Narrative Strategies in Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella/Narratiewe Strategiee in Sir Philip Sidney Se Astrophil and Stella

Article excerpt

Abstract

In this article I suggest that historically lyric and narrative are not mutually exclusive categories. Focusing on the case of Sir Philip Sidney's sonnet sequence, "Astrophil and Stella", I argue that the fundamentally lyric form of the sonnet functions rhetorically and contextually in such a way as to invite narrative construal. I suggest that this is the norm in pre-Enlightenment poetic practice and theory, something which was perhaps occluded by the decline of interest in rhetoric.

Opsomming

Die artikel gaan van die standpunt uit dat, histories gesien, liriek en narratief nie wederkerig-uitsluitende kategoriee is nie Met die klem op Sir Philip Sidney se sonnetreeks "Astrophil and Stella", argumenteer ek dat die hoofsaaklik liriese vorm van die sonnet retories sowel as kontekstueel so funksioneer dat dit die moontlikheid van 'n narratiewe rekonstuksie en interpretasie aanmoedig. Ek argumenteer verder dat dit die norm in die poetiese praktyk en teorie voor die Verligting was--aspekte wat miskien uit die oog verloor is vanwee die kwynende belangstelling in die retoriek.

I. Sidney and early modern theories of poetry

Sir Philip Sidney, like any other poet of the English Renaissance, would not have understood our distinction between the modes of lyric and narrative, and I am not sure that we understand it either. If we did, we would not now be exploring the relationship between them. Early modern poets were brought up on a diet of Plato and Aristotle within a rhetorical tradition which had its origins in classical antiquity, and which continued to flourish through the mediaeval period, and experienced an efflorescence with the spread of the humanist learning of what we readily refer to as the Renaissance. The complex and minute, not to say acute, distinctions they could make between genres rivalled those of any scholastic philosopher debating about the number of angels that could dance upon the point of a needle. For them, however, narrative and lyric did not constitute the binary polarity which we post-everythingists are sometimes tempted to think in terms of.

We tend to think of narrative as prose, and lyric as poetic forms, but for Sidney the term poetry- or more correctly, poesy- covered the whole range of imaginative literature (as opposed to philosophy or history), and so prose romance, epic and sonnet were all forms of poesy. Epic and ballad were recognised poetic genres, but they were not held to be in opposition to non-narrative forms such as song, sonnet and epigram; and prose narratives such as Sidney's own The countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (written between 1577 and 1585; first published 1590 and 1593) straddled epic (heroic poem), romance and pastoral which included songs, sonnets, epigrams, and satirical and didactic poems.

This does not mean that Sidney and his contemporaries had an explicit, coherent, systematic theoretical understanding of what they were doing as poets. Far from it. Sidney's Defence of poesy (written probably 1580; first published 1591), for all its glamour, insightfulness and deeply moving moments, is also a bewildered and bewildering attempt to defend poetry against Plato's indictment of poets as misleaders of the youth by using an Aristotelian notion of mimesis (but with a late mannerist nuance) coupled with Horace's amiable edification. This syncretic approach constituted a summation of past thought in an invigorating amalgam with the innovative idealism and individualistic self-confidence we now think of as characteristic of the English Renaissance. The purpose of poetry was to teach through the delightful representation of virtue and nobility, ant, the delightful yet cautionary representation of their opposites. Such ideas easily accommodate representational forms such as drama, epic and fictional prose, but run into trouble with the forms we often think of as lyrical in the broadest possible sense: religious poetry, hymns and above all love poetry. …