Although sonnets require a rather strict form, Sir Philip Sidney in his “Sonnet LXXIV” of the “Astophel and Stella” series and William Shakespeare in “Sonnet 130” make use of the requisite form while still being able to employ their talent to write interesting, provocative poetry. Commonly sonnets during the English Renaissance focused on love, often using lofty similes to compare the woman described in the sonnet to the great beauties of nature. In these sonnets Sidney and Shakespeare successfully write love sonnets without employing such exaggerated poetical devices.
Sidney’s sonnet is more in keeping with the traditional Petrarchan for than is Shakespeare’s, although he does make a small adjustment to the rhyme scheme. Nonetheless, he manages to write an engaging, intriguing sonnet that turns the form upside down. Instead of declaring his love by writing a series of similes that praise his lover, Sidney writes a sonnet that speaks only of himself until the final couplet.
The first eight lines of Sidney’s sonnet form an octave that deals with one topic, the description of all the sources of inspiration that do not contribute to Sidney’s (Astrophel’s) writing. Sidney writes the octave in iambic with four feet to the line. Pentameter provides the familiar heartbeat “glub-GLUB” rhythm the reader innately responds to and feels driven to continue reading.
Sidney sets up the turn that will follow the octave by making a number of classical illusions in his sonnet beginning with the title of the sonnet series, “Astrophel and Stella.” Interestingly the name “Astrophel” is constructed from the Greek words “astro” for star and “philos” for one who loves. So Astrophel means star lover. “Stella” is the Latin word for star. Therefore the title “Astrophel and Stella” means star lover and a star. Sidney uses a play on words with the title itself that proclaims his love. By moving from the lesser divinity of the nymph Aganippe (1)to the god Apollo (2) Sidney increases the strength of his conceit; he is not inspired by neither a minor divinity nor the major god, Apollo.
Sidney explains that he receives no such inspiration because the Muses refuse to dwell in men, such as himself, with vulgar, that is common, not crude, minds (3-4). Sidney has heard other poets speak of performing a religious rite to invoke a Fury to provide inspiration (5). However Sidney lacks the clerical standing and knowledge to perform such rites. He is a “[p]oor layman I, for sacred rites unfit” (4). Due to his status, he is not even sure he understood what they were talking about, “[b]ut (God wot) wot not what they mean by it” (6). Sidney swears that he does not steal the words of other poets when he praises Stella because he is “no pick-purse of another’s wit” (7-8). Sidney has thus successfully prepared for the sestet by making the reader eager to know how he manages to write poetry with no apparent muse to motivate him.
The sestet consists of a quatrain followed by a couplet. In the quatrain Sidney switches to trochaic when he asks the question the reader is already eager to have answered. This rhythm is less driven than iambic as if Sidney is giving the reader time to reflect on the question rather than being urged to read faster. Sidney answers his rhetorical question in the final couplet by writing that it is Stella’s kiss alone that inspires him. Here Sidney switches back to pentameter as if having given the reader the space to think and create suspense, Sidney wants the answer to his question to be as emphatic as possible.
Like Sidney, Shakespeare uses the Petrarchan sonnet, but he modifies it into the now more familiar form known as the English or Shakespearian sonnet. He uses the three quatrains to list the many things that his love is not like. He compares her to the sun, to red coral, and perfumes and other images from nature. He finds that she is lacking in all of these things. Unlike Sidney’s sonnet, the “turn” in this sonnet occurs between the third quatrain and the ending couplet. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter has led the reader through the poem and led him to ask the question why does Shakespeare love this woman if she is lacking so much? Of course he addresses this question when he tells us that he loves her and does not need to use any of the lofty similes sonneteers often use to praise their lovers. In fact, he loves her as much anyone who lies to a woman about her charms in order to win her love.
The sincerity of the two poets does not feel the same. Evidently, Sidney was genuine and sincere about the words he wrote to his love. There is no reason to doubt that he was anything but forthright in “Sonnet LXXIV.” With Shakespeare, this isn’t as certain. His sonnet can be read in at least two contrary interpretations.
Most often, this sonnet is regarded as a parody of the excessive hyperbole often found in sonnets of this era. There certainly is justification for such a reading. The tone he uses is whimsical. He appears to be poking fun at other sonneteers. Shakespeare is renown for the fashion in which he lampoons and mocks both significant ideas and emotions such as love and death; he pokes fun a wide variety people as well, such as Polonius, Falstaff and the mechanics and lowborn in his plays, particularly in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Ironically, or perhaps intentionally, when Shakespeare is making sport of grandiose use of such similes, he is poking fun of himself. In “Sonnet 49” he associates his love’s eye with the sun, “And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye” (5). In “The Taming of the Shrew” Shakespeare has Lucentio praise Bianca with “Tranio, I saw her coral lips to move, /And with her breath she did perfume the air” (I,i,174-175). In the famous balcony scene in “Romeo and Juliet,” Romeo describes Juliet as the sun rising from the east “II,ii,3). When dealing with the sonnets, and to a lesser extent the plays, it is always dicey to try and predict when a work was written, but conventional date suggests that Shakespeare’s sonnets were written at approximately the same time as these two plays. Consequently it is both possible and interesting to consider that Shakespeare was poking fun at himself with “Sonnet 130.”
A second rendering of this sonnet suggests that Shakespeare was being sincere and ingenuous. If so, he has paid his love a great compliment without resorting to pretentious verbiage. Shakespeare wrote that he did not love his lady for all of her beauty and physical charms, but for the woman herself. His love is not dependent on her looks that will fade with increasing age, but bases his love on aspects of her person that will remain throughout her lifetime. Curiously, the interpretation each person prefers may provide more information about the reader than Shakespeare’s sonnet. In the case of either interpretation of this sonnet, Shakespeare was made masterful use of the sonnet form.
In conclusion, Sidney in “Sonnet LXXIV” and Shakespeare in “Sonnet 130” have written notable sonnets. Each of them chose this restricted form but did not let the required pattern limit his artistic talent. Sidney turned the form upside down, spending the bulk of his writing about himself and only a couple about his lover. Shakespeare turned the sonnet paradigm on its ear by writing about his lover, but not praising her, but only praises her when he explains the cause of his inspiration in the final couplet. Both Sidney and Shakespeare have illustrated how the hands and talent of a highly gifted poet can produce an engaging and stimulating poem without being limited by the sonnet archetype.