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 by his sister. In 1585 he was appointed governor of Flushing, an area comprising present-day Belgium and the Netherlands, where the English were involved in the Dutch revolt against Spain. In 1586 he participated in a raid on a Spanish convoy at Zutphen in the Netherlands. Struck on the leg by a musket ball, Sidney developed gangrene and died a few weeks later, just one month short of his thirty-second birthday. His death was marked with a lavish, ceremonial state funeral at St. Paul's cathedral in London.
All of Sidney's major works were published posthumously, although many of them circulated among friends and relatives in handwritten copies. Although Sidney died before completing the Arcadia and requested on his deathbed that his manuscripts be burned, an edition, now referred to as the New Arcadia, was published in 1590 containing the revised chapters. Drawing on elements of Italian pastoral romance and Greek prose epic, the plot of the Arcadia concerns two princes who embark on a quest for love in the land of Arcadia, fall in love with two daughters of the Arcadian king, and eventually, after a series of mistaken identities and misunderstandings, marry the princesses. Elaborately plotted with a nonchronological structure, interspersed with poetry, and characterized by extensive alliteration, similes, paradoxes, and rhetorical devices, the Arcadia is artificial, extravagant, and difficult to read by modern standards. A printing of a composite Arcadia was made in 1593, comprising Books I-III of the New Arcadia and Books III-V of the Old Arcadia. In 1909 Bertam Dobell announced that he had discovered original manuscripts of the Arcadia, including one of the Old Arcadia which Sidney had presented to his sister. This Old Arcadia, a relatively straightforward, unadorned, and much shorter version than the Arcadias published previously, was included in The Complete Works in 1926. Astrophel and Stella, regarded by many critics as Sidney's masterpiece, was published in 1591. Its 108 sonnets comprise a sequence which tells the story of Astrophel (also called Astrophil), his passion for Stella, her conditioned acceptance of his advances and, finally, his plea to be released from his obligation to her. An Apologie for Poetrie was published by Henry Olney without authorization early in 1595. William Ponsonby, who had registered The Defence of Poesie late in 1594, gained all of Olney's copies. The Defence of Poesie responds to Stephen Gosson's School of Abuse (1579), which charges that modern poetry exerts an immoral influence on society by presenting lies as truths and instilling unnatural desires in its readers. Sidney answered Gosson's invective by asserting that the poet provides a product of his imagination which does not pretend to literal fact and therefore cannot present lies. Sidney declares that the purpose of poetry is to instruct and delight.
Memoirs of Sidney began almost at once upon his death. Spenser wrote an elegy entitled "Astrophel" and Edmund Molyneux wrote of him in Holinshed's Chronicles, published in 1587. Greville's hagiographie biography even made use of spurious stories to further Sidney's reputation. Various critics contend that the creativity and concern for literary detail intrinsic to Sidney's prose style in the New Arcadia were valuable innovations which encouraged experimentation and greater attention to craftsmanship among Renaissance writers. Astrophel and Stella popularized the sonnet sequence form and inspired many other poets. In a seminal study of Sidney's poetry, Theodore Spencer cited his "direct and forceful simplicity, his eloquent rhetoric, his emotional depth and truth, [and] his control of movement, both within the single line and throughout the poem as a whole" as innovations to poetic form which exerted a profound impact on subsequent poets. C. S. Lewis wrote that Astrophel and Stella "towers above everything that had been done in poetry … since Chaucer died," and that "the fourth [sonnet] alone, with its hurried and (as it were) whispered metre, its inimitable refrain, its perfect selection of images, is enough to raise Sidney above all his contemporaries." More recently Ronald Levao has asserted that despite evidence of faulty logic, the Defence of Poesie is "one of the most daring documents of Renaissance criticism." Although he has been widely respected and read for centuries, Sidney's popularity has suffered a setback in modern times, leading Duncan-Jones to observe that Sidney is "the least-read of the major Elizabethans."