Philip Sidney Essay - Critical Essays

Sidney, Philip


Philip Sidney 1554–-1586

English courtier, statesman, soldier, playwright, essayist, poet, and prose writer.

Known for his chivalry, statesmanship, extensive knowledge, and literary gifts, Sidney has earned the reputation as the quintessential Renaissance man. The estimation of Sidney as an ideal knight overshadowed his merits as a literary artist until early in the twentieth century, but since then he has been admired for his innovative and elegantly ornate poetic style, careful craftsmanship, and the force of emotion in his seemingly simple lines of poetry. The overriding concern in Sidney's verse is love, a theme that is given its most witty and rhetorically sophisticated expression in Astrophel and Stella. This sonnet sequence, the first of its kind in the English language, is generally regarded as Sidney's masterpiece and one of his great contributions to English literature; with it he overturned the conventions of the Petrachan sonnet and revolutionized the form. His other great literary contributions were the first statement of English poetics, A Defence of Poetry and the most recognized work of English prose fiction in the sixteenth century, Arcadia. The latter work, an elaborate romance, also contains poetry in a wide range of forms. Sidney is regarded by scholars to be one of the central literary figures of the Elizabethan period. His innovations in structure and style taught subsequent generations of poets how to use meter to reflect the rhythms of speech and began a tradition of complex love poetry that would be continued by John Donne and William Shakespeare.

Biographical Information

Sidney was born November 30, 1554, at Penshurst, Kent, to an aristocratic family. His father, Sir Henry Sidney, was the Lord Deputy of Ireland, and his uncle Robert Dudley was Earl of Leicester. He was named after his godfather, Philip II of Spain. Sidney attended Shrewsbury School, where he met Fulke Greville, who would be his longtime friend and eventual biographer. He studied grammar, rhetoric, and religion at Christ's Church, Oxford, but left in 1571 without taking a degree. He then embarked on a grand tour of Europe, studying politics, languages, music, astronomy, geography, and military arts, and becoming acquainted with some of the most prominent statesman, artists, and scholars of his age. During his years abroad, Sidney became friends with the scholar Hubert Languet, whose ardent Protestantism had a lasting influence on him. The two men maintained a correspondence that offers interesting insights into Sidney's life and career.

When Sidney returned to England in 1575, he entered the court of Queen Elizabeth I. While at court he engaged in literary activities and associated with other writers and scholars, notably the poet Edmund Spenser, who dedicated The Shepheardes Calender to Sidney. Sidney was an excellent horseman and became renowned for his participation in tournaments and entertainments at court. But his main interest was in a career in public service. In 1577, at the age of twenty-two, he was sent as ambassador to the German emperor and the Prince of Orange. The ostensible purpose of the visit was to offer condolences to the princes on the deaths of their fathers, but Sidney's real task was to determine whether the princes would be in favor of forming a Protestant league. Such an association with other Protestant states in Europe, it was hoped, would protect England by counterbalancing the threatening power of Roman Catholic Spain. However, Sidney's career was cut short because the queen found Sidney too outspoken and zealous in his Protestantism.

Unable to secure a public post, Sidney turned to writing literature. In 1578 he composed a light drama, The Lady of May, for the queen. In 1580, Sidney opposed the queen's proposed marriage to the Duke of Anjou, the Roman Catholic heir to the French throne. Elizabeth showed her displeasure by having Sidney dismissed from court for a time. He moved to the estate of his sister, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, and wrote a long pastoral romance, Arcadia, which he dedicated to her. It may also have been during this time that he composed The Defence of Poetry. In 1581, Sidney met Penelope Devereux, who later married Lord Rich. Sidney fell in love with Lady Rich, and in 1582 composed a sequence of love sonnets, Astrophel and Stella, about his passion. While away from the London court, Sidney held office as a member of Parliament in Kent and continued to correspond with foreign statesmen and entertain important visitors.

Sidney was soon back in the queen's favor. He was knighted in 1583, the same year he married Frances Walsingham. Even after his return to public life, he continued to write literature. In 1584, he undertook major revisions of his Arcadia manuscript and began on a work translation of the Psalms. In 1585, Sidney was appointed governor of Flushing, in the Netherlands. He served as second-in-command to his uncle Leicester in the English expeditionary forces that were aiding the Dutch in their revolt against Catholic Spain. While participating in an ill-conceived ambush on a Spanish convoy at Zupten, Sidney was wounded in the leg. He developed gangrene and died a few weeks later. His death occasioned much mourning in the Netherlands and in England. His body was transported home and he was given a lavish funeral of a type usually reserved for royalty. Some of England's most distinguished writers were among the hundreds who composed elegies to honor him. It is said that Londoners who came to see Sidney's funeral progression cried out, “Farewell, the worthiest knight that lived.”

Major Works

Sidney's most important works all were published after he died, although during his life handwritten copies of his manuscripts circulated among his friends and relatives. It was typical of Elizabethan gentlemen to be nonchalant towards and even dismissive of their literary endeavors, and Sidney referred to many of his works as “mere trifles.” His first literary effort, The Lady of May, a light court entertainment about a woman who cannot choose between two men who want to marry her—a rich shepherd of “smale Desertes and no faultes” and a woodsman of “manie Desertes and manie faultes”—was not left as a text but as a detailed transcription of the production. The piece includes prose speeches as well as singing and dancing. Sidney's work is distinguished from other light court dramas of the time by its literary touches, and prefigures the more sophisticated court masques of the seventeenth century. In addition to its central theme of the active versus the contemplative life, the piece also includes themes that were to become prominent in Sidney's later works, including the veneration of a lady by her lover and the use of language. A two-stanza poem “Supplication” is the only work Sidney wrote in praise of the queen. The work also is of political importance, as it seems to be Sidney's comment to the Elizabeth about her mistaken choice of suitor in the French Duke of Anjou.

Sidney did not finish his revisions to Arcadia before he died, and on his deathbed he requested that his manuscripts be destroyed. Shortly after his death, an edition containing his revisions was published. In 1909, original manuscripts of Arcadia were discovered. With that finding, the revised version has come to be known as the New Arcadia (or the Revised Arcadia) and the original, unrevised version the Old Arcadia. The latter is much shorter, less extravagant, and does not include many of the contrivances that mark the later edition. Also, the Old Arcadia is essentially a prose work although it does contain some poems, while the New Arcadia contains considerable sections of poetry interspersed with the prose. The plot in both is the same: two princes set off to find love in Arcadia, fall into love with two Arcadian princesses, and eventually, after a series of misunderstandings, marry them. There is disagreement among critics about which version is superior, and some commentators have dismissed most of the poetry in Arcadia as slight. However, others have remarked at the astonishing variety of forms and experimental spirit at work in the poetry of the Arcadia, and the poetic dialogue “Ye Goatherd Gods” is admired for its originality of meter and ornate amplification.

The central theme of almost all of Sidney's poetry is love, and this is the major concern in the pieces in Certain Sonnets. They were likely written around the same time as the Arcadia, and as in the poems of that work, they have an experimental quality. Sidney's theme of love was taken to its greatest heights in his masterpiece Astrophel and Stella, about a courtly lover who chronicles his passion for a lady. The 108 sonnets are fashioned after the Petrachan sonnet form (named for the Italian poet Petrach) and use Petrarchan conventions such as ornate style and the theme of veneration of a beloved woman. However, the beautiful simplicity, elegance, and rhythmic control of the poems set them apart from earlier sonnets and in fact revolutionized the form. The poems of Astrophel and Stella also are sexual in nature, as Astrophel implores his lady, using a number of rhetorical plays, to allow him to bed her. Stella accepts his Astrophel's advances on certain conditions, but Astrophel finally pleads for his release.

Another project that Sidney left uncompleted at his death was a translation of Biblical psalms into verse. These paraphrases have received little critical attention, as most readers find the stilted regularity and forced rhyme of the verses detract from their meaning. Some critics have seen them as important exercises in diction and meter that aided Sidney in his development as a poet. Apart from his own verses, Sidney also wrote one of the first (and still reputed to be among the best) statements of English poetics. The Defence of Poetry introduced the critical ideas of Renaissance theorists to England and defends poetry against Puritan objections to imaginative literature.

Critical Reception

After Sidney's death, some of England most noted poets wrote elegies to honor his memory. Spenser's “Astrophel” laments his friend's passing, and The Faerie Queene contains verses praising Sidney. The effect of the outpourings of grief seems to have, in some measure at least, obscured Sidney's works by painting a portrait of a knight, military expert, and Protestant leader who is larger than life. Little commentary on Sidney's works appeared during his life or even in the years following his death, when his works were published and reissued in several editions. The idealized portrait of Sidney continued into the Victorian era, but again little sustained criticism of his work appeared. Notable among nineteenth-century responses are those by William Hazlitt, who found but little to recommend in Sidney's verses, and Charles Lamb, who took exception to Hazlitt's characterization and said the best of Sidney's sonnets “are among the very best of their sort.” At the beginning of the twentieth century, reaction to Sidney was mixed: T. S. Eliot found the Arcadia “a monumental dullness,” however, Virginia Woolf admired the realism and vigor of the verses. But critical commentaries were beginning to appear, including several biographies that sought to reveal the man behind the myth. By the middle of the twentieth century, Sidney's reputation enjoyed an upswing. Theodore Spencer's influential 1944 essay, “The Poetry of Sir Philip Sidney,” noted the experimental nature of Sidney's early poetry and the variety of the forms he used. The 1950s to the early 1980s saw a huge increase in interest in Sidney's works. Critics explored the historical and political context of his writing, matters of prosody and style, the central theme of the life of action and responsibility versus that of contemplation and love, as well as the textual differences between the two versions of the Arcadia. Other studies have discussed the sexual nature of Astrophel and Stella, Sidney's self-conscious use and discussions of language, the use of irony, and the structure of the poems. Critics also have noted Sidney's use of classical meters and tropes and the influences of the Italian poets Petrarch and Sannazaro on his verses. Critical response to Sidney's poetry declined after the mid–1980s, but scholars do continue to contribute to the secondary literature. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, critics have been especially interested in Sidney's expressions of the limits of language and his attitudes toward sexuality.

Principal Works

The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia [New Arcadia] (mixed-mode romance) 1590

Astrophel and Stella (sonnet sequence) 1591

Certain Sonnets 1598

The Psalms of David (translation; with Mary Sidney Herbert) 1823

The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia [Old Arcadia] (mixed-mode romance) 1926

The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney 1962

The Lady of May (mixed-mode drama) 1578

The Defence of Poetry [also published as An Apology for Poetry] (essay) 1595

The Correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet 1845...

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John Bailey (review date 1910)

SOURCE: “Sir Philip Sidney,” in Poets and Poetry: Being Articles Reprinted from the Literary Supplement of ‘The Times’, by John Bailey, Clarendon Press, 1911, pp. 28–36.

[In the following review of John Drinkwater's edition of The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, originally published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1910, Bailey contends that Sidney marks an important stage in the development of English poetry after Chaucer; and Sidney was the first practitioner of a new beauty of language and mastery of rhythm.]

Of all the English poets none has a fame so independent of his poetry as Sidney. Other poets—Milton, for instance, and Marvell—have...

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Edwin A. Greenlaw (essay date 1913)

SOURCE: “Sidney's Arcadia as an Example of Elizabethan Allegory,” in Essential Articles for the Study of Sir Philip Sidney, Archon Books, 1986, pp. 271–85.

[In the following essay, originally published in Anniversary Papers by Colleagues and Pupils of George Lyman Kittredgein 1913, Greenlaw argues that by Elizabethan standards Arcadia is a heroic poem; Sidney provides the type of allegory his audience would have expected, and the work reflects political crises of sixteenth-century England.]

By Sidney and his contemporaries, Arcadia was regarded as an heroic poem. Fraunce lists it with the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid;1...

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Theodore Spencer (essay date 1944)

SOURCE: “The Poetry of Sir Philip Sidney,” in ELH: A Journal of English Literary History, Vol. 12, No. 4, December 1945, pp. 251–78.

[In the following essay, Spencer emphasizes the importance of “art, imitation, and exercise” in Sidney's early poetry and views Sidney as breaking convention with Astrophel and Stella.]


Although a large amount of literature has accumulated around the life and work of Sir Philip Sidney, it is somewhat remarkable that no thorough study of his poetry, as poetry, seems to exist. Courthope, in his History of English Poetry, describes Sidney's life rather than his writing, and though we...

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James Appelgate (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: “Sidney's Classical Meters,” in Modern Language Notes, April 1955, pp. 254–55.

[In the following essay, Appelgate corrects Theodore Spencer's error in identifying the form of the poem “When to my deadlie pleasure.”]

The pseudo-quantitative English verses which enjoyed a brief fad in Elizabethan literary circles are generally an unlovely lot, and the late Professor Theodore Spencer was right to observe the relative merit among them of one of Sidney's efforts, a poem beginning, “When to my deadlie pleasure,” which appears among the Certaine Sonets of the 1598 folio.1 Spencer, however, unaccountably mistook its form; he analyzes it...

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Jean Robertson (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: “Sir Philip Sidney and his Poetry,” in Elizabethan Poetry, edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, Edward Arnold Publishers, 1960, pp. 111–129.

[In the following essay, Robertson presents an overview of Sidney's poetry in relation to his life and his intentions.]

Nothing that happened later in his life meant so much to Fulke Greville as Sidney had done. In the long postscript he had to make do with his friend's literary remains. So Sidney's biography was written, and by emphasizing the preceptual value of the Arcadia, Greville tried to convey something of his ‘searching and judicious spirit’; but his dissatisfaction kept breaking...

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Robert L. Montgomery, Jr. (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: “Manner Over Matter,” in Symmetry and Sense: The Poetry of Sir Philip Sidney, University of Texas Press, 1961, pp. 9–29.

[In the following excerpt, Montgomery examines “symmetry” in the poetry of The Lady of May, the Psalms, and the Arcadia, and says that they reflect a strong experimental spirit that is not found in Astrophel and Stella.]

It is common to assume that the Lady of May poems, the translations of the Psalms, the Arcadia poems, Astrophel and Stella, and the miscellaneous pieces in Certaine Sonets follow a steady chronology of composition from 1578 to approximately 1583....

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S. K. Orgel (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: “Sidney's Experiment in Pastoral: The Lady of May,” in Essential Articles for the Study of Sir Philip Sidney, Archon Books, 1986, pp. 61–71.

[In the following essay, Orgel finds that Sidney's mixed-mode court masque about the contemplative life, The Lady of May, provides us with a “brief and excellent example of the way his mind worked.”]

Sidney's The Lady of May has gone largely unnoticed since its inclusion—apparently at the last moment, and in the interests of completeness—in the 1598 folio of his works. It had been commissioned by Leicester as an entertainment for Queen Elizabeth, and was presented before her at Wanstead,...

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David Kalstone (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: “The Arcadian Rhetoric” in Sidney's Poetry , Harvard University Press, 1965, pp. 60–101.

[In the following essay, Kalstone examines the poetry of the Arcadia, and asserts that Sidney's work is more complex than the Arcadia of the Italian poet Sanazzaro.]

Sidney's “gallant variety” of verses in the Arcadia divides itself into two groups: eclogues and occasional pieces.1 The eclogues are to be found clustered between books of the romance, four sets of them joining the five books that make up the Arcadia, and are thus distinguished from the occasional poems that are scattered singly through the text as part of the...

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A. C. Hamilton (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: “Sidney's Astrophel and Stella as a Sonnet Sequence,” in ELH: A Journal of English Literary History, Vol. 36, No. 1, March 1969, pp. 59–87.

[In the following essay, Hamilton seeks to show that the 108 sonnets in Astrophel and Stella may be read as a single, long poem on the theme “loving in truth.”]


My purpose in this article is to show how Sidney's Astrophel and Stella may be read as a single, long poem rather than as a miscellany of 108 separate sonnets. Some awareness of the structure of the work, which accounts for our sense of its wholeness and its total impact upon the reader, has persisted ever...

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Richard Lanham (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “Astrophel and Stella: Pure and Impure Persuasion,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 2, No. 1., Winter 1972, pp. 100–15.

[In the following essay, Lanham contends that the essential cause of the poem sequence Astrophel and Stellais sexual frustration.]

The first sonnet in Sir Philip Sidney's sequence confronts the difficulty of writing poetry with a stale and borrowed rhetoric, the need to seek a fresh source of inspiration in real feeling and, presumably, in an unaffected praise and relationship to his mistress. Style becomes not only means but theme, and this at the earliest possible moment. Sidney betrays, too, that acute...

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Alan Sinfield (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Sexual Puns in Astrophel and Stella,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, October 1974, pp. 341–355.

[In the following essay, Sinfield asserts that viewing Astrophel as the elegant but naïve courtier is misleading, since sexual double entendres are an important feature of Sidney's verbal skill.]

How far are Astrophil's feelings for Stella in Sidney's sequence sexual? The non-specialist reader at least tends to be blinded by the radiance of the prevalent image of Sidney as an urbane and elegant courtier throwing off Petrarchan conceits, and is unprepared to perceive much sexual passion in Astrophil. Perhaps we have not entirely recovered...

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G. F. Waller (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “This Matching of Contraries: Calvinism and Courtly Philosophy in the Sidney Psalms,” in English Studies, Vol. 55, No. 1, February 1974, pp. 22–31.

[In the following essay, Waller argues that the Sidney Psalter not only contains poetry that may be compared with that of the Metaphysical poets, but also is a reflection of important aspects in the literary and social ethos of the whole Sidney circle.]


Since the publication of J. C. R. Rathmell's edition of the Sidney Psalms in 1963, there has been little evidence of the revaluation he hoped would follow. ‘When recognition is accorded to the Sidney Psalter’, wrote...

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Mariann S. Regan (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Astrophel: Full of Desire, Emptie of Wit,” in English Language Notes, Vol. 14, No. 4, June 1977, pp. 251–56.

[In the following essay, Regan maintains that Astrophel sometimes assumes the role of the conventional “foolish poet” of earlier love lyrics in order to convince readers he is a true lover.]

Scholars have long attributed the dramatic vigor of Astrophel and Stella to Astrophel's variety of roles. However, no one has yet distinguished the “foolish poet” as one of these roles, nor has anyone noted that this role is a convention available to Sidney from earlier love lyrics, where many a poet-lover before Astrophel plays the “foolish...

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Myron Turner (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “When Rooted Moisture Failes: Sidney's Pastoral Elegy (OA 75) and the Radical Humour,” in English Language Notes, Vol. 15, No. 1, September 1977, pp. 7–10.

[In the following essay, Turner discusses the “rooted moisture” mentioned in elegy 75 in the Old Arcadia, and says the concept, which is derived from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, describes the “natural humidity” that is the basis of natural life.]

In the “Fourth Eclogues” of the Old Arcadia, the shepherd Agelastus leads his companions “in bewailing” the “general loss” of Basilius to the Arcadians.1 Ringler points out that this elegy (OA 75) and Spenser's...

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Gary L. Litt (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Characterization and Rhetoric in Sidney's “Ye Goatherd Gods,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 115–24.

[In the following essay, Litt asserts that Sidney uses imagery, syntax, diction, grammar, and metaphor to differentiate the characters and experience of the two shepherds in the Old Arcadia poem, “Ye Goatherd Gods.”]

Sidney's “Ye Goatherd Gods” is a masterful demonstration of formal and verbal artifice. The poem is virtually unmatched in rhetorical intricacy and complex manipulation of mood and environment, and deserves the praise and careful attention Empson, Kalstone, Ransom, and others have...

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Daniel Traister (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Sidney's Purposeful Humor: Astrophil and Stella 59 and 83,” in ELH: A Journal of English Literary History, Vol. 49, No. 4, Winter 1982, pp. 751–64.

[In the following essay, Traister offers a close analysis of two sonnets, and concludes Sidney forces readers to reconsider experiences and approach the sonnets with the knowledge of their new implications.]

Sidney's words, as Rosalie L. Colie has remarked, “can at once, in triumph, assert and deny the truth of what they say.”1 They give to Astrophil a verbal dexterity—or ambidexterity—that is one of his many attractions. Few characters in the literature of the English Renaissance...

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Maurice Evans (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Divided Aims in the Revised Arcadia,” in Sir Philip Sidney and the Interpretation of Renaissance Culture: A Poet in His Time and Ours, Croom Helm, 1984, pp. 34–43.

[In the following essay, Evans contends that the Revised Arcadia is Sidney's attempt to put his theory of poetry into practice, but that his aims often are at odds as his mimetic genius clashes with and is stifled by a didactic purpose.]

The Revised Arcadia is the most capacious of Sidney's literary works, and the one which expresses the widest range of his needs and interests. This paper explores some of the problems to which his peculiar eclecticism gave rise. It is a...

(The entire section is 4407 words.)

Paul Allen Miller (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Sidney, Petrarch, and Ovid, or Imitation as Subversion,” in ELH: A Journal of English Literary History, Vol. 58, No. 3, Autumn, 1991, pp. 499–522.

[In the following essay, Miller argues that Astrophel and Stella falls into the larger Petrarchan-Ovidian tradition, but Sidney uses the model to construct a lyric subjectivity that is uniquely his own.]

Despite Sidney's repeated denials, the fact that he practiced extensive classical and Petrarchan imitation in Astrophil and Stella has been well established.1 What remains to be asked is why and to what effect was this imitation employed? What was to be gained or lost by the poet? And...

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Sally Minogue (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “A Woman's Touch: Astrophil, Stella, and ‘Queen Vertue's Court,’” in ELH: A Journal of English Literary History, Vol. 63, No. 3, 1996, pp. 555–70.

[In the following essay, Minogue looks at sonnets 9 and 83 from Astrophel and Stella and suggests a reading of them that dramatizes the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Sidney in which there are elements of playful and not-so-playful sexual subjection.]

When Sidney, in 1581, presented to his Queen the New Year's gift of a jewel in the shape of a diamond-bedecked whip, how did she take it? Not, we presume, lying down, since in this relationship it had already been made clear to Sidney who had...

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Further Reading


Stump, Donald, Jerome Dee, and C. Stuart Hunter. Sir Philip Sidney: An Annotated Bibliography of Texts and Criticism, (1554–1984). New York: G. K. Hall, 1994, 834 pp.

Comprehensive bibliography detailing editions and translations of Sidney's work as well as secondary sources and other works pertaining to Sidney.


Hamilton, A. C. Sir Philip Sidney: A Study of His Life and Works. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1977, 224 pp.

Comprehensive study of Sidney relating his literary works to his life and the age in which he lived.


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