Author Feature: Sir Philip Sidney


The finest incarnation of humanistic virtues in his times was Sir Philip Sidney. He was born in 1554. On both sides he was an aristocrat. His mother came of the exalted house of Lisle and Dudley. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was her brother. Philip’s father, Sir Henry Sidney, was utterly uncorrupted by the vices of the time, and the Queen had no servant more wise, energetic, faithful, honest, and unrewarded than he.

Philip was destined to be spoiled if any boy ever was, by rank, looks, and easy success. As Spenser says, doubtless with him in mind,

Some so goodly gratious are by kind,
That every action doth them much commend,
And in the eyes of men great liking find.
(Faery Queen, 6.2.2)

To this irresistible grace was added mind, aspiration, and a measure of genius. He had, however, to struggle with straitened means, ill health, and, like many of his time, an unruly temper.

At Shrewsbury School he was a comrade of Fulke Greville, who in aftertimes wrote a fine Life of Sidney. At Oxford for three years he was at Christ Church, where he found illustrious friends–Camden the antiquary, and Richard Hakluyt editor of the famous Voyages.

He was groomed for the Court under Leicester and the favoring eye of the great Cecil, and sent, like all young bloods, to travel for three years among the courts and humanistic elite of Paris, Vienna, Venice, Padua, Poland, and Germany. In Paris he saw the horrors of the St. Bartholomew massacre, the memory of which surely entered into his passionate devotion to the Protestant cause. He made his closest friend of the scholar-diplomatist, Languet, thirty-five years his elder; but Sidney’s precocity overcame these differences of age. The letters between them show whence Sidney’s chief humanistic and spiritual inspiration came, and make one of the most fascinating books of the Renaissance. Languet must have seen in Sidney’s ardent temper reasons to be worried about his moral dangers while in Italy. But he, or the boy’s natural high seriousness, steered him safely through them, and at twenty-one he reached home and the world of the Court again.

The remaining eleven years of his life were crowded full. Young as he was, he was almost overwhelmed with popularity, responsibilities, and honors. Men looked to him wistfully as the hoped-for leader of the Protestant cause in Europe. He was the Queen’s messenger to the Low Countries, and joined his uncle Leicester in urging Elizabeth to help them in their struggle with Catholic Spain.

He may have been twenty-three when he met the eccentric Cambridge pundit, Gabriel Harvey, and through him Edmund Spenser. Spenser was two years older, of far humbler social rank, raw from the university, and not yet known for a poet. Sidney was ever aware of his own rank. Yet some intimacy seems to have developed, if not a close friendship, and for two years a lively traffic in literary ideas went on in their coterie, which included Dyer, Harvey, and perhaps Greville. Some one in joke called it an Areopagus, but it never assumed the significance of the French Pleiade, though it sympathized no doubt with the doctrines of that group.

In their enthusiasm for the classics and their youthful passion for reform in English poetry, these young sophisticates experimented in English quantitative verse on the principles of Latin metre, in preference to native stresses and rhyme; but Spenser’s truer instinct readily discerned the absurdity of it. “Why, a God’s name,” he asked, “may we not have the kingdom of our language?” The permanent fruits of their thought are probably embodied in Sidney’s Defence of Poesy, written down later and not published till nine years after he died.

In despair at the low condition of English poetry, having himself “slipped into the title of a poet,” he would defend poetry in general against its enemies. There is no proof that he here had especially in mind Gosson’s School of Abuse, an attack on the stage which had been inscribed to him. In effect poetry is not a matter of metre and rhyme, but of inventive imagination, idealizing and transforming this world of ours, thereby subtly and profoundly making us all better men without our conscious knowledge. His ideas derive mainly from Plato, Aristotle’s Poetics, and Horace’s Art of Poetry, but also include a large heritage of medieval theory and thought transmitted through Boccaccio. The great merit of Sidney’s essay lies partly in the high enthusiasm and charm of the man, partly in its authority as the honest utterance of a practising poet.

At the age of sixteen his beautiful sister Mary had by marriage become Countess of Pembroke. Between the two there was the warmest devotion and literary sympathy, and “Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother,” became the admired patroness of various poets in after years. In the retirement of her stately country seat at Wilton near Salisbury he began for her his romance of Arcadia, which he afterwards continued in casual sheets but never finished. It is a long and episodic account of the loves and other adventures of Musidorus and Pyrochles, two mutually devoted young princes, in a mapless, remote world where wilderness mingles with idyllic pastoral or courtly setting. Such pastoral romances Sidney could have read in Italian, notably in the Arcadia of Sannazaro. They are an outgrowth of old pastoral poetry, medieval romance, and such a Greek novel as the famous Daphnis and Chloe. In times of artificial and courtly restraint, finer souls turn to the pastoral escape, and Sidney, already tiring of the Court in spite of his success, seeks relief with his sister at Wilton and in Arcadia.

Though not easily read nowadays, Sidney’s “novel” met with enormous popularity, was circulated in manuscript, and during the century after the author’s death went through many editions. It is full of events, and its high-flown style, in spite of Sidney’s protest against Euphuism, its sentiment, its wit, and the scarcity of fiction generally are enough to account for its fame. To English poetry and drama it furnished material, including no less than Shakespeare’s story of the Duke of Gloucester in King Lear, and suggestions for the Faery Queen. It contains nearly forty interpolated lyric poems from Sidney’s hand, and glows in every part with his generous and chivalric temper.

Before he was twenty Sidney may have begun to write sonnets merely as a literary exercise. But his cycle of 108 sonnets known as Astrophel and Stella, the first in English, seems for the most part to have uttered a genuine passion, and every reader naturally inquires for the lady. A number of the sonnets were unquestionably addressed to Penelope Devereux, daughter of his older friend the Earl of Essex, considered by their elders as a possible wife for Sidney. Hence the still persistent view that when she subsequently married Lord Rich, Sidney, thus balked, took sudden fire and poured out his passion in the sonnets. The facts are not clear. After Sidney’s death in 1586 certain friends including Spenser seem to have been worried by the scandal, and apparently wished the world to believe that Stella was Frances Walsingham, whom Sidney married in 1583. But embarrassing difficulties confront any fixed opinion.

The sonnet was born in Provence and matured in Italy in the thirteenth century. Dante and Petrarch were its early masters, and the Petrarchan form of fourteen lines rhyming abba, abba, cde, cde, with variations in the last six lines, became standard. In English, where rhymes are less easy, the “Shakespearian” form of three quatrains rhyming alternately plus a couplet had developed through Wyatt and Surrey. Sidney’s sonnets are in all stages of modulation between the two.

So strict and conventional is the form of the sonnet that many have been prone to suspect its sincerity, whoever the author, and to postulate for the sonneteer of the Renaissance at most an imaginary ideal as the object of his ardors. Stella they find but a sublimated figment. And though Sidney protests that he is “no pick-purse of another’s wit,” yet there is no denying that his, like most Elizabethan sonnets, are full of traditional devices of the species, and many of them are mere adaptations of sonnets by Petrarch to his Laura, and of other Italian and French sonnets. The measure of their sincerity each reader must take for himself. Nevertheless ardent young men in an ardent age and atmosphere will hardly be playing with the high explosive contained in sonnets without suffering serious and very real accidents to heart and mind, however casually they began.

Of Sidney himself his sonnets contain much–his love of books, of horses, of jousts, his intensity, his tight rein upon his passions, like the pupil of Aristotle that he confesses himself. But he is also the pupil of Plato, and would in the end turn his earthly passion to spiritual result. The last and favorite sonnet of the series,

Leave me, O Love, which reachest but to dust,
is a glorious embodiment of this idea.

Sidney boasted that “what I speak doth flow in verse.” Yet for all its spontaneity, wit, and substance, his verse often halts and grinds, which is the more surprising in his time when verse and music were in the closest alliance. If he spoke slightingly of his own performance, and left orders to have Arcadia burned, it was perhaps but the fashionable aristocratic disparagement of literature as the mere by-product of an avocation. Yet in his heart he took poetry not as the elegant pastime of polite wits, but as a regenerator of men; and in his reference to the old ballads he implies his sense of their elemental vigors.

The story of his death after the field of Zutphen, told by his friend Greville, where he declined the cup of water in favor of a common soldier, and laid down his gallant life for the cause of human freedom, is too well known to rehearse. In bia last hours of suffering he was supremely happy, possibly at the release of his idealistic spirit from his turbulent body and a rough if admiring world.

Charles Grosvenor Osgood, The Voice of England, 2nd Ed., 1935, 1952 Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York.

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