Sir Philip Sidney Sidney, Sir Philip - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The Lady of May (drama) 1578

The Four Foster Children of Desire (drama) 1581

The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia [New Arcadia] (prose) 1590

Astrophel and Stella (poetry) 1591

The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia [composite Arcadia] (prose) 1593

The Defence of Poesie [also published as An Apologie for Poetrie] (essay) 1595

Certaine Sonets (poetry) 1598

The Psalms of David (with Mary Sidney Herbert) [translator] (poetry) 1823

The Correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet (letters) 1845

The Complete Works of Sir Philip Sidney. 4 vols. (poetry, essays, letters) 1912-26

The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia [Old Arcadia ] (prose) 1926

Kenneth Muir (essay date 1960)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Sidney and Political Pastoral," in Sir Philip Sidney, Longmans, Green & Co., 1984, pp. 91-108.

[In the following excerpt from an essay written in 1960, Muir discusses contemporary and modern opinions of the Arcadia and Sidney's purpose in writing and rewriting the work.]

The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia is the only English masterpiece which has been allowed to go out of print. It has never been included in a popular series of classics and one must conclude that it is read now only by scholars. It has, indeed, a reputation for tediousness. Mr. T. S. Eliot, though writing in defence of the Countess of Pembroke's circle, dismissed...

(The entire section is 4737 words.)

F. J. Levy (essay date 1964)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Sir Philip Sidney and the Idea of History," in Bibliotheque D' Humanisme et Renaissance, Vol. XXVI, 1964, pp. 608-17.

[In the following essay, Levy discusses why Sidney believed poetry superior to history as a teacher of morality.]

Sometime around the end of the sixteenth century a change took place in the reasons men gave for writing history. The nature of the change is obvious to anyone who has compared the works of Sir John Hayward or the Annals of William Camden with the writing of Hall or Holinshed, let alone with the Mirror for Magistrates. To put the matter crudely, early in the century history was a branch of moral philosophy, later a...

(The entire section is 4431 words.)

Richard A. Lanham (essay date 1965)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Sidney the Narrator," in The Old Arcadia, Yale University Press, 1965, pp. 318-31.

[In the following excerpt, Lanham explores the complex, shifting, and sometimes ambiguous narration of the Old Arcadia.]

An age that cherishes the memory of Henry James can hardly be expected to allow Sidney the narrator to escape unscathed. The spectacle of an author frankly telling a tale in propria persona, commenting on it as it flows from his pen in asides to his "Dear Ladies," obviously regulating the unfolding of the narrative, makes the modern reader as uncomfortable as James felt in the loquacious I've-got-no-secrets company of Trollope. Sidney seems in many...

(The entire section is 5050 words.)

J. G. Nichols (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "A Feeling Skill," in The Poetry of Sir Philip Sidney: An Interpretation in the Context of His Life and Times, Liverpool University Press, 1974, pp. 136-54.

[In the following excerpt, Nichols analyzes several sonnets from Astrophil and Stella and contends that they demonstrate that Sidney was a master of meter and a precise, imaginative poet.]

One of the fascinations of any sonnet-sequence is the pull between our inclination to read each sonnet as a self-contained poem and our knowledge that it is also part of a larger whole. To revert to the metaphor of Astrophil and Stella as a play—each sonnet has its own distinctive personality, and this...

(The entire section is 6306 words.)

A. C. Hamilton (essay date 1977)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Sidney in Life, Legend, and in His Works," in Sir Philip Sidney: A Study of His Life and Works, Cambridge University Press, 1977, pp. 107-22.

[In the following excerpt, Hamilton discusses Sidney's noble background, frustrated political career, and legendary reputation.]

'Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them': the aphorisms are used by Maria, in Twelfth Night, to gull Malvolio. To the Renaissance mind, an aspiration to greatness is overweening in a pompous major-domo. He is mocked by greatness when his actions prove him to be only a great fool. Yet the aspiration itself, the intense desire for worldly...

(The entire section is 8180 words.)

Thomas P. Roche, Jr. (essay date 1982)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Astrophil and Stella: A Radical Reading," in Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual III, University of Pittsburg Press Vol. III, 1982, pp. 139-91.

[In the following excerpt, Roche contends that Sidney meant Astrophil to represent a negative example, someone who "must end in despair because he never learns from his experience."]

Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, although the third English sequence in order of publication, holds pride of place as the most influential of the English sequences. Its author was a young nobleman who died a hero's death in 1586; its heroine a beautiful lady of the court. The story of Astrophil's love for Stella, as told in...

(The entire section is 4143 words.)

David Norbrook (essay date 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Sidney and Political Pastoral," in Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984, pp. 91-108.

[In the following excerpt, Norbrook discusses Sidney's pastoral writings, emphasizing that Sidney imbued them with his political thought.]

Spenser dedicated The Shepheardes Calender to Sir Philip Sidney, a man who was acclaimed by his contemporaries as the ideal courtier, the embodiment of chivalric magnanimity and gracefulness of speech. It was especially appropriate to dedicate a pastoral work to him because Sidney himself assumed the persona of the 'shepherd knight' in tournaments at court and was the author of pastoral...

(The entire section is 7950 words.)

Ronald Levao (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Sidney's Feigned Apology," in Renaissance Minds and Their Fictions: Cusanus, Sidney, Shakespeare, University of California Press, 1985, pp. 134-56.

[In the following excerpt, Levao examines some of the difficulties and paradoxes in Sidney's An Apology for Poetry.]

Any attempt to discuss Sidney's theory of poetic fictions proves to be something of a paradox, since An Apology for Poetry opens with a warning not to take theories too seriously. There Sidney compares himself to his master in horsemanship, John Pietro Pugliano, who, not content to teach his young students the practical side of his profession, "sought to enrich [their] minds with the...

(The entire section is 9504 words.)

Maureen Quilligan (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Sidney and His Queen," in The Historical Renaissance: New Essays on Tudor and Stuart Literature and Culture, edited by Heather Dubrow and Richard Strier, The University of Chicago Press, 1988, pp. 171-96.

[In the following excerpt, Quilligan explores Sidney's ambitions, career, and concern with his image, in the context of the Elizabethan court.]

… In pursuit of chivalric bravado, if not victory for the Dutch rebels, during a skirmish with Spanish troops, Sidney took off his thigh armor before charging the enemy and received the bullet that, entering at the knee and shattering the thigh bone, left the festering wound from which he soon died at the age of...

(The entire section is 6320 words.)

Richard C. McCoy (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Sir Philip Sidney: The Shepherd Knight," in The Rites of Knighthood: The Literature and Politics of Elizabethan Chivalry, University of California Press, 1989, pp. 55-78.

[In the following excerpt, McCoy examines the courtly politics of The Four Foster Children of Desire, an "entertainment" staged by Sidney for Queen Elizabeth.]

Sir Philip Sidney was the son of Robert Dudley's sister, and the Earl of Leicester was a powerful influence on his nephew's brief career. Philip's father, Sir Henry Sidney, saw the Dudley connection as the family's greatest distinction, urging him, "Remember, my son, the noble blood you are descended of by your mother's...

(The entire section is 9520 words.)

Arthur F. Kinney (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Puritans Versus Royalists: Sir Philip Sidney's Rhetoric at the Court of Elizabeth I," in Sir Philip Sidney's Achievements, M. J. B. Allen, Dominic Baker-Smith, Arthur F. Kinney, with Margaret M. Sullivan, AMS Press, 1990, pp. 42-56.

[In the following excerpt, Kinney discusses Sidney's political statements, both masked and explicit, and his bids for authority in Queen Elizabeth's court.]

One of the few encounters between Sir Philip Sidney and Elizabeth I that is documented in some detail is his appearance before her at Whitehall in 1581 during the performance of a court spectacle called The Four Foster Children of Desire. He is the third foster child to...

(The entire section is 7246 words.)

Alan Hager (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Sidney's Official Indirection," in Dazzling Images: The Masks of Sir Philip Sidney, Associated University Presses, 1991, pp. 41-6.

[In the following excerpt, Hager considers Sidney's choice of words in his famous letter to the Queen, and contends that the advice may not have met with her disapproval.]

Advice to the Queen (1579)

In Sidney's most serious political moment, when his uncle, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, apparently had him write a public letter to pressure the queen to terminate negotiations for marriage with the Duc d'Alençon—"A Letter to Queen Elizabeth Touching Her Marriage With Monsieur"—Sidney's witty...

(The entire section is 2239 words.)

Sally Minogue (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "A Woman's Touch: Astrophil, Stella and 'Queen Vertue's Court,'" in ELH VOL. 63, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 550-70.

[In the following excerpt, Minogue discusses what Sidney's Sonnets 9 and 83 reveal about the complex relationship between the poet and Queen Elizabeth.]

When Sidney, in 1581, presented to his Queen the New Year's gift of a jewel in the shape of a diamondbedecked whip, how did she take it? Not, we presume, lying down, since in this relationship it had already been made clear to Sidney who had the whip-hand. To be in a position to exchange New Year's gifts with the Queen was itself a mark of favor (one used by Steven May as a means of confirming who was...

(The entire section is 6678 words.)

Peter C. Herman (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "When Is a Defense Not a Defense? Sidney's Paradoxiacal Apology for Poetry," in Squitter-Wits and Muse-Haters, Wayne State University Press, 1996, pp. 61-94.

[In the following excerpt, Herman reconsiders the Apology for Poetry and its stance regarding poetry's superiority to history in the light of two of Sidney's letters.]

… "Do as I Say, Not as I Do": Sidney's Letters and the Apology

On May 22, 1580, a few months after he (probably) completed the Apology and at approximately the same time that he was also occupied by the Arcadia and Astrophil and Stella, Sidney answered a request from his friend,...

(The entire section is 3875 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Stump, Donald V., et al. An Annotated Bibliography of Texts and Criticism. Old Tappan, NJ: Hall Reference (Macmillan), 1994,864 p.

Comprehensive reference source.


Boas, Frederick S. Sir Philip Sidney: Representative Elizabethan—His Life and Writings. London: Staples Press, 1955,204 p.

Highly regarded, comprehensive study that also includes criticism of Sidney's works.

Duncan-Jones, Katherine. Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991, 350 p.


(The entire section is 690 words.)