Astrophil, The Renaissance Stalker: A Reflection on Astrophil and Stella Sonnets (Sidney)

Sidney has certainly offered readers a beautiful journey through the psychology of love, with all of its confusion, base emotions and obsessions in his Astrophil and Stella Sonnets. I can recognize that beauty, and I love the language. But deep in the back of my mind, Astrophil’s behaviour rouses up a whisper of fear that rasps… “stalker”.

The concept of stalker may not even have existed in Sidney’s time, perhaps because of the differences between gender situations and rights  of then and now. More likely, the sonnets are a warning and Sidney meant to show the “dark side” of love that could occur if a Troubadour strayed from “virtue” through the loss of reason and intellect.

Probably composed in the 1580s, Philip Sidney‘s Astrophil and Stella is an English sonnet sequence containing 108 sonnets and 11 songs. The name derives from the two Greek words, ‘aster’ (star) and ‘phil’ (lover), and the Latin word ‘stella’ meaning star. Thus Astrophil is the star lover, and Stella is his star. (Wikipedia)


Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show
That she (dear She) might take some pleasure of my pain:
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay,
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite–
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”

Perhaps my title may seem alarmist, but I found myself flagging (with red flags), Sidney’s progression through love and comparing his emotional evolution to that of a modern-day, obsessive admirer. Let me share my comparisons between Astrophil’s love and a modern day stalker evolution.

First, Stella is married and unavailable to Astrophil. Granted that marriage was not a barrier to love poems during this time period, but it was considered adulterous to cross over and exercise those expressions of love. As a married woman, having an admirer who could not maintain reason, would have been very distressing and alarming, just as it would be today.

Many stalkers do not accept responsibility for their love. Throughout the sonnets, Astrophil blames everyone and everything for his fall into love except himself. Astrophil sees Stella, who is completely unaware of his attentions, and begins, on his own without any encouragement from her, to fall madly in love. He expresses his decline into this deep emotion as a plunge brought on by Cupid, but we are aware that this is rhetoric language and that Cupid had nothing to do with it.

Astrophil believes if he can express to Stella how deeply he loves her, she will return his affection, If she reads of his love, finds pleasure in his pain and then knows, and pities him, she will return his affections (1). That is the misconception of most stalkers. “If I tell her I love her, she will love me back”. This is what makes stalkers dangerous because when their love is not returned, they consider it a slight. They are unable to accept that the object of their obsession does not owe them love.

Astrophil blames Stella for his bleeding wound of love in 2. “But known worth did in mine of time proceed, Till by degrees it had full conquest got:” Astrophil did not fall in love at first site, but rather he was conquered by her “worth” that worked on him over time. This places blame for the love on Stella, who at this point is still oblivious to his attentions. Astrophil continues in this sonnet to state that he did resist (“At length under duress I agreed to Love’s commands”) but then eventually had to give in to the “duress” of love’s commands which are a product of Stella’s merits. Duress also means threat, coercion, pressure and force.

Astrophil seems to be placing himself in the position of victim who has no choice in his loving of Stella (5). He expresses his loss of intelligence (2) and reason (4) as products of this “forced” love as if he is suffering from a neurological disease that strips his mind of his human traits.

Astrophil also places Stella on a pedestal as a natural work of art in sonnets 7 and 9, “… Stella’s face, Prepar’d by Nature’s choicest furniture”. This exalted position is one that Stella may not be ready or able to live up to. She may not want to be there and will only disappoint him from this level of adoration because she is only human.

Astrophil ignores his reason,  which is warning him about his emotions (10) and later in the Sonnets, he argues outright with his own mind. He is truly desperate to quiet the voices that warn us all of our misbehaviours.

One might argue this position by stating that Stella did love Astrophil as we find out later in the Sonnets. However, everything is written from Astrophil’s point of view,  and if he is obsessive and delusional, perhaps Stella’s tears are not tears of love, but fear and her words of love may have been concocted to allow her a safe escape from the moment. Perhaps the words never existed at all. Misperceived love is often the misconception or delusion of the stalker, and Astrophil is definitely operating under misconception.

Loving, and wishing to show my love in verse,
So that Stella might find pleasure in my pain,
So that pleasure might make her read, and reading make her know me,
And knowledge might win pity for me, and pity might obtain grace,
I looked for fitting words to depict the darkest face of sadness,
Studying clever creations in order to entertain her mind,
Often turning others’ pages to see if, from them,
Fresh and fruitful ideas would flow into my brain.
But words came out lamely, lacking the support of Imagination:
Imagination, nature’s child, fled the blows of Study, her stepmother:
And the writings (‘feet’) of others seemed only alien things in the way.
So while pregnant with the desire to speak, helpless with the birth pangs,
Biting at my pen which disobeyed me, beating myself in anger,
My Muse said to me ‘Fool, look in your heart and write.’

Read more of the Sonnets here


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