Monday, 4 February 2008
The Lives of Amphibians and Chimaeras:
A Response to Sir Philip Sidney's Sonnet 45
Having studied Astrophil and Stella before, and having written an essay on three of the sonnets, I thought I could take a look at Sonnet 45 in a less formal manner . . .
The speaker of the poem laments his inability to move Stella through his misery, even though a fictional account of the same situation brings her to tears. At the end he tries to bring both the "fable" and his own situation together in "the tale of me," though the reader does not get a sense that this is effective. This has interesting consequences as far as the role of poetry in society is concerned.
Plato devalues poetry on the grounds that it corrupts the truth. In Astrophil's case, this seems almost grounded. Stella is more taken with "fancy" than with "the very face of woe," with its overtones of Platonic truth. However, Astrophil tries to subvert this by becoming (presumably in the sonnet sequence itself) such a tale as the one she wept over and thereby winning her.
On a side note, it seems to me that Astrophil's premise is unfounded. The characters in the story Stella heard are described as "lovers." This tends to imply that they each love the other; in a case of unrequited love, like Astrophil's in the sonnet sequence, the parties involved are rarely called lovers. If Stella heard a story about Astrophil's situation, it would be along the lines of the following: "A man loved a woman who did not love him back. He was very sad and tried to make her love him, but she couldn't for whatever reason. [It would be false for her to return his advances when she didn't feel them herself.]" The conclusion I have tagged on may not have been very compelling to male readers at the time, but female readers at the time and any reader now will likely come to the same conclusion that I did. For this reason I think Astrophil is misguided.
What the sonnet really comes down to is the power of a story. This is reflected in Aristotle's Poetics on a very metafictional level. Aristotle refers to "Tale told by Alcinous"--the reference itself is an indication of the power of story-telling--in which Odysseus is moved to tears by the lyer-player, by which he is recognized--an indication of the power of art within a "Tale." I think that Sir Philip Sidney was aware of this or a similar story when he wrote Sonnet 45; I have no specific reason for thinking this, other than that the coincidence seems too unlikely.
Sonnet 45 does have a sense of Odyssey about it, in its reference of seas, storm, and ruin. Further, Astrophil seems to be trying to reach a destination--Stella's heart--that constantly eludes him. Unfortunately for Astrophil, I don't think Stella will wait as Penelope did.
Posted by Christian H at 20:30