Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Renaissance)
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...
(The entire section is 2626 words.)
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Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
Sir Philip Sidney was born into one of England’s leading aristocratic families. His father was one of Elizabeth I’s most loyal civil servants, serving as Lord President of Wales and Lord Deputy of Ireland. On his mother’s side, Sidney was related to the influential Leicester family, one of the major Protestant powers in the country. He was educated under the stern Calvinist Thomas Ashton at Shrewsbury School, along with his lifetime friend and biographer Fulke Greville; in 1568, he went to Oxford, but he left without a degree in 1571. In 1572, he went on a Grand Tour through Europe, where he was introduced to and widely admired by major European scholars and statesmen, especially by leading Huguenot and German Protestants. In 1575, he returned to England and joined Elizabeth’s court. He contributed a masque, The Lady of May, to one of the royal entertainments in 1578 and was employed by the queen in a number of minor matters. Unfortunately, he alienated Elizabeth, partly because he was so forthright in his support of European and English Protestant ideals and partly because of his own personal charisma. In a stormy career at court, he alternated between periods of willing service and periods of retirement to his sister’s house at Wilton, near Salisbury, where an increasing number of Elizabethan poets, intellectuals, and thinkers were gathering—almost as an alternative to the queen’s court. In 1580, he quarreled with the earl of Oxford over...
(The entire section is 526 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Penshurst Castle in the southern English county of Kent was the setting for Philip Sidney’s birth on November 30, 1554. His circumstances were privileged ones; not only had his father, Sir Henry Sidney, served as gentleman of the Privy Chamber to Edward VI, but his mother, Lady Mary Sidney, claimed membership in an aristocratic family—her father, John Dudley, having been created duke of Northumberland in 1551. Upon the accession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558, Sir Henry was appointed to a series of important political posts. As his tenth birthday approached, Philip Sidney was enrolled in Shrewsbury Grammar School; matriculation at Oxford followed in 1568. A particularly promising young man who was expected to inherit the title of...
(The entire section is 805 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Sir Philip Sidney may be England’s finest example of the Renaissance man. Along with Edmund Spenser, he not only did more than anyone else to inaugurate the great age of English Renaissance poetry, but also displayed diverse talents as writer, diplomat, administrator, and soldier. Few writers have excelled at fiction, poetry, and criticism, but Sidney, in Arcadia, Astrophel and Stella, and Defence of Poesie, made lasting contributions to each of these genres despite the fact that his were pioneering attempts in English literature. Both the sonnets and his treatise on poetry continue to be essential items for students of Elizabethan literature.
(The entire section is 102 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Philip Sidney’s father, Sir Henry Sidney, was a member of a highborn family, and most of his near relatives were titled, but Sidney was poor throughout his life. He was a man of steadfast character, and his influence on English literature was that of a chivalrous, courtly poet, critic, and patron.
Sydney entered Shrewsbury School, near Ludlow Castle, in 1564 and from there was sent to Oxford in 1568; he also studied at Cambridge. Throughout his life Sidney was intensely interested in learning, and in 1572 he capped his formal education with an extended tour of Europe. By his peers he was generally recognized as a...
(The entire section is 581 words.)