When Sir Philip Sidney's sonnet sequence was completed in the early 1580s, it immediately circulated among courtiers and others among Sidney's contemporaries. A pirated edition of the sequence appeared in 1591, five years after Sidney's death, but the edition, published by Thomas Newman, was inaccurate and contained a multitude of errors and misreadings. Finally, in 1598, an authorized edition of the work was published under the direction of Sidney's sister.
Astrophil and Stella is widely considered to be the key work that forever changed the course of English Renaissance literature. This cannot be denied; Sidney's work introduced the English public to Italian poetry and the concept of a sonnet sequence (Astrophel and Stella was the first of many sonnet sequences that would be published during the period). The work also followed the traditions of Elizabethan love poetry while expanding them into a true narrative of a courtly romance, something that had never been done before.
Yet, over four hundred years later, the significance of the text to literature and society is less apparent. In today's classrooms, Sidney is often overshadowed by one of his contemporaries, William Shakespeare, who was himself an author of numerous love sonnets and became the primary figure of Renaissance literature. Students might go through their literary education without ever reading one of Sir Philip Sidney's sonnets, not to mention his entire sonnet sequence. What then, is the value of Astrophil and Stella in the 21st century?
Trying to place a value on a piece of literature can be difficult. Astrophil and Stella is not really a social or political text, although it expresses some ways of interaction between men and women that we can compare to today's society. In many academic literary circles today, texts that do not express or fit a social or political agenda are given less attention. Does this sonnet sequence do more than provide a glimpse into the world that produced it, showing its readers the history of the society and the culture that doomed Astrophil to always be separated from his Stella? It is true that Sidney's irony and frequent insults toward his society display Queen Elizabeth's court in a way that supplements straight historical texts. And from the perspective of literary history, we have seen the text's importance. But what is its importance for the lay reader?
The sonnet sequence does have universal value, demonstrating many things that have remained the same about human beings over much more than 400 years. Astrophil's love and passion are fundamental to people across all societies and human relationships, although his high-culture literary expression of this love and passion is not universal. The relationship that he describes, in all its conflict and anguish, is real, and the emotions that Sidney expresses are equally real and equally present in the 21st century, common among people of a wide variety of ages.
Because the emotions in this text are so real and so pertinent to readers today, Astrophil and Stella still receives attention from literary critics. Dozens of articles focus on two questions: Was Stella a real woman, and did Sidney really love her? The preoccupation with history turns quickly to a preoccupation with love, even among many contemporary critics. Romance has always had a place in society, and every person who reads Astrophil and Stella wonders if the love and passion in the sonnet lines were as real and powerful in the 16th century as they sound in the 21st century.
Some people may not appreciate Astrophil and Stella for what it is. To many of them, it is a long, boring collection of poems in an archaic form of English, in an irrelevant style, with too many obscure mythological references. Do not let the language barrier, however, interfere with your appreciation of the emotion in the poetry, which is as significant as if it were written today. The sonnet sequence introduces readers to what might seem the strange, heady world of Queen Elizabeth's court as well as what might seem the strange world of 16th-century England, but the universal appeal of the sequence-especially among people who are or have been lovers of their beloveds-proves that people have not changed. Emotions still rule us from time to time, particularly when we are in love or in a romantic mood. Sidney gives us worthwhile advice about love, reason, desire, and more in ways that we can understand. His 108 sonnets and 11 songs, most significantly, give us the knowledge (and warnings) that each of us is, in our own way, an Astrophil or a Stella.