Anyways, let's get down to business. To simply label the Astrophil and Stella as a collection of love poetry would be an inaccurate assessment--rather, these poems are very complex and there is a lot more going on in them upon a close-analysis. It would obviously be impossible for me to do a write-up on every single one them so I have decided to provide some general thoughts on the collection as a whole and then do a close-reading of two personal favorites by contrasting them with one another.
In order to better engage with this particular literary work it might help to have some basic knowledge concerning the social and political landscape during Sidney's lifetime, hence the reason for my including a brief historical context throughout this review. I apologize to those who might find such details superfluous or boring but then again, isn't one of the points of this challenge to learn about literary movements? The themes, philosophies, arguments, symbolism, allegories, allusions, motifs, rhetoric and specific structure of these poems is largely influenced by the period in which Sidney is writing. While it is true that authors cannot escape the time period they happen to be writing in, the Renaissance is one of those extraordinary times in human history where so much change was occurring rapidly; thus, it is worth examining closer to gain a clearer sense of Sidney's intentions and contextual framework.
The Renaissance was a tumultuous period of radical change in England with the reign of Elizabeth I--socially, politically, religiously. This "re-birth" saw a revival of classical antiquity, humanism became a widely popular movement (Sidney being a strong advocate himself) and the English language underwent massive change as well. A new culture emerged from the ashes of the middle-ages: growing populations, increased rural migration to cities, the expansion of empires, discovery of the "new world", religious unrest in England with the the reign of Elizabeth who supplanted Catholicism in favor of Protestantism and a whole host of other changes such as increased attendance to universities and a complete revamp of the educational system. Attending university usually meant studying to join the clergy but now learning institutions were switching over to teaching "rhetoric" and humanism ("studia humanitatis"). As a result, literacy rates skyrocketed along with the stage and drama becoming popular art forms.
Written sometime around the 1580's, Sidney never lived long enough to see his work published. Printing was fairly new and largely controlled by the monarchy through guilds. Therefore, like many writers of his day, Sidney only circulated his writings amongst close friends in the form of manuscripts. He held a high position in Elizabeth's court, even serving as the ambassador in Ireland. Only after being dismissed from court for causing a dispute with the Earl of Oxford and taking up residence in the countryside did he begin to write: Astrophil and Stella being one of several works that came out of this creative period in his life.
He was well-versed in Latin and idolized Petrarch--the quintessential love poet whose Il Canzoniere had a great impact on Astrophil and Stella. Fragmented and consisting of 366 poems, the bulk of sonnets deal with the speaker's love for a woman named Laura, the transformation of personal experience into poetry with the assertion of subjectivity and articulating secular love--the latter being the important aspect here since religious devotion and the praise of God's love was the primary concern found in most literary works at the time. For Petrarch, love is complex and paradoxical; creating division within the psyche, an on-going dialectic between desire and reason. One falls in love instantly as a Petrarchan lover, the image of "captivity" is a dominant metaphor; an idolatry element exists since the woman is often envisaged as a goddess or muse to the speaker. Ok, so what does all of this have to do with Astrophil and Stella? Well, if it is not obvious already, Sidney uses Petrarch's model as a foundation for his own poems but he does not simply mimic his predecessor; rather, he engages with an ongoing dialogue with Petrarchism, revealing a paradoxical relationship. The denial with one's affiliation with past poets and the affirmation of individuality is ironically conventional for Renaissance poets. Furthermore, the self-dramatizing lover shows up again who worships a woman, the embodiment of goodness and virtue. However, Sidney is far less regular in rhyme and meter, playing with expectation of narrative and psychological conflict (philosophical allegory, properties of the mind: reason, will, sense, etc) with a far greater emphasis on rhetoric. The sonnets follow the traditional 14 lines, with a rhyming couplet at the end but they are not all iambic pentameter as is common with the majority of Shakespeare's sonnets. They are designed in specific rhetorical units (Sonnet #1-35, Sonnet #36-72, Second Song to Sonnet #108) but Sidney plays around with the octet and sextet of the meter in contrast to Petrarch, who rarely deviates from an established pattern. Sidney steps away from the rough diction of Petrarch's generation with more attention on poetic effect and stylistic versification. Similar to Petrarch's Il Canzoniere, Sidney's Astrophil and Stella is also fragmented with no consistent narrative logic and no definitive resolution at the end.
Many scholars have put forth the argument that the sonnets are biographical in nature, Stella being a pseudonym for one of Sidney's love interests named Penelope Rich, arriving at this conclusion because of the way many of the poems contain puns on the name of "Rich." Such claims seem pointless to me and it is far more interesting to examine the way Sidney cleverly plays with biographical allusions. Personally, the most fascinating aspects of these poems is the way they serve as psychological models, showing love as an internal battle; the constant internal dialogue of the speaker preoccupied with determining the purpose of writing as well as attempting to establish poetry as a legitimate art form that can use the subject of love as a springboard and transform it into an eloquent philosophical discourse on the complex nature of human experience.