Sidney's Strangers: Language, Materiality, and Authenticity in Astrophil and Stella

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This thesis examines the exegetical, intellectual-historical, and theoretical implications of a particular feature of Philip Sidney?s late sixteenth-century sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella: its continual anxiety over authenticity ? a term I use to signal the ability of its fictional speaker (Astrophil) to find a language capable of conveying his internal cognitive and affective states. Throughout Sidney?s sequence, Astrophil attempts to define an authentic lyrical language by both criticizing other poets and asserting a formal agenda for his own texts. His texts, however, continually contradict in practice what is demanded of them in theory so that the sequence shows an underlying pessimism summed up in Sonnet 35?s question: ?What may words say, or what may words not say, / Where Truth itself must speake like Flatterie?? (my emphasis). This paradox and the pessimism it produces, I argue, can be understood by situating Sidney?s sequence in a rift between two conceptual frameworks for understanding relations between subjectivity, language, and the material world. In one framework (dominant in western medieval Christendom), cognition, language, and material things were seen as ontologically homogenous ? part of the same sublunary, postlapsarian material stratum. But in another framework ? emerging in the sixteenth century and that would become dominant in western European modernity ? human subjects and their languages were seen as detached from the material world. Sidney?s sequence, I suggest, is stuck between these two ideological polarities. It wants to enact an authenticity that would become possible under the conceptual regime of modernity, where language is imbricated in the immaterial cognitive circuitry of sovereign, Cartesian subjects, and where it thus becomes capable of conveying the authenticity attributed to in modern ideologies of the aesthetic. However, Sidney is caught in the conceptual space of an older model of language: one that sees it as something thingly, ontologically homogenous with the material world.
My first chapter introduces ? somewhat lengthily ? the problem of authenticity in Astrophil and Stella. It develops some of the intellectual-historical horizons I want to situate the sequence in and introduces the main textual feature I want to follow: Sidney?s tendency, in attempting to establish the authenticity of his own poetry, to criticize other poets for their lack of authenticity vis-?-vis a resemblance between their poetic practices and commercial and economic practices. My second chapter both turns to the contemporary critical landscape of early modern studies and provides further elaboration of my positioning of Sidney in the ambiguities of early modern concepts of subjectivity, language, and materiality. After this lengthy prefatory, I move on, in my third chapter, to read Astrophil and Stella, focusing particularly on Sidney?s use of the word ?strange? ? a term that particularly points to the rift I want to chart in the sequence. My fourth chapter concludes with a methodological question: how do the points I have made about the difference between modern and early modern ontologies of language, materiality, and subjectivity effect the contemporary critical landscape of early modern literary studies. Particularly, I pursue the question of whether or not a return to formalism and aestheticism (increasingly called for in protest to the dominance of cultural studies in literary interpretation) has a trans-historical exegetical validity. In conclusion, I suggest that the assumptions on which such a return to the literary would stand become deeply problematic outside of the modern era.

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An Honors Thesis Submitted to the Department of English. April 2006 Winner of the Abrams Prize for the Best Senior Honors Thesis in English.


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Philip Sidney; "Astrophil and Stella"; Renaissance Lyric; Early Modern Lyric; Culteral Materialism; Formalism


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