During the middle of the sixteenth century English poetry was, almost without exception, mediocre. Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, had succeeded in bringing some continental polish and new Renaissance ideas into their works, composed during the last years of Henry VIII, but their efforts did not really bear fruit until Edmund Spenser published The Shepheardes Calendar in 1579 and Sir Philip Sidney began to circulate his pastorals, sonnets, and songs at about the same time. The metrical variety and the rich Renaissance imagery in the works of these two poets opened new doors for aspiring English writers.
Spenser’s contributions to English literature have been widely recognized, but Sidney’s influence has been less accurately assessed, in spite of his tremendous popularity in his own time. In a sense the reputation of Sidney the ideal courtier has tended to overshadow that of Sidney the poet, who is remembered chiefly for selected sonnets from Astrophil and Stella and for a handful of lyrics. The fine Oxford edition of his poetry, edited by W. A. Ringler and published in 1962, sheds new light on the genius of the young courtier, who died of a battle wound at the age of thirty-one. In moments of leisure in his active career as diplomat and soldier Sidney composed a substantial volume of poetry. Only a few lyrics were published before his death in 1586, but his work was widely circulated in manuscript and his reputation as a poet was high.
Sidney received a standard classical education at the Shrewsbury School and at Oxford, but his years of study and travel on the Continent probably had an even greater effect on his work. The experiments in rhyme and meter of sixteenth century French poets, who were especially interested in recapturing the techniques of the Greek and Roman writers, the beauty of cadence and imagery in the sonnets of the great fourteenth century Florentine, Petrarch, and his disciples, and the courtly tone of French and Italian Renaissance poetry almost certainly inspired Sidney to strive for similar elegance in his own language. Sidney, even more than Spenser, was a European poet; the native medieval tradition of Chaucer and his contemporaries that played a considerable part in the development of Spenser’s genius seems to have had much less effect on Sidney.
Among the earliest of Sidney’s poems to be widely circulated were lyrics from his charming pastoral entertainment, the Lady of May, presented for Queen Elizabeth at Wanstead, home of the poet’s uncle, the Earl of Leicester, in 1578. The verse portions of the masque included compliments to the queen and a song contest, in the best tradition of Virgilian pastoral, between a forester and a shepherd:
Come Espilus, come now declare thyskill,Shew how thou canst deserve so bravedesire,Warme well thy wits, if thou wilt winher will,For water cold did never promise fire:Great sure is she, on whom our hopesdo live,Greater is she who must the judge-ment give.
Many of Sidney’s poems were composed as part of his pastoral romance, the Arcadia. A number of lyrics appeared in the body of the narrative, and the five books of the original version of the work were separated by groups of eclogues related to the general themes of the story: unrequited love, the conflict between reason and passion, marriage, and the sorrows of age and death. The poems were spoken or sung by both the noble characters and the rustics; the shepherds’ songs include amusing parodies of courtly verses. Alethes’ song of Mopsa in the first book satirizes the conventional catalogue of the beauties of an adored lady:
Her forhead jacinth like, her cheekiesof opall hue,Her twinkling eies bedeckt with pearl,her lips of saphir blew.
Sidney had a fine dramatic sense that enabled him to capture the intense inner conflicts of his characters in many of his lyrics. The tormented queen, Gynecia, laments:
Like those sicke folkes, in whomestrange humors flowe,Can taste no sweetes, the sour onlyplease:So to my minde, while passions dayliegrowe,Whose fyrie chaines, upon his free-dome seaze,Joie’s strangers seeme, I cannot bidetheir showe,Nor brooke outghte els but wellacquainted woe.Bitter griefe tastes me best, paine ismy ease,Sicke to the death, still loving mydisease.
The heroes of the Arcadia, Pyrocles and Musidorus, traditional Renaissance courtier-poets, express their feelings in highly complicated sonnets, in which Sidney explores the possibilities of different and demanding rhyme schemes, intricately balanced lines, and ingenious paradoxes. Musidorus pays tribute to his beloved Pamela in a sonnet that employs only two rhymes throughout, a technical...
(The entire section is 2358 words.)