Sir Philip Sidney

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Sir Philip Sidney World Literature Analysis

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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,...

(This entire section contains 4238 words.)

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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. TheArcadia wove together considerable “rhyming and versing” with a lengthy prose narrative and in Sidney’s mind may well have been more of a work of poetry than his sonnet sequence, Astrophel and Stella. The form of Defence of Poesie, a classical oration, indicates that Sidney deemed it a serious subject worthy of a “classical” treatment. Sidney (who was capable of very blunt and direct language), chose for his defense a formal and elegant style of prose, and he responded to Gosson’s charges that literature promoted immorality by devising a powerful argument for the moral worth of poetry.

Sidney’s verse, aside from the poems contained in The Lady of May and the Arcadia, consists of a collection of varied poems and translations under the title Certaine Sonnets (1598), verse translations of the first forty-three Psalms, The Psalmes of David, Translated into Divers and Sundry Kindess of Verse (1823), and Astrophel and Stella. Not all the poems of Certaine Sonnets are sonnets in the modern sense, but two that are, “Thou blind man’s mark, thou fool’s self-chosen snare” and “Leave me O Love, which reachest but to dust,” have been anthology favorites and demonstrate Sidney’s moral and religious sensibility. The latter ends with a pledge to “Eternal Love.” The Psalms translations, a favorite exercise among Christian poets of the Renaissance, also show his fondness for experimentation with many types of poetic line and stanza.

Astrophel and Stella is a blend of the old and the new. Sonnets and sonnet sequences date back at least to the time of Dante—the late thirteenth century—and in the following century another Italian, Petrarch, composed a celebrated sequence of love sonnets about a woman named Laura. Other Continental poets, especially French ones, enthusiastically imitated this Italian form, but it was not until well into the sixteenth century that English poets began to practice the sonnet. With Sidney, the English extended sonnet sequence began, its characteristic theme most often a stormy or unhappy love affair. With the publication of a pirated edition of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella in 1591, a vogue of sonnet writing swept England, producing within a few years notable sequences by Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, and, of course, William Shakespeare.

Sidney lived in a time of intense interest in the drama, and though he did not write plays other than the semidramatic entertainment The Lady of May, his sonnet cycle is intensely dramatic. Individually, the poems are a series of lyrical outbursts of feeling or meditations on a theme related to love, but collectively they imply a situation that, characteristically, is only vaguely sketched. There is no story in the strict sense, and although the sketchily portrayed situation can in the case of Sidney’s sequence be associated with his relationship to the young woman Penelope Devereaux, it is a mistake to take it too autobiographically. In fact, one of Sidney’s most impressive accomplishments is the creation of the character of Astrophel.

Defence of Poesie

First published: 1595 (also known as An Apologie for Poetry)

Type of work: Essay

The effects of poetry are to delight readers and motivate them to the practice of the virtuous life.

In response to Stephen Gosson’s narrowly moralistic condemnation of poetry The Schoole of Abuse, Sidney’s Defence of Poesie sets forth a large-minded justification of literature as a legitimate pleasure that is at the same time an incentive to the practice of virtue. He leads up to this moral defense with a series of lesser, but nevertheless important, defenses, beginning with poetry’s long-standing reputation. In nations long admired, such as classical Greece and Rome, poetry was a “nurse” and a “lightgiver,” the kind of thing that was presented to young children as a preface to “tougher knowledges.” If societies such as these gave precedence to poetry, it surely must be a worthy thing.

Closely related to reputation are the good names that poetry has borne. In Rome, Sidney says, the poet was a vates, which signifies a seer or prophet. In other words, he or she was considered to be a person who possessed a special fund of knowledge like that of those who were able to predict the future. In Greece he was a poieten, which meant “maker” and which forms the basis of the English word “poet.” Thus, the poet is both a seer and a maker.

Sidney goes on to consider the “principal object” of poetry in relation to other occupations, all of which have some aspect of the natural world as the object of their attention. Astronomers study the stars; musicians, sounds; physicians, the human body. The poet, however, “not tied to any subjection,” ranges throughout nature for his or her material and even goes beyond nature, because he or she can imagine things better than nature has actually produced. Poets are the maker of makers, and therefore the Greek name for a poet is particularly appropriate.

Sidney then gathers together two of the most famous definitions of poetry from the ancient world. Aristotle thought of poetry as a mimetic art—that is, an art of imitation. Horace defined it as an art that both teaches and delights. For Sidney, these two notions are quite compatible, and it remains for him to reinterpret these Aristotelian and Horatian concepts according to his own understanding of poetic art.

Before undertaking this task, Sidney classifies poets into three categories. The first category, religious poets, includes David in his Psalms and Homer in the hymns attributed to him. Philosophical poets are those such as the Roman Lucretius, who wrote the philosophical treatise De rerum natura (c. 60 b.c.e.; On the Natureof Things, 1682), which sets forth an atomic theory of the day. The last category, however, the one that interests Sidney the most, he refers to as “indeed right poets.” They imitate, for the purpose of teaching and delighting, not merely what has been, is, or will be in the world, but also what may be and what should be.

In this respect, the poet as a teacher has great advantages over philosophers, who guide people in thinking, including, of course, thinking about morality, but who do not normally inspire them to act, and over historians, who can supply many examples of virtuous activity in the past but who do not provide precepts for guidance. These teachers have other defects, as well. Philosophers, for example, are often obscure and difficult, while historians must report incidents of wickedness going unpunished, which might actually encourage wickedness in the reader. Like the philosopher, the poet is concerned with moral precepts; like the philosopher, the poet’s art is concrete and able to stir the audience with accounts of deeds and events expressed in vivid images. The poet, however, suffers none of the disadvantages of philosopher or historian. As Sidney summarizes the poet’s superiority, “He doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way, as will entice any man to enter into it.”

Sidney professes himself unable to understand the sort of criticism that Gosson (whom he never mentions by name) has made of poets. He reviews—very favorably, of course—the various forms that “right poetry” can take: heroic, lyric, tragic, comic, satiric, pastoral, and others. He finds nothing to justify the charges of poetry’s enemies. While it is true, he concedes, that comedy shows people misbehaving, the effect of a good comedy is to arouse contempt for such people.

A classical oration must contain a substantial refutation of charges by opponents, so Sidney patiently answers Gosson’s. Perhaps the most interesting is Plato’s banning of poets from his ideal republic. To Sidney, Plato himself is “most poetical” of all philosophers; therefore, Sidney would hate to confess him to be an enemy of poetry. He argues, however, that Plato did not intend to ban all poets but only those who spread false religious ideas, and that, in his In (399-390 b.c.e.; Ion, 1804), Plato spoke more favorably of poetry.

It remains for the patriotic Sidney to survey briefly the history of English poetry—the first such survey of its type. From the medieval period he mentions only Geoffrey Chaucer, who was indeed the only poet before the Renaissance who was well known in the era of Queen Elizabeth I. From his own century Sidney praises the earl of Surrey, like Sidney a writer of sonnets, his friend Spenser, and Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville’s Gorboduc (pr. 1561; pb. 1565), a play usually considered the first English tragedy. At the time of the composition of Defence of Poesie, of course, Shakespeare was only a youth, and many of the other great achievements of the English literary renaissance were yet to come.

Sidney closes his defense with a highly charged summation that reiterates his deep conviction (one that he shared with Spenser) that poetry does not merely lead its audience to accept virtuous principles but also motivates people to the practice of virtue. At the very end, he utters a semiserious curse against the person who cannot appreciate poetry: that, owing to lack of skill in sonnet writing (so important in winning the heart of a loved one), such a person will “never get favor” and, after death, will be forgotten “for want of an epitaph.”

Astrophel and Stella, Sonnet 31

First published: 1591

Type of work: Poem

The lover Astrophel expresses to the moon his melancholy over Stella’s failure to respond.

The thirty-first sonnet in the sequence Astrophel and Stella begins with the line “With how sad steps, O moon, thou climb’st the skies.” Like many other sonnets in this sequence, it is modeled after the form of the sonnet made famous by the Italian poet Petrarch. The poem is made of two main parts, an eight-line “octave” and a six-line “sestet.” The octave rhymes abbaabba, where a represents the first rhyme used and b the second. This scheme is the almost invariable rhyme pattern of the Italian sonnet; the sestet, in this poem cdcdee, permits other variations.

Sidney also follows the traditional form in tailoring the content to the form; it, too, has two parts. In the octave, Astrophel asks the moon, which looks somehow sad to him, whether it, too, is subject to the emotion of love; he uses the traditional figure of Cupid’s arrow, which characteristically wounds lovers. Surely, the moon, having observed many lovers, knows the feeling of unrequited love, and Astrophel judges the moon to be a kindred spirit.

Having established this relationship with the moon, the lover asks a series of questions, the effect of which is to reveal more clearly the sorry state of his love affair. He asks first whether “constant love” on the moon is taken as a lack of “wit” (intelligence). Behind this question lies his perplexity that Stella cannot appreciate his fidelity to her. He asks whether beautiful women on the moon are as “proud” as they are on earth. Whereas the lover is humble in his allegiance, the fair beauty remains distant and proud. His next question, whether scornful lunar beauties nevertheless “love to be loved,” shows more than a tinge of resentment. He cannot be sure that Stella loves him, but she clearly enjoys his attention. His final question, whether on the moon “ungratefulness” is considered virtuous, is his most bitter one. Given the fact that Astrophel has already recognized (in Sonnet 25) Stella’s beauty as the beauty of virtue, his doleful conclusion is that her failure to appreciate him must be an aspect of her virtue.

The language of this sonnet is vigorous and direct. The ten one-syllable words of its first line set a deliberate pace for the musing lover, and words such as “sad,” “silently,” and “wan” in the first two lines immediately establish the mood. It is probably not possible for the moon to serve poets in quite the way it did Sidney now that humans have visited it and walked in its dust, but lovers still feel able to communicate over great distance by gazing at it concurrently, and disappointed lovers such as Astrophel can still think of it as a silent companion to which their sorrows can be told. Thus, Sidney’s sonnet still speaks as eloquently of a lover’s disappointment as it did four centuries ago.

Astrophel and Stella, Sonnet 74

First published: 1591

Type of work: Poem

The lover, unschooled in the art of poetry, explains how he has become successful at composing sonnets.

Sonnet 74 of Astrophel and Stella, “I never drank of Aganippe well,” comes at a later stage of Astrophel’s pursuit of Stella. It should be noted that a sonnet sequence with love as its theme implies, but does not tell, a story. It is not a continuous narrative but the expression of the various emotional states, situations, and reflections of its speaker.

In the case of Astrophel and Stella, there are reasons for identifying its speaker with its author. The latter’s nickname appears in the character’s name, while the first part of that name, in addition to being a word for “star” (making him a “star-lover,” for “phil” is also a Greek root meaning “love”), calls to mind another Latin word for “star,” one of whose forms, sideris, looks very much like “Sidney.” Furthermore, Stella has been explicitly identified as the wife of the Lord Rich who married Penelope Devereaux, the woman once proposed as a wife for Sidney. Therefore, it is easy to imagine these poems as expressing Sidney’s own thoughts and feelings.

Although there may be a considerable amount of Sidney in Astrophel, nevertheless Sidney is not Astrophel. Sonnet 74 furnishes some evidence that Sidney is quite capable of distancing himself from his character, in this case through humor. The Aganippe well is at the foot of Mount Helicon and is sacred to the Muses, the deities who inspire creative endeavor. Astrophel asserts that he has never had anything to do with the Muses and, as a matter of fact, disclaims any knowledge of how poetry is produced. Nor has he stolen any ideas from any other poet. He insists, however, that he has been able to compose smooth flowing verse. How has he managed to do it? The answer, which he reveals in the last line, is that his “lips are sweet, inspired with Stella’s kiss.”

He has not exactly gotten a kiss from Stella, but he has managed to give her one while she was sleeping, and that kiss has not only restored his good spirits but also inspired a string of sonnets, including number 74.

Astrophel there is a plainly comic figure, almost a bumpkin. His “smooth” verse includes a line such as the following: “But (God wot) wot not what they mean by it.” (“Wot,” by the way, means “know.”) He is conducting a dialogue with himself, as though he himself cannot understand what has suddenly turned him into a poet, until it suddenly comes to him like a burst of inspiration.

This poem inclines toward the English form of the sonnet, which Shakespeare later made famous. The rhyme scheme of the octave is abababab; that of the sestet, cdcdee. The pattern of alternating rhymes comes close to the ababcdcdefefgg pattern that Shakespeare later used, a scheme that resulted in three quatrains and a couplet rather than the Petrarchan octave and sestet. This poem, however, retains the characteristic turning point at the end of the octave. It is in the octave that Astrophel insists that he has never been a poet before, while in the sestet he raises the question of how he has suddenly become one, answering it in the ending couplet. There, as often in Shakespeare, the couplet has a distinctive function: It tersely answers Astrophel’s question.

Astrophel and Stella, Song 11

First published: 1591

Type of work: Poem

The lover pleads with Stella beneath the window of her room but is finally dismissed.

Unlike many sonnet cycles, Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella contains eleven songs interspersed among the sonnets. Not all Renaissance compositions called songs are in fact singable, but Sidney’s are, particularly number 11, “Who is it that this dark night . . . ?” which has received several musical settings. It consists of nine five-line stanzas, each an exchange of two lines sung by Stella and three by Astrophel. In the ninth stanza, she urges him to “begone.” It is the climactic part of the sequence, coming after Sonnet 104; in the last four sonnets, he will attempt, with only partial success, to come to terms with his rejection.

Stella has previously urged him in another dialogue song (8) to end his suit out of respect for her “honor” (presumably because she is married—though unhappily so), but she left it open for Astrophel to admire her from afar. His presence beneath her window now indicates how difficult it is for him to follow this advice. In this poignant dialogue song, she parries in succession each of his pleas. First, she expresses surprise that he is there at all and that his interests have not shifted to someone else. When he vows that he cannot change, she suggests that absence from her will probably solve the problem. He admits that the passage of time in many cases makes lovers forget their old passions, but he will remain “faithful” to her. Surely he will meet more beautiful women, Stella points out, but he claims that he will see their beauty as merely “counterfeiting” hers. Reason, Stella says, counsels him to cease indulging in such emotions; his love for her is actually based on reason, he responds. She concedes that his unavailing love for her inflicts “wrongs” on him that should bring it to an end, but he proclaims himself willing to suffer any pain that this love inflicts.

Realizing that Astrophel will counter any argument that she can make, Stella suggests that someone may be listening and that, if he stays longer or returns, she will be angry. Because Astrophel does not want to “endanger” her, he agrees to leave, complaining of the injustice of his fortune and, bitterly in the final line, of the fact that he must yield to “louts.” It is clear that Astrophel considers Stella’s husband a “lout.”

Astrophel and Stella is one of the most dramatic of Renaissance sonnet sequences, and this eleventh song brings the conflicts within, and between, the lovers to a high point. The expression of love is all on Astrophel’s side; each pair of lines that Stella speaks sounds curt and detached. The reader knows from earlier poems that Stella really does love Astrophel, however, and that she is now stifling all feeling because she knows that, if she gives him the slightest encouragement, he will never stop pursuing her. He pours his feelings out, but he loves her enough to recognize the discomfort and even danger that a continuation of their relationship may produce, and so he leaves.

Certaine Sonnets 32

First published: 1598

Type of work: Poem

A speaker weary of earthly vanities rejects as futile all love except heavenly love.

Sonnet 32, beginning “Leave me, O Love, which reachest but to dust” appears at the end of the Certaine Sonnets, which the countess of Pembroke published in 1598, a dozen years after her brother’s death. The sentiment of the poem, together with its position in this rather miscellaneous group of poems, has led commentators over the centuries to regard it as Sidney’s “last word” on the subject of love and even to think of it as a coda to Astrophel and Stella, rejecting love of the sort that Astrophel professes. Its cry of “farewell, world” in its next-to-last line has even suggested the possibility of its being a deathbed effort.

Manuscript evidence, however, has nearly established that this fine sonnet was written before Sidney even began his sonnet sequence. He probably wrote it in 1581, at the age of twenty-seven, when he had no reason to suppose that he would be leaving this world soon. It may seem contradictory that Sidney, after composing a poem of this sort, should then probe so elaborately into the kind of love “which reachest but to dust,” but his imagination was versatile and his approach to his art flexible. He may have sincerely believed what he says in this sonnet and still have been able to plunge energetically into an imaginative investigation of what it was like to be Astrophel—and, to repeat, there was certainly some Astrophel in Sidney.

Interestingly, this sonnet takes the Shakespearean ababcdcd efefgg form, which indicates that, later in Astrophel and Stella, Sidney went back to the Italian type—more difficult to do in English because rhymes do not come so easily as in Italian. The organization of the content also reflects the English form, for each of the three cross-rhymed quatrains reiterates with different imagery the speaker’s disgust with earthly love and his determination to focus on “higher things.”

In the first quatrain, the rhyme on “dust” and “rust” characterizes the love that fades. In the second, images of seeing and light develop the notion of the superiority of heavenly “beams,” while in the third the speaker seeks to “take fast hold” of divine love and reject the evil that might cause him to “slide” away from his heavenly destination. The final couplet is a “farewell” to the world and a final entreaty to “eternal love” to uphold him. If not Sidney’s last thoughts on love, this sonnet states eloquently the conviction that the greatest of earthly pleasures pale in the light of eternity.


Sir Philip Sidney Poetry: British Analysis


Sidney, Sir Philip