Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2358

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During the middle of the sixteenth century English poetry was, almost without exception, mediocre. Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, had succeeded in bringing some continental polish and new Renaissance ideas into their works, composed during the last years of Henry VIII, but their efforts did not really bear fruit until Edmund Spenser published The Shepheardes Calendar in 1579 and Sir Philip Sidney began to circulate his pastorals, sonnets, and songs at about the same time. The metrical variety and the rich Renaissance imagery in the works of these two poets opened new doors for aspiring English writers.

Spenser’s contributions to English literature have been widely recognized, but Sidney’s influence has been less accurately assessed, in spite of his tremendous popularity in his own time. In a sense the reputation of Sidney the ideal courtier has tended to overshadow that of Sidney the poet, who is remembered chiefly for selected sonnets from Astrophil and Stella and for a handful of lyrics. The fine Oxford edition of his poetry, edited by W. A. Ringler and published in 1962, sheds new light on the genius of the young courtier, who died of a battle wound at the age of thirty-one. In moments of leisure in his active career as diplomat and soldier Sidney composed a substantial volume of poetry. Only a few lyrics were published before his death in 1586, but his work was widely circulated in manuscript and his reputation as a poet was high.

Sidney received a standard classical education at the Shrewsbury School and at Oxford, but his years of study and travel on the Continent probably had an even greater effect on his work. The experiments in rhyme and meter of sixteenth century French poets, who were especially interested in recapturing the techniques of the Greek and Roman writers, the beauty of cadence and imagery in the sonnets of the great fourteenth century Florentine, Petrarch, and his disciples, and the courtly tone of French and Italian Renaissance poetry almost certainly inspired Sidney to strive for similar elegance in his own language. Sidney, even more than Spenser, was a European poet; the native medieval tradition of Chaucer and his contemporaries that played a considerable part in the development of Spenser’s genius seems to have had much less effect on Sidney.

Among the earliest of Sidney’s poems to be widely circulated were lyrics from his charming pastoral entertainment, the Lady of May, presented for Queen Elizabeth at Wanstead, home of the poet’s uncle, the Earl of Leicester, in 1578. The verse portions of the masque included compliments to the queen and a song contest, in the best tradition of Virgilian pastoral, between a forester and a shepherd:

Come Espilus, come now declare thyskill,Shew how thou canst deserve so bravedesire,Warme well thy wits, if thou wilt winher will,For water cold did never promise fire:Great sure is she, on whom our hopesdo live,Greater is she who must the judge-ment give.

Many of Sidney’s poems were composed as part of his pastoral romance, the Arcadia. A number of lyrics appeared in the body of the narrative, and the five books of the original version of the work were separated by groups of eclogues related to the general themes of the story: unrequited love, the conflict between reason and passion, marriage, and the sorrows of age and death. The poems were spoken or sung by both the noble characters and the rustics; the shepherds’ songs include amusing parodies of courtly verses. Alethes’ song of Mopsa in the first book satirizes the conventional catalogue of the beauties of an adored lady:

Her forhead jacinth like, her cheekiesof opall hue,Her twinkling eies bedeckt with pearl,her lips of saphir blew.

Sidney had a fine dramatic sense that enabled him to capture the intense inner conflicts of his characters in many of his lyrics. The tormented queen, Gynecia, laments:

Like those sicke folkes, in whomestrange humors flowe,Can taste no sweetes, the sour onlyplease:So to my minde, while passions dayliegrowe,Whose fyrie chaines, upon his free-dome seaze,Joie’s strangers seeme, I cannot bidetheir showe,Nor brooke outghte els but wellacquainted woe.Bitter griefe tastes me best, paine ismy ease,Sicke to the death, still loving mydisease.

The heroes of the Arcadia, Pyrocles and Musidorus, traditional Renaissance courtier-poets, express their feelings in highly complicated sonnets, in which Sidney explores the possibilities of different and demanding rhyme schemes, intricately balanced lines, and ingenious paradoxes. Musidorus pays tribute to his beloved Pamela in a sonnet that employs only two rhymes throughout, a technical tour de force:

Locke up, faire lids, the treasures of myharte:Preserve those beames, this age’s onelylighte:To her sweete sense, sweete sleepe,some ease imparte,Her sence too weake to beare herspirit’s mighte.And while O sleepe thou closest up hersight,(Her sight where love did forge hisfayrest darte)O harbour all her partes in easefulplighte:Let no strange dreme make her fayrebody starte.But yet O dream, if thou wilt not de-parteIn this rare subject from my commonright:But wilt thy self in such a seate de-lighte,Then take my shape, and play a lover’sparte:Kisse her from me, and say unto herspirite,Till her eyes shine, I live in darkestnight.

The four groups of eclogues dividing the books of the Arcadia are a remarkable demonstration of the breadth of Sidney’s imagination and the range of his technical skill. He employs a number of different verse forms, even within a single poem, and experiments with various line lengths and stanza forms, borrowing complicated meters from the French and the Italians; he evidently enjoyed setting difficult technical problems for himself.

While most of the pastoral poems were written in conventional accentual verse, Sidney tried in several to reproduce the quantitative meters of classical poetry, in which the length of syllables, rather than accent, was the basis of the poetic line. On occasion Sidney’s adherence to classical rules produced lines that were nearer bad prose than good poetry, but he was in general more successful than might be expected. Dorus’ song in the second group of eclogues, written in Horatian Asclepiads, a complicated pattern of short and long sounds in a twelve-syllable line, has a pleasant, stately rhythm:

O sweet woods the delight of solitarines!O how much I do like your solitarines!Where man’s mind hath a freed consid-erationOf goodness to receive lovely direction.Where senses do behold th’order ofheav’nly hoste,And wise thoughts do behold what thecreator is:Contemplation here holdeth his onlyseate:Bownded with no limits, borne with awing of hopeClymes even unto the starres, Nature isunder it.

The subjects and tone of the eclogues are as varied as their verse forms. There are love laments, philosophical musings, elegies, an epithalamion, and several comic pieces. The songs of the shepherds, who speak a simple, commonplace language without the archaic diction of Spenser’s rustics, are often entertaining. One of the best is a comic imitation of Virgil’s third eclogue, a song contest between two impudent young shepherds. Sidney, like Virgil, begins with an amusing interchange of insults, then descends to broad humor as the youths set prizes for their contest and Nico speaks:

Content: but I will lay a wager here-unto,That profit may ensue to him that bestcan do.I have (and long shall have) a whitegreat nimble cat,A king upon a mouse, a strong foe toa rat,Fine eares, long taile he hath, withLion’s curbed clawe,Which oft he lifteth up, and stayeshis lifted pawe.

In a more serious vein are the songs of Philisides, who represents Sidney himself. He appears in each of the groups of eclogues, meditating upon his unrequited love for Mira and lamenting the human condition in general in a song taught him, he says, by old Languet, the French Protestant who accompanied Sidney on his European trip in 1573 and 1574.

While the poems in the Arcadia show the greatest range of Sidney’s poetic gifts, his best works are in his Astrophil and Stella, the first of many English sonnet sequences. Sidney used the Italian sonnet form throughout, but he borrowed the English practice, initiated by Wyatt and Surrey, of ending with a rhymed couplet. His use of classical imagery reveals further his indebtedness to French and Italian poets of his day, but his clear, straightforward language gives his poems a distinctly personal quality that lifts them far above the conventional Renaissance sonnets.

Astrophil and Stella tells the story of the poet’s romance, real or imaginary, with Penelope Devereux, Lady Rich; her husband’s name occasioned several punning sonnets that reveal the identity of “Stella.” Sidney describes the development of his love for Stella and his worship of her from a distance, then rejoices at signs that she returns his affection. His passion urges her to yield to him; his reason respects the virtue that makes her refuse and finally brings about their separation.

The sonnets do not form a continuous narrative but are rather reflections of the poet’s state of mind, which is occasionally related to particular events: a tournament at court, a stolen kiss, or Stella’s illness. Most often Sidney is either praising Stella’s beauty and virtue with copious references to Venus and Cupid, or mourning the unhappiness of the scorned lover, Astrophil; there are also a number of sonnets about the writing of love poetry. Astrophil recommends spontaneity in writing to convince the lady of the genuineness of the poet’s passion. The famous first sonnet, unusual in that it is written in hexameter, rather than pentameter, lines, states this theme:

But words came halting forth, wantingInvention’s stay,Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Studie’s blowes,And others’ feete still seem’d butstrangers in my way.Thus great with child to speake, andhelplesse in my throwes,Biting my trewand pen, beating my-selfe for spite,’Foole,’ said my Muse to me, ’lookein thy heart and write.’

Even this sonnet owes something to Petrarch; naturalness and originality were conventions, too.

Sidney’s simple diction contributes much to the appeal of many of his sonnets. He can capture a state of mind beautifully in poems like this often anthologized one:

With how sad steps, O Moone, thouclimb’st the skies,How silently, and with how wanne aface,What, may it be that even in heav’nlyplaceThat busie archer his sharp arrowestries?Sure, if that long with Love acquaintedeyesCan judge of Love, thou feel’st aLover’s case;I reade it in thy looks, thy languishtgrace,To me that feele the like, thy statedescries.Then ev’n of fellowship, O Moone,tell meIs constant Love deem’d there but wantof wit?Are Beauties there as proud as here theybe?Do they above love to be lov’d, and yetThose Lovers scorn whom that Lovedoth possesse?Do they call Vertue there ungrateful-nesse?

Sidney frequently inserts bits of dialogue or rhetorical questions for dramatic effect; he complains that court ladies do not take his love seriously because he does not flaunt it:

The courtly Nymphs, acquainted withthe moneOf them, who in their lips Love’sstanderd beare;What he?’ say they of me, ’now Idare sweare,He cannot love: no, no, let him alone.’

Although sonnets make up the major part of Astrophil and Stella, Sidney inserted several songs that carry forward his action. These lyrics were written in various meters and among them are what seem to be the first trochaic stanzas in English. One of the finest poems in this new form is the fourth song, beginning:

Onely joy, now here you are,Fit to heare and ease my care:Let my whispering voyce obtaine,Sweete reward for sharpest paine:Take me to thee, and thee to me.’No, no, no, no, my Deare, let be.’

Another opens with that fresh appreciation of nature that is so characteristic of the best Elizabethan poetry:

In a grove most rich of shade,Where birds wanton musicke made,May then yong his pide weedes show-ing,New perfumed with flowers fresh grow-ing,Astrophil with Stella sweete,Did for mutual comfort meete,Both within themselves oppressed,But each in the other blessed.

Sidney left a number of works not included in the Arcadia or in Astrophil and Stella. One of his finest sonnets, often mistakenly associated with the sonnet sequence, is the familiar rejection of love, which opens with the famous lines:

Leave me O Love, which reachest butto dust,And thou my mind aspire to higherthings:Grow rich in that which never takethrust:Whatever fades, but fading pleasurebrings.

Another remarkable demonstration of Sidney’s technical skill is his collection of metrical versions of the first forty-three psalms, each in a different stanza form. He modeled his translations upon the French Protestant psalter of Clement Marot and Theodore Beza, attempting to improve on the popular, but unpoetic, English translations of Sternhold and Hopkins. The quality of Sidney’s versions is uneven, but he often succeeded in bringing out the majesty of the Biblical passages:

All, all my trust, Lord, I have put inThee,Never therefore let me confounded be,But save me, save me in Thy right-eousness,Bow down thine ear to heare how muchI need,Deliver me, deliver me in speed,Be my strong rock, be Thou myforteress.

It is difficult to estimate the significance of Sidney’s contribution to the development of English poetry. He demonstrated the flexibility, beauty, and elegance of the English language without distorting it with obscure or archaic diction, and he conveyed in his poetry the idealism and the sense of beauty that filled contemporary French and Italian literature. He wrote in his Defence of Poesie: “Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much-loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.” This, perhaps, was Sidney’s own gift to his nation’s literature—the creation of a new and beautiful world of poetry that inspired other writers to enter it.