This poem doesn't just sound like one thing. You hear a whole bunch of sounds going on here. In the first eight lines, the speaker really sounds like the moon's sympathetic pal. Pretend the moon shows up to meet the speaker for dinner, but he looks kind of funny, which elicits this response: "With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies! How silently, and with how wan a face!" (1-2). As he continues to address his buddy, the speaker comes to sound more and more like a close buddy giving him the whole, "look bro, I know how you're feeling. I'm feeling it too. We're in the same boat": "thou feel'st a lover's case. / I read it in thy looks; thy languisht grace / To me that feel the like, thy state descries" (6-8).
Is constant love deemed there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be loved, and yet
Those lovers corn who that love doth possess?
Do they call virtue there, ungratefulness? (10-14)
As the final six lines progress, the speaker carefully levels ever more vehement accusations. The implication that Stella is calling his virtuous conduct "ungratefulness" is worse than any of the others. Yikes.
While the poem at first sounds like the consoling words of a sympathetic friend, but then shifts to a series of angry questions, we should note that nobody would ever use sentences as tricky and chock full of internal rhyme as "Do they above love to be loved, and yet / Those lovers scorn, whom love doth possess?" Good luck breaking something like that out in a casual conversation over dinner at Applebee's. Clearly, then, the short O sounds in all the "love" words, as well as "doth" are aimed at getting our attention, at tugging on our mind's ear (if you can picture that).
In addition, we get tons of alliteration in this poem. Just read this section out loud (go on, nobody's looking) and count the number of times your mouth makes the L sound:
Sure, if that long with love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel'st a lover's case;
I read it in thy looks; thy languisht grace
To me that feel the like, thy state descries. (5-8)
It's almost a tongue-twister, isn't it? So what's up with that, and with all the repeated internal rhymes, or assonance? Well, if you think about all the doubling that goes on in this poem (as the speaker continually sees himself and his own situation in the moon), these repeated sounds work as a subtle way to lend emphasis to that aspect of the poem. Even more, we get the picture of a speaker who's sort of running around in circles (in his head, anyway) about his lovesickness. Sheesh, even his sound choices are piling up here. The poem sonically underscores our poor speaker's troubled mindset—a neat effect, even if it's a bummer for ol' Astrophel.
"With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies!" is a pretty mysterious title if there ever was one. To be fair to the title, it's not really the title in the traditional sense. Like many sonnets, the first line is used in place of a title. This poem is the 31st poem in Sidney's sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella. Occasionally, you will see it printed as just "Sonnet 31." B-O-R-I-N-G. Others, like us here at Shmoop, use the first line as the title because, quite frankly, it's way cooler.
Still, that line is kind of a doozy. How can steps be sad? And how can a Moon take any kind of steps at all? Do they have escalators in the heavens? What's the significance? Deep breath, Shmoopers. This is where we come in.
The title is about making connections, really, between the speaker and the moon. It sets us up for the poem's main talking point: how the Moon and the Astrophel are kind of the same. The Moon looks like he's lovesick, and Astrophel knows it because, well, he feels the same way. They are, more or less, in the same boat. The title, in all its ambiguous glory, reflects this identity because, well, the "sad steps" could belong to either Astrophel or the Moon—or both.
The title is mysterious in another way as well. We really have no clue just what this poem is about, what the deal with the sad steps are, why the speaker is talking to the Moon, etc. While we eventually get answers for some of those questions, much remains unanswered in the poem (what has Stella done to make the speaker so upset?). The vagueness of the title anticipates some of the vagueness of the poem that follows. Ah, but such is love, gang.
Let's see here… well, the moon is climbing the sky, so this poem is most likely taking place at—wait for it—night. Yes, it is true that you can see the moon early in the morning as well, but the moon is rising, which means the action is happening sometime shortly after nightfall. That's about all we get in terms of the details of this poem's setting. We can take a stab at a few others, however. A few poems after this one, Astrophel will be going to bed, so he's probably in his room, looking out the window (or "the casement," as the old Brits used to call it) at the rising moon.
Poor Astrophel isn't feeling so good, and he starts to make some strange claims about the moon: it has a "wan" face, it's climbing the sky with "sad steps," and it is feeling a "lover's case." The speaker is totally projecting his own feelings onto the moon, which makes us think that this poem is also partly taking place in some dreamy, fantasy world where heavenly bodies fall in love, feel sad, get rejected by other planets and stars, and, yeah, pretty much act like people. If this poem were a movie, this scene would probably play some hypnotic music and make us feel as though we were entering some parallel universe.
In addition to these more local settings, this poem is also part of a massive, massive, literary setting: the world of the sonnet. Arguably one of the most distinct literary forms, the sonnet really came into vogue in the Renaissance, when, you guessed it, Sir Philip Sidney was writing. Tons and tons of Renaissance poets (Shakespeare, Spenser, Wyatt, Surrey) wrote sonnets, usually about all the ways in which (usually unrequited) love can cause extreme suffering and pain. While each individual sonneteer has his own particular take on things, it's important to keep in mind that all their poems, collectively, are integral parts of a larger literary ecosystem. Feel sorry for Astrophel, sure, but there are plenty of other palookas like him, pining away though the lines of a sonnet like this one.
Astrophel—that's his name. It's an interesting name, no doubt, especially when you find out that "astro" means "star," and "phel" comes from a Greek root meaning "love." So that means… the lover of the star. Okay, that makes sense in a poem with a guy talking to the moon. It also makes sense when you realize that Astrophel's love interest in Astrophel and Stella is… Stella, which is another word for star. Very neat indeed.
Astrophel is totally down on his luck. Just based on his questions in the second half of the poem, it sounds like Stella doesn't love him in return. Astrophel's "constant love" doesn't make her feel all fuzzy and warm inside. No, no, no. She thinks it's just a sign of his lack of wit. Ouch. What's more, Astrophel even implies that she just likes the attention. She "scorns" him, despite his pledges of everlasting love.
Well now, that's enough to make anybody frustrated, sad, angry, and even a little crazy. And Astrophel is all those things in this poem. A guy talking to the moon and making up stories about how sad it is too is not a guy who's having a good day. Like anybody who's down and out, Astrophel is perceiving the world around him through the lens of his sadness. The moon isn't beautiful or serene; it is climbing with sad steps and wearing a "wan" face. As the poem progresses, we feel that Astrophel's tone gets more and more angry. One can imagine him shouting through his tears, "Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?"
There have been lots of sad guys in love who haven't been loved in return. It's bound to happen to everybody at least once. It certainly happened to the poem's author, Sir Philip Sidney, which makes us think this poem is partly a reference to events in his own life. Sure Astrophel is definitely not Sidney, and the two should never be completely identified with one another. But knowing that Sidney was deeply in love with a woman named Penelope Devereux, and that she treated him kind of like Stella treats Astrophel, makes us wonder if the "speaker" of this poem is a ghostly, shadowy, not entirely present, Philip Sidney. Read more about Sidney's frustrated love right here. Just don't go raving to the moon about it.
This poem is no walk in the park, that's for sure. While Sidney is very kind when it comes to word choice (no super-weird words that nobody really uses, for example), his sentences are tricky—sinewy, serpentine, complex. The whole bit about "Sure, that long with love acquainted eyes," really threw us for a loop, and we're supposed to be the experts. A couple other sentences in this poem are tricky, but besides those, Sidney isn't totally unreadable. If you want to make your life difficult, however, take a look at some of his other sonnets. They can be pretty tough.
This song could be totally be Sidney's theme song because, well, his poetry in Astrophel and Stella is all about how love really, really… hurts sometimes. In this poem, for example, the references to "sharp arrows," and "scorn" make sure we get the message.
This whole connection between love and pain is everywhere. You can literally pick almost any poem in the volume and find it. Take the first two lines of the first poem in the sequence to see what we mean: "Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show / That she (dear she), might take some pleasure of my pain." Comments like these are scattered all over the place: "Love gave the wound" in Sonnet 2 (line 2), "I now have learned Love right, and learned even so / As who by being poisoned doth poison know" in Sonnet 16 (13-14), and "I burn, burn in love" in Sonnet 59 (2). Love compared to a poison or burning? That can't be good—or feel good for that matter.
If you haven't read it by now, you should know first off that this poem, what with its 14 lines and iambic pentameter, is a sonnet. There are several different types of sonnets, but this one, for the most part, is a Petrarchan sonnet. The first eight lines rhyme ABBA ABBA, where each letter represents that line's end rhyme. So, line 1 rhymes with lines 4, 5, and 8 while line 2 rhymes with lines 3, 6, and 7. This is a favorite scheme of Petrarch's, a sure sign that the poem is following in his formal footsteps.
What's more, the poem falls into two distinct parts, with the second part beginning at line 9. This shift at line 9 is often called the "turn" or volta, and it is one of the distinguishing features of Petrarch's sonnets. The first eight lines (called the "octet") of this poem are all about the speaker's perception of the moon: he looks sad, he climbs slowly, the speaker wonders if he's been assaulted by Cupid, etc. The last six, called the "sestet," are a bit different. They are a series of increasingly frustrated questions that reflect on how the speaker's beloved has been treating him and wonder if female heavenly bodies do the same.
Now, we told you this sonnet is mostly Petrarchan. So, what part of it is not Petrarchan? Well, for one the shift around line 9 isn't as pronounced as it usually in his Sidney's Italian forbear. Beyond that, however, is the rhyme scheme of the sestet, which is CDCDEE. That rhyme scheme is more common in the Shakespearean sonnet. This sonnet, then, is really kind of a hybrid of both the English and the Petrarchan sonnet. Hey, who said you can't branch out a bit?
Usually, sonnets in English are written in iambic pentameter. Surprise, surprise, this one is written in it as well. It's the most famous of all English meters, containing five beats (or feet), each with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (which is what an iamb is). Line 4 will illustrate:
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries.
You should hear five iambs in that line ("penta-" means five): daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM. While Sidney is often known for playing sophisticated metrical games in Astrophel and Stella, he sticks to iambic pentameter pretty strictly in this poem. Bummer. The only potential speed bump is the word "even" in line 9. Still, this isn't really a speed bump at all once you know that it should be pronounced as one syllable, "e'en" (this is very common in poetry).
So, what do we make of Sidney's strict meter in this poem? Well, for one thing it gives the poem a sense of certainty: we know what the meter is going to be like in every single line. The certainty of the meter balances his doubt about what love is really like up in the heavens (he asks a bunch of questions, which suggests he doesn't really know what happens up there). For a man full of doubt, as Astrophel is, the certainty of the meter provides at least some security.
Except, when the poem throws us for a very small, but significant, 180 in the sestet. Did you notice that "wit" and "yet" don't really rhyme that well? Ahh, the ending T sound rhymes, but the vowels do not. This little bugger goes by the fancy name of a half-rhyme, or slant rhyme, but it might as well just be called a "sort-of" rhyme. It's discordant; it interrupts the regularity of the rhyme and meter that we've seen throughout the poem.
Now you may be thinking Sidney made a mistake. On the contrary, this is actually a very sophisticated little moment. This sort-of rhyme mirrors the speaker's own fears about his beloved's behavior. She apparently loves being loved, but then scorns him. That doesn't really add up now does it? Nope. Neither does that rhyme on "wit" and "yet." Whenever you encounter strange moments in poetry like this one, remind yourself that poets are pretty smart people, and usually do this kind of stuff for a reason.
The word "moon" occurs in the poem's first and ninth lines, and much of the rest of the poem is made up of the speaker's descriptions of the moon's very strange behavior. He seems sad, his face is "wan," and he climbs the sky really slowly. In reality, the speaker is projecting his own feelings of sadness onto the moon. The moon doesn't really move that differently from night to night, and the color of its "face" has to do with various environmental factors (the position of the sun, for example). Really, it's not sad at all. The speaker is so sad, in other words, that he starts to think everything around him is sad as well, including the moon, which becomes his partner in crime (or tears), so to speak.
The moon is in the sky, and the speaker repeatedly refers to this heavenly realm. In this poem, it represents an alternative world or universe, something that is different from the world Astrophel inhabits. He keeps referring to it because he's looking for answers; he's curious if all the pain that accompanies love in this world also accompanies love in that world. The point is, he wants to feel or believe that he's not the only one suffering; if it turns out that life in the heavens is just as hard, well that is certainly some small comfort—maybe. The speaker isn't sure if things could ever be as bad as they are on Earth.
Taking a quick look here, we count five question marks. The poem is 14 lines, so that's an average of a question every three lines. The reason the speaker asks so many questions is because he just can't figure out Stella's behavior. It just makes no sense to him. So he asks the Moon, in an attempt to determine if women everywhere act the same. Yeah, it sounds a little absurd, but the passion in Astrophel's questions, his frustration, are the marks of a guy who's pretty upset. You gotta respect that.
Frustration, pain, sadness, love—those are the feelings and emotions on display in this poem. There's no lust, sexual desire, lechery at all. That means this isn't a sexual poem at all. Still, there are few other sonnets in Astrophel and Stella that do get, let's just say, a little steamy.