Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella
The literary fortunes of Sir Philip Sidney illustrate nicely the contrast between the Elizabethan and twentieth century views on imitation and originality in literature. Sidney's sequence of 108 sonnets entitled Astrophil and Stella which appeared at the end of the sixteenth century drew immediate praise from English readers who appreciated his "blend of wit and sensibility, of intellectual brilliance and temperamental ardour" (Lever 53); they liked especially the "directness and spontaneity" (53) of the poems. Sidney himself contributed to his reputation for sincerity with the immortal lines of first sonnet: "Biting my truant pen, beating my self for spite, / Fool, said my Muse to me, look in thy heart and write." Teachers repeat this good advice endlessly. I tell my College Writing students to use personal experience; one can hardly go wrong with early childhood memories because the material is pure--not yet contaminated with the clichÈs of what we are supposed to believe and feel. Astrophil and Stella inspired literally thousands of sonnets and Sidney's admirers thought that he was greater than Spenser or Shakespeare.
The idea that Sidney, himself happily married to Frances Walsingham, could be passionately in love with Penelope Rich and jealous of her husband bothered Victorian critics. How can one justify Astrophil's pursuit of adultery? Various excuses were made for Sidney: Elizabethan morals tended to be lax, it was Astrophil and not Sidney who was at fault, the marriage of the Riches was not what it should have been, etc.
But the story of a passionate Astrophil who pursues the chaste Stella lost much of its appeal for another reason with the advent of historical criticism. Critics discovered that the real Astrophil had a "placid married life" (54) and that Stella was twice married--had tarnished her reputation because of divorce. Furthermore, Sidney had made good use of Petrarchan images, even specific details; there were other borrowings from French and Italian love-poems. For example, Astrophil envied his mistress's lap-dog just as had Serafino a century earlier. In other words, a poet who advises us to find the material for our art in personal experience does not necessarily follow his own advice as J.C. Nichols suggests in The Poetry of Sir Philip Sidney: "Sidney's 'sincerity', at least in the 'better' ones, has often been stressed. But to say that poems succeed because Sidney is deeply moved and sincere . . is really to tell us nothing more than that Sidney has succeeded in giving that impression" (53). Not only does Sidney claim to find the material in his heart (which indirectly emphasizes biography), but he also pretends to have no great skill, suggesting that sincerity counts for more than literary talent. The quality of his writing disproves that assertion! His very skill and the use of literary conventions contradict his references to sincerity and lack of talent in his...