Sir Philip Sidney Sir Philip Sidney World Literature Analysis

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Sir Philip Sidney World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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In the Elizabethan era, aristocrats, who tended to regard literature as an inappropriate vocation, rarely published their writings. Nonetheless, some of them, including Sidney’s good friend Fulke Greville, wrote poetry of high quality that they circulated privately among their friends. Sidney, who probably would have become an earl had he lived a few more years, shared the attitude of the English nobility and published none of the works that today are regarded as his greatest. He spoke slightingly of his writings, for example referring to his Defence of Poesie as an “idle, ink-wasting toy.” Such conventional behavior should not mislead today’s readers into supposing that Sidney was not a serious writer. It is true that he did his writing in periods of enforced idleness, and it is possible that he might have written little or nothing if the queen had given him more employment of the diplomatic or administrative sort for which he felt qualified. The point is that he did write brilliantly and, like all first-rate writers, surely recognized the literary value of his works.

Of his three most important works, the one that he probably began first (there is no way to be sure), Arcadia, illustrates his developing interest in many aspects of prose narrative. It began as a pastoral romance, a genre that Greek writers had practiced as far back as around 200 c.e, and that Continental writers had revived earlier in Sidney’s century. In the pastoral, the setting is rural, the characters are mainly shepherds (or rulers of a land of shepherds), the pace is deliberate, and life is uncomplicated. There are young lovers, of course, and their frustrations are usually domestic ones, such as family opposition, perhaps because a set of parents have their own candidate for spouse of their son or daughter. Such situations generate a certain amount of conflict and narrative interest but do not allow for the larger issues of war and politics dear to composers of epics. The Old Arcadia, as it is usually called, is a skillfully composed romance of this type.

The unfinished New Arcadia reflects the adventurous man of the world that Sidney was. Chivalry and heroic deeds become prominent, and reflections on law, government, and morality are sprinkled throughout. Sidney built into his story dozens of poems in forms both traditional and experimental. Since the narrative breaks off in the midst of a sentence in the third book (the original version was in five books), it is impossible to tell how it would have ended. Subsequent editors tried to blend the New Arcadia with a modified version of the clearly inappropriate old ending, but the old conclusion does not suit the later work.

It may be a disservice to Puritans to call Gosson’s The Schoole of Abuse a puritanical document, but clearly Gosson intended it to appeal to readers who regarded literature as at best idle and at worst dangerous to moral health. He directed his charges particularly against the drama, and a half century later Puritan feeling against plays became strong enough to close down all the London theaters. Sidney chose to enlarge his discussion, for he considered an attack against any good literature on moral grounds an attack against all literature.

Although Sidney had probably been thinking about the nature of poetry for some time, Gosson’s attack drove him to a comprehensive defense of, or “apology” for, poetry. It should be noted that “defense” and “apology” are synonyms; there is nothing apologetic in the common sense of the word about Sidney’s treatise. He attempted to blend the best things, old and new, that had been said in behalf of poetry, which for Sidney signified what today would be termed, more broadly, “literature”—as one of his statements therein—“It is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet”—implies. The Arcadia wove together considerable “rhyming and versing” with a lengthy prose narrative and in Sidney’s mind may well have been more of a work...

(The entire section is 4,238 words.)