. The sexual component, primarily latent before, becomes obvious and overt after Sonnet 71, in which “desire…cries, ‘Give me some food’” (Sinfield 342; Sidney 203, 14). Astrophil’s chosen method of seduction, poetry (“fain in verse my love to show”), is perspicuous from the first poem (Sidney 163, 1, emphasis added).

An often overlooked but significant aspect of the rhetoric in Astrophil and Stella is found in its puns. Alan Sinfield, in an article dedicated solely to the copious sexual puns in the sonnet sequence, notes (in an analysis redolent of Hager’s reading of Astrophil’s oxymorons and paradoxes) that the puns and double entendres “reflect the central ambiguity in Astrophil’s attitude” – another important facet of Astrophil’s rhetoric and (for Sinfield) psyche that has already been examined herein. By viewing his mistress physically and writing about her using suggestively sexual language, Astrophil (or Sidney, we might say) is upending Petrarchan tradition; Bates contends that he “sexualize[es]” many of Petrarch’s “sublimations,” while Hernández Santano asserts that his sexual materialism “corrupts” the Platonism of Pietro Bembo in Castiglione’sThe Courtier, a tome which Sidney was said to carry in his pocket wherever he went (Bates 33; Hernández Santano 87; MacArthur 72). Because passion (Astrophil) fails and reason/virtue triumphs by way of Stella’s retained chastity, it can be sensibly concluded that Sidney, in Astrophil and Stella, is espousing the (rather popular at the time) Neo-Platonic doctrine that giving in to worldly passion ultimately leads to misery. Astrophil and Stella encapsulates and expands upon the all-important Sidneyan dichotomy, or rather, agon, between the “erected wit” and the “infected will” that is adumbrated in Defense of Poesy.

The play upon the etymologically similar words “courtship” and “courtiership” suggested in the title of this paper is an allusion to an article by Ann Jones and Peter Stallybrass entitled “The Politics of Astrophil and Stella,” in which the authors examine the complicated relationship between these two seemingly disparate areas of life – the public (court) and the private (love). In Astrophil and Stella, these two spheres influence each other despite their distance, and even coalesce at certain points; strong similarities between Stella and Queen Elizabeth have been noted by scholars (to name two such likenesses, their unshakeable rigidity, and allowance of admiration but prohibition of amorous desire) (MacArthur 85). As Jones and Stallybrass say, “fulfillment in the service of [the Queen] was as elusive as in the service of Stella, and this double distance of lady and monarch made necessary the strategies of manipulation which were the techniques of [the] aspiring courtier and lover alike” (Jones and Stallybrass 54).

Thus, the defining similarity between these two areas, the bond that links courtship and courtiership together, is the technique of manipulation and persuasion: rhetoric. In this paper, I have examined Sidney’s only sonnet sequence as a fascinating and informative study of the role and nuances of rhetoric in public court and private courtship, and the way these spheres of life relate to poetry and each other. Astrophil, though he failed in accomplishing his ignoble ambition, retains confidence in the efficacy of rhetoric; in Sonnet 58 he admires “the orator” who “men’s hearts doth bind” (Sidney 194, 2). Like his discontented creation, Sir Philip Sidney knew that rhetoric could be incredibly effective, though in Defence of Poesy he avers that poetry, with its “virtue-breeding delightfulness,” is the best way to move men’s souls toward righteous action, and that it is the solemn duty of the poet to do so (Sidney 156). When one considers this statement in conjunction with the ideal of the courtier as a moral advisor, the impetus behind Sidney’s sonnet sequence becomes clear. Astrophil and Stella is Sidney’s own attempt to educate his audience about moral behavior (though not pedantically, but dialectically, as I have endeavored to show) and thrust them onto the path of virtuous living.



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Joe Albernaz

English, Classical Humanities

Joe Albernaz

English, Classical Humanities