Jack’s Naughty Bits: Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella

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Jack's Naughty Bits

Philip Sidney was one of the brightest stars of the sixteenth century. Combining raging
good looks, innate wit and a knack for diplomacy, he was the Elizabethan courtier
extraordinaire. In 1586, his thirty-second year, Sidney was killed heroically in battle,
thereby solidifying his legend. Yet despite his short life, Sidney wrote a number of
masterpieces, including the first sonnet sequence in English and the most influential book of
literary theory of his century. For over a hundred years following his death, Sidney was
considered a finer poet than either Spenser or Shakespeare. Most of that fame derives from the
Astrophil and Stella sonnets, one of which I have selected below.

The sonnet in question is neither the best nor most famous of the sequence of 108, but it is
definitely the bawdiest. Even those unused to reading poetry will have no trouble getting the
gist of this one: Sidney is jealous of the attention his desired lover is paying to her “lapdog,” so
he starts enumerating the many advantages he has over her “sour-breath’d mate.” Yet this is
no ordinary spaniel! To my mischievous eye, the question remains: Is “that lap” of line ten
doing the lapping or being lapped? And where are the “sugar’d lips”? Not that I have a dirty
mind or anything, but I suspect that what begins as an innocent poem about a furry little
companion seems to develop into a decidedly scurrilous account of Sidney’s all-too-successful
rival. By the end, we find Sidney asking to be lobotomized by love, for as his lover loves only
fools, this is the surest way to her heart. No small amount of rancor for fourteen rhyming lines.

* * *

Astrophil and Stella, sonnet 59
by Sir Philip Sidney

Dear, why make you more of a dog than me?

If he do love, I burn, I burn in love;

If he wait well, I never thence would move;

If he be fair, yet but a dog can be.

Little he is, so little worth is he;

He barks, my songs in one voice oft doth prove:

Bidden perhaps he fetcheth thee a glove,

But I unbid, fetch even my soul to thee.

Yet while I languish, him that bosom clips,

That lap doth lap, nay lets in spite of spite

This sour-breath’d mate taste of those sugar’d lips.

Alas, if you grant only such delight

To witless things, then Love I hope (since wit

Becomes a clog) will soon ease me of it.