Article abstract: Known during his lifetime as the perfect example of a Renaissance courtier because of his learning, nobility, and chivalry, Sidney was also a poet of the first rank whose sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella is a classic of English literature.
From his birth, Philip Sidney was associated with the court of England. His godfather was Philip II of Spain, husband of Queen Mary, and his godmother (his grandmother) was the Duchess of Northumberland. Philip’s father, Sir Henry Sidney, was active in government affairs in Wales and Ireland. Sidney’s early years were spent at Penshurst, the family estate. In 1564, he began attending Shrewsbury School, where he met the future writer Fulke Greville, who would later compose the first biography of Sidney.
In 1568, Sidney entered Christ Church, Oxford, where he impressed his teachers and fellows with his intelligence and character. His circle of friends grew to include such notables as Richard Carew, who would become known as a poet, and Richard Hakluyt, who would win fame as an explorer and writer.
His stay at Oxford was cut short in 1571 when he left the university because of the plague; Sidney never received a degree. In 1572, he began a two-year tour of the Continent, ostensibly to improve his knowledge of foreign languages, but also to serve in a quasi-diplomatic function for Elizabeth I. It was during this visit that Sidney met a number of Protestant leaders in Europe and became a firm and vocal champion of their cause. This belief was strengthened during his stay in France by the St. Bartholomew’s Eve massacre of Protestants on August 23, 1572.
During his extensive travels, Sidney met and befriended Hubert Languet, who accompanied Sidney to Vienna and the court of Maximilian II, and later to Poland. Languet had a great influence on Sidney and further confirmed for the young Englishman the truth of the Protestant cause. Sidney also visited Hungary, spent time in Venice studying astronomy, music, and Italian literature, and, upon his return to Vienna, learned horsemanship under John Peter Pugliano, the foremost equestrian of the age. Later, in his Defence of Poesie (1580), published in another edition as Apologie for Poetry, Sidney gave a vivid description of these lessons.
In June, 1575, Sidney returned to England. His education was now complete, and he was ready to embark on his service to England and the court of Elizabeth. He was already known for his intelligence and his serious nature, and his contemporaries universally acknowledged him as a paragon of virtues. In appearance, he was quite handsome, with light hair, a fair complexion, and fine features. The numerous portraits which survive testify to his refined but not overly elegant presence.
As a member of the court, Sidney met Walter Devereaux, first Earl of Essex, and his daughter, Penelope, who would later become the “Stella” of Sidney’s sonnet sequence. Although there was discussion of marriage, the death of Essex in 1576 and Sidney’s attention to political matters at court allowed the desultory courtship to lapse. At the time, Sidney composed verses inspired more by literary models than Penelope herself; his earlier sonnets are clearly patterned after those of the Earl of Surrey to his love, Geraldine. It was only after 1581, when Penelope had married Lord Rich, that Sidney seemed to have been moved by real passion toward her. By then, he could only vent his feelings in the sonnets of Astrophel and Stella (1591).
In the meantime, however, Sidney was occupied with political and diplomatic affairs at court. In 1577, he was dispatched with messages for the newly crowned Elector Palatine and to the Emperor Rudolf II, who had also recently succeeded to the throne. While in Prague, Sidney boldly lectured the new emperor on the need to combat the threat of Spanish domination of Europe. While returning to England, he traveled through the Low Countries, where he met and was captivated by William of Orange, leader of the Protestant cause in northern Europe.
Back in England, Sidney wrote a defense of his father’s conduct of Irish affairs to counter criticism. Sidney also turned to more creative work, composing a masque called The Lady of May (1578) to celebrate Elizabeth’s May Day visit to one of her subjects. Such visits were, under Elizabeth, elaborate state occasions of considerable importance, and their ceremonies were often expressions of political significance. Increasingly, Sidney was to be found in association with scholars and writers, such as Gabriel Harvey and Edmund Spenser. Sidney and Spenser met in 1578; the next year, Spenser dedicated to Sidney his important work, The Shepherd’s Calendar.
Sidney recognized Spenser’s talent and contribution, but another work dedicated to him that year pleased him not at all: Stephen Gosson’s Schoole of Abuse (1579), a virulent attack on the theater and the quickly developing English drama. Sidney composed and circulated in manuscript his Defence of Poesie as a reply to Gosson’s charges.
The Defence of Poesie is one of the earliest and most important pieces of English literary theory, and formed the standard defense of literature that would be used against Puritans and others who decried the art as being at best, trivial, at worst, sinful. In his spirited and vigorous defense, Sidney used the argument that poetry (by which he meant all forms of literature, including drama) teaches virtue more vividly, and therefore more profoundly, than do history or philosophy. Through its creative powers, poetry instills in its audience a lasting love of proper actions, and so makes them better persons. To bolster his argument, Sidney used as examples such English writers as Geoffrey Chaucer, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and Edmund Spenser.
Sidney published none of his literary works during his lifetime, but he was much less discreet with the distribution of his political writings. In January, 1580, he dared to send Queen Elizabeth a lengthy, well-reasoned, but highly improper essay which argued against her possible marriage to the Duke of Anjou, the Roman Catholic heir to the French throne. Sidney’s reproach to his sovereign was based on the grounds of loyal patriotism and Protestantism, but the queen was so angered that she banished Sidney from her presence for months. During this interlude, Sidney wrote his romance, Arcadia (1590), to amuse his sister.
Sidney’s talents and abilities, as well as his reputation and his many admirers, regained him favor at court. In 1581, he was elected to Parliament; that spring he took a major part in a festive tournament and other ceremonies honoring a French embassy; and on January 13, 1583, he was knighted. He was also given a more practical post as joint master of the queen’s ordnance.
The income from the ordnance position and other funds he had been granted from fines paid to the Crown, were necessary, for a marriage had been arranged by Sidney’s father and Sir Francis Walsingham, whose daughter Frances was then only fourteen. The two were married on September 20, 1593. Although Sidney seems to have felt genuine affection for his wife, he continued his devotion to Penelope. These emotions, deep as they appear to have been, found expression only in his collection of sonnets which were given the title Astrophel and Stella (“star lover” and “star,” the poetical names Sidney devised for himself and Penelope).
Sidney’s desire for service found little outlet during these months. Frustrated, he considered joining voyages of exploration or colonization. In Parliament, he sat on a committee setting boundaries for the projected Virginia colony, and his interest in this topic was well enough known that Hakluyt, his friend from Oxford, dedicated his own celebrated work, Divers Voyages, Touching the Discovery of America (1582), to Sidney.
A more urgent call to action lay closer to home. In 1584, the assassination of William of Orange shocked Protestant Europe, and made Sidney more determined than ever to insist on England’s resistance to Spanish actions in the Low Countries. Elizabeth, anxious to avoid open conflict with the powerful Spanish, was finally convinced to send an army to the Netherlands in the summer of 1585, but her commitment was tentative and hesitant.
Sidney, craving a more active part, attempted to join Sir Francis Drake, who was then preparing a raid on the Spanish coast. Sidney’s arrival at Plymouth was secret, but Drake promptly and prudently informed Elizabeth, who summoned Sidney to court. Once again, however, peace was restored between monarch and subject, and on November 7, Sidney was appointed governor of Flushing, a town in the Low Countries garrisoned by the English. He sailed on November 16, 1585.
The English army was small and its supplies poor. Operations with the Dutch were hampered by language barriers and mutual suspicion. Contact with the Spanish forces consisted mainly of raids and skirmishes, rather than full battles, which the English could not afford and the Dutch did not desire. On July 6, 1586, Sidney was part of a daring raid on Axel, a small village twenty miles from Flushing. Conducted at night and by boat, the assault took the town’s garrison by surprise. Later that year, Sidney participated in the assault of Doesburg, a small citadel near the town of Arnhem.
The English commander, the Earl of Leicester, was embarked on a policy of systematically reducing the Spanish strong points. The next one he attacked was at Zutphen. Leicester brought his army up to Zutphen on September 13 and was soon engaged in a running series of skirmishes with the defenders. On September 22, Sidney joined the earl with about five hundred English cavalry in an attack on the Spanish lines. Meeting a friend who was wearing no leg armor, Sidney gallantly but rashly removed his own.
In the battle, Sidney had one horse killed under him, mounted another, and charged through the enemy line. On his return to the English forces, a bullet struck him in the left leg just above the knee. He was able to ride back to camp, and was carried by barge to Arnhem. His wife had joined him earlier, in March, and, although pregnant, remained to care for him. The wound became infected, and on October 17, Sidney died.
The grief which was felt throughout England at Sir Philip Sidney’s death was profound and sincere. His funeral on February 16 brought mourners from all social classes to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Both Oxford and Cambridge published collections of elegies in his honor, and more than two hundred other poetic memorials were printed, among them eight elegies in Spenser’s Colin Clout’s Come Home Again (1595).
It was appropriate that Sidney’s passing be marked by poetic tributes, because he himself is best known as a poet and writer. His three major works were important influences on English literature, and one has attained the status of a classic.
Sidney’s Arcadia—composed primarily to amuse his sister, and therefore sometimes called The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia—is an elaborate chivalric romance, with verse interludes. The language, highly patterned and deliberately ornate, is typical of the genre, which was established by John Lyly’s Euphues, The Anatomy of Wit (1578) and which captivated an entire generation of Renaissance readers.
The plot is a rambling account of two princes’ pursuit of their two princesses, and there are numerous episodes of disguises, mistaken identities, battles, tournaments, and philosophical speeches. Pastoral eclogues are scattered throughout the work. Arcadia was first published in 1590, but the edition of 1593, which was prepared by Sidney’s sister, provides the first reliable text. Although very popular during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the romance has since declined in reputation and influence.
The Defence of Poesie, which was widely circulated in manuscript during the author’s life, remains an important document of the English Renaissance and provides an interesting insight into the critical views of the time. When Gosson dedicated his work, The Schoole of Abuse, to Sidney without permission, Sidney was moved to prepare his rebuttal. Gosson attacked plays, poems, and all other forms of fiction as being vain and sinful. Sidney sought to refute these charges in his reply, which consists of three parts. The first justifies poetry as a source of virtue; the second reviews the forms of poetry; and the third offers an optimistic prediction of the future of English writing. Interestingly, Sidney seems to have been unaware of the forthcoming achievements English drama was about to make.
By far the most important of Sidney’s literary creations was his sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, in which he chronicles his long, passionate, and ultimately unhappy relationship with Penelope Rich. The collection consists of 108 sonnets, which use the familiar “Shakespearean” form of three quatrains and a concluding couplet. There are also eleven songs in the sequence.
Sidney’s powers as a poet grew as he composed the series; the earlier poems often seem flat or contrived, but the later sonnets are both technically proficient and poetically powerful. He made particularly good use of metaphors and allusions from military and political affairs, as was fitting for a courtier poet. The influence of these poems on other writers, including Shakespeare, is clear.
Because of Sidney’s personal appeal, and the success of the Arcadia, unauthorized editions of Astrophel and Stella began appearing in the early 1590’s, with the first being prepared by the noted Elizabethan writer, Thomas Nashe (1591). The 1598 edition of Arcadia contains the most complete version of the sequence, and presents it in an order probably close to that which Sidney intended.
Although he was loved and admired in his own time as an outstanding individual, a defender of the Protestant cause, and an English patriot, Sidney’s enduring legacy consists of his place among the first rank of poets who created the English Renaissance.
Buxton, John. Sir Philip Sidney and the English Renaissance. London: Macmillan, 1954. A solid study of Sidney and his place within the Elizabethan period, concentrating on his literary works, but also providing background on his life and activities as a courtier and soldier.
Greville, Sir Fulke (First Baron Brooke). The Life of the Renowned Sir Philip Sidney. Edited by N. Smith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907. Reprint. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1959. The original biography, written by Sidney’s longtime friend. First published in 1652, this work is the primary source for Sidney’s life. It also sheds light on the thoughts and perspectives of his contemporaries.
Hamilton, A. C. Sir Philip Sidney: A Study of His Life and Works. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977. A well-written, well-balanced overview of Sidney’s life and writings, especially helpful for showing how the two relate in many areas.
Howell, Roger. Sir Philip Sidney: The Shepherd Knight. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1968. Concentrates on Sidney’s political and diplomatic activities, placing his writings within the historical context of the times, particularly his patriotism and intense devotion to the Protestant cause.
Kimbrough, Robert. Sir Philip Sidney. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1971. Good, introductory overview of Sidney the man and writer, and Kimbrough takes special care to provide a quick but adequate sketch of the turbulent period of the late sixteenth century. A good place for the beginning student to start.
Sidney, Sir Philip. The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney. Edited by William A. Ringler, Jr. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962. Since Sidney is best known today for his sonnets, a thorough study of him must include Astrophel and Stella. This edition is textually impeccable, and contains a fine introduction useful to literary and nonliterary readers alike.
Sidney, Sir Philip. Selected Prose and Poetry. Edited by Robert Kimbrough. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969. A handy one-volume collection of Sidney’s major writings, very helpful for those readers who want at least a sample of the Arcadia or Defence of Poesie. Kimbrough’s introduction is useful in placing Sidney within the context of his times.