Sir Philip Sidney

Astrophil and Stella: The Sidney-Jonson Connection

by Bob Evans

In 2023, the Ben Jonson Journal celebrated its thirtieth anniversary with a special issue devoted to detailed explications of all 108 sonnets in the important Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence composed by Sir Philip Sidney. Edinburgh University Press graciously agreed to publish this special issue as a hard-bound book – and a beautiful (and beautifully inexpensive) book it truly is. The special issue, presenting “close readings” by Jonathan Clark Smith of all of Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella sonnets, will ideally make these brilliant poems more accessible to students, general readers, and even veteran scholars of the poet,

Why celebrate Sidney in a journal devoted to the study of Ben Jonson and other Renaissance writers? Because Sidney was in fact perhaps the most important and influential of all Renaissance authors aside from Shakespeare and Milton. Jonson, like most of his contemporaries, venerated Sidney, and Jonson also had strong connections with, and genuine respect and affection for, many members of Sidney’s extended family, who often tended to be writers themselves as well as important patrons of writers. Jonson’s deep regard for Sidney helps explain why we think he would have been proud to be affiliated with this particular special issue.

Anyone unfamiliar with Sidney might especially enjoy a recent short documentary film titled Shakespeare’s Muse of Fire: Sir Philip Sidney.

This is an especially strong, appealing, and professional documentary featuring

  • interviews with major scholars
  • striking and sometimes witty graphics
  • effective period paintings, illustrations, and images
  • vivid photography
  • a lively pace
  • a solid overview of Sidney’s great prose work THE ARCADIA

According to this film, Sidney was “the most important Elizabethan person you’ve never heard of.”

Who, exactly, was Sidney? According to the scholars interviewed here, he was

  • “the greatest prose writer of the English Renaissance”
  • “the guy who brought sonnets to England”
  • a courtier who offended Queen Elizabeth by urging her to go to war in the Netherlands
  • the author of “the first great English novel”
  • a writer “very influential on Shakespeare … he was Shakespeare’s Shakespeare”
  • a man “born into high society but [who] didn’t have the real connection”
  • a “dazzling student – a perfect student perhaps”
  • the author of an “enormous volume of first-rate literature”
  • “one of those really nice guys who was always helping people”
  • a writer who was both funny and a wit
  • a brave soldier killed while young and who was then given “grandest funeral for a commoner [in Britain] before Churchill”
  • a writer “whose poems have “a personal feel to them”
  • a writer whose ARCADIA is “rife … with pictorial description”
  • a writer whose ARCADIA “really has everything” and was “a best-seller for two hundred years”
  • an author whose ARCADIA was so influential that “everybody who was anybody read it, including Shakespeare, “who just devoured it” and who borrowed often from it in his tragedies and in his comedies (“Shakespeare’s romantic comedies wouldn’t exist if the ARCADIA didn’t exist”)
  • a writer who “used literature to explore moral quandaries”
  • a man who “was a culture-hero with a huge amount of mystique surrounding him”
  • an author who “puts together a sentence better than any other writer” of his time

Unfortunately, if there is anything missing from this splendid documentary, it is a fuller discussion of Astrophil and Stella. And now, in our thirtieth anniversary issue and thanks to Jonathan Smith, readers have access to just such an accessible but thorough discussion.

Access the special issue here.

About the journal

The Ben Jonson Journal is a peer-reviewed, twice-a-year review devoted to the study of Ben Jonson and the culture in which his manifold literary efforts thrived. It includes essays on poetry, theatre, criticism, religion, law, the court, the curriculum, medicine, commerce, the city, and family life.

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Edinburgh University Press
Edinburgh University Press
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