Sir Philip Sidney Poetry: British Analysis
Sir Philip Sidney was educated to embrace an unusual degree of political, religious, and cultural responsibility, yet it is clear from his comments in Defence of Poesie that he took his literary role as seriously. Both this critical treatise and Astrophel and Stella are manifestos—not only of poetic but also of broader cultural practice. Both look forward to a long-needed renaissance of poetry and culture generally. For Sidney, poetry and its broader social uses were inseparable. Indeed, it is only with distortion that one can separate a “literary” from a “social” text, even with a Petrarchan love sequence such as Astrophel and Stella. Like other Elizabethan court poets, Sidney wrote his poetry within a structure of power and tried to carve out a discursive space under ideological pressures that attempted to control and direct the languages by which the court operated.
The Elizabethan court
The court was more than a visible institution for Sidney and his contemporaries: It was a felt pressure that attempted to fix and determine all that came within its reach. Sidney’s life and poetry are especially interesting examples of how the Elizabethan court’s power operated on poetry. The court poets—for example, Sir Walter Ralegh and the earl of Oxford—acted as spokespeople for the court’s values, yet inevitably the strains and tensions of their roles show through in their poetry. Poetry was both an expression of the power of the court and a means of participating in that power. Where a poem like Ralegh’s “Praised be Diana’s Fair and Harmles Light” shows the court contemplating its own idealized image, Sidney’s poetry has a more uneasy relation to the court’s power. Although on the surface his writing appears to embody, in Terry Eagleton’s words, a “moment of ideological buoyancy, an achieved synthesis” of courtly values, Sidney’s own position in the court makes his poetry an especially revealing instance of the struggles and tensions beneath the seemingly replete surface of the court and court poetry alike.
More than any of his contemporaries before John Donne and Shakespeare, Sidney in his poetry evokes a felt world of bustling activity, psychosocial pressure, cultural demand—in short, the workings of power on literary and historical discourse. The institutions that shape the poetry—the court, its household arrangements, its religious and political controversies—are evoked in the tournaments (41), the gossip of “curious wits” (23) and “courtly nymphs” (54), and make up an atmosphere of energetic worldliness. What distinguishes Sidney’s poetry is the forceful way that something more than the glittering surface of the court energizes it. Despite his posthumous reputation as the perfect Renaissance courtier, Sidney’s public career was one of political disappointment and humiliation; he seems to have been increasingly torn between public duty and private desire, much in the way the hero of his sonnet sequence is.
All of Sidney’s works are permeated with the problem of authority and submission. Like himself, all of his heroes (including Astrophel) are young, noble, well educated, and well intentioned, but as they become aware of the complexities and ambiguities of the world, they become diverted or confused, and Sidney finds himself caught between compassion and condemnation of their activities. In Arcadia, Sidney attempted to solve in fiction many of the tensions that beset his life, and Astrophel and Stella similarly served as an outlet for political and social frustration. In the prose romance, Sidney’s narrative irresolution and (in an early version) premature and repressive closure reveal deep and unsettling doubts; similarly, the ambivalences and hesitations, the shifting distance between poet and character, and the divided responses to intellectual and emotional demands in Astrophel and Stella articulate Sidney’s ambivalent roles within the court.
One of the fundamental influences giving Sidney’s life and poetry their particular cast is Protestantism. Indeed, perhaps the most potent factor disrupting the repleteness of the court poetic was Sidney’s piety and his struggle with creating a Protestant poetic. In A. C. Hamilton’s phrase, Sidney was “a Protestant English Petrarch.” Unlike his close friend Fulke Greville, for whom a radical Augustinian suspicion of metaphor and writing itself consistently undermined poetry’s value, Sidney tried to hold together what in Defence of Poesie he terms humanity’s “erected wit” and its “infected will.” Indeed, what Sidney perhaps uniquely brought to the Petrarchan lyric was a self-conscious anxiety about the tension between courtly celebration and Protestant inwardness, between the persuasiveness and rhetoric and the self-doubt of sinful humankind, between the insecurity of people’s word and the absolute claims of God’s.
The tension in Sidney’s writing between the courtly and the pious, John Calvin and Baldassare Castiglione, disrupts Astrophel and Stella most interestingly. Sidney’s own theory sees poetry focusing on the reformation of will and behavior, and it is possible to read his own sequence as an exemplum of the perils of erotic love, or, in Alan Sinfield’s words, “the errors of unregulated passion.” Sidney displays Astrophel deliberately rejecting virtue, treating Stella as a deity in a “direct challenge to Christianity” and to right reason. His cleverness is displayed in trying to avoid or repel the claims of reason and virtue, and the outcome of the sequence is the inevitable end of self-deception. The inwardness of Astrophel and Stella—not necessarily, it should be noted, its supposed autobiographical dimension, but its concern with the persona’s self-consciousness, even self-centeredness, as lover, poet, courtier—is thus a fascinating blend of Petrarchan convention and Protestant self-concentration, and one that points to a distinctive late sixteenth century strain within the inherited vocabulary and rhetoric of the poet in his role in the court.
The court poet
When Sidney returned from his Grand Tour, he looked back across the Channel to the sophisticated academies and court circles that were encouraging writers, scholars, and musicians, and that were united by a synthesis of Christian, usually Protestant, piety and high Neoplatonism. The French academies, in particular, displayed a self-consciousness that distinguished them very strongly from the medieval courts. Shortly after Sidney’s return, his sister Mary became the countess of Pembroke and established at Wilton what one of her followers was to term a “little Court,” dedicated, both before and after his death, to continuing the renaissance of English courtly culture. Sidney’s whole literary career became a frustrated attempt to realize a new role for the court poet, one based on the integrity and responsibility of values that he was unable to embody in his public life, and that more and more he poured into his writing. His remark to the earl of Leicester that he was kept “from the courte since my only service is speeche and that is stopped” has wider application than to its occasion, the French marriage crisis. It articulates a frustration toward the traditional subservience of a poet to the court, a stubborn insistence on forging a distinctive role for the poet.
Part of the fascination Sidney has traditionally evoked is what is often perceived as his ability to balance opposite ideological, rhetorical, or vocational demands on him. Certainly in Defence of Poesie and Astrophel and Stella, the elements of such a dialectic can be found. The promise of divinity that Astrophel perceives in Stella’s eyes is, in Sidney’s sympathetic comedy, wittily undermined by his self-consciousness, bashfulness, physical overeagerness, and human imperfection. In Defence of Poesie, Sidney describes poetry as a fervent reaching for the sublime, veiling truth to draw its reader toward it, and asserts that the power to move and so to bring about an enactment of poetry’s transforming powers certainly lies within humankind’s godlike nature. Yet for Sidney there was the seemingly inseparable problem of humanity’s “infected will,” and the reformed emphasis on human depravity and the untrustworthiness of the mind seems to have posed crucial problems for him and for the possibility of creating a Protestant poetic. Although elements of an opposition between rhetoric and truth, humanism and piety, Calvin and Castiglione, can be isolated, despite his most anxious intentions, Sidney does not manage to hold them together satisfactorily. In fact, his very fascination for later ages and his centrality for understanding sixteenth century poetry are grounded in such contradictions. “Unresolved and continuing conflict,” in Stephen Greenblatt’s phrase, is a distinctive mark of Renaissance culture, and Sidney’s is a central place in that culture.
The Psalmes of David
The versification of the Psalms, started by Sidney about 1579 and revised and completed by his sister, the countess of Pembroke, after his death, comprises the first post-Reformation religious lyrics that combine the rich emotional and spiritual life of Protestantism with the new rhetorical riches of the secular lyric. There are distinctive Protestant notes—a strong stress on election in Psalm 43, echoing Théodore Bèze’s and Calvin’s glosses rather than the original text, for example—and other psalms, where a strain of courtly Neoplatonism is highlighted, notably in Psalm 8, which (like Pico della Mirandola rather than Calvin) presents humanity as a privileged, glorious creation “attended” by God, an “owner” of regal and “crowning honour.” Humans emerges as free and wondrous beings, like their creator, “freely raunging within the Zodiack of his owne wit,” as Sidney put it in Defence of Poesie. Here Sidney juxtaposes, without integrating them, the great contraries of his age.
It is now generally believed that the psalms were originally drafted by Sidney early in his career, perhaps about 1579. Also written in this early period are a number of miscellaneous poems, including the so-called Certain Sonnets and many of the poems inserted into Arcadia. These are mainly of interest for showing Sidney’s eager experimentation—with quantitative verse, pastoral dialogue, song, metrical and stanzaic patterns, and above all the appeal to the feelings of the reader, notably in “Leave me ô Love, which reachest but to dust” and the magnificent double sestina from Arcadia, “Yee Gote-heard Gods.”
Astrophel and Stella
Sidney’s most sustained and most celebrated work is his sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, probably written in 1582, which dramatizes a frustrated love affair between a courtier and an admired lady. As Germaine Warkentin has shown, Sidney may have been tinkering with his “Certain Sonnets” during 1581-1582, abandoning them the next summer “to compose one of the three most distinguished sonnet sequences of the English Renaissance.” Certainly Astrophel and Stella conveys an...
(The entire section is 4636 words.)
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