Sir Philip Sidney

See also, information on Mary Herbert.

Biographical Information

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) was the definition of a renaissance man. Courtier, knight, protestant, diplomat, humanist and life-long learner, he spent his earliest years traveling about continental Europe before returning to England to join Elizabeth I’s court in 1575. He found many personal and ideological differences between his and the Queen's beliefs. The struggle of his life as courtier can take a large part in Sidney becoming a writer. His exposure to Italian poetry during visits to Venice, along with the growing popularity of Wyatt and Surrey’s translations of Petrarch, inspired Sidney to pursue Petrarchan style in his own poetry. That style is, in short: “the celebrating of love through a series of fourteen-line poems which have a kind of unity because most, but not all, are written to or about one woman.” (Kimborough, Sir Philip Sidney p.112)

Literary Works

Hence all of his major works- both Arcadias, A Defence of Poetry, and Astrophil and Stella – are products of enforced periods of what he himself called his ‘idleness.’ The act of writing was thus for Sidney a symptom of a continuing struggle for self-definition.”
-Imitation and Identity, The Making of Sir Philip Sidney; Edward Berry. Page 8

Sidney considered that his poetry but an idle pastime, unworthy of any great consideration or acclaim. However, he was a pioneer in the succession of English poets, being the first to write a continuous sequence of fourteen-line sonnets. Astrophil and Stella (“Starlover and Star”) consists of 108 sonnets with 11 songs and marks the beginning of what would be, in the words of Robert Kimbrough “an explosion of sonneteering which in bulk and quality may be appalling from our point of view, but which in significance cannot be overestimated” (Kimbrough, pp.111-112). In Sidney's works, readers are exploring the world of English-style sonnets. Sidney’s use of personification in many of the poems allows him to develop his plasticity of style and make fantastic elements more accessible. He is able to write in a way that is equally plain and ornamental.

Astrophil & Stella

This sonnet sequence of Astrophil and Stella was written when Sidney was exiled from Queen Elizabeth, and is about the journey of a man and a woman who are experiencing love. Astrophil meaning "starlover" and Stella meaning "star". Stella is virtuous, an idealized partner for these times and Astrophil is deeply interested in her. Readers are only able to see one side of the love: Astrophil's love, since the sonnets are from his own thoughts and words. As the sonnet sequence progresses, readers see a change in the relationship between Astrophil and Stella.

One of Sidney’s strongest talents was separating speaker and poet in his works, such that these sonnets are biographical and yet technically precise in their distinction between the logic of the poet and the irrational love of the speaker. Sidney voices Astrophil so convincingly that readers believe Sidney himself might be slipping through.

Most of the Astrophil & Stella sonnets consist of three quatrains –– of patterns abba abba cdcd or abab abab cdcd –– terminated with couplets. However several sonnets (sonnets 3, 4, 6, 15, 29, 40, and 45) end without couplets. Rather they continue within the standard rhyme scheme of their anterior lines. While this differs from English-style as Sidney has used consistently, the final one, two, or three lines do still perform the sonnets’ denouement as skillfully as the finest couplet.

"Sonnet 10": the lover berates the concept of “reason” dictating to whom we should give our love. Astrophel expresses a desire that love be left “to will” (line 8) and concludes the interlude.

Yet Sidney himself was a humanist of Neo-Platonist stripe. He believed principally that reason was the foundation and panacea under which all human identity could be gathered. Therefore the voice seen in Sonnet 10 condemning reason’s stranglehold on Love could not have come from Sidney’s heart, but yet from Astrophil’s. In masterful separation of persona and poet, Sidney snipes at Astrophil’s logic (inserting some of the poet’s own) in the final line wherein Astrophil expresses that even with regard to Stella, there is “reason good, good reason her to love”. So despite lover’s argument to the contrary, reason still prevails.

Sonnets 46-89: shows that there is a difference between the latter sonnets and the earlier ones. Much of the criticism stems from the idea that Astrophil becomes sexually charged and turns his love for Stella into physical desire. The diction throughout these poems serve the purpose to support this criticism.

"Sonnet 52": is not complicated in thought or emotion but the language has some importance. At this point in the sequence, Astrophil has changed his persepctive on Stella and would abandon the soul for the physciality of the body. Astophil has now committed himself to lust while leaving love behind.

Astrophel and Stella is unified and should be classed as a tragicomedy. It has three parts: the first, an anatomy or love; the second part, through the first three songs, an attempted seduction; the third part, the defeat. The third part climaxes with Sonnets 84 and 85.
- 523. Gentili, Vanna. “La Tragicomedy dell’ Astrophel and Stella.” AUL, 1 (1963-1964), 57-92.
Astrophel and Stella, Sir Philip Sidney Bibliography of Modern Criticism 1941-1970. Page 114.

Songs 4 and 5 are songs that show a change in attitude within the sequence. These act as the "lover's laments" is which there is also a difference in the Petrarchan form. Sidney uses regual line length within these songs as opposed to the changing line length within the lyrical poetry.

"The Defense of Poetry"

This work was published after Sidney’s death and also goes under the name of "An Apology of Poetry". In this essay Sidney refutes the claims of poetry being a corrupting and evil form of literature and writes to prove the misomousoi (poet haters) wrong. He says some claim that poetry is a fruitless venture, that the poets lie, that people who read poetry are more likely to sin, and that poets have weakened society (Defense, 369). Once he states these claims he goes on to refute them. He brings up many interesting points such as “he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth” (Defense, 370) to argue that a poet never lies. He compares a poet to an astronomer or a historian who confirms details of history. A poet uses his Muses to inspire their imagination and therefore, they don’t tell lies because they do not claim to be telling the truth. Sidney also brings Plato into his argument; he believes Plato is the most poetic of philosophers. He even goes as far to say Plato is their patron (Defense, 376).

In the Peroration, Sidney tells his readers the things said against poetry are weak claims; give poetry a chance and your name could become popular at the press. Finally, Sidney curses the people who still, after reading this prose, disprove of poetry : “yet thus much curse I must send you” (Defense, 391). This tone leads readers to believe Sidney was quite proud of poetry and especially angry at the people who bashed it.


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3. "Sir Philip Sidney." Luminarium. Web. 26 Jan. 2011. <>.
4. Pritchard, R.E. "Sidney's dedicatory poem: To the angel spirit of the most.." Explicator 54.1 (1995): 2. 5.MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 1 Feb. 2011.
6. Waller, Gary. English Poetry of the Sixteenth Century. 1986.
7. Kimbrough, Robert. Sir Philip Sidney. 1971. New York.
8. Jokinen, Anniina. "Life of Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)." Luminarium. 7 Apr 2007. 25 January 2011 <>
9. Montgomery, Robert L. Symmetry and Sense: The Poetry of Sir Philip Sidney. University of Texas Press. Austin: 1961.
10. Image:
11. Poems from: <>.

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