All poets are vitally concerned with the springs of their creativity. Where do their words come from? The Greeks personified their artistic inspiration in the figures of the Muses, nine goddesses who made possible the writing of poetry, drama, and music. British poets throughout the ages have also looked beyond their own souls for inspiration, seeking it often in beautiful women, nature, or God. Others find inspiration within themselves, in a nonrational realm often identified as the imagination.
Sir Philip Sidney, one of the finest of the Renaissance poets, wrote a sonnet cycle of 108 sonnets and eleven songs in the courtly love tradition titled Astrophil and Stella (1582). Astrophil, the young courtier, tells the story of his devoted but disappointed love for a beautiful married lady. The convention that an unattainable, virtuous woman could be the poet's Muse began with the Italian poets Dante and Petrarch in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Beatrice was the inspiration for Dante's Divine Comedy (c. 1310−1321), and Petrarch wrote his love sonnets for Laura; both women, like Sidney's Stella, were based on real women from the poets' own lives, but in the poetry they became abstractions that transcended any one woman. Stella is Astrophil's “star,” an unattainable, perfect, and lovely woman who leads him on his distracted path of adoration. In Sonnet 1 he sets out his reason for writing the poems: Stella will read them, realize his suffering, and pity him. Astrophil explains that he read other love poets to try and find the right words to “paint the blackest face of woe,” but “Invention” could not be inspired by such study. The poet writes with some irony and humor about his writer's block. Comparing himself to a pregnant woman in the throes of labor, he concludes with an image of the poet biting his pen in frustration before hearing his Muse remind him to “look in thy heart and write."
In Sonnet 41, Astrophil credits Stella with inspiring him in a tourna-