Philip Sidney Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

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.