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...
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