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AMONG Sidney's miscellaneous poems there is a lyric, which has been supposed, not without reason, I think, to express his feelings upon the event of Lady Penelope Devereux's marriage to Lord Rich.
"Ring out your bells, let mourning shows be spread;
All love is dead, infected
With plague of deep disdain:
Worth, as naught worth, rejected,
From so ungrateful fancy,
"Weep, neighbours, weep; do you not hear it said
That Love is dead?
His death-bed, peacock's folly;
His will, false-seeming holy;
From so ungrateful fancy,
"Alas! I lie: rage hath this error bred;
Love is not dead, but sleepeth
Where she his counsel keepeth
Therefore from so vile fancy,
These stanzas sufficiently set forth the leading passion of Astrophel and Stella. That series of poems celebrates Sir Philip Sidney's love for Lady Rich after her marriage, his discovery that this love was returned, and the curb which her virtue set upon his too impetuous desire. Before the publication of Shakespeare's sonnets, these were undoubtedly the finest love poems in our language; and though exception may be taken to the fact that they were written for a married woman, their purity of tone and philosophical elevation of thought separate them from the vulgar herd of amatorious verses. ?
I have committed myself to the opinion that Astrophel and Stella was composed, if not wholly, yet in by far the greater part, after Lady Rich's marriage. This opinion being contrary to the judgment of excellent critics, and opposed to the wishes of Sidney's admirers, I feel bound to state my reasons. In the first place, then, the poems would have no meaning if they were written for a maiden. When a friend, quite early in the series, objects to Sidney that
Doth plunge my well-formed soul even in the mire
what significance could these words have if Stella were still
free? Stella, throughout two-thirds of the series (after No. xxxiii.), makes no concealment of her love for Astrophel; and yet she persistently repels his ardent wooing. Why should she have done so, if she was at liberty to obey her father's death-bed wish and marry him? It may here be objected that the reasons for the breaking off of her informal engagement to Sidney are not known; both he and she were possibly conscious that the marriage could not take place. To this I answer that a wife's refusal of a lover's advances differs from a maiden's; and Stella's refusal in the poems is clearly, to my mind at least, that of a married woman. Sidney, moreover, does not hint at unkind fate or true love hindered in its course by insurmountable obstacles. He has, on the other hand, plenty to say about the unworthy husband, Stella's ignoble bondage, and Lord Rich's jealousy.
But, it has been urged, we are not sure that we possess the sonnets and songs of Astrophel and Stella in their right order. May we not conjecture that they were either purposely or unintelligently shuffled by the publisher, who surreptitiously obtained copies of the loose sheets? And again, will not close inspection of the text reveal local and temporal allusions, by means of which we shall be able to assign some of the more compromising poems to dates before Penelope's marriage?
There are two points here for consideration, which I will endeavour to treat separately. The first edition of Astrophel and Stella was printed in 1591 by Thomas Newman. Where this man obtained his manuscript does not appear. But in the dedication he says: "It was my fortune not many days since to light upon the famous device of Astrophel and Stella, which carrying the general commendation of all men of judgment, and being reported to
be one of the rarest things that ever any Englishman set abroach, I have thought good to publish it." Further on he adds: "For my part I have been very careful in the printing of it, and whereas, being spread abroad in written copies, it had gathered much corruption by ill-writers; I have used their help and advice in correcting and restoring it to his first dignity that I know were of skill and experience in those matters." If these sentences have any meaning, it is that Astrophel and Stella circulated widely in manuscript, as a collected whole, and not in scattered sheets, before it fell into the hands of Newman. It was already known to the world as a "famous device," a rare thing;" and throughout the dedication it is spoken of as a single piece. What strengthens this argument is that the Countess of Pembroke, in her lifetime, permitted Astrophel and Stella to be reprinted, together with her own corrected version of the Arcadia, without making any alteration in its arrangement.
If we examine the poems with minute attention we shall, I think, be led to the conclusion that they have not been shuffled, but that we possess them in the order in which Sidney wrote them. To begin with, the first nine sonnets form a kind of exordium. They set forth the object for which the whole series was composed, they celebrate Stella's mental and personal charms in general, they characterise Sidney's style and source of inspiration, and criticise the affectations of his contemporaries. In the second place, we find that many of the sonnets are written in sequence. I will cite, for example, Nos. 31-34, Nos. 38-40, Nos. 69– 72, Nos. 87-92, Nos. 93-100. Had the order been either unintelligently or intentionally confused, it is not probable that these sequences would have survived entire. And upon this point I may notice that the interspersed lyrics occur in
their proper places, that is to say, in close connection with the subject-matter of accompanying sonnets. It may thirdly be observed that Astrophel and Stella, as we have it, exhibits a natural rhythm and development of sentiment, from admiration and chagrin, through expectant passion, followed by hope sustained at a high pitch of enthusiasm, down to eventual discouragement and resignation. As Thomas Nash said in his preface to the first edition: "The chief actor here is Melpomene, whose dusky robes dipped in the ink of tears as yet seem to drop when I see them near. The argument cruel chastity, the prologue hope, the epilogue despair." That the series ends abruptly, as though its author had abandoned it from weariness, should also be noticed. This is natural in the case of lyrics, which were clearly the outpouring of the poet's inmost feelings. When he had once determined to cast off the yoke of a passion which could not but have been injurious to his better self, Astrophel stopped singing. He was not rounding off a subject artistically contemplated from outside. There was no envoy to be written when once the aliment of love had been abandoned.
With regard to the second question I have raised, namely, whether close inspection will not enable us to fix dates for the composition of Astrophel and Stella, and thus to rearrange the order of its pieces, I must say that very few of the poems seem to me to offer any solid ground for criticism of this kind. Sonnets 24, 35, and 37 clearly allude to Stella's married name. Sonnet 41, the famous "Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance," may refer to Sidney's assault upon the Castle of Perfect Beauty; but since he was worsted in that mimic siege, this seems doubtful. The mention of "that sweet enemy France" might lead us equally well to assign it to the period of Anjou's visit. In