Philip Sidney was one of the premier courtiers in Elizabeth's court. As a young man he travelled with the queen to the home of a Lord Essex, where he met the charming and beautiful daughter of Essex, Penelope. For someone so enthralled with the literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the name Penelope alone would have been enough to pique his interest.
In his own words:
Not at first sight, nor with a dribbed shot
Love gave the wound, which while I breathe will bleed;
But known worth did in mine of time proceed,
Till by degrees it had full conquest got:
I saw and liked, I liked but loved not;
I lov'd, but straight did not what Love decreed.
At length to love's decrees I, forc'd, agreed,
Yet with repining at so partial lot.
The details are very sketchy, but the fathers of Philip and Penelope arranged for their marriage. As he lay dying Lord Essex wrote to Sidney about their future marriage. Nevertheless, after her father's death her guardian forbade the marriage and Penelope very unwillingly became the wife of Lord Rich. Although it is uncertain, it is likely that the greater wealth of Rich was the deciding factor in the guardian's decision.
In a rage of love and jealousy, Sidney wrote the following, cleverly employing Rich's name in the rant.
Rich fools there be, whose base and filthy heart
Lies hatching still the goods wherein they flow:
And damning their own selves to Tantal's smart,
Wealth breeding want, more blest more wretched grow.
Yet to those fools heav'n such wit doth impart
As what their hands do hold, their heads do know,
And knowing love, and loving, lay apart,
As sacred things, far from all danger's show.
But that rich fool who by blind Fortune's lot
The richest gem of love and life enjoys,
And can with foul abuse such beauties blot;
Let him, depriv'd of sweet but unfelt joys,
(Exil'd for aye from those high treasures, which
He knows not) grow in only folly rich.
His series of sonnets to and about Penelope begins with a youthful praising of her looks:
When Nature made her chief work, Stella's eyes,
In color black why wrapp'd she beams so bright?
Would she in beamy black, like painter wise,
Frame daintiest lustre, mix'd of shades and light?
Or did she else that sober hue devise,
In object best to knit and strength our sight,
Lest if no veil those brave gleams did disguise,
They sun-like should more dazzle than delight?
Or would she her miraculous power show,
That whereas black seems Beauty's contrary,
She even if black doth make all beauties flow?
Both so and thus, she minding Love shoud be
Placed ever there, gave him this mourning weed,
To honor all their deaths, who for her bleed.
But as the series progresses, he guides us through a wider range of emotions than even Shakespeare in his famous Dark Lady sonnets. In them we experience the rush and tumble of falling in love, the confusion at the strange behaviour of the beloved as well as confusion at love itself. There is even a fervent longing to be free from the bondage of his attraction. The sonnets are, by turns, argumentative, pleading, whining, ranting, mocking, doting and flirtatious. Some are even philosophical and seem to harbor little emotional depth. Only when taken together with the series do we clearly see from what inner workings springs the need for the seemingly detached contemplation of love and his situation.
And there is the bliss, even at a distance, of loving fervently and unchangably.
Because I breathe not love to every one,
Nor do not use set colors for to wear,
Nor nourish special locks of vowed hair,
Nor give each speech the full point of a groan,
The courtly nymphs, acquainted with the moan
Of them, who in their lips Love's standard bear;
"What he?" say they of me. "Now I dare swear,
He cannot love. No, no, let him alone."
And think so still, so Stella know my mind,
Profess indeed I do not Cupid's art;
But you, fair maids, at length this true shall find:
That his right badge is worn but in the heart;
Dumb swans, not chatt'ring pies, do lovers prove:
They love indeed who quake to say they love.
Just as with Sonnets from the Portuguese, these make perfect sense individually, but they grow immeasurably if allowed to grow in their own native soil and encountered in the environs in which Sidney planted them. They are best read together although they need not really be kept perfectly in order. While reading through them one will often catch a phrase that will drive one back twenty sonnets to compare. A meandering path was laid out in this garden.
While the collection is often printed as "Astrophel and Stella," the original title of the collection was "Astrophil and Stella," which makes much more sense. It means literally, "Star lover and the Star," with words borrowed from both Greek and Latin. At the same time, he managed to work his own name in as the part of the first word meaning "lover."