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Once upon a time there was no such thing as a novel. Wait, really? That's right, Shmoopers. Back in the 1500s, you couldn't really go down to your local Barnes and Noble and pick up a fast-paced thriller in prose. Sure there were stories in prose, but they weren't quite like our modern day novels (and they were usually unbelievably long and windy and overblown). Nope, poetry was where it was at, really where the most important story-telling went down. If you wanted to tell a killer story in 1591, and you wanted it published, and you wanted to be taken seriously, you would probably have written your story in verse (poetry).
Since a story in verse was pretty much the recipe for success in those days, that's what Sir Philip Sidney did with Astrophel and Stella (1591), a sonnet sequence that tells the story of Astrophel's pursuit of, and unrequited love for, the lovely Stella. Many scholars agree that the twists and turns of this varied and complex story are based on Sidney's own unrequited love for Lady Penelope Devereux, which you can read about right here.
Now we know what you're thinking, so we'll tell you. A sonnet sequence is just what it sounds like: a series of sonnets (14-line poems) that usually, but not always, tells a story. If you wanted to tell a story about the pains of love in 1591, the sonnet sequence was the way to go. Most of the major Renaissance poets, following the example of Petrarch, did exactly this (Shakespeare, Spenser, and our man Sidney chief among them). Their sonnets all explore similar themes.
"With How Sad Steps" is the 31st sonnet in Astrophel and Stella (sometimes it is just called Sonnet 31). It is part of a series of sonnets that reflect on the pain and frustration of Astrophel's love for Stella that occurs just before another series about sleep and dreaming (the nighttime setting of "With How Sad Steps" forecasts what is to come). Astrophel, feeling pretty down, wonders if the Moon is feeling the same way he is. This leads him to ponder if love is as painful for heavenly bodies (like the sun, the moon, the starts, etc.) as it is for human beings. Based on this poem alone, it sure sounds like Stella isn't taking Astrophel's complete devotion—his "constant love" (10)—very seriously at all. Love—it can be a tough racket, gang.
Humans have very special relationships with their pets, especially their dogs and cats. Okay, sometimes people have special relationships with their iguanas and turtles too. It's not unusual to take a walk in the park and see somebody kissing their dog and having a conversation with it. Don't believe us? Go to your nearest park ASAP, post up, and wait. Both men and women both do it, as you will quickly discover.
If you've ever had a pet, you know what we mean. Here's a typical scenario: you come home from school after a terrible day and plop down on your bed. Fido can sense that something isn't right, so he plops down on the bed too, and he "appears" to have a sad look on his face as well. "Fido, are you feeling sad too?" you might ask. "Is the girl dog you have a crush on being mean to you? I sure hope not, but it kind of seems that way." It sounds ludicrous, but if you go buy a pet, we'll be dollars to donuts (mmm, donuts) that you'll find yourself doing the same thing in no time. We do these things because, when life isn't going well, we look for others to share in our plight. With animals we feel a special connection, and we find ourselves wondering if their life, or anybody else's, could possibly be just as frustrating.
If you have some idea what we're talking about, you have a great idea of just what the deal is with Sir Philip Sidney's "With How Sad Steps." The speaker, Astrophel, has been having a rough time. He's been crushing on Stella really hard, and she's not just that into him. In his despair, he's decided to talk to the Moon, rather than his faithful canine, probably because there's nothing really poetic about saying "With how sad steps, O Labrador, thou climbst the stairs." He's convinced that the Moon is feeling the same way he is. While he doesn't explicitly say so, it seems there is some comfort for Astrophel in believing that something else is feeling the same way he is. He is not alone.
While this poem is about the suffering and pain love can inflict (Stella seems to treat Astrophel's love as a complete joke), the basic idea could apply to anything. Whenever we're having a tough time, and love is certainly capable of causing as much hurt as joy, we have a tendency to project our feelings onto other things—dogs, cats, turtles, and even the moon. We literally start to see our feelings in everything we encounter (like when we think our dog's face looks sad too). Nobody wants to suffer alone, and it's natural to wonder if other beings treat each other as poorly as people sometimes do. It sounds kind of crazy, but hey, love makes us all act a little off our rockers, right?
The Whole Story
Read the complete Astrophel and Stella.
Try some of these out next time you want to sound smart.
Sonnets, Sonnets, Sonnets.
This site has lots of Renaissance sonnets, and lots of great info and links.
The Death of Sidney
Here's an excerpt about Sidney's death, from an early biography by Fulke Greville.
The Birth of Sidney
Wow, he was born in this awesome place?
Text and Slides
Now this is neat.
Astrophel and Stella: The Slide Show
This is kind of cute (and funny).
More Moon Shots
Here's a reading of the poem, accompanied by a picture of the moon.
Sonnet 31 starts this audio section of Astrophel and Stella.
Sweet Collar, Bro
Here's a painting of Sidney wearing a massive Renaissance collar.
Is this an actual photo of Sidney's death? Sorry, no. No cameras back then.
Real Life Stella
Here's a picture of Penelope Devereux, the woman Sidney once loved.
This drawing shows Sidney's funeral procession.
Wow, wow, wow, wow. We still can't believe this was once Sidney's pad.
Here's an article on "Astrophel and Stella" (different spelling here) from the early-twentieth-century edition of the Cambridge History of English and American Literature.
Astrophel and Stella
Maybe we should be skeptical of a publishing company called Dodo Press.
The Lady Penelope
This book's about Lady Penelope Devereux, Sidney's supposed love interest and "model" for Stella.