Although Sir Philip Sidney’s best-known work is Astrophel and Stella, his major work and the one to which he devoted most of his literary energy and much of his political frustration was Arcadia (originally titled The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia). This long, much-revised epic prose romance was written and revised between 1578 and 1586; it was first published in an unfinished version in 1590, then in 1593 in a revised and imperfect version, again in 1598, and repeatedly in many editions for more than a century. The equivalent in prose of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), it is an encyclopedic romance of love, politics, and adventure, incorporating many stories and discussions of philosophical, theological, erotic, and psychological issues. Almost as important is Sidney’s critical treatise, Defence of Poesie (1595; published in another edition as An Apologie for Poetry), written about 1580, and setting forth in a seductive, if never quite logically coherent argument, a celebration of the nature and power of poetry, along with some prescriptive (and perceptive) comments on the current malaise of English poetry, drama, and the literary scene generally. Other works Sidney wrote include The Lady of May (pr. 1578), a pastoral entertainment; the first forty-four poems in a translation of the Psalms, later revised and completed by his sister Mary; and a number of other miscellaneous poems, prose treatises, and translations, mainly designed to further the cause of the Protestant faction in Elizabeth’s court.
“Our English Petrarke Sir Philip Sidney . . . often comforteth him selfe in his sonnets of Stella, though dispairing to attaine his desire. . . .” Thus Sir John Harington in 1591, and generations of readers have similarly sighed and sympathized with Astrophel’s tragicomic enactment of “poore Petrarch’s long deceased woes.” In literary history, Astrophel and Stella marks a poetical revolution no less than William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1798) or T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922); the poem is the product of a young, ambitious poet, acting on his impatience with the poetry he criticized in his manifesto, Defence of Poesie. “Poetry almost have we none,” he wrote, “but that lyrical kind of songs and sonets,” which “if I were a mistresse would never persuade mee they were in love.” Sir Philip Sidney has also had a special place in England’s broader cultural history. Part of his fascination has been the ways succeeding ages have appropriated him: as a lost leader of the golden Elizabethan age, Victorian gentleman, anguished Edwardian, committed existentialist, apolitical quietist, even a member of the Moral Majority. Like all great writers, Sidney and his works have been continually reinterpreted by successive ages, his poems and his life alike inscribed into different literary, political, and cultural discourses. As contemporary scholars have become more attuned to both the linguistic and ideological complexity of Renaissance literature generally and to the new possibilities of contemporary critical methods, Sidney’s writing has been seen, both in its seemingly replete presence and its symptomatic gaps and absences, as central to an understanding of Elizabethan poetry and culture.
None of Sidney’s poetry was published in his lifetime, and yet along with his other writings it circulated among a small coterie of family and court acquaintances during the 1580’s. Sidney’s vocations were those of courtier, statesman, Protestant aristocrat, and patriot before that of a poet, and his poetry encourages the piecing together of a more problematic Sidney than that afforded by conventional hagiography. Sidney’s writings often served, as A. C. Hamilton argues, “as a kind of outlet for political interests, compensating for the frustrations and failures” of his life: “problems that prove insurmountable in his career” were transposed and wrestled with in his fictions.
Sidney’s major poetic work, Astrophel and Stella, in particular marks the triumphant maturity of Elizabethan court poetry, the belated but spectacular adaption of Petrarchanism to English aristocratic culture. It remains one of the most moving, delightful, and provocative collections of love poems in the language, all the more powerful in its impact because of the variety of needs that strain within it for expression—erotic, poetic, political, religious, cultural. One may read it, as Harington did, as the expression of thwarted, obsessive love, but it opens itself, like its author, to much richer readings, which reinforce Sidney’s position as the central literary and cultural figure in the English Renaissance before William Shakespeare.
Consider Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesie as a synthesis of the best critical ideas about poetry available to him.
What was Sidney’s initiative in discussing prior English poetry?
As an early English sonnet writer, what did Sidney contribute to the form in Astrophel and Stella and his other sonnets?
The speaker in Sonnet 74 of Astrophel and Stella is a character to be distinguished from the author. How does Astrophel characterize himself, and how is the reader expected to understand him?
What are the literary sources of Sidney’s original Arcadia?
How did Sidney’s approach change when he undertook the New Arcadia?
William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55 (“Not marble, nor the gilded monuments”) has been interpreted by some as referring to Sidney’s “powerful rhyme.” How convincing do you find this theory?
Alexander, Gavin. Writing After Sidney: The Literary Response to Sir Philip Sidney, 1586-1640. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Alexander looks at the legacy of one of the most important Elizabethan writers by examining first his sister Mary Sidney, his brother Robert Sidney, his friend Fulke Greville, and his niece Mary Wroth, then examining poets and writers who were influenced by him.
Berry, Edward I. The Making of Sir Philip Sidney. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1998. Explores how Sidney created himself as a poet by making representations of himself in the roles of some of his most literary creations, including Astrophel and Stella and the intrusive persona of Defence of Poesie.
Connell, Dorothy. Sir Philip Sidney: The Maker’s Mind. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1977. Considers Sidney’s life and art in a biographical and historical context. Connell discusses in detail important historical influences on Sidney. Includes maps, a bibliography, and an index.
Duncan-Jones, Katherine. Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. This useful biography links the details of Sidney’s life at court to his poetic works.
Garrett, Martin, ed. Sidney: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge, 1996. A collection of essays that gather a large body of critical sources on Sidney. Includes bibliographical references and index.
Hamilton, A. C. Sir Philip Sidney: A Study of His Life and Works. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. A study of Sidney’s life, poetics, and selected works. General survey places his work in a biographical context. Includes an appendix, notes, a bibliography, and an index.
Kay, Dennis, ed. Sir Philip Sidney: An Anthology of Modern Criticism. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1987. A collection of scholarly criticism. Kay’s introduction places Sidney in a cultural heritage and surveys the changes that have occurred in the critical approaches to Sidney’s work. Includes a chronology, a bibliography, an index, and a list of early editions.
Kinney, Arthur F., ed. Essential Articles for the Study of Sir Philip Sidney. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1986. A collection of twenty-five articles with a wide range of critical approaches. Topics include Sidney’s biography, The Lady of May, Defence of Poesie, Astrophel and Stella, and Arcadia. Includes bibliography.
Sidney, Philip, Sir. Sir Philip Sidney: Selected Prose and Poetry. Edited by Robert Kimbrough. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983. Kimbrough gives detailed attention to Defence of Poesie, Astrophel and Stella, and Arcadia. Also surveys the critical approaches to Sidney. Contains a chronology and a select bibliography.
Stillman, Robert E. Philip Sidney and the Poetics of Renaissance Cosmopolitanism. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2008. Stillman examines the poetry of Sidney, looking at topics such as the influence of his political views and the general culture. Also examines Defence of Poesie.