Sir Philip Sidney; after a miniature by Sir Isaac Oliver. Original in the Victoria and Albert Museum; reproduced in Social England, ed. H.D.Traill. University of Victoria Library.

Sir Philip Sidney, admired as the ideal courtier at Elizabeth's court, wrote one of the finest of the Elizabethan sonnet cycles, Astrophel and Stella.

Who will in fairest book of nature know
How virtue may best lodged in beauty be,
Let him but learn of love to read in thee,
Stella, those fair lines which true goodness show.
There shall he find all vices' overthrow,
Not by rude force, but sweetest sovereignty
Of reason, from whose light those night-birds fly,
That inward sun in thine eyes shineth so.
And not content to be perfection's heir
Thy self, dost strive all minds that way to move,
Who mark in thee what is in thee most fair;
So while thy beauty draws the heart to love,
As fast thy virtue bends that love to good.
But ah, desire still cries: "Give me some food."

Click here to compare Petrarch's original*.

Whoever wishes to see all that Nature and Heaven can do among us, let him come gaze on her for she alone is a sun, not merely for my eyes, but for the blind world, which does not care for virtue;

and let him come soon, for Death steals first the best and leaves the wicked: awaited in the kingdom of the blessed, this beautiful mortal thing passes and does not endure.

He will see, if he comes in time, every virtue, every beauty, every regal habit, joined together in one body with marvellous tempering;

then he will say that my rhymes are mute, my wit overcome by the excess of light. But if he delays too long he shall have reason to weep forever [because she will be dead].

(Translated by Robert M. Durling; from Petrarch's Lyric Poems, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.)

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Sidney and Petrarch

Sidney has taken Petrarch's sonnet and used it more as a source of ideas than as a model to translate; in particular the last line forces a complete reconsideration of the poem, as we realize that the earlier courtly sentiments were a gloss over an underlying passion of a kind we recognize, sympathetically, as a realistic acknowledgement of physical desire.

Sidney's sonnet cycle Astrophel and Stella is on line at the Renascence Editions.

Footnotes

  1. Petrarch's original

    Whoever wishes to see all that Nature and Heaven can do among us, let him come gaze on her for she alone is a sun, not merely for my eyes, but for the blind world, which does not care for virtue;

    and let him come soon, for Death steals first the best and leaves the wicked: awaited in the kingdom of the blessed, this beautiful mortal thing passes and does not endure.

    He will see, if he comes in time, every virtue, every beauty, every regal habit, joined together in one body with marvellous tempering;

    then he will say that my rhymes are mute, my wit overcome by the excess of light. But if he delays too long he shall have reason to weep forever [because she will be dead].

    (Translated by Robert M. Durling; from Petrarch's Lyric Poems, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.)