Sir Sidney Philip (1554-1586)

Sir Philip Sidney was born on November 30, 1554, in Penshurst, Kent, England, to Lady Mary and Sir Henry Sidney, a lord deputy of Ireland and lord president of the Marches of Wales. Sir Henry Sidney’s royal assignment in Wales required him to spend the most of his youth away from home. Sidney’s mother later became Queen Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting. She was so intimately involved with the queen’s care that she acquired smallpox while caring to her during her illness recovery in 1562. Unfortunately, the sickness permanently scarred Lady Mary’s face, rendering her unable to appear in court.

Sidney began his education at Shrewsbury School in October 1564, with a lad named Fulke Greville, who would become a close, lifelong companion. Greville, in fact, continued to write and eventually became Sidney’s biographer. Sidney studied languages (including Latin), religion, grammar, rhetoric, and mathematics at Shrewsbury, as well as other topics associated with a classical education. Sidney attended Oxford but did not complete her studies. He travelled more extensively than was customary for a young man of his generation, seeing much of Europe and meeting well-connected people along the way. He was in Paris during the atrocity of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and the subsequent Protestant-Catholic rioting and carnage across France. Sidney was a devout Protestant, having been heavily influenced in his youth by his friend and tutor Hubert Languet.

Sidney settled into life as an influential courtier upon his return to England, making diplomatic visits and encouraging young authors he deemed promising. Edmund Spenser was one of these. Regrettably, Sidney was briefly removed from his post at court as a result of his outspoken opposition to the queen’s possible engagement to a French family. He spent his time away from court with his sister and authored a lengthy pastoral romance poetry series titled The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, which contains the poem “Ye Goatherd Gods.” Sidney’s ability to portray many types of women in this and other works continues to be lauded by literary historians.

Sidney authored his The Defence of Poesy after knowing that certain Puritan professors were writing against poetry at the time. Around 1576, Sidney launched the first sonnet cycle in Elizabethan literature, and one of the greatest. It is named Astrophil and Stella, and it depicts the agony and ecstasy of a man in love with a woman who responds very marginally to his devotion for her. Scholars agree that these poems were inspired by Sidney’s long-standing romance with Penelope Devereaux. While the two eventually married, the poetry tells a great deal about Sidney’s affections for her.

Sidney replied in 1585 to a call for young soldiers to fight for Protestantism against Spain in the Low Countries. He was gravely injured on September 13, 1586, and died twenty-six days later in Anhelm, the Netherlands, at the age of thirty-two. His entire body of work was published posthumously to critical acclaim.

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