Sir Philip Sidney 1554–1586
English poet, prose writer, essayist, and playwright.
The following entry contains critical essays focusing on Sidney's role in the Age of Spenser. See also Sir Philip Sidney Poetry Criticism.
Regarded by many scholars as the consummate Renaissance man, Sidney was a prominent and highly influential literary figure, scholar, and courtier of the Elizabethan period. Almost legendary in his own lifetime, Sidney is remembered today for the romance The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia (1590), the most recognized work of English prose fiction of the sixteenth century; for Astrophel and Stella (1591), the first sonnet sequence in English; and for The Defence of Poesie (1595), which is, in Arthur F. Kinney's words, "the first (and still most important) statement of English poetics."
Born in Kent to aristocratic parents—Sir Henry Sidney, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, and Mary Dudley, sister of the Earl of Leicester—Sidney received the financial, social, and educational privileges of the English nobility and was trained as a statesman. In 1564 he entered the Shrewsbury School on the same day as Fulke Greville, who became his lifelong friend and later gained renown as a scholar and Sidney's biographer. Sidney matriculated at Christ's Church, Oxford, in 1568, where he studied grammar, rhetoric, and religion. He left three years later without taking a degree, possibly due to an outbreak of plague that forced the university to close temporarily. Sidney continued his education with a "Grand Tour" of continental Europe, learning about politics, languages, music, astronomy, geography, and the military. During this time he became acquainted with some of the most prominent European statesmen, scholars, and artists; he also became friends with the humanist scholar Hubert Languet, with whom he spent a winter in Germany. Sidney's correspondence with Languet is a valuable source of information about Sidney's life and career. Languet's censure of Catholicism and his espousal of Protestantism, as well as his attempts to encourage Queen Elizabeth I to further this cause in England, are believed to have strongly influenced Sidney's religious and political convictions. After further travels, including through Hungary, Italy, and Poland,
Sidney returned to England in 1575, where he promptly established himself as one of the Queen's courtiers. Although he pursued literary interests, associating with such prominent writers as Greville, Edward Dyer, and Edmund Spenser, Sidney's chief ambition was to embark on a career in public service. Aside from acquiring some minor appointments, he was never given an opportunity to prove himself as a statesman. Critics speculate that his diplomatic career was deliberately discouraged by Elizabeth, whose policy of caution in handling domestic and religious matters conflicted with Sidney's ardent support of Protestantism. In 1578 Sidney wrote and performed in, along with the Queen herself, an "entertainment," or pageant, entitled The Lady of May. He also began writing the first version of Arcadia. After writing a letter towards the end of 1579 which urged the Queen not to enter into a planned marriage with the Roman Catholic Duke of Anjou, heir to the French throne, Sidney found himself in strained relations with Elizabeth. Denied court duties, Sidney lived at the estate of his sister Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, and occupied himself with writing: probably in 1580 he completed the Old Arcadia, and began The Defence of Poesie; he began Astrophel and Stella around 1581. Also in 1581 Sidney took part in a performance for the Queen of the "entertainment" The Four Foster Children of Desire, which scholars believe was at least partially written by Sidney. In 1583 Sidney was knighted so that he might complete an assignment for the Queen. Sidney began a major revision of the Arcadia in 1584 and in the following year began work on a verse translation of the psalms, which was later finished...
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