Phillip Sidney’s sonnet, ‘Because I oft, in dark abstract guise’, was published posthumously in 1591, and occurs as part of Sidney’s most critically acclaimed work, Astrophel and Stella[footnoteRef:1]. [1: Gordon Braden, ‘Sixteenth Century Poetry; An Annotated Anthology’ (USA, John Wiley & Sons, 2004) p.357-358]
Consisting of 108 sonnets and 8 intertwined songs, the sequence is predominantly concerned with the speaker’s emotional state during his obsessive love affair with the more passive Stella. It has been widely speculated by scholars that Astrophel acts as a parallel to Sidney, and his own captivation by the similarly unobtainable Lady Rich,[footnoteRef:2] and the sonnet sequence has been considered a portrayal of Philip Sidney’s own thwarted love affair. In the twenty seventh sonnet, a distant Astrophel recognises that his detached appearance is a result of his overwhelming desire for Stella, who he has preoccupied as his ‘ambition’ (1.11). By combining elements of precursor Petrarch’s style, and his own poetic variant, Sidney constructs a powerful rhetoric which succinctly captures the paradoxical states of isolation and infatuation. [2: William G Madsen, Todd W Furniss, Richard B Young, ‘Three Studies in the Renaissance: Sidney, Jonson, Milton.; Ben Jonson’s masques.; ‘English Petrarke: a study of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella.; The idea of nature in Milton’s poetry’, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1958) p.20]
In the opening lines the speakers secluded state is introduced:
‘Because I oft, in dark abstracted guise
Seem most alone in greatest company’ (l.1-2)
Plosive and consonants ‘b’, ‘d’ and ‘g’ produce sudden bursts of air, which help to pace the poem and offer an immediately abrupt, uneasy tone. Sidney’s iambic meter allows stress to fall onto the words ‘dark’ and ‘guise’, which elicit attention to themselves and provide a disturbing insight into the speaker’s mind. Additionally, the juxtaposition of ‘most alone’ whilst in the ‘greatest company’ further suggests Astrophel’s hopelessness, something immediately recognised as a typical Petrarchan convention. Sidney evokes rich imagery of the lonely, void like space where Astrophel resides.
The octave depicts rumours circulating about Astrophel’s aloofness, which are instead misjudged as ‘bubbling pride’. When spoken aloud, the alliterative comparison of ‘pride’ (l.6) and ‘poison’ (l.6) has a rather forceful effect, as the use of a trochaic inversion places two consecutive stresses together, producing an explosive effect. By negatively connotating ‘pride’, Sidney depicts the effeminate and scandalous reaction the trait would have in Elizabethan society[footnoteRef:3]. The lexical choice ‘fawn’ is particularly striking, and appears to indicate a typical courtly action, but instead describes Sidney’s self-absorbed appearance, yet ironically it is Stella whom he is indulged by. [3: Michelle M Sauer, ‘The Facts on File Companion to British Poetry Before 1600’, (New York, Infrob...