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III - Acts of Writing and Authorship

“Stella is not here”: Sidney’s acts of writing as acts of erasing

Christine Sukic

Résumés

Dans Astrophil and Stella, Sidney met l’accent sur la dimension concrète de l’écriture poétique en évoquant l’acte d’écriture par des références aux objets matériels de l’inscription (l’encre, le papier, la plume, la pierre, les lettres, l’action d’écrire à travers l’utilisation de verbes comme « graver » ou « imprimer »…), mais aussi aux mots et aux lettres sur la page. Ces exemples semblent montrer un sens aigu du statut d’auteur de la part de Sidney. Mais en même temps, l’acte d’écriture est aussi remis en question dans le recueil, d’abord par le sujet même (une maîtresse inaccessible et distante, à la manière de la Laura de Pétrarque, qui n’est en fait qu’un mot sur la page, une « présence absente »), et par l’effacement fréquent des mots sur la page alors que le poète est en train d’écrire. Le poète utilise des procédés d’autoréfléxivité alors même qu’il dit ne pouvoir écrire. Sidney affirme donc son identité de poète à travers ces actes d’écriture contradictoires. Il est en fait, comme son contemporain Montaigne, « lui-même la matière de son livre ». Même si, comme nombre de poètes européens de la même période, il écrit de la poésie amoureuse censée placer la femme au centre de son œuvre, c’est le poète lui-même qui prend cette place centrale alors que Stella est effacée de la page.

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Texte intégral

I would like to thank David C. Kendall for his insightful proofreading of this article and his helpful suggestions.

  • 1 An Apology for Poetry (or The Defence of Poesy, ed. R. W. Maslen, Manchester University Press, 2002 (...)

1The Greeks called him ‘a poet’, which name hath, as the most excellent, gone through other languages. It cometh of this word poiein, which is ‘to make’: wherein I know not whether by luck or wisdom, we Englishmen have met with the Greeks in calling him ‘a maker’1

  • 2 Ibid., p. 134, note 38. The OED points to the use of the Scottish form makar in modern literary cri (...)

2In the Apology for Poetry, Sidney remarks on the Greek etymology of the word “poet”, poiein, to make, and finds it apt that a poet should therefore be a “maker”, a word which was sometimes used to designate a poet in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries2. The word “maker” stresses the concrete dimension of poetic composition, and may rightly describe a poet who, throughout his works (especially Astrophil and Stella and the Arcadia), often alludes to concrete acts of writing by referring to the material objects of an actual inscription: ink, pen, paper, engraved stone, letters, the action of writing itself (write, engrave, imprint…), but also words and characters on the page. These references to the act of writing seem to point to a strong sense of authorship on Sidney’s part. However, the act of writing in Astrophil and Stella is also questioned, first, by its very subject matter — a distant, inaccessible Petrarchan lover who turns out to be a mere word on the page, an absent presence — and then, by the frequent erasure of words on the page as the poet is actually writing them. At the same time the poet is using self-reflexive devices, he is also claiming his impossibility to write, so that the more he writes about his subject, the more his subject is diminished.

3What I would like to try and demonstrate is that Sidney asserts his authorial identity as a poet through these contradictory acts of writing in Astrophil and Stella, and that he is in fact, like his contemporary Montaigne, “himself the matter of his book”. Even though, like many of his European contemporaries, Sidney writes love poetry that imitates Petrarchan sonnets and supposedly places the woman at the centre of his poetry, it seems that Sidney himself becomes the centre of his own poetry while Stella is erased from the page.

“Look at my hands”: Sidney’s realistic strategies

  • 3 All references to Astrophil and Stella are taken from: The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. William (...)

4In Astrophil and Stella3, the acts of writing create an intimate setting, that which surrounds the persona of the poems. We visualize him, “biting [his] trewand pen” (sonnet 1), framing words with his pen (“my words, as them my pen doth frame”, sonnet 19), the ink “turn[ing] straight to Stella’s name” (sonnet 19), to give just a few examples of those concrete images relating to the material act of writing. For the reader, they create a sense of intimacy with the persona, but also of immediacy: we are the witnesses of the act of writing and therefore of the poetic composition. The fiction of poetic composition is that we read poetry as it is being written, poetry in the making, so to speak.

5The colour of ink is often stressed, as in the “blacke banner” of words in sonnet 55, and even more eloquently, in sonnet 70, when the speaker states that his pen paints “in blacke and white”, evoking words but also music notation on the page, or in sonnet 93 where he asks “What inke is blacke enough to paint my wo?”. The materiality of writing is also expressed by the use of words relating to several visual arts as metaphors of writing verse, such as painting (“with a feeling skill I paint my hell”, sonnet 2); enamelling (“Enam’ling with pied flowers their thoughts of gold”, sonnet 3), carving (“what we call Cupid’s dart / An image is, which for our selves we carve”, sonnet 5), embroidering (“Some one his song in Jove, and Jove’s strange tales attires, / Broadred with buls and swans”, sonnet 6), lapidary art, that appears in several images of sonnet 9, as well as blazing (sonnet 13), which means describing in heraldry, the whole of sonnet 13 being based on a heraldic metaphor. The concreteness of those images puts the emphasis on the physicality of the act of writing: we have the impression that Sidney deliberately stresses the work of the poet’s hand, envisaging poetry in its most physical aspect, that of the pen on the page.

6The acts of writing, in Astrophil and Stella, are thus part of a realistic (or maybe, as we shall see later, pseudo-realistic) construction. The stress is laid on the concreteness of the sonnets and on their material representation on the page.

  • 4 J. G. Nichols, in The Poetry of Sir Philip Sidney. An Interpretation in the Context of his Life and (...)

7Sidney’s realistic strategy could also be associated to the question of whether the characters that appear in Astrophil and Stella are meant to represent Sir Philip Sidney and Penelope Rich. It could be argued that this question is of little interest, since the poems can be read and appreciated without the knowledge of this biographical background, whether it is true or not. However, it is interesting inasmuch as it also reflects on the literary construction of the sonnet sequence, and more especially on its perspective on mimesis. It is perfectly possible to accept the autobiographical references of the sonnets (it would be difficult not to, since some of them are so obviously valid, such as Sidney’s reference to his father and Ireland in sonnet 30 or the numerous uses of the word “rich”), but it is also possible to consider, at the same time, that Astrophil and Stella are two fictional characters. Fictional works often contain autobiographical elements that do not threaten their fictional status. The autobiographical elements of the poems can be read as signs meant to convey the image of a realistic setting: they are effets de réel which integrate the sonnets into a well-known, contemporary reality4. In the same way, we should not have too much of a clear-cut vision of Astrophil: he is and he is not Sidney. He is a poet, and as such is a representation of the poet himself” but he also has his own voice as a lover.

8This general frame creates a sense of immediacy for the reader, which is confirmed in several sonnets in which representation appears as a direct process, from the poet’s mind directly onto the page, so to speak. Sidney uses the word “straight” several times in order to stress that immediacy, such as in sonnet 19, already quoted here, in which the ink becomes Stella’s name with no intermediary, it seems (“My verie inke turns straight to Stella’s name”) as well as sonnet 44, in which the same artistic transformation can be witnessed: “the sobs of mine annoyes / Are metamorphosd straight to tunes of joyes”. Such a direct act of writing can also take the form of an act of “saying”, as in sonnet 28:

When I say ‘Stella’, I do meane the same
Princesse of beautie, for whose only sake
The raines of Love I love...

  • 5 On the relation between word and speech, and more especially the question of the authority of the w (...)

9This time, the poet does not even have to write but actually “say” the words, or rather the word, “Stella”, which seems to establish the authority of speech over textuality5.

  • 6 The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. William A. Ringler, Jr, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1962, p. (...)

10As a consequence, there seems to be no intermediary in the process of representation: the name of Stella, and then, Stella herself, both appear instantly on the page. The persona has no choice but writing. This is particularly obvious in sonnet 50, when he writes that his thoughts of Stella “Cannot be staid within [his] panting breast”. Writing is thus compared to a physical process that involves the poet’s whole body, and not just his mind. He adds, line 9: “I cannot chuse but write my mind”. Or again, in sonnet 90, he is guided, or rather his hand is guided by love, that physically entices him to write: “And Love doth hold my hand, and makes me write”. Interestingly, Sidney’s words in the Apology for Poetry seem to echo that of Astrophil and Stella, as William Ringler pointed out: “But as I never desired the title [of poet], so have I neglected the means to come by it, only overmastered by some thoughts, I yielded an inky tribute unto them”6.

11Sidney’s claims of plainness or rather “pure simplicitie” (sonnet 28), as well as his rejection of several highly ornamented types of poetry, copious style and over-metaphorical poets, confirm the poet’s desire to express a direct form of representation, with no intermediary:

Let daintie wits crie on the Sisters nine,
That bravely maskt, their fancies may be told:
Or Pindare’s Apes, flaunt they in phrases fine,
Enam’ling with pied flowers their thoughts of gold:
Or else let them in statelier glorie shine,
Ennobling new found Tropes with problemes old:
Or with strange similies enrich each line,
Of herbes or beastes, which Inde or Afrike hold.
For me in sooth, no Muse but one I know:
Phrases and Problemes from my reach do grow,
And strange things cost too deare for my poore sprites.
How then? even thus: in Stella’s face I reed,
What love and Beautie be, then all my deed
But copying is, what in her Nature writes.
(Sonnet 6).

12After rejecting the complexity of a copious style, the persona finally admits that writing is a simple reproduction of nature, a sort of direct mimesis.

“Thus write I while I doubt to write”: the questioning of the material act of writing

  • 7 On this, see Gisèle Mathieu-Castellani, La Poésie amoureuse de l’âge baroque. Vingt poètes maniéris (...)
  • 8 On the question of silence in Samuel Daniel’s sonnets, see our « ‘things utterd to my selfe, and co (...)

13However, the immediacy of the representation and the materiality of the sonnets are counterbalanced, and even contradicted, by the sense of erasure which pervades the poems. Of course, this could be explained by the Petrarchan basis of the sequence: as the persona has the impression that he is not heard by the woman he is writing for, hence his writing appears to him as sterile and futile. This is often expressed in the sonnets of that period by the motif of silence: in France, for instance, Philippe Desportes’ sonnets abound in images of the voiceless poet7; Samuel Daniel also uses them in Delia8. In Astrophil and Stella, the persona’s words turn to unheard discourse, such as in sonnet 34: “What idler thing, [Reason asks] then speake and not be hard?”. In sonnet 61, Sidney also uses the topos of “dumb eloquence”, with which he paradoxically purports to assail Stella’s eyes and ears: “Now with slow words, now with dumbe eloquence / I Stella’s eyes assayll, invade her ears”. Silence as a form of art also appears in sonnet 70, in which it is meant to replace the refusal to write after the speaker has asked his muse to stop writing: “Wise silence is best musicke unto blisse”.

  • 9 Op. cit., p. 116.
  • 10 Sir Philip Sidney, The Major Works, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford Uni (...)
  • 11 Op. cit., p. 81.
  • 12 See J. W. Saunders’ famous article: “The Stigma of Print: A Note on the Social Bases of Tudor Poetr (...)

14The dead-end situation of the Petrarchan lover is aptly represented by an impossibility to write, since the references to the writer’s block are first and foremost Petrarchan topoï, the impossibility to write being a metaphor for the impossibility to achieve love. In Sidney’s case, more precisely, the expression of at least a reluctance to write is also part of his aristocratic attitude to writing as an idle occupation, as otium, and of what could be described as sprezzatura. It also appears in the Apology for Poetry which he calls this “inck-wasting toy of mine”9 and in a letter to his brother Robert, he refers to the Arcadia as his “toyfull book”10. In the Apology, he describes his poetic abilities as “having slipped into the title of a poet” in his “idlest times”11 and finally, in sonnet 18 of Astrophil and Stella, the speaker admits that he is wasting his youth and that his knowledge only “brings forth toyes”. Even though we know that these references are a form of pose, they are also part of a common discourse on poetry as it was practiced among aristocrats. As for the non-publication of the poems in his life-time, it may have to do with the same reluctance to appear as a professional poet and another form of sprezzatura12. In Astrophil and Stella, Sidney mentions publication as a way of becoming public, of putting one’s person on the forefront. For instance, in sonnet 34, the persona envisages publication as a form of shame, a putting forth of the body suddenly made public that is equivalent to a lack of modesty: “Art not asham’d to publish thy disease?”. The awareness of a potential erasure of the words on the page, as well as the impossibility to be heard could be part of the same sense of sprezzatura: the persona writes, but his words are so worthless that they do not even remain on paper; he tries to speak, but remains silent. As such, the attitude of the poet (Astrophil) in the sequence seems to reflect the attitude of Sidney, the aristocratic poet.

15In sonnet 34, the persona’s reason expresses several objections, not only to publication, as mentioned above, but also to poetry writing because it is of no use: “Come, let me write”, the poet starts, and his reason asks, “And to what end?” The words are written on the page but are gradually erased. So the persona doubts that he is actually writing: “Thus write I while I doubt to write”. Writing comes down to a sterile expense of ink (“Ink’s poore losse”), that does not even appear on the page. If we follow the metaphor of writing as loving, ink here could be a sexual metaphor suggesting a sterile kind of seminal expense, that could refer to the practice of masturbation. The only exception to this rule of the impossibility to write is sonnet 74, one of the poems that celebrate the kiss stolen in the second song:

How falles it then, that with so smooth an ease
My thoughts I speake, and what I speake doth flow
In verse, and that my verse best wits doth please?

  • 13 The image of pregnancy also appears in sonnet 37: “My mouth doth water, and my breast doth swell, / (...)
  • 14 On the question of gender in Mannerist poetry, see Gisèle Mathieu-Castellani’s most enlightening in (...)

16The verb “flow” suggests an indirect reference to ink and writing on the page, a word that is also found in sonnet 90 with the same underlying meaning: the persona admits that he is unable to write, “For nothing from my wit or will doth flow”. Sidney further stresses the idea of sterile writing when in sonnet 1, creation is viewed as giving birth (“Thus great with child to speake”), an image that is also used in sonnet 50 when the persona, perceiving the “weak proportion” of the words as he is writing them, erases them and talks of “those poore babes their death in birth do find”, using the striking image of words as still-born babies13. There is a strong physical sense in those poems that is associated with literary creation. In the second song, the kiss suggests a kind of sexual consummation after a long period of frustration; in its turn it allows the speaker to be able to write. However, physicality concerns the speaker more than Stella herself. Moreover, what is particularly striking is that the speaker can alternately be male and female14, being able to give out a “flow” of words or ink, a metaphor of a discharge of seminal fluid, as well as giving birth to still-born babies. In both cases, sterility is the outcome.

17The idea of a sterility of “ejaculation” is reinforced by the fact that the message that Astrophil would like to convey through his verse rarely reaches its addressee, since his words are “metamorphosed straight in tunes of joyes” (sonnet 44), instead of being, as he wanted them, “sobs” and “complaints”, which prevents him from expressing his sadness. In the same way, in sonnet 57, the speaker’s “plaints” become sweet songs, since Stella presumably sings the poems and thus changes their meaning:

She heard my plaints, and did not only heare,
But them (so sweete she is) most sweetly sing,
With that faire breast making woe’s darknesse cleare...

18The antithesis of line 11 (“darknesse cleare”, almost an oxymorong if we do not take into account the verb “making”) suggests that black ink is disappearing from the page. In sonnet 58, the persona conveys the same idea of a change of tone when Stella starts reading the poems:

...in piercing phrases late,
Th’anatomy of all my woes I wrate,
Sweet Stella’s sweete breath the same to me did reed.
O voice, ô face, maugre my speeche’s might,
Which wooed wo, most ravishing delight
Even those sad words even in sad me did breed”.

  • 15 « DE ce saint nom me commende d’écrire […] / N’Y touche pas, ta main n’y peut suffire : […] / ZEle (...)

19The presence of Stella’s name in nearly all the sonnets, as a word, could in fact point to the materiality of the sonnets and contradict the notion of erasure However, this is not the case. In sonnet 50, it is Stella’s name at the top of the page – the actual first word of sonnet 50 – that prevents the persona from erasing the words he has just written. Using the name of the poetic mistress is common in Petrarch’s sonnets in which Laura’s name often appears through puns –L’aurora, the dawn; lauro, the laurel tree; l’aura, the breeze; or as a hidden acrostic of the syllables of the name Lauretta, in Canzoniere 5 – but less frequently as a proper name, such as in Canzoniere 291 (Laura ora, Laura now). Such devices were often imitated, for instance by the French sonneteers of the sixteenth century. Guillaume des Autels imitated Petrarch’s sonnet 5 by using the same technique with the name of his poetic mistress, Denyse15. Sidney does not dissimulate Stella’s name in the words of the sonnets: on the contrary, it is ostensibly included in nearly all the poems, again to illustrate the instantaneous type of representation described in sonnet 50. However, this is deceptive: the more present as an actual word she is, the more absent Stella turns out to be. The constant repetition of the name could in fact point to the impossibility of representing Stella: the word is there, but the referent, Stella’s image, is difficult to grasp.

“Stella’s image”: an absent subject-matter?

  • 16 See for example Nona Fienberg, “The Emergence of Stella in Astrophil and Stella”, Studies in Englis (...)
  • 17 See also 59, 63, 64, 68, 71, 82, 90, 91.

20Although the sequence is supposed to be the means to woo Stella, if we believe the first sonnet (“Pleasure might cause her reade, reading might make her know”), Stella is rarely the addressee of those poems and in most of them, she remains a third person. As several critics have noticed16, she first appears as a second-person in sonnet 30, the famous topical sonnet in which the persona lists the seven events he is indifferent to; “you” is the last word of this poem (“for still I thinke of you”). Then she is the addressee of a few other sonnets, such as 40 (“As good to write, as for to lie and grone, / O Stella deare, how much thy power hath wrought”) or 50 (“Stella, the fulnesse of my thoughts of thee / Cannot be staid within my panting breast”)17. She is also the addressee of songs 1 and 5, partially though, since the speaker also addresses his muse. Sometimes the second person is not found in the narrative parts but in a piece of dialogue or a few spoken words quoted in the sonnet, such as 47:

Soft, but here she comes. Go to,
Unkind, I love you not: O me, that eye
Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie.

21This creates a sense of distance between the readers and Stella: she is far removed from us, especially when Sidney uses the past tense, such as in sonnet 57 (“She heard my plaints”; “I hoped”, etc…), which gives the impression that the sequence narrates a story that has already occurred, except for the episode of the kiss, which appears like a story within the story. There are thus many addressees in the sonnets – but that is in keeping with the Petrarchan tradition – Stella’s lips (80), the highway leading to Stella’s house (84), Love himself (65) the persona’s grief (94), his sighs (95), his bed (98), or Stella’s sparrow (83), to give just a few examples. The eighth song is, interestingly, written in the third person (“Astrophil with Stella sweete / Did for mutuall comfort meete”). Stella is given a voice in this song, in which her dialogue with Astrophil is quoted (“‘Astrophil’ sayd she”, line 73) The last line of the song reverts to a first person and the present tense which can be interpreted as an impossibility to maintain the objectivity created by the third person in the rest of the poem:

Therewithall away she went,
Leaving him so passion rent,
With what she had done and spoken,
That therewith my song is broken.

  • 18 See also Nona Fienberg for a different interpretation of the emergence of Stella’s voice. For Fienb (...)

22However, this shift in the tenses might also indicate the desire to mark the difference between Sidney and Astrophil, author and subject, and to establish the fictional aspect of the work. We also notice that Stella’s voice is encompassed within the frame of those masculine voices, that of “Astrophil” and that of the speaker of the song18.

23The sonnets are even placed at a further remove from us, the readers, when the persona admits that Stella is not sensitive to his own writing, although she is given to crying when she reads (or rather “hears”, since this is the verb used in sonnet 45) “a fable, which did show / Of Lovers never knowne, a grievous case”. She is thus touched by fiction, false “imag’d things”, but not when she reads or hears of her lover’s “sad Tragedie”, a non-fictional tragedy of which he would like her (and us) to believe that he is not the hero: “I am not I”, which means here that “I” (the persona of this sonnet) is not Astrophil (or Sidney) but some fictional construction meant to move Stella but also the readers, to tears. Thus, Sidney indirectly reaffirms the fictional nature of his sonnets. In sonnet 51, he also uses the phrase “sweet Comedie” in order to describe his heart’s conference with “Stella’s beames”, an expression that also points to a further fictionalization of Astrophil and Stella’s story.

24Finally, Sidney evokes the process of creation in the sonnets. Stella’s wooing and seducing could be interpreted as a metaphor for poetic composition and a self-reflexive device. Is the subject matter of the sonnets Stella herself or Stella as an object of representation? In sonnets 38 and 39, the persona explains the beginning of the process: “Stella’s image” is formed in his mind while he is asleep, “wrought / By Love’s own selfe” (sonnet 38). That image disappears when the persona wakes up, since, of course, Stella is an absent subject matter. And so, the persona reasserts the impossibility to write, “in opend sense it flies away, / Leaving me nought but wailing eloquence”, that is, without contents, and only with form. In sonnet 39, the speaker invokes sleep so that the image of Stella might come back to him: “Come sleepe, ô sleepe, the certain knot of peace”. Sleep, like literary composition, is yet another device he uses to represent Stella. But even then, Stella is only an “image”, as the last two lines of the sonnet indicate: “...thou shalt in me, Livelier then else-where, Stella’s image see”. The sense of impossibility does not only affect love in the sequence, but also mimesis itself. Thus, while the sequence abounds in concrete images of acts of writing, it also contradicts them by demonstrating the impossibility of literary creation as a direct mimesis.

“the faire text”: Stella as scripta puella

25Stella is both absent and present, the speaker of the sonnets says. She is absent as a referent, that is, a Petrarchan poetic mistress who is (and must be, according to the Petrarchan codes) absent. As we have seen it, Sidney stresses her absence by using several devices that place Stella at a further remove from the readers. She is present as a word through the name “Stella” in nearly every sonnet. This tension between absence and presence proceeds from the Petrarchan tradition of the oxymoronic rhetoric, illustrated by Sidney in sonnet 60, in which he uses two oxymora line 11: “this fierce Love and lovely hate”, before developing the figure into a chiasmus: “Whose presence, absence, absence presence is” (line 13). The oxymoron reoccurs at the beginning of sonnet 106: “O absent presence Stella is not here”. Stella is, therefore, not meant to be a woman of flesh and blood, but an object of representation: the oxymoron, a figure of impossibility, expresses the impossibility to represent that woman as a realistic presence. As a way of consequence, Stella can only be a written figure, a woman of paper.

  • 19 “Written Women: Propertius’ Scripta Puella”, The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 77 (1987), p. 47-61
  • 20 For Dylan Thomas, after Penelope Devereux became Penelope Rich, “the sonnets were no longer rehears (...)

26In several instances of the sequence, Stella is, to borrow Maria Wyke’s phrase about Cynthia in Propertius’ elegies, a “written woman”19, as when she is associated with the “faire text” of her eyes in sonnet 67. She is, indeed, a word on the page, the authoritative name of sonnet 50 that prevents the persona from erasing the words he is writing. She is an inaccessible woman, in keeping with the Petrarchan tradition, but Sidney deliberately turns her into a representation of poetry itself20. As the word on the page, the main word, that which is written, she becomes a metonymy for writing. In turn, Stella’s identity as a scripta puella, to use Propertius’ words, also affects Sidney’s identity as a writer. By stressing Stella’s fictional status, Sidney asserts his own identity as a poet. Thus, paradoxically, it is through the impossibility (or the difficulty) to write and Stella’s absence that he can better claim the “title of a poet”, and not just that of Penelope Rich’s frustrated lover, if he ever was that.

27Stella is turned into a material object associated with writing. It is a way for Sidney to reinforce the idea of a materialization of writing, but also to stress the fundamental aspect of the acts of writing in the sonnet sequence. He uses the metaphor of the woman as a written text, such as when Astrophil reads on Stella’s very face “letters faire of blisse” (sonnet 56), an image that suggests the idea of Stella’s fair skin representing the paper and her dark eyes the ink. In several poems the contrast between dark eyes and fair skin is stressed, such as in sonnet 7:

When Nature made her chiefe worke, Stella’s eyes,
In colour blacke, why wrapt she beames so bright?
Would she in beamie blacke, like painter wise,
Frame daintiest lustre, mixt of shades and light?

28Sonnet 20 also mentions “that sweete blacke which vailes the heav’nly eye”, and “that blacke hue”, while sonnet 22 emphasizes Stella’s fair skin because the Sunne is not so harsh on her: “The Sunne which others burn’d, did her but kisse”.

  • 21 Nona Fienberg sees Stella as a writing, more than written woman: “Although [the speaker] may use he (...)
  • 22 “whose lecture” here means “the reading of which”. See Duncan-Jones, op. cit., p. 366, note to sonn (...)
  • 23 See aSusan Gubar in her celebrated article ““The Blank Page” and the Issues of Female Creativity”, (...)

29In sonnet 67, Stella’s eyes are “the faire text”, while her cheeks are the “blushing notes […] in margine”21. She is, thus, a written woman that can be read, since the persona asks Hope: “how so thou interpret the contents”. Another example can be found in sonnet 71: “Let him but learne of Love to reade in thee, / Stella, those faire lines which true goodnesse show”, with the word “lines” reinforcing the idea. In sonnet 77, Stella’s face is a book in which to read about perfect beauty: “That face, whose lecture shewes what perfect beautie is”22. The metaphor of the woman as a text, or a page to be written on is rather common in early modern poetry23, but Sidney uses the image not so much as a metaphor than as a metonymy: writing and reading do not so much describe Stella metaphorically as she, rather, represents the act of writing, the main subject of the sonnet sequence.

  • 24 Op. cit., p. 58.
  • 25 “She is an ur-text inscribed with mystical writing who teaches Astrophil how to read her, how to wr (...)

30Several poems have writing as their subject, such as sonnets 1, 2, and 6, and Stella herself, the “faire text”, also becomes a “schoole-mistresse” in sonnet 46, who teaches her lover and Cupid lessons of love. In sonnet 80, it is Stella’s lip that “teach[es]” the persona’s mouth. In sonnet 71, the persona states that whoever wants to know, in true Neo-platonic fashion, “How Vertue may best lodg’d in beautie be”, he must “learne of love to reade in [...]/ Stella, those faire lines”. So she is not only “written”, but also “instructed” and “instructing”, a docta as well as a scripta puella, both terms used about Cynthia in Maria Wyke’s article24. As Andrew Strycharski argued, Stella could be seen as a school-mistress instructing Astrophil how to write25 and as such, another representation of writing as an art. She actually writes herself, since, in sonnet 47, she is able, with her “blacke beames”, to “engrave” “such burning markes” on the persona’s skin in order to mark him as her slave, as if she were assigning Astrophil to write.

Conclusion

  • 26 The Essayes, transl. John Florio, 1603, Book 3, chapter 2, p. 483.

31It is through the representation of Stella, the “written woman”, the word on the page, the “faire text”, that Sidney builds up his identity as an author, from that elusive fiction. The numerous references to acts of writing are not the signs of an ostensive author, but, on the contrary, of a sceptical one who writes about writing and represents writing as a constant erasing and re-writing process. In that, he is in keeping with the aesthetics of his time, and close to the unstable, inconstant discourse of Montaigne, whose authorship is also based on the impossibility to represent: “I cannot settle my object; it goeth so unquietly and staggering, with a naturall drunkennesse; I take it in this plight as it is at the instant I ammuse my selfe about it, I describe not th’ essence but the passage” (“Of Repenting”)26.

  • 27 Nancy J. Vickers, “Diana Described : Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme”, Critical Inquiry, Autumn (...)
  • 28 See for example Cathy Shrank’s article, “‘Matters of love as of discourse’: The English Sonnet, 156 (...)
  • 29 “Sidney not only directs the reader’s attention more toward Astrophil than to Stella, but toward an (...)
  • 30 Christopher Warley, Sonnet Sequences and Social Distinction in Renaissance England, Cambridge Unive (...)

32By writing a sonnet sequence, Sidney placed himself within the tradition of Petrarch’s poetry, like many of his European contemporaries. Petrarch’s characterisation of a woman’s image was still relevant in the sixteenth century and he played a crucial role in establishing the codes of representation still in use when Sidney was writing, even if reinterpretations of those codes were taking place at the time. Even Petrarch’s representation of Laura is problematic in itself. As Nancy J. Vickers demonstrated, we never see, in the Rime sparse, “a complete picture of Laura”27. The same could be said about Stella. She is also a “scattered” woman. In sonnet 52, we read about “Her eyes, her lips, her all”. Sonnet 9 is a blazon-like poem that enumerates her different parts through metaphors and similes: on “Stella’s face”, for instance, one can see that “The doore by which sometimes comes forth her Grace, / Red Porphir is, which locke of pearle makes sure”. In sonnet 29, Sidney uses the same technique of the blazon: Stella’s different parts belong to “Love”; “Her breasts his tents, legs his triumphal carre; / Her flesh his food, her skin his armour brave”. As we can see it, in line 12 of the sonnet, Stella is even turned to food and eaten by Love. This anthropophagic image confirms the appropriation of Stella by Astrophil but also by the poet himself and the fact that she is negated as a complete physical, bodily creature. Stella only comes through as a representation of writing, while the sonnets constantly assert the importance of the self. Several critics have rightly showed that early modern love sonnets express a powerful feeling of inwardness28. As Joel Fineman noted, Sidney constantly draws the reader away from Stella, and towards Astrophil, as a representation of himself, or as a representation of a poet29. What is more, as Christopher Warley pointed out, talking about sonnet 52, “Stella’s scattered parts reinforce Astrophil’s lyric prowess”30, as he shows his ability to write with conventional literary devices. Astrophil, in turn, being a poet in the sonnet sequence, can be seen as Sidney’s own representation.

  • 31 James V. Mirollo, Mannerism and Renaissance Poetry. Concept, Mode, Inner Design, New Haven and Lond (...)

33Sir Philip Sidney was also a poet of his time and showed, as did his contemporaries, an acute awareness of style, or “manner”, should we say. Sidney’s emphasis on the material aspect of writing echoes the way many painters of his era used the motif of the hand in their work, as pointed out by several theoreticians of Mannerist art who explained that the ostensible presence of the hand in paintings stressed the materiality and the physicality of the act of painting. James V. Mirollo gave several fascinating examples of this phenomenon, for example in Parmigianino, Bronzino and Andrea Del Sarto, and associated it with the importance of the hand in Petrarch’s poetry. Interestingly, Petrarch writes about Laura’s hand, not about his own. As Mirollo explains it, in Petrarch’s poetry the beautiful hand is a “synecdoche for the body in its beauty, erotic appeal, and tyrannical sway”31. In Sidney’s sonnets, on the contrary, the persona evokes his own hands more than Stella’s, thus stressing the importance of his own work as a writer.

  • 32 See La Poésie amoureuse de l’âge baroque, op. cit., p. 30.
  • 33 An Apology for Poetry, op. cit., p. 85.

34Gisèle Mathieu-Castellani established that there is a strong sense of artificiality in the sixteenth-century poetry that partakes of the mannerist aesthetics: the form takes precedence over the contents, the manner or maniera over the matter32. Realism is only an illusion, since the mannerist poet does not claim to copy reality (or nature). As Sidney himself states in An Apology for Poetry, mimesis is not a copy of nature but the representation of an “idea or fore-conceit”33. Hence Stella’s receding image in the sonnet sequence and her erasure from the page is not so much an expression of masculine hegemony, but rather it indicates an awareness of the process of creation and shows the precedence taken by the poet’s act of writing over Astrophil’s act of wooing.

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Notes

1 An Apology for Poetry (or The Defence of Poesy, ed. R. W. Maslen, Manchester University Press, 2002, p. 84.

2 Ibid., p. 134, note 38. The OED points to the use of the Scottish form makar in modern literary criticism, when it refers specifically to a poet writing in Scots.

3 All references to Astrophil and Stella are taken from: The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. William A. Ringler, Jr., Oxford, At the Clarendon Press, 1962.

4 J. G. Nichols, in The Poetry of Sir Philip Sidney. An Interpretation in the Context of his Life and Times (Liverpool University Press, 1974), expressed this ambivalence is very convincing terms, by stating that Astrophil is “a dramatic character, in the sense that he likes to dramatize himself, and his feelings, and also in the sense that he should not necessarily, or lightly, be indentified with his creator” (p. 77). There should not be a single, authoritative and definite interpretation of this question, which is impossible to solve so far. As Nichols rightly concludes on the subject: “only occasionally is the persona who speaks them merged with the author, occasionally and in varying degrees” (p. 85). For another interesting viewpoint on the subject, see Ronald David Bedford, Dialogues with Conventions. Readings in Renaissance Poetry, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989, especially his first chapter entitled “Conventions of Art. Sidney and the Idea of the Sonnet”.

5 On the relation between word and speech, and more especially the question of the authority of the written word and the different traditions (Latin and Hebrew especially), see Martin Elsky, Authorizing Words: Speech, Writing and Print in the English Renaissance, Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1989.

6 The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. William A. Ringler, Jr, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1962, p. 476.

7 On this, see Gisèle Mathieu-Castellani, La Poésie amoureuse de l’âge baroque. Vingt poètes maniéristes et baroques, éd. GMC, Le Livre de poche, LGF, 1990, p. 28.

8 On the question of silence in Samuel Daniel’s sonnets, see our « ‘things utterd to my selfe, and consecrated to silence’ : Samuel Daniel’s silent rhetoric », « Silent Rhetoric », « Dumb Eloquence » : The Rhetoric of Silence in Early Modern Literature, eds. Laetitia Coussement-Boillot et C. Sukic, Paris, Cahiers Charles V, Université Paris VII, 2007, p. 97-117.

9 Op. cit., p. 116.

10 Sir Philip Sidney, The Major Works, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 293.

11 Op. cit., p. 81.

12 See J. W. Saunders’ famous article: “The Stigma of Print: A Note on the Social Bases of Tudor Poetry”; Essays in Criticism 1 (1951): 139-64.

13 The image of pregnancy also appears in sonnet 37: “My mouth doth water, and my breast doth swell, / My tongue doth itch, my thoughts in labour be”.

14 On the question of gender in Mannerist poetry, see Gisèle Mathieu-Castellani’s most enlightening introduction to Poésie amoureuse de l’âge baroque (op. cit.).

15 « DE ce saint nom me commende d’écrire […] / N’Y touche pas, ta main n’y peut suffire : […] / ZEle tu as (dit elle) sans pouvoir » (« Du nom de sa Sainte, imitation de Pétrarque », lines 4, 8, 11 in Jacques Roubaud’s edition of French sonnets, Soleil du soleil. Le sonnet français de Marot à Malherbe, POL, 1990, p. 71).

16 See for example Nona Fienberg, “The Emergence of Stella in Astrophil and Stella”, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 25, No. 1, Winter 1985, p. 5-19, here p. 7.

17 See also 59, 63, 64, 68, 71, 82, 90, 91.

18 See also Nona Fienberg for a different interpretation of the emergence of Stella’s voice. For Fienberg, Stella has “some autonomy of voice and character” (op. cit., p. 5).

19 “Written Women: Propertius’ Scripta Puella”, The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 77 (1987), p. 47-61.

20 For Dylan Thomas, after Penelope Devereux became Penelope Rich, “the sonnets were no longer rehearsals for a poetic event but poetry itself, striding and burning” (“Sir Philip Sidney”, in Quite Early One Morning, 1961, p. 119, quoted by J. G. Nichols, op. cit., p. 59).

21 Nona Fienberg sees Stella as a writing, more than written woman: “Although [the speaker] may use her as his text, she also colors the black ink words on a white sheet with a blush that seems not under his control” (op. cit., p. 10). However, I would argue that in sonnet 67, the written text is not produced so much by Stella’s action. It is merely described by the speaker.

22 “whose lecture” here means “the reading of which”. See Duncan-Jones, op. cit., p. 366, note to sonnet 77.

23 See aSusan Gubar in her celebrated article ““The Blank Page” and the Issues of Female Creativity”, which gives several modern examples of women being “read” or “written” “into textuality” (Critical Inquiry, vol. 18, No. 2, “Writing and Sexual Difference”, Winter 1981, p. 243-263). For Eve Rachele Sanders, the image of woman as a written text is a “commonplace” of Tudor-Stuart drama criticism according to which men are writers and women “texts to be inscribed” (Gender and Literacy on Stage in Early Modern England, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 138). She gives several relevant examples of the metaphor in dramatic texts of that period.

24 Op. cit., p. 58.

25 “She is an ur-text inscribed with mystical writing who teaches Astrophil how to read her, how to write her, and, he hopes, how to win her love” (Andrew Strycharski, “Literacy, Education and Affect in Astrophil and Stella”, Studies in English Literature, vol. 48 (1), Winter 2008, p. 45-63, here p. 52).

26 The Essayes, transl. John Florio, 1603, Book 3, chapter 2, p. 483.

27 Nancy J. Vickers, “Diana Described : Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme”, Critical Inquiry, Autumn 1981, vol. 8, No. 1, p. 265-79, here p. 266.

28 See for example Cathy Shrank’s article, “‘Matters of love as of discourse’: The English Sonnet, 1560-1580”, Studies in Philology, 105:1, 2008, p. 30-49, here p. 34. Shrank also mentions the possible association of sonnets and Narcissism (see Jane Hedley’s article on Shakespeare’s sonnets and Narcissism, “‘Since First Your Eye I Eyed’: Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the Poetics of Narcissism”, Style 28, 1994, p. 1-30). Gisèle Mathieu-Castellani has also amply demonstrated that Narcissus was one of sixteenth-century poets’ favourite figure: see for example her introduction to La Poésie amoureuse de l’âge baroque. Vingt poètes maniéristes et baroques, éd. GMC, Le Livre de poche, LGF, 1990.

29 “Sidney not only directs the reader’s attention more toward Astrophil than to Stella, but toward an Astrophil whose principal interest is in his own poeticality” (Joel Fineman, Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye. The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets, University of California Press, 1986, p. 192).

30 Christopher Warley, Sonnet Sequences and Social Distinction in Renaissance England, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 87.

31 James V. Mirollo, Mannerism and Renaissance Poetry. Concept, Mode, Inner Design, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1984, p. 199. See also Claude-Gilbert Dubois’s Le Maniérisme (Presses Universitaires de France, 1979), in which he also associates mannerism, maniera, and the hand of the artist, and talks of a “rhetoric of the hand” (“une rhétorique de la main”, p. 16).

32 See La Poésie amoureuse de l’âge baroque, op. cit., p. 30.

33 An Apology for Poetry, op. cit., p. 85.

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Christine Sukic, « “Stella is not here”: Sidney’s acts of writing as acts of erasing », Études Épistémè [En ligne], 21 | 2012, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2012, consulté le 23 octobre 2017. URL : http://episteme.revues.org/411 ; DOI : 10.4000/episteme.411

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Auteur

Christine Sukic

Christine Sukic is professor of early modern English literature at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne. She is the author of Le Héros inachevé: éthique et esthétique dans les tragedies de George Chapman, 1559 ?-1634 (Peter Lang, 2005), the editor of William Shakespeare – Antony and Cleopatra (editions du Temps, 2000) and William Shakespeare – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (editions du Temps, 2002) and the co-editor, with Laetitia Coussement-Boillot, of « Silent Rhetoric », « Dumb Eloquence » : The Rhetoric of Silence in Early Modern Literature (Cahiers Charles V, 2007). She has translated George Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois into French (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 2009). Her current project focuses on the heroic body in early modern literature.

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